Category Archives: Inspirations

Favorite works in cartooning, illustration, film and literature.

July Inspirations

Last month was full of drawing, friends, family, and good food, and since we just got back from a quick trip to the Cape I thought I’d share a handful of visual inspirations from July. These images represent in some way the things currently knocking around in my brain:

Toad found near the bike path taken to the beach on Cape Cod. I haven't held such a small creature in quite a long time.


Gray seal colony of several hundred individuals. The pups practiced their swimming as the adults napped.


Sandy dunes on the Cape. I wouldn't mind owning a summer home here, not one little bit.


The Domino Sugar plant on the East River bank across from Manhattan, taken from a river cruise ferry. I love the fonts and the mood of the building.


A trash boat leaving Manhattan, also taken from the ferry. Catching glimpses of the trash subway trains at night has piqued my curiosity about where it all goes.


A very quick sketch of an african elephant in the Museum of Natural History. These animals are just so gorgeous!


A baby elephant learning to walk immediately after birth. Check out YouTube for some incredible videos.

I look forward to whatever it is that August holds. In the meantime back to my work on CITIES!

Ron Elliott: He Who Swims With Great White Sharks

The San Franciso Bay area is home to many things. Alcatraz. The 49ers. Clam chowder. And Ron Elliott, a retired commercial diver who has spent hundreds of hours swimming (cage-free!) among the largest predatory fish on earth. He didn’t do it for kicks, and he certainly wasn’t hankering to be a hot lunch; he just figured that more sharks meant less competition for the tasy urchins he sold to sushi markets. I had heard that these days Ron was taking underwater footage of the white sharks for his grandchildren, and if I wanted to beautifully and accurately capture these animals in my drawings, Ron would be the man to see for a first-hand look.

Ron Elliot filming underwater with sea lions in the background.

While home for Christmas, Tim and I had the great honor of paying a visit to Ron and his wife Carol at their home in Point Reyes. After introductions I shared a little more about my shark research and drawing interests, and then Ron led us into his office, complete with double monitors and professional film-editing software, where he turns the best segments into fabulous footage. Not only did Ron show us breath-taking close-ups of white sharks at the Farallon Islands, he pulled up clip after clip of the SAME sharks, taken in different years, who are seasonal neighbors in these waters. From propeller scars and sea lion wounds, their individual swimming styles and hunting habits were quickly apparent, and it was great fun to identify each shark and discuss their personalities with Ron.

Ron's in-house video editing station.
Ron shows me his favorite clips of sharks.

In twenty years of diving, Ron has never been bitten by a shark (though he has had a few close calls, including having to use his urchin basket to fend off a mouth full of 300 teeth). But with the camera in front of him—which looks like a giant eye—the white sharks are just as wary of him as he is of them. Good thing; the camera alone is a handful at 28 pounds, loaded with weights to be negative in the water and thus keep the image more steady.

Tim holding Ron's 28-pound camera.

Ron he also showed us dozens of clips of decorator crabs, jelly fish, sea stars, coral reefs, gray whales, fish, and groups of sea-lions. Every video was breathtaking—amazingly clear and colorful, and absolutely packed with activity.

Stills from Ron Elliott's footage, used in the documentary "Sanctuary of the Sea."

After a wonderful dinner we all watched the 18-minute 2010 documentary that NOAA made about Ron, called “Sanctuary in the Sea: A Gulf of the Farallones Experience,” before Tim and I headed home. It is beautifully done and a tasteful reminder of the conservation work ahead to protect this fragile bay for future generations.

Between Ron’s conversation and lush footage, I now have more than enough reference to work with as I go forward with my shark project. An enormous THANK YOU to Ron and Carol Elliott! I look forward to seeing them both again soon!

Lynda Barry & the “You and Me and Leslie” Writing Workshop

Last week author and cartoonist Lynda Barry (One Hundred Demons, What It Is) stormed the town of White River Junction with her honesty and quirky charm during her two-day writing workshop for CCS students and alumni. “I’m excited to be here, and I was thinking of you all last night while drinking a tiny bottle of whiskey. I felt like a giant. And then I drank another.” She sang songs, acted out South Park episodes, shared stories, and spread out thousands of idea notecards for us to peruse at breaks.

