The Secret of Mulan

Yesterday I received copies of TALES OF HIDDEN HEROES, Pearson’s new Bug Club Comprehension title. It contains two stories, one by Malachy Doyle and one by me, beautifully illustrated by Teresa Martinez.

The Secret of Mulan is a retelling of an old Chinese poem about the girl Mulan, who saves her father from certain death by going into battle his place. I enjoyed spending time with the Mulan legend and studying the character of Mulan herself, an ancient oriental forerunner of today’s badass YA heroines. I haven’t got around to watching the Disney treatment of the story but I love the various Chinese versions of the tale (link). Fascinating to see how the story evolved over the centuries: Mulan herself remains surprisingly constant but the arch villain changes to reflect the taste (or rather distaste) of each new day. In my retelling I have returned to the baddie of the original poem – the fearsome bandit Flying Swallow and his weaponized bronze cymbals.

TALES OF HIDDEN HEROES is not yet available for pre-order, but I’ll let you know when it is.

Christian haiga

Cold crisp morning carbon and water praise the Father - haiga

I wonder whether it is possible to create haiga (that is, suiboku painting and accompanying haiku) which is truly Japanese in flavour but also distinctively Christian. This is my first attempt.

Can anyone help me with this question: is it bad form to combine two or more of the ‘four gentlemen’ within one ink painting? And what of scale – should the orchid be much smaller than I have painted it here?

Were-nightingale

Horror haiga – Matsuo Basho and the other haiku masters would turn in their graves! Click on the thumbnail to view fullsize. The were-nightingale haiga contains all four of the ‘four gentlemen’ revered by the suiboku masters, as the detail below shows. This was my first attempt at the crysanthemum. I’m really enjoying this Japanese brush painting phase. It makes a nice change from watching TV in the evenings.

In the footsteps of Sotatsu

I’m finding sumi-e is a good way to unwind after a day of writing. It’s such a different discipline and a good counterpoint to the rigours of stringing words together. I practised two of the four gentelemen last night: the orchid and the bamboo. The long arcing leaves of the orchid have not come out well – I think the brush was too dry – but I am pleased with the flowers themselves.

orchid bamboo puppy haiga
click to enlarge

Sotatsu puppy - detail of hanging scrollOnly two elements of the picture are original – the caterpillar and the rather wistful haiku! For the first few years, a student of sumi-e does nothing but copy the masters, in order to learn proper technique. Even the puppy in the middle is not original – he is from a hanging scroll by a sumi-e master, Sotatsu-Gwashu. Sotatsu was a great artist who lived in the 17th century, and was well known in Japan for the richness of his art creations and the nobleness of his character. He was the inspirer of the Korin School. Take a look at the ear and underbelly of Sotatsu’s puppy and you will see just how far I’ve got to go. Cue Confucius’ thousand mile journey begins with a single step.

I would love to be good enough one day to be able to write and illustrate my own picture book in this style. A goal for 2050!

More experiments with suiboku: a small bird on a plum branch looking at bamboo stalks

I’ve been practising the four gentlemen again tonight. I’m quite pleased with how the bamboo stalks look, but the leaves aren’t well placed and only a few of them have the requisite sharpness. The plum branch is the third of the four gentlemen, and this is my first attempt, so I’m not going to beat myself up about how it looks!

Bird on a Plum tree looking at bamboo stalks

I also carved my first signature seal out of soapstone tonight (the small red square in the middle there). The name Stephen is from the Greek Stephanos meaning crown or garland, so I used the Kanji character for ‘crown’ as my signature seal. Only problem is, I forgot to carve a mirror image on the soapstone chop, so the resulting stamp is backwards – oops!

The four gentlemen

orchid 1 sumi-e four gentlemen

From the Nanga school of old China there comes a tradition important to Oriental painters. The first pictures to be painted are usually the orchid, bamboo, plum and chrysanthemum. They employ different suiboku (ink painting) techniques.

Above is my first attempt at an orchid. After years of resting my elbow on a table to paint or draw, it is taking a lot of practice learning to move my whole arm freely, but the orchid is a good exercise for this skill.

I am happy tonight, because I have done my first haiga (see middle thumbnail below) – it’s based on Naomi Okamoto’s locust in The Art of Sumi-e and the text is from a haiku I wrote several years ago after locusts ravaged the millet harvest in the Sahel.

First steps in sumi-e

surprise appearance haiga

surprise appearance!
the magician’s assistant
on the plum tree branch

haiku: Andrea Eldridge, US
painting: Mary B. Rodning, US
translation: Hiromi Inoue, JP

I have long been fascinated by all things Japanese. I occasionally turn my hand to origami or haiku, and yesterday tried sumi-e (Japanese ink painting). It’s a very stress-relieving activity, grinding your own ink in a special ink-well made from sedimentary stone, and then loading a single brush with several different tones of black and grey. You keep your hand and wrist still and instead paint with your whole arm, capturing the essence of the thing you’re painting in as few brush strokes as possible. My goal is to be able to compose haiga – a simple sumi-e ink painting with an accompanying haiku (see above). Here are my first faltering steps (with the birds embellished with felt tip pens by my two-year old daughter!)