How do they do it?… author/illustrators – dual lives. ‘Fire’ – the first Element Door

I admire those talented author/illustrators, those high-achievers of children’s books with dual creative minds – like Shaun Tan, Gabrielle Wang, Sally Rippin, Narelle Oliver, Kerry Argent and Pamela Allen (and heaps more). I’m so jealous!

How do they split their time between both activities, especially if they’re writing novels as well as picture books? What comes first, the story idea or the first little mental image that pops into their heads? And the biggest question of all – how do they find time to do both activities, and the housework as well?!

I’m endeavouring to interview a well-known author/illustrator in a future blog so might have some questions answered soon.

I have a special interest in the way illustrator-writers/artists work, as I struggle to find a way to paint while writing full-time. I don’t illustrate my stories, except for the chapter headings, the motifs in Secrets of Eromanga. But I am an artist and printmaker – and have been for the last 18 years and 3 months to be precise.

‘Layers of Time’ – my final illustration from ‘Secrets of Eromanga’ – pen and ink

Eleven years ago, WORDS took over my head and my life, usurping the painterly life and gradually relegating my easel, paints, brushes and print rollers to the downstairs cupboard. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE WRITING more than eating, sometimes. But!

When I was new at this ‘game’ of writing children’s books, it was easy – one day writing, one day painting, one day in the Evil Day Job (that’s all I could handle). But then, with stealth and muscle, writing crept into my psyche like the first flow in a dry creek bed. Hardly noticeable at first, then the flood.

Making art became more difficult – not the skill side, it was the thinking side. Because like writing, painting requires many hours of thought as well as craft skill.

So, here we are in 2011, I have some books, articles and short stories under my publishing belt; many more on the ‘drawing board’, and the easel is still under its sheet so I can’t see the large half-finished canvas I started 6 months ago.

If anyone has any suggestions to get my writing/painting life into order, I’d love to hear from you!

Have to admit even when painting, dastardly WORDS crept into my work. Maybe they’ve always been there and I didn’t recognise the love of my life (sorry, Ross!) 🙂

Here is an example where words figure in my artwork: Fireone of The Element Doors (an installation at The Gap High School Library, Brisbane) – painted in acrylic, oils, mixed media on real doors. Metal door handles are engraved with contour lines – an important motive in my work. All of the Element Doors have words of some sort ’embedded’ into the paint. Fire has newspaper headlines about bushfires in Australia.  See the story of Fire below.

These 4 doors were real doors, used every day by hundreds of students. But a re-modelling of the library last year meant that 3 of the doors are now up on the wall and one, Fire is screwed to another wall all by itself – it was deemed too heavy to put at a higher level because it is an actual fire protection door. I had no idea it was the library’s fire door when I chose it for the Fire painting.

Painting ‘Fire’ in The Gap High School Library before it was put back in place

FIRE – A nation hostage to the gum

Laden with volatile eucalyptus oils and as recognizably Australian as the koala, the gum tree evolved to fit this land like a glove. Its many varieties have adapted to the seasonal flare-ups of bushfires – surviving and sprouting with new growth when the rains arrive. Bushfires are a natural part of the renewal across this land.

 We want to live close to the natural beauty of the Australian bush, but even after many decades of bushfire tragedies, it’s ironic we ignore the gum’s ability to increase the destructive path of fire.

 If we want to live in harmony with, rather than hostage to the gum we need to understand its place in our Australian landscape.

© Sheryl Gwyther 2003

For the next three days, I will post the other three Element Doors with their particular story attached.

All images are copyrighted. If you would like to use them for educational purposes, please acknowledge them and contact me first for permission.
(c) Sheryl Gwyther 2011


12 thoughts on “How do they do it?… author/illustrators – dual lives. ‘Fire’ – the first Element Door

  1. No idea how you’d fit in both Sheryl, I’m still trying to figure out how writers find time for facebook, blogs and tweets. I’m flat out getting to my emails. I think anyone can write, but artists are clever and very lucky to have this gift. Looking forward to seeing you conquer the writer/illustrater market one day.


