Monday, February 13, 2012

A workshop with Leigh Hobbs

I always read 'The Good Life: Lunch with...' section of The Saturday Age; a column where a reporter takes a creative person to lunch, talks about their work and what they're eating. It's like a restaurant review and personal profile rolled into one. Food and ideas. Really, how can you go wrong with a premise like that.

So I opened my paper a couple of Saturdays ago and was particularly excited to see Leigh Hobbs interviewed because 1.) I love his books and 2.) I took one of his workshops early last year and not only is he an excellent writer and illustrator but he is a talented teacher and all-round generous, entertaining and lovely person. Isn't it nice when you find that out about someone you admire? (Click on the picture above to go to The Age article online).

I can't remember the exact title of the course I took but it was about how to write and illustrate your own picture books. It was run through Writers Victoria, so many people were there more for the writing aspect than the illustrating side. But I was there for both.

Writing and illustrating a picture book has always been a bit of a fantasy for me since I was a kid. I was a prolific picture-book-maker with my art supplies and my exercise books, to the point of preferring to stay inside writing and drawing when all the other kids were out there being, you know, active and stuff. But then that all kind of fell away as I grew up.

I ended up doing a writing course in my early 20s and I later trained as an English teacher but I have no formal education in art or illustration. So now I'm like a sponge. Trying to soak up all I can about skills, techniques, concepts and process. I try to do short courses when I can because they're affordable and fun and I always go away feeling incredibly inspired and motivated.

This was certainly true of Leigh Hobbs' one-day workshop. As an ex-teacher himself his manner was easy and engaging in the small workshop environment. He was a great presenter and a natural facilitator.

He had us do many activities, and one of the first (which he also does with school students) was to get us to draw his famous character, Old Tom, by giving us step-by-step verbal instructions. Below is my clumsy effort.

What was amazing was that everyone in the class came up with a different drawing, but each drawing was recognizably Old Tom.

My favourite part of the day was when Leigh took us through the process of conceptualising a picture book from start to finish. Obviously, this would normally take a lot longer than a couple of hours, but I got a real sense of the steps involved.

Through a guided process he got us to draw a character, name it, and attribute to it something it wanted but couldn't have. Here is my character and his greatest unfulfilled wish:

I can tell you, this was so much fun to do. This is nothing like my normal drawing style or the kind of story I would naturally write, which probably made it easier to play with and develop, because that's exactly what it was - play.

As any writer (or English teacher!) will tell you, a story is a problem that must be overcome. A character wants something that they can't have. How do they try to get it?

No problem? No story.

My story is about how Morrie's dream of being a star of the stage was thwarted by his unfortunate number of legs. That is until he sees an advertisement for 42nd Street, tries out, and to his utter surprise is given a starring role. As the chorus line. Yep, the whole chorus line. He is a roaring success. This is the mock up:

After his standing ovation, the presentation of flowers and the audience's adoration, he decides it's time to get serious. Nothing less than Shakespeare for him:

This process of working out the story, and worrying more about quality of ideas than quality of drawing, was really freeing for me. I'm the kind of person who will labour over something until it's almost dead. So it was fun to just test my ideas in scribbles, ignoring my inner critic, and run with something, knowing there was nothing at stake for me - no assessment, judgement, pass or fail.

But other than the excellent lessons in story development, one of the very best things about this day was having access to Leigh's sketchbooks. They were available to flick through at any time and I spent the better part of the tea and lunch breaks soaking up his sketches. Incredibly, much of his finished work was in the pages too. Final pieces that have ended up as pages of his books were right there in his sketchbooks. Wow. I can't tell you how lucky I feel to have seen these.

So if you ever get a chance to go to one of his workshops, don't even hesitate for a second. I noticed that The Age article listed a speaking gig he's doing through The Wheeler's Centre (Melbourne) on June 27. Would love to get along to that!