For the next two days we wrote one 8 minute story after another, responding to prompt after prompt as Barry encouraged us to listen to the stories from the Image World already waiting for us in the back of our mind. Her writing method, explained in both of her books, follows these general guidelines:


1) You must write out all of your stories by hand.

2) You may not read over what you are writing while you are writing it.

3) If you get stuck, keep your pen moving by drawing your spiral. Continue writing when ready.

4) You may not read over what you have written when finished, except for while reading out loud to the entire class, during which

5) No one may look at the person reading.

6) No one may comment on what has been read except for Lynda, who always says “good! good! good!” after each story.

7) You may not talk about the writing until the very end of the workshop.


To read out loud without being able to first look back over your writing is pretty terrifying indeed, but the stories that people had written were breathtaking and complete, wonderful little first draft shorts done from start to finish in less than 15 minutes. Incredible! Who knew writing could be easy?

One of my favorite insights that Barry shared was on the song “Groovin'” by the Rascals. Like her, I had always heard the lyrics as “Life would be ecstasy, you and me and LESLIE,” and wondered ‘who is this Leslie person? A man? A woman? Is this a threesome he’s singing about? Maybe Leslie is their child.’ Barry pointed out that from an editorial point of view, ‘Leslie’ isn’t properly introduced and should thus be cut from the song. But the lyrics ACTUALLY say “Life would be ecstasy, you and me ENDLESSLY.” Which makes more sense, right? But is also completely general and boring! The Image of Leslie is lost, killed off, edited out, and replaced with a non-image concept word.

The more specific an Image is in a story–the more of a handle it provides into the world of a character–the more universal and relatable an Image becomes to a reader. How cool is that?

A huge thanks to Lynda Barry for her fabulous class! I’m already writing more, and I plan to keep it up.

Somerville Up-Close

Last Saturday I volunteered for Somerville Up-Close, a community arts project for youth conceived of and directed by my friend Sara Argue (she strikes again!). The premise of the project she envisioned was simple: create a collaborative art project for kids who are interested in growing up to be artists, and get real artists to volunteer to help the project come to life! Sounds pretty cool, but the final product was incredible: a mosaic map of the town of Somerville made entirely by 5th and 6th graders in four short afternoons. Look at the line! the color! the energy!

I feel so excited when I look at this piece; there’s a freedom and intensity that’s so rare in work by grown-ups. And the scale of it, the hugeness of it, makes me want to do bigger work. The time has come to stretch my wings, and I give myself permission to jump!

An Ode to March in Vermont

It finally feels like March in Vermont, with the rain coloring the world rather gray and preparing the snow for mud season. Last week I had a terrific time puttering around our little town and sketching in honor of David Ezra Stein, this year’s Caldecott Honor Medal winner for Interrupting Chicken. Stein responded to a fan letter I sent with a delightful and very encouraging card in which he wondered what it is like to live in a small town. If only documentation-by-sketchbook were a more sought after skill!

Thank you again, David, for your wonderful card– it made my week!


Dartmouth College Manuscripts

This week I had the chance to spend a couple of hours at the Rauner Library at Dartmouth College looking through a few of their hundreds of manuscripts. Taking a little break amidst other work to handle a few of these volumes was so much fun! I love books and book bindings, and as an illustrator and designer holding the original source is a real treat. I just thought I’d share a few photos here of different the different books:

A 12th century manuscript, produced by a monastery for scholarship on one of the saints, not in the original binding and with the prick marks showing in the margins:

A 13th century Parisian vulgate bible, with gilding on the capitols. 700+ pages, look at the size of this script!!

A 14th century (c. 1330) Roman de la Rose, with 11 tiny miniatures in the beginning featuring various vices.

A 15th century (c. 1440) Book of Hours, richly illuminated, with multiple gilded paintings, including this Pentacost.

Another 15th century Book of Hours, this time featuring interspecies sodomy beneath the watchful (and overly loved) figure of St. Peter, his key still in tact. What are these doing in a Book of Hours beneath a prayer? Excellent question. I have no idea myself.

And finally, from 16th century Spain, an antiphonal for the whole choir to read from and sing along with. Opening the book is like lifting a cellar door.