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Ufos and Picasso's dirty dishes: What inspired the art in our new picture book, Space Odyssey

"There is no such thing as the unknown, only things temporarily hidden." Captain James T. Kirk

Creativity is a messy business

Enter Francis Bacon, not the sizzling breakfast kind but the icon in the artistic pantheon. He didn’t cover up the blemishes on his canvas; instead, he transformed the errant strokes into unsung heroes of the composition.

He once said, "And sometimes when I've been working I've been so disgusted by it that I grab the brush and put brush marks all over it, thinking BLEEEP ! this thing, it's not going to work at all, then suddenly out of this chaos comes the possibility of making an image I have never thought of before."

Bacon's Studio, (London -1975)

Francis was infamous for a notably disordered studio. He would leave used used art supplies, old drawings and dubious matter (best not knowing what), onto the floor totally concealing it.

His distinctive style is characterized by morphing forms that describe the psychic struggle at the edge of the void; it originated from him inadvertently stepping on and smearing a photograph that had been dropped.

Bacon is widely considered one of the most important figurative artists of the modern era - a triptych of his just sold at Southeby's for over $200 million. I like to cite his anecdote on the many occasions I find myself being harangued by Reeta, my partner, for being messy in the home.

I try to explain that creativity is a chaotic, non-linear and amorphous action, to flourish it cannot and should not be fettered by order...

Our home, like most others, is one where one person arranges the bookshelves like an O.C.D Swiss architect, the other, like a racoon on crack. The un-holy alliance that is co-habitation is a masochistic minefield, a melange of malarkey requiring constant vigil and prayer...

Reeta's bookshelf, Coogee, Nov - 2023.

Darren's (clean) clothes wardrobe, Coogee, Nov - 2023.

Accidental children's book cover

My table top is usually laden with old coffee cups, used tissues and renegade pencils . Whilst working on a recent image the lack of space to move freely caused me to accidentally drop paint onto the digital canvas. My usual instinct would have been to gnaw on my clenched fist or slap myself with a wet napkin, but on this occasion, I paused, took a deep breath, and instead of erasing the mistake, saved it. Weeks later, with fresh eyes, its hidden worth revealed itself as one of my favourite illustrations.

This serendipitous spill gave birth to the cover of 'Willow The Wonderer: Space Odyssey'

The result is a blend reminiscent of a marbling effect fused with an aquatint etching technique. This technique is not taught in any institution and was discovered by accident alone. It would render me fully flummoxed if a single progenitor were to be found anywhere out there.

Book cover of Willow the Wonderer - Space Odyssey. Willow is looking at mother earth - portrayed as a pregnant ballerina - mesmerised as she dances round the sun
Willow the Wonderer : Space Odyssey

Paying homage to an Australian great

Donning his iconic vintage, purple, velvet, striped onesie, Willow embarks on a quest to find his tribe. He travels to all four corners of the world only to encounter donkeys garbed in vintage, purple, velvet polka dot onesies.

Willow's anxiety is palpable and understandable, his distress not made any easier by the ambivalence and Joie de vivre of the other donkeys, as they play and dance against a backdrop of one of Jeffrey Smart's paintings.

donkeys in a onesie at play in an urban landscape
Darren's favourite illustration from Space Odyssey

Smart's art delves into the isolation within the human condition often setting itself amidst the urban landscape - an apt reference given the theme of Space Odyssey and Willow's own feelings of isolation.

In an unforeseen moment of children's book high jinx, Smart himself morphs into one of the polka dot donkey protagonists; a result of an unintended smudge of mine on a preparatory drawing ... A pencil 'mistake' gave the impression of a goatee beard under the chin of a donkey character being developed; enter stage left Jeffrey Smart, an inadvertent homage paid to the artist.

The original painting, minus the furry occupiers, can be seen on Willow's wall early in the book.

an old man in a tweed jacket with a red polka dot cravat
Jeffrey Smart (1921 - 2013)

My early influences (where the spaceships in Space Odyssey came from)

(Cue X Files soundtrack)

Weirdly segueing from homage to extra-terrestrial intrigue; my youthful fixation with science fiction and all things unexplained led me on a journey through the enigma of UFOs, extraterrestrials and cosmic mysteries.

The prospect of encountering intelligent life beyond our sphere is both a deep-seated curiosity and a philosophic paradigm-shifting idea. It would be comparable to pressing a much-needed ‘reset’ button on mine and likely humanity’s perception of itself within the cosmos.

My favourite television series as a child was Star Trek. Its mission was ‘to explore new worlds and civilisations'. Set in the future, episodes featured the human crew, clad in their iconic spandex uniforms, mixing it with a variety of alien species - some friendly, others hostile, some sympatico enough to stretch the same uniforms over their own anomalous forms.

Star Trek was crafted into a manifesto of humanism; the narratives were parables of humanist values, championing the fundamental philosophies it upheld: equality, reason, integrity, fairness, opportunity, and community.

Adversaries to the enlightened Homo Sapiens were the Ferengi species. The Ferengi civilization was built on free enterprise, where earning profit was the sole meaning and goal in life, the human civilization in contrast, had no profit motive, everyone worked for the betterment of everyone else.


In the current era, the UFO disclosure movement is garnering more and more voice ... if not in the mainstream media, than at least in my social feed!

