this northern boy

Illustrations for an imaginary age

Iceland, finally.

At the beginning of May, I travelled to Iceland. Somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for many, many years. It did not disappoint.

Iceland really is the most remarkable place. It is staggeringly, jaw-droopingly, beautiful. The landscapes can seem impossibly vast and ancient. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming. The food is fantastic. It’s expensive, but definitely worth visiting.

I travelled with my dad. Flying in to Keflavik airport and hiring a car on the 1st of May, and we spent the next two weeks driving around the entire ring-road, plus the Westfjords – for a total of just over 3000km.

Below are a selection of my photos from the trip. I’ll do another post soon breaking things down in to areas or sections of the journey.

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Mammut

A mastodon (mastós ‘breast’ + odoús ‘tooth’) is any proboscidean belonging to the extinct genus Mammut (family Mammutidae) that inhabited North and Central America during the late Miocene or late Pliocene up to their extinction at the end of the Pleistocene 10,000 to 11,000 years ago.

Mastodon is also a social media platform (kind of).

If you are a user of social media, you’ll be well aware of the shockwaves that Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is having. His libertarianism, free speech absolutism, and – let’s be honest – general dickishness, doesn’t sit well with many Twitter users, and many are preparing alternative profiles and presences elsewhere. One of those places, is Mastodon.

Strictly speaking, Mastodon isn’t a social network platform, it’s an open-source protocol, and one of the uses of that is to create very ‘twitterish’ server instances. It sounds complicated, and it certainly isn’t as straightforward to get your head around as Twitter, but once you’ve set up an account, the experience isn’t dissimilar to early Twitter. One of the very confusing elements for new users, is that Mastodon is decentralised, and hosted across many different servers, all with slightly different rules, topics etc. But, the key thing to know when signing up is that regardless of which server you choose – ‘art’, ‘social’, ‘gamedev’ – you can follow people on any other server, and their content will show up in your feed just like on Twitter.

So, I’m there, and many other creators, artists, journalists, actors… are also creating accounts. It’s well worth a look. As there’s been a pretty big surge in interest lately, it can get a little slow at times, but stick with it.

You can find prints of my work here

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Guest post: Alex Connolly

This is the fourth guest post on this blog, and it’s the most unexpected. Previous guest posts have generally been about the quest author’s work – art, process, methods etc. That’s what I was expecting when I asked Alex to write me something. In an unnecessary show of modesty, Alex decided to not write about himself or his work, but of something much deeper. It’s very good. And you should definitely read his post below, but first, as Alex is too modest, I’ll sing his praises here.

Alex Connolly is an Australian designer and illustrator, living in southern Japan. He’s worked for Neill Blomkamp (director of District 9, Elysium and Chappie), Marvel (I don’t need to add anything here do I?) and Double Damage Games. I first saw his personal work and was blown away. Alex produces incredibly technical mechanical sci fi illustrations. Incredibly designed, but perfectly believable. Check out Alex’s work on his website and twitter.

And now, for Alex…

Ember in the Palm

First of all, I want to thank Rob for the opportunity to write for his esteemed blog.

Our creative agency, while not exclusive to, would be a lot different if it weren’t for the strange and dexterous marvels known as the human hand. No sooner free from the constraints of quadrupedalism, our ancient forebears took to all manner of evolutionary endeavours. Fast forward beyond the adaptive wonders of our Homo habilis ‘Handy Man’ origins, and we arrive not just at the mechanical deftness of our closer relatives, but breakthroughs in creative cognition. 

In three parts, I want to select particular moments in the history of visual communication that celebrate the hand as a creative constant through time. These are not necessarily definitive, more personal picks from a smorgasbord of creative pursuits as we tumble through time. 

The first part deals in the very definition of a touchstone. 

Turning Point I – Wonderwall

Parietal art or ‘rock art’ can be traced almost 40,000 years into prehistory. It is a strong visual demarcation that helps to define our ancestors as not just reactive wanderers, but as possessing an intrinsic creative drive to reflect and record. Naturally, given our physiology and biological perspective, it stands to reason hands feature as some of the oldest rock art in existence. These are our most practical tools; our dexterous and articulated arguably as important as the brains that operate them. 

As such, the oldest rock art currently recorded are hand prints. Two particular locations featuring these antediluvian artworks are the El Castillo cave paintings in Spain and on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, dated to 39,000 BCE and 37,900 BCE respectively. There has been some speculation as to which species of early human was first to be artistically inclined for its own sake. Conjecture has yet to prove whether Neanderthals committed to stone art in the same way as Homo sapiens, but it is understood that the latter were responsible for both El Castillo and the Liang Timpuseng artworks. 

