skill and stamina and luck

warlock of firetop mountain

A couple of older digital drawings I did back in the summer time that I don’t think I ever posted, but now’s as good a time as ever. The drawing above is of ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain‘ by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. I got this book for my eighth birthday as a present from my big sister, and not only do I still have it but I still have all of my old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks from when I was a kid (see below). 2021 was the fortieth anniversary of its publication, and my one is one of the great editions with the famous green spine. If you have never played an adventure gamebook, “you are the hero”/”choose your own adventure” style, these ones were very cleverly formatted – almost always 400 entries – with a simple but effective gaming system. You don’t have overly complicated D&D style numbers, this is single player, two six-sided dice like everyone could get from their Monopoly set, you roll for a score for Skill, another for Stamina, another for Luck, and then you just get on with the story. You have provisions, you have some gold, and you have an ‘Adventure Sheet’ where you can list equipment that you pick up along the way – your sword, a few potions, the odd jewel, maybe the occasional scroll with important clues. As you go through the story you have to make decisions – go left or go right, stay at the inn or sleep in the woods, sneak past the orc guards or steal their keys, turn to 239, that sort of thing – but you also have to fight. It’s called ‘Fighting Fantasy’ after all, though running away is sometimes an option. Fighting is done on the roll of the dice and you might lose ‘stamina’ if your opponent gets hits on you. That opponent might be a Goblin, a Dragon, a a Giant Bat, anything really. In this book you have to go on an adventure to go and beat up a wizard – the Warlock of Firetop Mountain – there’s a fantastic colour hand-drawn map in my edition which very much informed how I like to draw maps later in life. The illustrations in these books was one of the things I liked the most, especially the heavy-lined drawings found in Caverns of the Snow Witch, which was always my favourite (along with Creature of Havoc), although I left my original copy of that back in London with my nephew (I’d like to get it back to go with the set some day). I drew this on the iPad with ProCreate, and posted it online, and to my amazement I was then sent a message by none other than the author himself, Ian Livingstone! And he said he liked it. I was fairly gobsmacked.

Or I should say ‘Sir Ian Livingstone’ – he was knighted in the New Years Honours list earlier this month! That is a great achievement and recognition for all his many years of pioneering work in the British gaming industry. He co-founded Games Workshop along with Steve Jackson and has done enormous work in the video gaming world. He did ask if I’d be drawing Forest of Doom next (that one has a great cover of a shape-shifter), but instead I showed him my bookshelf drawing from the previous month. There you can see what remains of my collection of Fighting Fantasy books (I don’t have a complete set, and two or three of mine are missing such as Caverns of the Snow Witch and Citadel of Chaos) (though I do have a copy of Caverns of the Snow Witch in French). After getting that first book from my sister, I would usually seek out these books in the local library, but then I would find them in the bookshops, but if I couldn’t afford to buy many books I would go to second hand bookshops all over the area to scour for copies of them. I displayed them proudly on my shelf at home, and on my windowsill, which didn’t help with the spines getting a bit discoloured. Although that is now a funny story, I assumed that the slightly different shades of green on all these books was due to some being in boxes in old shops, or left in the sun on my windowsill, but it turns out that it was an issue with the publishers; Sir Ian actually told me that himself, it used to annoy him that they’d be inconsistent with the green, and he appreciated that I’d captured that in my drawing! I would share the books with my friends at school, and we would get together and create our own games, using the same Fighting Fantasy gaming system. I would typically come up with the story and the setting (because I loved to draw maps and create worlds) rather than use anything pre-designed, and I created an entire world to set the stories in (it was called ‘Landica’; the name actually came from an attempt when I was 12 to create a new language called ‘Landic’ – this is what I was like at 12 – though I didn’t use the language in the games). Some of them were fun, we would use the big multi-coloured dice I would find at gaming shops, I still have many of the ones I got back then, kept like coloured plastic gems. We never did play more complicated games like Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer, and I regret that a little, but I always liked to keep it simple. I was always a bit intimidated by Dungeons and Dragons if I’m honest, but I obsessed over the world of Fighting Fantasy, spending ages drawing swords and orcs and maps. I did write two full (though not super long) single-player gamebooks, hand-written and long enough to fit into a classic school exercise book: ‘The Sorceror of the Swamp‘ and ‘Trek to Terror Tower‘. I filled my world with places named after obscure languages (my other obsession, looking up all of the languages of the world), or constellations, or even interesting foreign surnames I’d heard. It was a fun creative time, but I was always frustrated with myself for rarely completing ideas. I tried many times to write longer, more complicated and intelligent stories, but that’s me all over, a million ideas, only so much time. But a lot of reading, a lot of imagination and inspiration, and a lot of fantastic memories.

