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Pad attitude

Always wanted to draw but never found the time or the inspiration? Well, the pressure's off for a few weeks so there's no excuse any more. Make sure that sketch pad goes with you everywhere, advises Ted Dewan.

Those pesky idle thoughts! They dangle in your mind, taunting you as you try to get on with work, and it's all you can do to ignore them. But, during the holidays, idle thoughts finally get the attention they crave. Out they burst, and scatter like dandelion seeds. That is the time I open my sketch book-my "pad" - and welcome them in. As they hover above the paper . . . wham! I trap them in the pad.

It's fun to flick through old pads to see how many tiny seeds matured into something worthwhile. I often wonder, how many passing seeds didn't germinate? How much of this natural resource fell on infertile ground because I was too busy with something else at the time? Disturbed by this disgraceful waste, I have vowed not to forget the pad next time I go out for a cup of coffee.

I acquired the pad habit when I was about 10 years old. I filled my first one with long, rambling comic book stories full of the way I wished life could be, which was mainly chaotic and ridiculous. Boredom was kept at bay.

My favourite drawing tool was, and still is, a fine-point Biro: they travel well, they're not smudgy and scratchy like pencils, they're easily replaced, and they make a nice line, especially when used with a light touch for shading. I've done illustrations for my last three books in Biro and watercolour. I also love the super-thin 0.4 mm Pilot G-Tec rollerball pens.

My pad was still with me when I became a physics teacher in the US, but it saw little daylight during the school year, when I relied on my camera to capture things that took my interest. Once the summer hols started, however, I took the pad everywhere. In those days I had this stupid idea that a sketch book had to be full of pastel landscapes, architectural details, and scribbly charcoal portraits of faces spotted on subway trains. Unfortunately, it was always too hot and sweaty to sketch landscapes and architecture outside, and the subway train rocked too much, so the pad usually ended up blank at the end of summer. (I kept buying new pads, though, like some people keep buying new exercise machines and then never use them.) Nowadays, I write and illustrate picture books at home, and so does my wife, Helen Cooper. Months can go by with no respite from work. But when the holidays arrive . . . by the time Helen and I return from our break, we've plenty in store for the long winter when my head becomes stuffed up with deadlines and catarrh.

All sorts of stuff goes into the pad: notes to myself, graphics, faces, gestures, descriptions of colour schemes, the wording of a peculiar sign. Some of this stuff eventually finds its way into my books, and so my pads hold a lot of my books' "baby pictures".

When there's not much to look at and no interesting idle thoughts to slap into the pad, I sometimes practise drawing a shape that I've previously ignored. Once, on a train ride, the passenger across the aisle had a clean-shaven head and very pronounced jaw muscles near his temples. He was a gum chewer, and his muscles bulged, disappeared, and bulged again. I'd never paid much attention to this muscle, but this guy was flexing it for me like a body-builder. It was impossible to ignore. Before he noticed me staring at him, I had a chance to try a few different ways of sketching this astounding shape.

If you fancy cultivating a pad habit this summer, treat yourself to a blank-page book - one with an attractive cover and binding so you'll want to take it with you, and not too big to put you off taking it out of the house. My favourite size is around A5, 100 pages or so, with a dark patterned cover so the dirt won't show up too badly. The best pads eventually become fetishes, and to be without one is as bothersome as leaving your shoelaces behind.

Don't worry about what you put in your pad; it is a private place. The excerpts from my pads reproduced below are not typical, as they are recognisable objects. Most of my sketches are done in a visual shorthand somewhere between pictures and language, to act as a reminder of something I've seen rather than a representation. Often the thing I'm trying to capture goes by so quickly, or the thought is so small and insignificant, that I only spend a half-a-minute scribbling it down. Any more time, and I probably wouldn't bother taking pen to paper. Stick figures annotated with notes are sometimes all that is needed. I try to abstract difficult shapes into more basic ones; interpreting shapes into basic forms saves a lot of time. For instance, I've found it convenient when drawing a person's neck to think of the neck as a diagonal slice of a baguette. Scribbly shorthand has the added convenience of discouraging over-the-shoulder peering from strangers.

Helen is soon to give birth to our first child. Maybe this kid will be too distracting to allow for much pad-keeping, and it might eventually seem a laughably romantic thing I once did during the easy, pre-children years. But then again the pad could simply take on a different role. I once heard a story about the American illustrator, Ed Sorel, from a friend who knew his daughter, Jenny. Sorel kept a secret sketch-book diary of the significant moments of Jenny's life from the moment she was born up until that American rite-of-passage, high-school graduation. She was unaware that the book existed until the night before graduation, when Sorel handed it over as a present. The last page of the tatty book, headlined "High-school graduation!", was blank. When Jenny asked her father why, he told her he would need to borrow the book back just for one more day so he could sketch her receiving her diploma.

The friend who told me this story insisted that Ed Sorel's daughter treasures her book beyond anything else. So I intend to keep a special pad for my child's big moments. I've got an empty one ready, so if you happen to meet her before she's 18, keep it a secret, will you?

* Ted Dewan is an illustrator and creator of picture books which include 'Inside the Whale' and '3 Billy Goats Gruff'. His latest book, 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', was shortlisted for last year's Kurt Maschler Award. It is published by Doubleday, along with an audio tape of the story and music recorded by the author.


While stuck in East Orange, New Jersey, for a wedding, I discovered the Edison Museum which provided inspiration for some of the machines in my Sorcerer's workshop I did the sketch below after a visit with a 96-year-old retired builder friend of mine in the US. It eventually turned into the Sorcerer

Once I was stuck in a boring concert and Ispotted this guy who started me off on my search for the Troll in my version of '3 Billy Goats Gruff'

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