Both locations were used by early humans as shelters for generations, featuring an array of figurative and symbolic artwork across hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. Hand art, a form dominated by negative space, has the artist — a shaman or perhaps a leader — place their palm against the rock face and spray ochre or some other form of intentionally-selected stain via their mouth or through a hollowed bone or reed. Theories as to meaning suggest anything from ritual to merely an act of self-actualisation, from ownership to leadership. 

In the end, all share intent. Marking a moment in time in communal space, iconography that is not merely acknowledged by the artist’s contemporaries, but by generations thereafter. Ancestors such as Australopithecus garhi and Homo habilis are often associated by their primitive tool creation and usage, but said usage was largely survival-oriented. In the case of parietal art, it speaks to complex preparation such as the gathering and production of medium, and the conscious capacity to undertake an act that does not directly translate to survival. 

Often perceived as the bare minimum of creative expression, the synaptic leap that could afford such action remains profound. Considering we are the recipients of this moment in time, it elicits what German philosopher Rudolf Otto called the numinous; an arousal of spiritual emotion or an overwhelming sense of awe.

While cave art soon came to showcase cognitive development of the visual cortex, in the ability to render wildlife or spiritual conceits, the state of modern visual communication arguably started with the outline of a hand.

In the next section, I want to share development of another aspect of visual communication; one that took the hand itself as a canvas, creating an ancient artform that crossed cultures and class.

Turning Point II – Shrubs in the Desert

Before hands were pressed to walls in ancient grottos, Neanderthal tribes inhabiting the Iberian Peninsula were known to practice the art of self-beautification, a breakthrough in symbolic-thinking that predated the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe by 10,000 years. 

This concurrent development in consciousness is evidenced by the discovery of discarded shells containing trace elements of foreign pigments. In essence, crude palettes within which to mix lepidocrocite, haematite, pyrite, and charcoal for the purpose of crafting body paints. Studies suggest that a driving factor for this paradigm was social pressure, as Neanderthal tribes began to condense in lower Europe, and eventually amplified by the arrival of Homo sapiens. Therefore, survival required an intensification of visual impact. This was, in essence, a primeval social mantle atop a Darwinian core, as groups encountered each other and vied for best first impression. It can be argued that little has changed.

Make-up has been a staple of self-expression ever since Humankind’s cousin started mixing hues, expressed throughout history as a signifier of wealth and importance. Egyptian pharaohs associated beauty with spirituality, leading to a ritualisation of cosmetics. Certain minerals such as Malachite and Galena gave the distinctive aqua-green and black tones of Ancient Egyptian eyeliner, with the production thereof being prohibitive and exclusionary. 

Such exclusion has meant that visual communication and its development was often the providence of aristocracy. Monied strands of society who, by merit of position and patronage, inferred artistic appreciation as an upper class pursuit. But not all visual art is beyond the means of the underclass, and in the case of henna, can appeal to and be practiced by all levels of society.

Made from the rugged Lawsonia inermis that flourishes in arid climates, Henna has been used in beautification since the Bronze Age. A powder is ground from the leaves of this resilient plant, then mixed with liquid such as lime juice or tea. After resting, it is applied to the hands, feet or hair, where the now-freed Lawsone molecule binds with keratin, leaving behind a robust, rusty red that lasts for weeks. 

The plant’s abundance, and relative ease of preparation, meant that time was the only prerequisite to usage. 

Henna usage has been recorded from North Africa, throughout the Middle East, to the Sub-Continent and as far as the Malay Peninsula. As impressive as geographical spread is the cosmetic’s sheer universality in the societies who used it. The Hery Sesheta embalmers used henna to decorate nails prior to mummification in Ancient Egypt, and Cleopatra herself used it both in body decoration and in hair dyes. The North African Tuareg and Amazigh tribes took to using henna to adorn their hands with the same ornate patterns they wove into their Ehan tents. Practitioners of all regional faiths found henna an excellent way to bypass texts that forbade permanent tattooing, or frowned upon adornments such as jewelry that could conceivably convey idolatry. 

It was brought into Persia through the Rashidun Caliphate’s westward conquest beginning in 633 AD, and while indigenous usage on the Sub-Continent was speculated to have started earlier, the later Mughal invasion of India in the 16th Century cemented it as a social norm. Contrary to association, the country was one of the last places to take up this art form.

