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  • Naomi Blayney

Back to education for a master's in illustration...

It has been absolutely ages since I wrote a blog post. I’ve had a rather busy few months including a house move, new schools for my girls, a day job that seems to get busier every week plus in October I started my master’s degree. And Christmas of course, which seems to zap every ounce of time and energy out of me. But it's a new year and hopefully it will be a better one for everyone. Let's face it…it can't be any worse than last year! A new year means new challenges and exciting things.

Doing a master’s has been on my to do list for a very long time and for one reason or another I’ve put it off again and again. One of the reasons is that I wasn’t sure what to study. Something always prevented me from studying a subject related to my day job. I enjoy my work but perhaps not quite enough. Since rediscovering my love of writing and refocusing my artistic endeavors on illustration instead of landscapes, I felt as though my choice was now clear. In October I commenced my studies in illustration at the University of Sunderland, where I also work.

I’ve worked for universities for over a decade so I’m used to being around campus but I haven’t seen a campus from a student’s perspective for a long time. I attended my first lecture surrounded (well there are only about 12 on the course) by mostly younger people. I didn't let that phase me though and rather than feel daunted, I threw myself in at the deep end.

I enrolled and registered for everything and hot-footed it to the library to explore. I volunteered to be the first to give a presentation on what I want to achieve from this master’s. ‘To be a sponge’ I said, ‘to soak up as much knowledge as I can’, ‘to prepare a portfolio worthy of an agent and of publication’ I said. This course, for me, is a vehicle to have a book published. Either as an illustrator, or as a writer, or ideally both. I'm definitely aiming high!

One of the things I'm looking forward to most is the individual feedback. Many of the courses I've done so far - many of the Make Art That Sells or Curtis Brown - are excellent for the content, the networking and the informal sharing of work between students. However, feedback on those courses from a professional is rare, especially with MATS. You have to get chosen to be reviewed - from a pool of hundreds. The chance is slim and even if you get chosen, the feedback is brief. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just the way those courses go - but I often struggle to relate other people's feedback to my own work.

In my first few weeks I submitted some sketches, like the one pictured here, for feedback to one of my tutors, Nick Lewis. He recorded a 30 minute video giving me really detailed feedback on numerous aspects from style to observation of anatomy. I found this extraordinarily helpful. If this is the standard of feedback I'm likely to get, I have no doubt that my skills as an illustrator are going to come along in leaps and bounds. I was absolutely over the moon. Soon he's going to set up some sessions to teach me more about the industry standard art software which I'm very excited about. Mark Rogerson is my personal tutor and he has been fantastic at guiding and advising as I go and giving me the confidence to aim even higher.

Neil Ewins, a fabulous design historian is giving a series of lectures on the contextual landscape of design. This has really made me think about how society influences art, design and illustration and how they influence society. I've chosen to channel my focus on gender representation in picture books so I've mainly been looking at how the waves of feminism have influenced the progression of gender representation in picture books.

It has been interesting to see how the portrayal of boys and girls in picture books has evolved. Once upon a time, characters were more often than not portrayed in stereotypical roles where women are quiet, usually inside, doing 'girly' things whereas boys are outgoing, confident and involved in the action. In the illustrations we might see girls in dresses, pictured in situations showing stereotypical tasks such as cooking of cleaning or following the male characters. In more recent times we see stereotyping replaced with a more balanced view. We see girls as the central character, girls involved in all of the action and boys in quieter roles. In the illustrations we might see both boys and girls in a variety of clothing, practical play clothes like shorts and trousers, less stereotypical colours and scenes where the female characters take the lead and are involved in the action.

The picture on the left is of a book illustrated by Kate Greenaway, an illustrator from the 'Golden Age' of illustration from the late 19th century to the early 2oth century where stereotyped roles were commonplace. I remember the Ladybird books when I was young and many of them present such stereotypes that they are often parodied today. I've been reading key studies by scholars such as Lenore Weitzman in the 1970s and Janice McCabe in the 2010s. They both examined thousands of picture books and found "persistent patterns of gender inequality" (McCabe from her study in 2011). McCabe's study found that males are represented twice as often in titles and 1.6 times in central characters.

More recently I watched a video about research carried out in 2017 called Redraw the Balance. It described a study carried out in schools called 'Drawing the Future' where primary school children were asked to draw a person who does a particular job e.g. a fighter pilot, a firefighter, a surgeon and so on. In one setting of 66 drawings - 61 were men and 5 were women. They concluded that by the age of 7 gender stereotypes have already shaped career aspirations.

After a brief perusal of my daughter's book shelves we have excellent examples of gender representation such as 'Zog and the Flying Doctors' where the princess wants to become a doctor. She pursues her dream and succeeds despite her father's objections. Although, not quite so good is the part where her father, the King, imprisons her in a tower and nothing is said about it. I generally explain to my daughter at this point that he would probably be in prison at the end of the story as keeping a girl prisoner against her will is not ok.

For my own work, I'm now thinking much more about how I write stories, how am I presenting the male and female characters in both the words and the illustrations. Do I draw a girl in a dress or in dungarees? Do I draw boys in outgoing roles or quiet roles? I struggle with this because one of my daughters loves stories about princesses in pretty dresses. My other daughter loves adventure stories where the girl saves the day. Is anything ok as long as there is a good variety of roles so that all children find a book where they see themselves in the characters? There are so many factors to consider. I certainly want to write stories that inspire and encourage children to be whatever they want to be. I would hate for a child to read a book I had written and feel anything less than happy and empowered.

What are your views about gender in picture books? Is it important to you? Does it affect what books you buy for your children?

If you are interested in getting involved in my research, I'd love it if you would complete my survey. Please feel to pass it on to others who might also like to complete it.


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