  2. Hello Jeffery, I reckon you’re on to something there. I can see I’ve been trying too hard – big canvases, big ideas about subject matter, fiddling with acrylic paints and brushes (i.e. trying to remember not to let the brushes go hard when I wash them out in a hurry etc etc.
    Love your leaf paintings (had a read of your blog) – they’re exquisite! And lucky you having Canberra’s birch leaves – can’t quite see our sub-tropical leaves in Brisbane being so amendable. But I do have some very nice water-colour paper and some coloured inks that I haven’t yet used.
    Do you use acrylics or oils on the leaves? Do you prepare them in any way first? Just interested – they really are beautiful. 🙂 thanks for sharing!


  3. I’m an artist and I write. I understand where you are coming from. I didn’t paint or draw for ages even though I still wanted to. The way I got back into painting again was starting small. Big painting projects are daunting. Lately I have been doing munitures. Mostly on gum leaves. They look brilliant once they are framed ( and leaves are cheaper than canvas) I also agree about illustrating my own writing. I wouldn’t even think about it for a picture book (illustration is a whole diffeent discipline) I am thinking about doing some sample B&W illustrations for my chapter book though.



  4. That is an excellent idea, Angela – getting back in a painting group and get some discipline going – I think I will once the list of things I have to do writing-wise in March is cleared. Glad you appreciate what the doors are all about too! Tomorrow I will post ‘Air’ – the most favourite door (according to The Gap students).


  5. Hi Sheryl,
    To keep my artist cap on I attend a weekly group. Then even if I don’t pick up a paint brush or pencil all week I know I’ll have the two and a half hours each Tuesday morning to relax and create.

    You know I love your doors. You are seriously good.


  6. I have also shelved painting to write, but I don’t regret it. I have tried to illustrate a couple of picture books for my grandkids but writing gets in the way of me finishing them. So for now I’ll stick to writing. I figure the painting and drawing talent will still be there when I have no more stories to tell. I love your chapter head drawings, Layers of Time it tell the reader exactly what the story is about.


  7. Ben, glad you like my art! You’ve just given me an idea – for the next 3 days I will post the image of the other 3 doors with their individual story.
    The Fire Door has newspaper headlines about the bushfires in New South Wales on it (you can’t see them in the photo too well). I should put a close-up of it, shouldn’t I?
    Thanks for your kind comments! I hasten to add, the artists/illustrators I’ve named (who I know) are the loveliest of people – my ‘high-achievers’ is said with tongue in cheek. They work hard and deserve every success. I’m just jealous!


  8. That is a seriously nice piece of art, Sheryl, and I don’t say that lightly. Not to mention it could illustrate a short story of mine perfectly. The three dimensional aspect, the beautiful contrast between the blue-grey gum trunks and the fire shards, the fact you can see through the shards but not through the trees, the fact that it’s a door…many levels. Bravo.

    As for high achievers, I don’t admire them – I loathe them, as I do all focused, talented people. I can’t wait for the next cultural revolution when they’ll all be weighed down by tedious full-time jobs writing educational films on rust, and forced to take night classes on cement-making and Chinese opera. We’ll see how high they fly then, eh?

    Seriously though, please post up the others in the series of Element Doors as and when they’re made.

    thanks and cheers,



  9. Thanks, Dee. I suspect it might a case of casting off some of the other time-eating activities to allow my writing/artist life to exist in harmony. One day…. 🙂

    Not that I think I can do without Facebook, and friends, and family and (I’ll whisper this so no-one hears me), trying to keep our big house and garden relatively tidy otherwise I’ll find an excuse not to do it!


  10. Hi Sheryl,

    I love this post and your beautiful artwork. You are a serious high achiever:)

    Sorry, I don’t have any tips for you on how to get your writing/artist life in order except go with your heart:)


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