Don’t buy it, build it.

A couple of years ago I came to the end of a long term contract which had seen me running a modelmaking and prototype workshop for a small Industrial Design company in west London. I’d had, and in fact still do have, a very good relationship with the guys at the company and had often been able to work on small personal projects after hours over the course of the contract. Before I headed out into the world again to look for more work I had a desire to make something substantial for myself. After not much thought I decided I’d like to build a motorbike, or at least modify one to my personal spec. This is something that I’d actually been wanting to do for years but never had the time or opportunity to have a go.

Over the course of an evening, armed with three of my favourite creative tools, a pint of beer, a pencil and a pad of paper I sat down to plan my project. I had managed to persuade the guys to let me use the workshop for an extra month before going, so that set my timeframe. But what bike was I going to modify? I wrote many lists covering capacities, bike type and performance criteria in an effort to get a clear idea. I’ve always had a soft spot for 250cc bikes and after rejecting many other larger alternatives (I’ve already got a big bike anyway) I settled on the idea of creating a small runabout for town use based around a single cylinder 250.

I wrote a little brief for finding the donor bike in the form of a list. It had to be light and manoeuvrable, cheap to buy, run and fix but, most importantly it had to have potential. With only a month of workshop time available I knew I wouldn’t have time for complex frame work or to farm stuff out, I had to do whatever I could myself and quickly. I set myself a budget and dived into the web in search of a likely candidate. I finally settled on Suzuki’s GN250, an oft maligned little commuter custom like a Yamaha SR250, but better looking and with more appropriate geometry. Although they turned up on ebay fairly regularly the prices were high and condition questionable. I tracked a good one down in Gloucester – lady owner, low mileage, big rear rack. Perfect. I took the train down, and rode it home the same day.

I was as excited about going to get it as I’d been some years ago when I went to pick up my new Triumph. It was everything I wanted it to be. The dealer had serviced it for me and put in new oil etc. It started easily and coped admirably with everything I threw at it on the ride back to London. Assuming an “aero” tuck with my nose buried in the clocks we hit an indicated 80 mph, the brakes worked ok, and despite minimal suspension damping, floppy steering and a totally square rear tyre I stayed out of all the hedgerows. It was 120 miles of fun. And it did the whole lot on less than a tank of juice.

Once my mate Richard and my girlfriend had stopped laughing at my new purchase it got a good clean and I took some quick photos outside Rich’s garage so I could chop the thing about in Photoshop and sketch out my planned mods.

Ever since I’d decided that I wanted to create a little roadster for town I’d not stopped thinking about a retro styled scoot with a single seat and so this was my start point for mucking about very roughly in Photoshop. Without much work it turned out that I could get close to what I had in my minds eye quite quickly. One of the reasons I’d gone for the GN was that geometrically it already possessed the right kind of stance, not too high at the front end, with a short wheelbase. As a result I could leave the wheels where they were, and the frame too for that matter and just chop the rest around, creating mudguards, seats etc as I went. This was a Sunday, so I gave myself until the end of the day to reach my final idea.

Inspired by classic bikes of the 50’s and 60’s I’d very much latched onto the “Bobber” style, though I had no intention of giving the little 250 a hard tail, really not a practical solution for London riding. Other details would be changing though, like suspension, fenders, handlebars and exhaust but, for now these simple visuals gave me enough information to get on with the task of planning the build.

Next up, where to start and where to get the bits I was going to need.





Comfort in the familiar.

With the lightbox constructed the speed and easiness with which I can transpose drawings onto fine quality paper is greatly improved. What I really like about it is the ability it gives you to not only see where you are with the drawing as you go but, also it’s become much easier to make those fine adjustments to the composition. I appreciate that this all sounds wonderfully old fashioned but there is a beauty in that.

Another problem I’ve been dealing with on a relatively regular basis is that of getting into the rhythm of drawing on days when it doesn’t come easily. I’m not an artist and as such I’m not in the habit of engaging with my work on a daily basis. There are often gaps and I find that my eye takes time to get back in when I return to the page and the pen. Normally I find a good scribble gets me into the swing but there are other times when nothing progresses beyond that. Angles, proportions and perspectives are all out of my creative reach.

What I’ve found helps me get over this hurdle is to go back to something familiar and draw that. Something that I know intimately and when it comes to drawing bikes there’s nothing more familiar than your own machine. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m lucky enough to have two, but it’s the smaller one which always gets the job. Having spent a month modifying it a couple of years ago, and riding it a lot since then I know it inside out.

