‘The Bird King and other sketches’ by Shaun Tan is a new compilation of paintings, sketches and doodlings from the author and artist’s various notebooks spanning the past twelve years. I read it and thought I’d write something. It’s less something you read and more something you browse through in a semi-hypnotic trance. Tan, author of several picture books including The Lost Thing, The Arrival, The Red Tree and Tales From Outer Suburbia is an artist who not only has something to say and the creative skills to say it but a reflective outlook that allows him to say it well, and to comment on the creative process intelligently. He’s also somewhat of a personal hero.
‘The Bird King and other sketches’ is a compendium of sketchbook pages that range from brilliantly finished paintings to barely discernable scribbles, taking in weird characters, lost objects, drawings from life and tantalising preliminary sketches from early drafts of his picture books along the way. There’s a huge variety of material on display here, interspersed with the author’s own commentary on his working methods.
What’s really interesting is the chance to see a little bit of how an artist like Shaun Tan works and to find, reassuringly, that it’s not all that different to the way I go about things – sketchbooks filled with meaningless scribbles and rubbish attempts at drawing things I had only half planned or half thought about in the first place, sometimes with unexpectedly satisfying results and sometimes with results that are not satisfying in the slightest, or even half good. I tend to feel that as long as I keep drawing I might occasionally come up with something halfway decent amongst the dross.
Tan’s outlook seems similar. His commentary focuses less on those undeniably brilliant moments when you have a great idea and everything flows and you create something you’re genuinely pleased with very easily. Inspiration, he argues, does not rain down like sunshine on a receptive individual. Blank pages, it seems, can be as daunting for him as for anyone – all that potential possibility waiting to be destroyed – broken down from the limitless ‘what could be’ to the rather more prosaic and frequently disappointing ‘what is.’ It’s a stumbling block I often trip and fly headlong over, finding the finished article is never quite what I imagined before I brought it to life on the page. Only a fair while later can I look at a picture and enjoy it for what it is, without the beguiling spectre of what it might, could or should have been clouding things.
Tan’s answer to this creative impasse is to develop an ability to doodle indiscriminately and without pretension: to avoid worrying about how good something is or what it’s saying and just draw draw draw, using the act of drawing itself to uncover meaning and direction rather than trying to physically shape something already there in a hazy quasi-existence in your head.
Unplanned images created in this way can suggest stories or present enigmatic little moments of curiosity, they can be explorations of a certain shape or landscape, or anything at all really. Most importantly they’re a way of developing a certain way of thinking and of looking at the world, of allowing your brain to make connections between things in unexpected ways, without forethought or planning but spontaneously and somewhat more organically – the result of just scribbling about.
Hearing someone discuss the creative process so honestly is a refreshing antidote to the saccharine and endlessly perpetuated myth that creative or artistic people are blessed with a flood of amazing ideas, which they funnel from some otherworldly creative paradise out into the real world through sheer love. The reality is that failure is always lurking in the wings and for every picture you’re pleased with there are plenty of others that disappoint – those moments when something didn’t go how you’d hoped, or ‘that’ brilliant image or idea just didn’t suggest itself when it was needed. But it’s keeping trying and experimenting that makes things worthwhile and that leads to those moments when everything does just click.
All in all the book is a nice anthology and beautifully produced as always. My lasting sense, however, was of a quiet sadness in many of the pictures – a common and perhaps unconscious thread running through much of the collection. I’d never noticed it in Shaun Tan’s work before but perhaps the accumulation of diverse material here made it clearer. There’s plenty on offer that’s funny and flippant, and even some that’s outright happy, but mostly it’s an overarching sense of sadness that pervades proceedings: at times an almost depressive melancholia that seems initially at odds with the ostensibly child-friendly nature of picture book making, but which is, on deeper reflection, perhaps inextricably linked to the thoughtful, elegiac approach to storytelling at which Tan excels.