Henna design variation naturally between region and culture. From Mali’s fish bone style to the aforementioned angular geometry of the Algerian nomads, from the ‘dipped fingertips’ of the Hebrews and Copts to patterns produced by string guidelines across Persia; each hand possessed intricate and highly meaningful adornment, reflecting the culture within which the owner existed.

More importantly, this was across the entire socio-economic spectrum. From the poorest castes to the richest nobles, henna was a cultural constant. Mummified remains of peasantry in Ancient Egypt, their rudimentary interment a far cry from the careful preservation of deceased nobility, still exhibited henna pigment on their scarified remains. 

Requiring a level of symbolic interpretation, and aside from practical creations like weaving, henna’s prevalence is visual communication that existed against prohibitive conditions like literacy and status. This highly personal beautification of one’s own hands remains unlike most artistic pursuits in the ancient and medieval worlds at that time. 

In the next and final post, I want to present a critical moment, where the physical and the virtual collide to leave an indelible mark on creative culture.

Turning Point III – Futureworld

It was seen as a dancing band of light displayed on the curved display of a cathode-ray tube, signal voltages rendered in visual form. Ben Laposky’s oscilloscope arrived in 1950, offering the first rudimentary glimpse at a simulated visual future, even if a byproduct of test machinery. 

Twenty-two years later, in a graduate program at the University of Utah, Fred Parke and Edwin Catmull carried what Laposky had started to then-unimagined levels. All it took to leave an indelible mark on visual communication was an industrial-grade research computer and Catmull’s left hand. 

At the time, Catmull was undertaking a research task not in the field of art, but science. It specifically related to the difficulty of rendering and animating curved surfaces on the hardware of the day. This processor-intensive computation favoured simple geometric patterns where vector coordinates could be rendered in relation to each other with comparative ease. As a technical challenge, the human hand was selected to map, compute and animate, as it required the problem of simultaneous movement to be solved. Moreover, rendered not just as rudimentary vectors, but via a technique called texture mapping to give definition and dimension to the model. 

The two made a plaster cast of Catmull’s hand, then set about charting the contures of the model into a series of triangles. Three hundred and fifty interlocking triangles were then measured in relationship to each other using a computerised drafting tool that logged coordinates in three-dimensions, which in turn slowly replicated the cast within a custom CAD program Catmull had coded.

Once all the information was transferred to the computer, so began a case of manipulating vertices in a simulated three-dimensional space, and ensuring that neighbouring sections acted accordingly to realistically portray articulation. Texture-wrapping was then applied over the wireframe, which accounted for light sources and calculated shadowing. It was a new form of sculpture, a simulacrum of the organic in an electronic landscape. And while the painstaking minute-long animation occurred clumsily frame by frame via off-screen photography, this digital hand was a crucial jumping-off point for computer graphics and animation. 

The ramifications for rendering figurative complexity within a synthetic space would cause ripples beyond calculating and testing engineering theories; one minute’s worth of hand-waving would set the imaginations of artists on fire. Without it, genre-defining authors like William Gibson may not have conjured their ideas about virtual reality in quite the same way, if at all. CG may not have come of age in cinema quite so quickly, had Catmull and Parke been satisfied with the crude cylinders and quadrilaterals of the era. This was a watershed moment, in every one of its three-hundred and fifty interconnected pieces.

From the spattered negative space on rock walls to the philosophies behind Univers, visual communication has been a constant but ever-evolving way for humankind to relay their ideas through shape and colour. Environmental and extraneous contact points throughout history supercharged our capacity to render, reflect and record our ideations of the world, with an intent to instill or share them with others. 

Cognitive development in the visual cortex, alongside increasing social elements, suggested that early humans put as much intent into parietal art as the Henna artists of the ancient and medieval worlds. Henna art itself a broad concept that traveled the trade routes, or found contemporaneous usage on account of the plant’s ubiquity. By the time the artform had arrived in the Indian subcontinent, it had spread far and wide, and was used to convey its own myriad stories.

And while it started as a painfully rudimentary process, the mitochondria of Parke and Catmull’s painstaking work exists within each and every 3D project; from Hollywood effects to a kid teaching themselves Blender.

That inherent creative drive, however it bears out, is something to be treasured and cherished. Particularly as visual artists, where the uncanny and ineffable conversation between brain and hand presents itself as an artistic communication, Otto’s numinous is never far away.

Even when the blank page is a burden, or our creative batteries feel flat, therein remains the powerful original spark, one that was pressed against a rockface at the dawn of time. 