Bedroom iPad 073021

And yet, as you can see right above this collection of gamebooks, on the top shelf are my sketchbooks. These are The Sketchbooks, the main landscape format ones I use, a collection of Moleskine or Stillman & Birn or Seawhite of Brighton, going from number 1 – 40 (some of them are facing a different direction). You can see all the contents of those on my sketchbooks page. Those books go back to 2007 and represent quite a lot of creative output, so I guess I do occasionally complete artistic projects huh. Though my life’s sketching work is never really finished. That quest does not end here…

thanksgiving in the back yard

Thanksgiving 2021

Happy Thanksgiving! Oh wait it’s January the 7th. Right, well this sketch drawn on the iPad in my mother-in-law’s back yard in Santa Rosa was done on Thanksgiving 2021, the sky was very blue though the light was a little muted so shadows were soft, and we did absolutely zero Black Friday shopping the next day because ha, no more of that. Remember when they’d get up at 4am to stand in the cold outside Best Buy or Target? Those days are gone. Thanksgiving as you know is the big American holiday where you eat turkey, mash potatoes, cranberry sauce, all things I love, but I really love stuffing, and I really love gravy. Stuffing and gravy, oh man. I love a roast.

I’ve drawn this back yard before a couple of times, and it has changed a lot over the years, but here’s a very early one from way back in early 2007, when it looked very different. That’s the old dog Brutus asleep there, long since departed. That tree is gone too. This was when I drew in a WH Smith cartridge paper sketchbook from England, before I started using Moleskine sketchbooks, long before any iPads, and I was still figuring out watercolours, I was still using a fairly cheap but cheerful set from the university bookstore. I can tell exactly the colours used (payne’s gray mixed with ultramarine and purple lake) to get that specific shadow on the door, because I still sometimes mix those three to get the colour of shadow I want, and it was a bit of trial and error for this one at the time. I enjoy looking at the sketches from those first couple of years in the US, and I am glad I felt it so important to draw them. I still do.

lois's garden

“it’s lights out and away we go!”

Oct 24 2021 watching F1 on couch

A Sunday afternoon sketch at home from October, drawn on the iPad with Procreate, a slice of the life. Watching the Formula One, this was the United States Grand Prix, which seems like a million races ago now. More on that later. There’s my increasingly-tall teenage son on the couch stretched out with his favourite cat on his lap (apologies to the other cat, no he loves you both equally), while I draw. Outside was a massive rain storm. They called it the “Bomb Cyclone” because everything has to have a gimmicky name now. The “Atmospheric River” and the “Moisture Firehose” were also terms used by the weather news people, who frankly are just having a laugh now. Moisture Firehose indeed, do me a favour. We had such little rain this year, the drought in the west has been very worrying, but then all this rain came along on the same day and provided a perfect backdrop for staying inside, which we would have been doing anyway, especially with this race going on. I was worried that we would lose power, the lights were flickering for a bit, and not get to see the race (it really would have been “lights out and away we go” as they say at the start of the race). And boy, was it was exciting. The young Dutch buck Max Verstappen beat seven-times legend Lewis Hamilton in the end with them being close right down to the final lap of the race. This whole Formula One season has been one of the most exciting in years, with Max (we used to call him ‘Waluigi’- MarioKart reference) Verstappen storming about to win loads of races in the Honda-powered Red Bull, maybe on course for his first world title, while the GOAT Lewis Hamilton in the slick Mercedes has pulled off some of the best drives I’ve seen him do to bring it back to level-pegging, and they go into the final race of this season on EQUAL POINTS, a situation that’s only happened once before (back in the 70s), and that final race is this weekend in Abu Dhabi. Lewis has been magnificent in recent races but it all comes down to this. Whoever comes ahead of the other will WIN the title. If they both crash out (something that’s been done before), Max will win, because he has one more race win than Lewis. To say I’m excited for this grand finale is an understatement. I’m a long-time fan of Lewis (and especially after the way he raced in Brazil this year) but more than anything I’m just a fan of the sport and I like all the characters, and it would be interesting to have a different champion, and I’m not particularly interested in the arguments and entrenching into different camps and all that, I’m just glad we’ve had an epic season. It’s very much a team sport, and a technical sport, not just about the bloke in the cockpit, there’s so much involved. I think Red Bull need to win it now because Honda will leave the sport next season and they won’t have that great Honda engine. Max will be probably champion at some point regardless, but I’ve said that before about drivers. Still, I’m actually very nervous about this weekend. I really don’t want a ‘both crash, Max wins by default’ situation, that would be crap, I just want good racing, and good strategy. I’m still annoyed about Schumacher and Hill in 94. But it’s all drama, and the big race is this Sunday. I would love if the team principals Toto Wolff and Christian Horner just had a massive punch-up, the psychologicals between them all season has been just as entertaining. I have a feeling that Max will win. Aargh I’m so excited!  

