I think of people driving through my village Ballinderreen on their way somewhere. Ballinderreen is not usually the destination, being a “blink and you’ll miss it” village, with little more than a crossroads, a pub, a fuel station and a small shop…on the outside.
But take a left at the crossroads and you will come to a very plain pale yellow building that looks a bit like a miniature hangar. This is Ballinderreen Community Centre, and inside you’ll find all kinds of good stuff going on. Baby yoga. Festivals of food from all over the world. Céilí dancing. Socials. French, art and zumba classes. Musical evenings galore. And last week, you’d have found nineteen children clutching pencils, huddled over sheets of paper as they created comics, their minds filled with knights in galactic jungles, flying ice creams in capes, a fluffy dog who just wanted to help people, another dog with a pet caterpillar and two burritos doing a dance-off.
This was the comics summer camp I ran in the village for the week just gone by. I had had ambitious plans for the camp, but halfway through the first day I rewrote the plan for the week; I quickly realised that my plan to teach comics via the great comic artists of the 20th century wasn’t going to do the trick, so each evening when I got home I came up with a new plan for the next day. I’m not ashamed to admit this: “No strategy survives the first shock of combat”, said someone who presumably experienced that. The important thing is that when I saw my wonderful plan wasn’t going to cut the mustard, I tweaked it so that it would.
One of the things we did during the week, and repeated because it was so popular, was a comics jam. Each child draws a story on a quarter of a page, then passes it to the next child. My teams had four kids each, so each page had four contributors. We gave them 10 minutes for each panel, which gave them time to some up with one panel’s worth of story and colour it too.
“We” is my son Paddy and me. He was my assistant. Paddy will be 18 in about a week and he was a great assistant: he’s always calm, always helpful and he’s a natural cartoonist. Paddy and I partook in the comics jam while the kids were scribbling away: partly because it was fun, but we wanted the kids to see us incorporate lots of the visual language we’d been teaching.
Each child started their story with a character in a setting: it was one they had made up themselves, or a ready-made one that I gave them.
Here are a couple of the comic jams that Paddy and I came up with:
I found that doing a comics jam with the kids was a great way to get them to focus: they knew they had to make the story clear so that the next kid could read it and understand what was going on. This worked for nearly everyone – one or two made stories that were not clear at all – but on the whole it was a great technique.
To my amusement, the teams of girls went to great lengths to copy the style and colouring of the girl who had started the story. Some of the boys, on the other hand, imposed their own characters on the story, regardless of what had just happened. Other children made the frame they drew really funny, which then lent an air of comedy overall which Paddy and I really enjoyed.
Here’s another that Paddy and I did, this time with me starting it off:
We each had ten minutes to finish our frames, and of course I was running hither and thither attending to the kids who needed help, so you can see that it can be done very fast. We used colouring pencils just to keep things clean and easy but we found them very good – some kids had very rich ones that I would recommend for this kind of thing. The paper was just plain printer paper, 80g recycled stuff.
The children really enjoyed drawing someone else’s story. It took the pressure off them: some kids loved that, others, especially the younger ones, kept trying to re-introduce their own characters, which is fine and well within the rules!
One lad said that it was hard for him because the girl before him always did a dark story, then it fell to him to make it funny again! They are good friends and their stories were so funny. I must ask the mums in question to scan one in particular I’m thinking of and post it. Another young guy had a dance-off bewteen two rivals in a climactic scene. The next day he upped the ante and it was a violin-off, complete with lovely music coming from their instruments. Then the next day what did they have? A tin-whistle-off. That made me burst out laughing.
A comics jam would work with anyone over the age of about 8: younger than that and they struggle with the concept of sharing “their” story, and also their skills aren’t quite developed enough to make the stories clear (although there are exceptions).
I would like to give credit to Sarah McIntyre, a talented cartoonist and comics artist, children’s book author and illustrator and all-round amazing woman, for this amazing resource which she shares so generously on her website. I have a signed copy of Vern and Lettuce, which is beautiful, funny and original.
The children enjoyed the comics camp immensely and truth be told, I didn’t want it to end, tired though I was by the end of the week.
Here is a beautiful gift from one of my students, who bought my book An Urban Sketcher’s Galway on the second day of the camp:
Yes, I did bake bread for them and they had tea at breaks: I have fond memories of staying in the Gaeltacht as a child, and the life there in the 1970s was a million miles from my own experiences near Dublin, raised by a Canadian mother. We walked four miles each way to the community centre three times a day – they’d never make kids do that now! – and when we got home after the (magical, exhilarating) céilís there was always tea and freshly baked brown soda bread with butter and strawberry jam for us in thick slices. I wanted the kids to experience that feeling I remember so well, even though I’m fairly certain they, like me, weren’t allowed tea – and certainly not as strong as Paddy made it.
There are tons of things I love about urban sketching. Messing about with colour. The challenge of getting someone down before they move on. Beautiful lines. Glorious architecture. The list goes on. But for me the greatest pleasure of all is telling a story. My favourite way to do that is to show the interaction between characters. This sketch of the diving platform at Blackrock, on the outskirts of Galway City, is a good example of why I love sketching humans just mucking about, interacting. I hope you can see from the sketch that there was lots of chat going on that evening…
…but what you might not be able to see is that there is a little kid in the foreground who was trying to entice his little dog into the sea. The dog was whimpering with anxiety, not because he was concerned for his folks but because a stone had fallen in and he couldn’t get it. The little boy, who was about ten or eleven, managed to get the dog into the sea and carried him aloft in his arms as if he abhorred the water. The boy’s mum was serenity personified. She smiled broadly and her teeth flashed white. A man passed and said hello.
“I know you,” I said. “You’re an urban sketcher!”
It turned out that he was called Sam, and he had come to one of our Urban Sketchers Galway meetings. He and his lovely wife – she of the white teeth – had been sketching their holidays for many years, and were a bit amused that it’s now a very popular Thing.
“Snoopy, look,” he said to the dog. “You’re in an urban sketch.”
The sketch was a great way to pass some time while my kids were at the cinema. As it turned out, Paddy and Liv had been offered a lift home by one of the friends they’d gone to the cinema with, but Paddy had misheard. I hadn’t needed to be there all that time at all. But I don’t regret it for a second.
It seems that my first book, mentioned above, has done particularly well. As a result, my publisher and I have agreed on two more titles, with an intended publication date of around May next year. So I shall be very busy until next February, when they will go to print. I am bursting with excitement and can’t wait to get on with them…expect to see some sneak peeks from unlikely quarters.
And now I leave you with just a few of the beautifully painted comics from the kids in the comics camp…enjoy!