Above is a “getting into the rhythm” sketch of the little 250 that eventually went all the way to a finished drawing, below.

Like many of my other images I’m still fiddling about with what device to use to ground the picture and have so far only scratched something rough in using Photoshop. What I find happens when I follow this path to warming up is that the familiarity of the object in some way makes it easier to distort the view and the drawing. Sitting here writing this I’m actually struck by the fact that I haven’t needed to draw the 250 for a couple of weeks, so things in general must be getting better and easier to engage with.

Here’s pic of the bike. I mentioned ages ago in a very early post that I would tell some of the story behind this little special build. This is supposed to be a blog about drawing and making after all. So I shall sprinkle some of that into the mix over the next few posts.



Making a lightbox.

It’s a great truism of anything connected to a hobby, making anything, fixing anything as much as of life in general, that whatever it is you’re doing the one bit of kit you find you need is the one you don’t have. How many times have you taken a whole bunch of stuff and tools out front to fix the car only to find that the one spanner you need is the one you didn’t bring.

So it was with me realising I needed a lightbox if I was going to stand any chance of transferring sketches to better quality paper for final drawings. I had a couple of sheets of a varirty of good old fashioned carbon copy paper but it wasn’t what I wanted and you can’t see where you’ve been so easily with it. Jumping on-line I realised I’d be in to over £200 for an A3 size. And the boxes on offer were just like I’d used in the past; big, heavy things fabricated out of metal extrusions and packed with great big fluoro tubes that get hot.

I wanted something slim and low in profile, capable of taking an A3 sheet and certainly cheaper than £200 or so. After no more than two minutes thought I decided to make my own. One mad project I’d done a couple of years ago was converting a new office machine into a do-it-all device complete with coffee machine, DVD player, stereo sound, screen etc. It was made to “float” on a bed of light, and for this purpose I’d usesome brilliant low voltage cold cathode light tubes. Very compact, bright and they don’t get hot. I tracked down the company Luxx and ordered some tubes in white and the various bits of power supply and inverters.

Luxx offer a service whereby you can order over the phone and they were really prompt in their despatch of the parts to me, try them though I’m not sure they send stuff abroad.

So with four tubes in hand I worked out how big I wanted the box to be, essentially A3 plus a bit. Again using an old work supplier, and there are lots of people out there who can supply you should you need, I purchased two pieces of Acrylic sheet (Perspex) cut to my dimensions. One is white, for the base of the box so I didn’t have to paint the whole interior and the other opal for the top.

Then off to the local wood store for some strip wood in two widths for the frame. By laminating the strips together I could create frame sides with an integral rebate to take the acrylic sheets and leave me with a flush surface.

I made sure that this rebate was continuous around the top to fully support the top opal sheet. To fix the white base sheet I cut thin strips and four triangles to give me four corner fixing points and some support areas for the base. See pic on the right. I simply took my time, which means taking plenty of time to let glue dry and set, and simply glued the structure together. PVA wood glue is great stuff if you leave it alone to do its thing.

While the frame dried I got busy on the base sheet and lights. The tubes come in square section housings so you can rest them on whichever face you want for the best effect. Luxx usefully supply some very handy velcro tabs for fixing the lamps in position which makes life dead simple. I also measured the positions for some mounting holes for the inverters, the white boxes shown, drilled some holes and put them in place. two tubes can run off each one. Once I’d decided on the light spread I wanted it was merely a case of positioning the Velcro bits and fixing the lamps in place. Some white tape to manage the wiring and it was ready to go.

I’d used two layers of double sided tape to hold the front sheet in place and so everything mounted into the back of the frame using the foiur screw holes in the corner triangles I’d put in at the start. The base sheet slipped in without any fuss and once screwed together I had a great little light box.

And here it is in action. I know full well that the light spread is not continuous across the box, but that’s not an issue. What I have is plenty of light coming through allowing me to trace away to my hearts content. It works through some pretty thick papers so all is well. I use it as shown, propped up on a plastic laptop support from our good friends at IKEA which makes a very comfortable working angle. I’m very pleased with it.

What you can see lurking on it in the pic is a loose sketch for a chopper/bobber/ low riding composition I’m starting to work up. Watch this space for the final version.

Oh, and by the way, if you do fancy making a similar lightbox the lamps are Deluxx 5 and the code number is TE26290-65UV. They will happily give you advice about inverters and cables if you need it, but it’s all on the website.

A time for ink.

