Voyages on the sea of life

Occasionally, I get asked to draw things other than boats. With a bit of research, I can tackle most subjects (but I avoid animals, fairies and dragons. I know my limits!) and I often have to draw people, either as cartoons or realistic.

One of a series of cartoons for Suffolk Quiet Lanes project

My latest book illustration project was certainly a little bit different. It’s called ‘Please Tell Me’ and it’s a  life story book for those with dementia, along with their families and carers.

Devised and written by Julia Jones, it contains gentle prompts and questions to encourage and record the highlights of a life story. My task was to add line drawings to each page and work out a clear page layout with border, finding the right balance between suggesting ideas and looking attractive, and having enough space for the recipient to complete the pages in their own way.

Reading the text made me want to fill it in myself now, not wait until I’m old and frail. When you look back at life it’s not just the high points you value, but all of it.


Early sketches for Please Tell Me…. not all of them made the final pages!


Sadly, I know very little about my own parents’ lives, especially my mother’s. All I have is a small box which contains a handful of undated and unnamed photos, a few press cuttings (her father’s obituary, announcement of her engagement, theatre reviews) and a Christmas card from Richard Burton and his last wife Sally. I don’t know why my grandparents, who were from North Wales and spoke Welsh in the home, lived in Staffordshire. My grandfather was a journalist and historian; I wasn’t interested in his research archives as a child but I would be now. As a child I was more interested in his ventriloquist act, his party tricks and his artificial leg (and discovering, to my delight, that the Welsh for ‘rice pudding’ was ‘pudding rice’!)

A new commission is always both a thrill and a worry. What if I’m not up to it technically? What if I can’t ‘get’ the vision that’s in the author’s head? My early attempts for Please Tell Me were not great; Julia had sent me several old black and white photos of her family, friends and other references as she wanted to take care that the book contained real people with their stories, and a good cultural diversity. How could I interpret these subtle tonal images in pen line? Or were we going to use half tones, and if so, how? I spent a frustrating few hours trying to replicate some of the black and white photos with dilute black ink, but didn’t like the results. No, after discussion, we were keeping to line so that the pictures could be coloured in. But how would we show dark skin tones when we needed them? (Clever typesetter Megan solved this one with a click of the mouse).

My drawing of grandmother and grandchild…
a click of the mouse sorts out the skin tone, keeping the rest of the picture clear for colouring in if needed.


My attempt at pen and ink interpretation of a photo….. interesting exercise, but one for the bin!

Gradually, I got the hang of it (I usually do, eventually) and the pages took shape. There are only 24 pages, 24 illustrations in all. You’ll look at the book, shake your head and think ‘how hard can it be to dash off a few simple line drawings?’ Ah, you’d be surprised…. Sometimes ‘simple’ is deceptively hard! It’s a slim volume, available for a price which belies the amount of time and trouble that Julia took over its production. She was particularly careful to get the tone right, inclusive and respectful, miles away from anything that could sound twee or patronising.

I gather that Cheryl, the carer, wasn’t too unhappy with my attempt to draw her chatting to June…


If you know any individual or care organisation who would benefit from ‘Please Tell Me’, do get in touch with Julia Jones. The book is produced on a not-for-profit basis by Julia’s publishing company Golden Duck ( and available direct from her or through the dementia support group John’s Campaign that she co-founded with Nicci Gerrard (

And the next project? It’s the follow up of course – ‘Please Tell Me More’. Here we go again!

I realise of course that this is the second non-nautical blog post in a row – I’ve been well and truly grounded the last few months, catching up on the mundane business of earning a living. Next month I will try and throw a dash of salt into the blog in one way or another!  I’ll finish with something seasonal for sailors:




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