For the first time in history, members of the U.S.government and Pentagon have confirmed the existence of UFO's, most sightings can be explained away but some are exceptional and require serious investigation. Congress is looking to pass new legislation to reveal what is possibly kept hidden by parts of the military, defence contractors and the snouts--in---the--trough Politicians.

It seems timely for me to add my chimes to the hopeful chorus of believers and thus, with 'Ferengi' like cunning, I have stealthily embedded an alien-themed subplot into Willow the Wonderer "Space Odyssey."

Readers are challenged to spot the elusive alien craft amidst the prosaic and otherworldly illustrations.

During the painting of the last spread (seen below), I was painting the clouds, swooshing the brush around without a great deal of thought, when a spaceship shape formed above Willow's head. I had already embedded a smaller ship in the clouds but this one seemed to be less predictable.

sun rise in the outback as Willow the Wonderer heads back home - his happiness restored. Seen here kicking his heels in glee
The Final Illustration in Space Odyssey - Can you spot the spaceship?

Beyond UFOs - Space travel and the Overview Effect

The overarching theme of the book is one that is based on 'The Overview Effect', a cognitive shift that affects many astronauts when they see the earth from space.

They no longer identify with a specific nationality or culture after seeing Earth from outer space, instead, they see themselves, and all citizens on Earth, as one people, living in one world.

It is as if the astronauts undergo a reset back to when they were children, befor society and culture mire their purity.

In light of the horrors we inflict on each other incessantly since time immemorial, we all need a way to experience this and be reminded of our common humanity...

It just so happens, by shameless opportune, that for less than $30, the price of a 'Space Odyssey' book, it can be done; much cheaper than a starship!... #ShamelessPlug #SupportLivingArtists

On the shoulders of Michelangelo

In the blinding maze of artistic endeavour, Picasso emerges as an enigmatic seer, a torch bearer lighting the doorway between conscious and subconscious wonderings. His unvarnished legacy is testimony to the pursuit of art discovered rather than meticulously crafted. He rejected the notion of knowing precisely what he would paint or desiring such foreknowledge; instead, he sought to forge new pathways, allowing the paintbrush to guide his explorations.

picasso in his okd age painting on glass
Picasson At Work

He wasn’t bound by the chains of preconceived artistic convention. Rather, he traipsed through the wilderness of happenstance, transforming inadvertent errors into artistic revelation. He marvelled at the unbridled freedom seen in children as they smeared colours on canvas, unhindered by the oppressive weight of societal norms and grown-up expectations.

"I could draw like Michelangelo by 12," he modestly professed, "yet then spent the rest of my life trying to draw like a child."

An implausible aspiration, considering the passage of time of course, plus he couldn’t draw or paint like a child because he wasn’t one, even if some of his partners might've begged to differ. The ultimate goal was to break free from the shackles of habit and conditioning.

Picasso's methodology was akin to that of a maestro orchestrating a symphony of Jazz musicians, not knowing how to proceed until a note is played, which would then determine the next: a stray brushstroke, a misplaced mark and—behold—a new path revealed itself. He would replicate the same unfinished image on a fresh canvas, allowing the divergence to embark on uncharted terrain. Thus, from one painting pathed a myriad of others, each a pin on the intricate map of his creative psyche.

In one documented incident, an accidental spill of ink on a canvas led to the inception of an entirely new series of paintings. He embraced the error, turning it into a catalyst for a new artistic direction, highlighting his willingness to explore uncharted territories.

Another vivid example of Picasso's unconventional approach involves the creation of his renowned work 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.' Initially aiming for a conventional portrayal, he allowed an unplanned deviation after stumbling upon an African mask, leading to the groundbreaking masterpiece that defied artistic norms.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso.

The winding and enlightening voyage through the artistic universe provides a deeply introspective, yet significant understanding of the complexity of the creative process. Nestled between the playful unpredictability of chance and the design of misfortune lies the nub of innovation. It lures artists and similar tortured souls to forge new paths in the constantly evolving mystery that is life.

A kid's picture book on a plate

This ethos, championed by Picasso and other artistic luminaries, fervently seeped into the veins of my own artistic pursuit giving me impetus for Space Odyssey.

The audacity of likening myself to the venerable Picasso will conjure up an image of me as a pontificating chest-thumping Silverback, a given, but I assure you, dear reader, all artists feed off the dirty dishes of Art history, especially the hungry ones...

Space Odyssey gestated within the digital womb of Photoshop, an application adept at image duplication with the mere click of a button, affording me the means to imitate Picasso's methodology.

Sometimes I’ll click the wrong layer or filter due to a caffeine maelstrom or wondering if the Greys have any fingernails. These distractions, however taxing, do open up a space for happy accidents, giving credence to the notion of 'method in the madness'.

Picture books with wisdom

In an earnest way, in illustrating our children's picture books, I seek to impart lessons I wish I had learned as a child - to search within, appreciate life's nuances, and grasp the grander scheme of things.

And, if by chance, I nurture the next generation of Sci-Fi Boffins, well that’s an unintended, but perhaps 'out-of-this-world' consequence.

I hope my unrelenting curiosity for the unexplored and unexplained, be it in art or the extraterrestrial, beckons readers to go forth and seek the extraordinary in the ordinary - and to finally, "Boldly go where no man has gone before...make it so!"

Captain Picard

Explore all the art in the Willow the Wonderer picture books series. Get the Box Set fetauring all three books and save.

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