Armed with the blue pencil sketch from the previous post, I used it as an underlay to create the final version of this drawing. Having said before that layout paper provides a good opacity for tracing through it became obvious fairly early on that despite this it was often difficult to pick out the lines that I wanted to follow. As a result I found working slowly and with a medium hardness pencil the best way to go. Basically I could erase things if I didn’t like them, though there is always the danger that you’re going to wreck the paper just at a critical moment as you get a bit enthusiastic with the eraser. I always try to avoid this by stretching my hand across the sheet and working the eraser slowly between my thumb and forefinger. Still, the danger is always not too far away.

I seem to have acquired a two pronged attack to adding detail to the drawings. I insert a certain amount in the pencil stage and then include more as I proceed with the ink pen stage, and so the drawing looks kind of half done at this stage. I also have to say that when I’m unsure about something, like the rider’s expression for example, I’ll leave it half done and continue to work on it in pencil as the inking process moves forward. Something in the way the drawing takes shape seems to help me find the right look further down the line.

Inking on this drawing was straight on top of the pencil on the layout paper. I realised I didn’t have any kind of light box that would allow me to easily transpose the image onto my favoured Bristol Board. This was something I didn’t forsee but was able to solve relatively quickly soon after as I made my own. I’ll cover that in the next post.

As a consequence the process of laying down layers of biro ink onto quite thin paper lead to the paper doing what it always does in these instances and that is to wrinkle quite badly, particularly around the areas where you put in the most effort. I suppose it must be that the constant pressure and side to side action of the pen stretches the paper. I could see myself ironing it in a desperate effort to make it flat enough to stick to a backing board. I know ironing a drawing sounds a bit mad but it does work provided you place it face down before you start and work slowly from the centre outwards and keep the iron dry. Stay away from the steam button. The strange things that my brain is filled with eh? As an aside, I first learned about ironing paper from the father of an old friend who I was best man for at his wedding. He told me to iron all the cash I was due to hand over to the chauffeur and various other folk that day. The reason being that it would give a great impression and that a man in a top hat and tails should be armed with suitably smart money. Whatever.

Fortunately I didn’t need to flatten out the drawing in the end before getting it onto a backing sheet, to protect it as much as anything else. In its current state the paper drawing doesn’t have any ground line or background, I’ve added these in a very scribbly way in photoshop just to see what it looked like. I’ve been mucking about on a multitude of photocopies with all kinds of backgrounds and ground lines. I’ve not found what I’m after yet but will add to the final drawing when I do. Coming up with ideas which both convey speed, and sit naturally with the style of the drawing is proving a lot harder than I thought it would. Perseverance will win out in the end though. I for one will certainly be happier when it does. The last thing I want to do at this point is f**k up a decent drawing with a failed background experiment.

The inspiration for this image is definitely from my love of racing machines and a burgeoning liking for big twins and singles. There’s something about these engines that’s kind of pure and simple, though having said that many are certainly not so. I also have tried to convey in the rider the sense of barely controlled power and the kind of expression that I’m sure many of us make when we feel we’re really opening the taps. There’s still much more work to do and progress to be made but at this point I feel the drawings gaining a definite look of their own.


The right way to go.

Just when you think you’ve got a strong idea in your mind it has to be admitted by this scribbler that my minds ability to create an image is far more polished than my hand/eye combo. Full of a new found confidence and a belief that I’d finally started to crack a nut that had been bothering me for some time, I leaned back and presumed things would just flow out. No, it was a lot harder than that. Sketch after sketch after sketch. Locked into a kind of one man battle with a pad of layout paper I just went round and round in circles. Over a cup of desperately needed coffee I laid everything out on the floor and had a think about what I was doing. Doing this is such a great way of seeing where you are with a project and a practice ‘d completely neglected to incorporate into my working.

By turning over all of the skamps that I felt weren’t going anywhere I ended up with three or four which showed promise. I rarely throw any drawing away, no matter how crappy, you never know what you might see in them on another day with fresh eyes. So I had a pile of duds and a select few to work on further.

I stuck with pencils and layout paper. One has a beautiful progressive nature to it, in that it allows you to press as softly or hard as you wish and the line quality is a direct reflection of your actions and, the other is opaque enough for a good background but thin enough to allow you to place drawings underneath the top sheet and trace through. The two sketches in this post are preliminary drawings for others that I’ve now done in ink.