lewis hamilton

And just as a throwback… November 2008, Lewis Hamilton’s second season in F1, and he won the title in the very last race of the season, in dramatic fashion, right at the end when local lad Massa thought he had won it (still feel so bad for him). Back then, we didn’t get the channel that Formula One came on but the cable channel still showed it without sound, and I’d have the closed-captioning on. The people writing the subtitles obviously weren’t familiar with a lot of the names, and would write “Lou Is Hamel Ton”, “Right Gone On” (that was Räikkönen), “Cove Align On” (Kovailainen), and “Along Sew” (Alonso). I would watch it for the subtitles mostly. Those were exciting seasons though, and so I drew this in my notebook back then, Lewis Hamilton’s winning McLaren. I didn’t draw cars much back then…

life on the other hand

quick ipad sketch

I mean, this is my main view a lot, looking over the top of my iPad, on the couch, a can of Pepsi Max (sorry, Pepsi Zero Sugar), my knees. We saw all the drawings of my house a year ago (see petescully.com/tag/uskathome/ for some of them). I was having a bit of a tough week, touch couple of weeks, I think we’ve all been getting a bit like that, but there are days when you just want to focus and get the head straight. I wasn’t sleeping too well, and on this day I got up super early and started doing some work. By lunchtime I was already exhausted again, so I sat on the couch while Paris St. Germain played Manchester City in the Champions League. That was the first leg, when PSG had a great first half but fell apart in the second. I liked James Richardson’s description of the game, that “Parisians were losing their heads like it was A Tale of Two Cities, which in a way it was, the worst of the halves and the best of halves”. I wish I could have thought of that. I think of funny things sometimes but I forget them, and other people do too. Sketching often helps, it’s where I go when I need to go somewhere. That was the case at every age. I like drawing on the iPad to just mess about. I use Procreate to draw, but I use Notability a lot to write notes with, and doodle like I would on a notepad in a meeting. Constantly doodling. Ahhh, I need a sketching trip, a proper trip where all I do is go around by myself drawing everything, but right now even the thought of it exhausts me.

Not Short For “Triceratops”

042121 tri co-ops

This here is the Tri-Co-Ops at UC Davis. I have drawn it before (haven’t I drawn everything in Davis before?) but this one was done on the iPad using Procreate, drawn so that I could show the step-by-step as a demonstration video on the UC Davis Sustainability Sketchcrawl on Earth Day, not a real sketchcrawl because it was virtual, done over Zoom, but a sketching event anyway. The people who took part, I am not sure how many there were (nor did the organizers show their drawings after), they were then invited to draw along while I did a live sketch of a wheelbarrow (also from the Tri-Co-Ops), talking about the process as I went. 042221 wheelbarrow by tri-co-ops

I drew that on the iPad too so that I could share screen. I recently did my staff evaluation at work, and one thing I did not put down as a skill I have learned is proficiency with Zoom, because even though I’m much more of a master at it than I was a year ago, join the bleedin’ club mate, what d’you want a medal? I have done the thing where I set m phone up as a camera to share that over Zoom, angling it down above the desk so people can see me draw (I did a workshop last year where I did that) but the connection kept freezing, my wifi wasn’t too strong in the bedroom desk where I was giving the workshop. I had considered doing a live sketch on site, setting up a tripod and Zooming direct from the UC Davis campus like a proper old-school live roving reporter, like Danny Baker, but with hopefully fewer train-station arguments. (Danny Baker fans will probably remember that clip, “Don’t you DARE talk to me like that!”). The campus wifi wasn’t strong enough though to Zoom outside for an hour where I wanted to sketch, so I didn’t do that. So, I sat at the relative comfort of my desk at home, with the cats and a cup of tea.

Tri_Co-ops iPad sketch

Here’s the video. Now I’m not sure if you can actually view the video in this blog post, but if you click on that image it will take you to my Flickr page which hosts it, and you should see the video there. I tried to approach drawing it digitally as if I were drawing it in my sketchbook, blocking with a bit of pencil then diving into the ink, finishing off by colouring it in. It’s not exactly Bob Ross, or even Tony Hart, and it’s just the drawing coming into shape, no words by me. I have thought about doing a step-by-step video, narrating as a I go, but I think it wouldn’t turn out as well as I would like, and you’d probably hear me saying “oh bugger!” and “oh bollocks!” a lot. Or maybe just saying “err…” a lot.