Huge thanks to Alex for this fascinating and unexpected guest post. That last sentence will stay with me for a long time. Once again, do have a look at Alex’s website and follow him on Twitter.

You can find prints of my work here

I also have a Patreon page

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Blog, interrupted.

Hi all, just a quick update to say I haven’t forgotten about my blog, or those who read it. It’s been a bit of a crazy year, and time for writing, and the headspace I sometimes need to do so, has been in short supply.

I am intending to get back to writing more regularly, and hopefully I can kick that off in a few weeks time.

Until then, here’s a recent mecha illustration for you. Drawn on the iPad, in Procreate. I’m working digitally quite a lot at the moment. Commercial work – I’m doing some concept art for games – means fast turn arounds and frequent iterations and amends, so digital works well.

One last thing, you can now buy digital downloads of my book, Weird Field World, and an accompanying colouring book, through Gumroad.

You can find prints of my work here

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What’s new?

Quite a bit probably as it’s been a while since I’ve blogged.

I’m just over a, thankfully mild, bout of Covid. Omicron finally caught up with me after two years of dodging it. It does seem like this latest variant is getting just about everyone this time. Stay safe and well everyone. Get jabbed, wear a mask.

Work-wise – I’ve been doing some concept art for a sci-fi video game which has been a nice change of pace. Producing lots of variations of spaceships, refining and finessing them. Lots of fun. I also did some illustration work for another video game, this time a fantasy/gothic themed one. Again great to do something a little different. I think I learnt quite a bit working on both of these, and as there’s likely to be much more work from both, plenty of opportunities to level up.

Personal work – I’ve continued working on both my Innsmouth and Weird Field World projects. Adding illustrations and background writing and fiction and fleshing out the worlds. I still have plans to produce a book of the first chapter of Innsmouth. And of course, book two of the Weird Field World – titled (somewhat unsurprisingly as) Weird Field War is in the works.

YouTube – I did a little process video of me drawing a space station. Head over and have a look. I waffle on about my thoughts as I draw.

There are a couple of new products over at my store. One Innsmouth related, and one a bit of sci-fi merch!

Elk Island Lighta new Innsmouth print, available in a load of different sizes. I’m really very happy with this illustration.

Raptor 01 – a new enamel pin badge, based on a design from my Deep Space Fleet II poster. You can buy the badge here. There are plans to launch a Kickstarter at some point to produce a whole fleet of enamel spaceship badges.

I’m still out and about as often as I can taking photographs. I’ve had a slightly dodgy achilles for a while now, so I’ve had to take things a little easy. One of my favourite recent photos, taken at the London Wetland Centre.

Iceland – I’ve wanted to go to Iceland for a very long time, and I’m finally going. At the beginning of May I’ll fly out, with my dad, for a two week road trip around Iceland’s ring road. It’s 825 miles through some of the most amazing landscapes, and I am very excited. I’ve got a drone for the trip, so fingers crossed the weather allows me to use it to capture som of this big sweeping vistas. I am very excited. Expect several blog posts about my trip once I’m back.

And that’s you all caught up. Is there anything you want to read about? Any ideas for future posts? Let me know in the comments.

You can find prints of my work here

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Commissions for 2021/22

I’m now happily accepting a new round of illustration commissions for 2021/22. If you’ve ever wanted to own some original art – and like my work – now’s your chance.

Commissions

If you would like to buy an original drawing, email me at rob [at] thisnorthernboy [dot] co [dot] uk , and let me know what kind of thing you are looking for. While you can ask me to draw absolutely anything, it’s probably best to stick to subjects and themes that you’ve seen me produce already. I’m not saying I’d never draw a portrait of your cats, for instance, but it’s unlikely. Some subjects I love to draw are:

Ships and Lighthouses
Isometric buildings
Robots
Astronauts
Spaceships
Imaginary places

What you’ll receive will be a black and white pen drawing, on good quality, 220gsm cartridge paper. If you would prefer a colour illustration – let me know and we can have a chat.

You can also request for the illustration to be landscape or portrait in orientation.

I can’t guarantee that every request will be something I’d be happy to draw – but I’ll do my best. If you take a look at previous posts on this blog, or on my Instagram page you can see the kinds of thinks I like to illustrate..

What will this cost?

For an A5 (148 x 210mm) commission I charge £85 + post & packaging.
For an A4 (210 x 297mm) commission I charge £150 + post & packaging.
For an A3 (297 x 420mm) commission I charge £250 + post & packaging.
For an A2 (420 x 594mm) commission I charge £450 + post & packaging.