Because I’d been thinking about context and how to create it in the drawings I’d decided to always draw a rider on board unless he’s close by doing something to the bike and it’s stationary. I kind of thought that that, and the attitude of the bike in the picture would be enough to keep me going for now and that I’d worry about fuller backgrounds later on. I wanted to master drawing the bikes first. I also wanted to try and find a style of drawing that was comfortable and more importantly, repeatable, in the sense that layout and other elements would come more naturally rather than feeling forced in any way.

A new direction.

Finishing the big drag bike drawing was a kind of watershed moment. I had a strong feeling that I didn’t want to do full colour images just yet, which I’ve covered in previous posts. There was also something else bothering me about it. It had elements to it that ticked the right boxes as far as content was concerned; the exaggerated engine, slightly extraordinary profile, big wheel(s) etc. But it lacked other things too. Straight off it was an image that said “bike as object”, not what I was after. It also lacked any context or connection to anything and a human element. Without a rider, or a place to go and do what it does, a bike is just a collection of parts that remain inert. What I wanted to get into the drawings was some of that action, some dynamism and direction.

I put away all my previous sketches and took out a fresh pad, a pencil and started again. the drawing above is what came out.

Now this is more like what I was after. Apart from the fact that drawing in soft pencil was an absolute pleasure, the drawing is starting to encapsulate the elements that had up until now eluded me. Putting a rider on the bike brings a fresh perspective and gives the image some new found purpose. It acts to lend a much needed sense of scale to the image and presents me with a whole host of small details to play with to influence my reaction to it. Facial expressions, arm and leg position, outfit and pose all come into play. It’s still elevational but I’ve started to bend the viewing plane to give some perspective to the extremities of the wheels. This bending, as if looking at the whole thing through a wide angled lens, also starts to give the feeling of motion.

It’s still a cartoon, which is a good thing, just a much better one than I’d been doing before. It gave me a huge spur to push things more into this new direction.

Tmts-The last part.

With the metal parts done I still had no idea what I was going to do about the bodywork colour. I knew that I wanted it to be bright, but I also wanted it to be right. By deciding to apply colour to the wheels and other smaller details I thought I’d be able to postpone making up my mind a bit longer and that the presence of these other pieces of the drawing would give me some indication of which direction I wanted to go in.

The wheels are a big part of any bike drawing. As much as any other part they lead the eye in emphasising any perspective used,can give an image direction and motion, and anchor the drawing to any ground plane. They are also, or can be at least, big blobs of colour. In this case there’s no perspective to worry about so their main function is to complete the drawing and ground it.

We perceive tyres as being bklack but in reality they are anything but, ranging from almost white highlights to virtually black  in the shadows. I like to keep these things simple and so chose to start with black, for shadows etc and then applied white to give gradated greys and lend the tyre some basic form, nothing more.

And now the time for the bodywork.

Orange, definitely orange I’d decided. A bright, fast colour that makes me think of sport, racing and speed. It’s a great colour for bikes, think KTM and Kawasaki. Wanting to build it up slowly I applied it with colour pencil, and quickly realised that Bristol Board requires quite a bit of pressure to build up a good layer. Finally doing the exhaust and inserting a fat ground line finished it off.

I’m quite pleased with the result given that it’s a fairly simple image. I could fuss over it for another hour or so but I’ll leave it as it is for now. The colours worked ok in the end and lend the drawing a bit of that “punch” that lifts it off the page. But it’s what is not there that slightly bothers me. It’s a contextual thing, the lack of a background or other device holding it back. In all my subsequent drawings this is something I’m still figuring out.

I could have, of course, avoided a great deal of this mucking about by simply scanning the black line drawing into Photoshop and just playing around for a while. But I decided not to. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly I find it’s too easy to create something on screen and then be utterly unable to repeat it on paper,  colour matching being a perfect example of this. Also, the texture of the paper can have a quite strong influence on the colour medium that is applied to it, and I find it utterly laborious trying to replicate this on screen, especially when all I’m doing is having a quick look at how something might look.

Secondly, and this is a process issue more than anything, I find it burns up my time and plonks me squarely in left brain mode when all I want is to be in right brain, creative mode for a bit longer. Left brain is the logical half of the partnership and I find it starts to restrict my thoughts and actions, particularly when I’m working on a drawing. Perhaps I have yet to learn how to be truly creative with a computer program, but I find even the simplest of menu sequences takes me into left brain territory and keeps me there like some kind of hostage. I’m sure this is a subject that I will return to a lot more later on.

In an earlier post I mentioned that I felt like I’d gone too far with full colour and wanted to draw more before getting into all that. So from this point onward I went back to monochrome, pencil or pen, in an effort to get myself drawing more and thinking about colour less.