As it happens, when I did the virtual sketchcrawl last year, they recorded it and put the video on YouTube. So, here’s the video of me sketching a bike in 2020, early in the Zoom era. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MKklfPxnU4 . Not exactly my best drawing, but it’s always harder when people are watching! And I managed to avoid saying “bugger” or other popular British vocabulary, but I do say “err” and “umm” a lot. And very few silly jokes!

at the desk job

Desk

Here’s a digital sketch from a recent UC Davis Staff Assembly meeting, with the Chancellor Gary May speaking on screen there. This is my at-home desk still. There’s a lot going on here. I try to keep it clear but things just keep showing up there. I would like a new desk, to be honest. Maybe one of those fancy ones that goes up and down so I can stand. One of our lecturers at work has one that I really like. Drew this on the iPad, took the odd note here and there, did half of it over lunch once the meeting was over while Barcelona played PSG in the background, a Champions League match on a Spanish language channel. This working from home thing is so done now. I do go into the office once a week to take care of something or other, I much prefer it. At home I am too close to the snacks in the kitchen. Part of this meeting was the discussion about our plan to return to campus this Fall, all in-person again. It’s still early doors yet, but I’m optimistic. But it’s going to be a long transition, for everyone. Let’s face it, we’re not going back to normal normal any time soon, this will all take a long time to get over.

The 46th President of the United States

Biden inauguration 012021 sm

On the day of the Inauguration of the new President of the United States, Joe Biden, I watched and made notes on the iPad. I kinda don’t know where to stop when note-taking a speech as it’s going on, I feel like I have to inscribe every word, but you don’t know before going in what the most important bits will be. For example, I might write down a bit about coat-hangers or something, and then forget to write down the bit about a groundbreaking theory on dark matter or something. Not the topics of this speech but on a historic day you don’t want to be the person at FDR’s inauguration that wrote down the bits about locusts and profits but left out “The only thing we have to fear is Fear Itself”. So I just wrote words as they happened. I didn’t sketch during the incredible inaugural poem by Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”, I was just enthralled by that, it was a beautiful moment. I will probably sketch Ms Gorman’s performance some other time, I’ve rewatched it a few times already. I really enjoyed Kamala Harris’s speech too. But Biden’s inauguration gave me a great deal of happiness. I just wish I hadn’t drawn him looking more like Robert Kilroy-Silk. He totally does! In my drawing anyway, the real Joe looks nothing like Kilroy. Oh, Kilroy. Remember him? Americans won’t, he used to be on TV in the 90s, in the mornings, he had a kind of Jerry Springer-lite show called “Kilroy”. I remember actually watching it each morning on TV in the common room in the place where I lived in Belgium while eating a tuna panini for breakfast, so I always get the memory of the taste of tuna whenever I think of Kilroy. In fact it wasn’t like Jerry Springer at all thinking back; it was one of those daytime chat shows that was on at around 9:30 or 10am, right after BBC Breakfast Time or whatever was over, but the audience group was all sat facing the camera and there would be a topic they would talk about, I don’t know, whatever middle-England busybodies would talk about, holes in the road or immigrants or something, and Kilroy would bound about from person to person with his mike and his perma-tanned face and his kilroy-silky voice, and then he would tell you all to “take care of yourselves…and each other” in a totally non-creepy way, before his got show cancelled after he wrote controversial things about Arabs, then he was an early UKIPer, bounding about being all anti-EU, and I don’t think I ever thought of Kilroy once since leaving Britain in 2005 until now, when I accidentally drew him accepting the Presidency of the United States. The last thing we’d need is a perma-tanned TV personality with a history of having a go at muslims and banging on about immigrants in charge of things, eh kids. In fact I had to check my notes to make sure I didn’t mis-hear Biden saying “Take care of yourselves…and each other”; thankfully he didn’t. But anyway, welcome President Joe! And I had no idea his middle name was ‘Robinette’, you learn something new every day.