When you email me to request a commission, if you can include the address you’d like it shipped to, I’ll work out the cost of postage and let you know. If you’re happy with the overall cost I accept payment by PayPal.

When will you get your drawing?

I aim to complete and post all illustrations within one month of receiving payment.

PLEASE NOTE: This post is regarding private, personal commissions. If you want to discuss a commercial proposition – illustrations for a book, game, or anything else that you would be selling, then please get in touch directly.

You can find prints of my work here

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Green

Green. I seek out green places more and more as I get older. The combination of peace and the sounds of nature seem to give me an incredible sense of well-being. Advocates of ‘Forest bathing’ have a point. At this time of year, particularly, the colours are incredible. Fresh, vibrant, jewel greens. White and yellow of Cow Parsley and Cowslip. The unexpected violet-blue of a glade of Bluebells. But green, always the green. Dappled sunlight and mossy roots and rocks. There’s a path I’ll always take.

I now have a new Instagram account solely for my photography.

You can also find prints of my work here

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Bempton Cliffs

I’ve just got back from a week spent up in York with my parents. I miss Yorkshire, and a few days roaming around the countryside in good weather made me realise just how much.

One of those days was spent at the RSPB site at Bempton Cliffs, on Yorkshire’s East coast. 300′ high chalk cliffs alive with seabirds, and cliff-top meadows full of life. It’s an incredible place and I really do recommend visiting if you’re ever in the area.

You can also find prints of my work here

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Well, it’s been a while (again).

Apologies for not updating my blog for such a long time. I think once the Weird Field World book was printed, packaged, and mailed out to all the Kickstart backers I was a bit drained. I’d been so focused on the book for so long it was difficult to give anything else my attention really.

With a bit of distance I can start to give a bit more love to the blog and to my Patreon page that’s also been a bit neglected of late.

I thought I could start by letting you know what I have been filling my time with over the last few months.

It’s mainly been nature photography. I got a new camera back in October, which I blogged a little about here, and in March, I bought myself a new zoom lens for it. I’d grown increasingly frustrated by seeing animals and birds, but not being able to get a half decent photograph of them, so a zoom seemed a necessary addition. I went for the Fuji 70-300mm zoom, rather than the 100-400mm version, mainly because of the difference of almost £1k in price. I’ve been incredibly happy with it so far. What I didn’t really expect was that it would really change how I experienced the outdoors. Previously, if I was out for a walk I wouldn’t give a huge amount of attention to those things I couldn’t photograph – little birds skulking in bushes, or distant buzzards and kites circling. The new lens brought all those things close enough for me to identify and to get some decent photos, which made me massively more interested in them. Since getting the new lens in March, I’ve counted seeing 68 species of bird, and 13 of those were brand new to me. Even though I was walking in the same places mostly, and at the same times of day, I was noticing much, much more.

Some of my favourite photos are below. All taken with the Fuji X-T4 and 70-300mm lens. If you enjoy these, then please consider following my new Instagram photography account.

Besides taking photographs, I have managed to find time to get a few new products up on my online shop. If you enjoyed the Weird Field World book there are some matching stickers and prints available.

In March and April I worked with the UK fragrance company Thomas Clipper, on the packaging for their new men’s scent – Atlantic. This was a really enjoyable project to be part of. Here are a few images from the final packaging.

I’m going to make an effort to blog more regularly for the rest of the year. As always, if there’s something you’d like me to write about – let me know in the comments.

You can also find prints of my work here

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Weird Field World book now available.

My first book, Weird Field World, is now available to buy here. If you’re a regular reader of the blog you’ll know that I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the book, and now all of the backers’ rewards have been mailed, the book is available to the general public.

The Weird Field World is a project I’ve been working on for around three years. It started off as a couple of little doodles on scrap paper, as I wondered what a spaceship might look like if it had an entirely novel form of propulsion. I figured it might look a little weird, and that name kind of stuck.

I built the project and produced content for it over on Patreon. The income from my supporters there allowing me some time to develop ideas, to write, and to draw lots of spaceships. What I’ve ended up with is a book full of spaceship illustrations, character drawings, written fiction, maps, diagrams, and a lot of world-building. I’m very proud of it, and the feedback so far has been fantastic.

If you’d like a copy, click here to buy one from my shop.

You can also find prints of my work here

Become a Patron!

And you can find more of my work online…
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And if you’d like to buy me a (virtual coffee) you can do so here.