Watching the Chancellor’s Colloquium, with Gary Younge

desk at work I was in the office this week, campus is still closed but I had a lot to do there, preparing for the new academic year. At the end of the day, I got to enjoy Chancellor’s Colloquium Distinguished Speaker Series, hosted by UC Davis Chancellor Gary May, with special guest presenter Gary Younge. It was titled “Going Viral: Race, Racism and Rebellion in the Midst of a Pandemic”. The talk was presented remotely from England, and so I watched in my office and sketched my desk and the laptop while it was on, using my iPad. I really enjoyed it. The live Q&A afterwards with Chancellor May and Gary Younge was cut short unfortunately due to loss of connection. It has been a long time since I drew my work desk, in fact I don’t think I have drawn it since moving offices. When I’m on campus I usually keep the drawing space and the work space separate, even though I’ve not been working from this desk regularly in several months now due to this damned pandemic. See if you can spot my Baby Yoda hand sanitizer.

walker hall, continued, continued

Walker Hall UC Davis
They are nearly done with Walker Hall, the new Graduate Center at UC Davis being built inside the completely renovated and changed older building in the middle of the UC Davis campus. I’ve been drawing it for a few years, though obviously not much in the past few months. I will get down there again soon. In 2020 I only managed these two sketches, one on the iPad and one in the sketchbook. There are only so many angles I can draw and draw again, looking in from the outside, but you can really see the changes now. The glass is being added to the windows, signs being put up around it to let everyone know what this will be, it will really make a difference to this part of campus, just as the impressive Student Community Center next door has done.
Walker Hall UCD 030220 sm

I get really obsessed with construction projects sometimes, especially if they are just a couple of minutes from my work (and easy to draw at lunchtime). It’s also that thing where you’ve drawn so much of campus and city that anything new, any changes happening, are worth tracking in a sketchbook. Before and after are fine, but during a construction you get to see things in a very temporary state. When I draw the Manetti Shrem being built, I captured views that I would never have another chance to sketch even later the same day. When using a sketchbook to record them, you are seeing them how your mind sees them, focusing on what you can. This is then also a record of how you saw the construction, what you thought was important enough to put on paper; same with every sketch.

You can see all the other Walker Hall sketches in this tag: https://petescully.com/tag/walker-hall/ 

All Change at the Avid Reader

Avid Reader Feb 2020 sm
And so, it’s time to start catching up with 2020’s sketching posts. This one was done in late February, back in the golden age of being able to crowd together in close proximity to other humans, not knowing any better. This was drawn at the Avid Reader bookstore on a momentous occasion, the moment ownership of this long-time Davis staple passed from Alzada Knickerbocker to the Arnold family, a local family here in Davis. I of course had to go along. This was the first place I worked in America, Alzada was my first boss. I had two jobs here at first, partly working the store, and partly being the shop’s bookkeeper (which was the same job I did for a small independent bookshop in England before I moved out here). It was only part-time but it got me started, and shortly afterwards I started working full-time for the university (in the same department I am still working in), but I remained here on Saturdays and a couple of evenings per week, working at the little desk under the stairs behind a pile of Ingrams invoices. I hadn’t worked there since just before my son was born, so it’s been a long time, but I always popped in to say hello. I have been back in my official capacity as artist a few times to give talks or exhibit sketches. It was nice to go in and see Alzada off after all these years, and welcome in the new owners. I was surprised to see one of my old drawings of the shop in a frame on display at the counter, a piece of the history there. Unfortunately in less than a month the world was hit by the coronavirus and everything closed up, but they have been doing business and recently opened up again to the public, albeit with all the social distancing rules. But look at this, a crowded shop, with wine and sandwiches and people looking over my shoulder; we didn’t know, though we were being warned, but it wasn’t yet real to us. I had already been to hospital that month though – a couple of weeks earlier (on my birthday in fact) I was in the emergency room with a nasal infection that grew rapidly, and thankfully got under control within about a fortnight, but was pretty painful (as well as unsightly). In the hospital, which was pretty busy even pre-Covid 19, everyone was asked to disclose where they had travelled in the past few weeks, and hand sanitizer was doubled up, but this was still the pre-mask time, and since I was not contagious I was free to go to the soccer tournament the next day, full of people in close contact, seems hard to imagine now. I was heavily tanked up on medicine though, and exhausted much of the time, but our under-12 team did well and came third overall (though I think we had a good shot at winning it, we just missed out in the semi-finals in high winds to the team who eventually won it; still, a third place medal was a good finish). Our season was put on hold in mid-March, and eventually cancelled, including the Davis World Cup tournament which I was on the organizing committee for (I had spent a long time designing the logo! I’ll have to reuse it next year). This year has been a shame. But I am glad to see the Avid Reader is still going through all this, and wish the new owners the Arnolds all the very best in keeping this shop at the heart of the community, as well as wishing Alzada the best in a well-deserved retirement.