Alison Garwood Jones

When process smothers stories

November 16, 2017

At some point, anguish over process overtook the focus on stories in the online world.

Tina Brown made this observation this week on Alec Baldwin’s podcast, Here’s The Thing.

Tina Brown, illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

Tina Brown. Watercolor sketch by Alison Garwood-Jones

What Brown said was, “It’s no longer about stories and pictures and captions and words, which is what I love to do. Now it’s: How am I going to get the revenue stream? What’s the digital platform? [There’s so much] anguish about process as opposed to stories.”

But this was not about a legacy media legend scrambling to understand swipe on SnapChat. Brown’s instincts about the future of media and storytelling are as sharp as ever.

What Brown meant was that when the terms set by our digital landlords (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn) are in constant flux, our jobs become figuring out how to keep our stuff in front of the audience we thought we had.

When you spend all of your time and creative energy plotting distribution, the quality of what you are making will inevitably suffer.

And yet we continue to extoll content, with the oft-used phrase, “Content Is King. Distribution is Queen.” Before long, the queen will force her king to abdicate.

Our scrambling sense of panic over changing algorithms is best illustrated by comment pods. This summer, the tech media outlined what happened after Instagram shuttered chronological posting. Influencers immediately started gaming the system in comment pods. Digiday’s Shareen Pathak explains how the pods work:

“Groups of up to 30 Instagrammers work with each other to comment on each other’s posts on a daily basis. The idea is to hack Instagram by increasing engagement. Because of the way Instagram’s algorithm works, this leads to Instagram “favoring” pods, which means influencers in pods often appear in the Explore tab, leading to more visibility.”

Content Distribution quote

Creative freelancers see comment pods as a matter of survival. Closed Facebook Groups allow them to learn the ins and outs of joining comment pods and making them a part of their digital strategy. “Many rules govern pod behavior,” says Pathak. “Comments should be at least four or five words. Emojis aren’t good enough. Avoid language that is too generic, like “love it.” Don’t post in the pod — just direct people to your account because a “like” inside a comment thread doesn’t count toward total engagement.” It’s a lot of work.


Pathak included a screen grab from the comment section of one of these Facebook Groups, where a food blogger credited her media friends (not engagement from her actual target audience) with artificially boosting her followers.


It’s called “engagement farming.” None of this behaviour is new. Remember content farms?

But back to Tina Brown. She has always believed in distribution and spinning-off brands into other media formats. When she was editor of The New Yorker, she said: “I had this fantasy of an extended media laterally: I wanted to do radio, books, TV shows all out of the The New Yorker brand.  And Si Newhouse for all of his wonderfulness, did not get that. That’s where he stumbled. He didn’t understand where we were headed and Condé Nast missed the trick when it came to getting ahead of that curve. I saw it, but probably too early. I sounded nuts [to him]. It was like, “Settle down and do your magazine and go have lunch with Updike.”

Brown left The New Yorker when Harvey Weinstein promised to help make her vision a reality with Talk Magazine. It was a disastrous partnership, and Talk failed after two years.

Today, Brown has returned to telling stories, but not with pictures, captions and words. She’s a big believer in streaming live events.

In 2010, Brown started the Women In the World (#WITW), an annual summit which “convenes women leaders, activists, and change-makers to share stories and offer solutions for a better life for women and girls.” It now operates in association with The New York Times. In this #WITW interview, Brown talks to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about his feminist agenda.

When Brown looks at the lateral moves of The New Yorker today, she applauds her successor David Remnick for putting as much creative energy into his podcast as he does in print. “They should do more [podcasts]. All of these brands are being rethought against the clock.”

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Food art

November 6, 2017

Pizza painting by Alison Garwood-Jones

Today’s artistic challenge was pizza. I wanted to capture the effect of baked crust, and I think watercolour does it better than any other medium. Can you smell the warm carbs in this picture?

I used rubber cement like masking fluid to preserve the layers as I loaded on each of the colours. I like that was able to capture my subject without falling back on my Uniball pen to outline everything. It’s more painterly, less illustrative.

Maybe your menu needs some illustrations? I can help.


Daniel Smith watercolour tube paints:
• New Gamboge
• Hansa Yellow Light
• Quinacridone Rose
• Pyrrol Scarlet
• Phthalo Green
• Burnt Sienna

Windsor & Newton (Cotman Series)
• Sap Green

I used a Chinese-style eyeshadow brush from Elegant Faces (now defunct). This natural squirrel-hair brush is great for painting.

• Canson Watercolor Paper, Cold Press, 140 lb


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Bill Cunningham, you are missed

November 4, 2017

Bill Cunningham watercolour by Alison Garwood-Jones

Crossing the heavens to capture the stars.

#BillCunningham #WatercolorPencil @nytimes

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Canada takes the lead

November 3, 2017

What the world needs now is Canada — and some love, sweet love.

Last night I got the best history lesson I’ve had in years when I watched former PM, Joe Clark, Barbara McDougall, Bill Graham, Lloyd Axworthy and Chrystia Freeland get up and talk about Canada’s impressive record of speaking truth to power.

“Pearson’s Four Faces of Peace: Power, Policy, Prosperity and People” was hosted by Pearson College UWC and Massey College.From left to right: Chrystia Freeland at the lecturn, Lloyd Axworthy, Barbara McDougall, Bill Graham and Joe Clark.

The panel gathered at the Isabel Bader Theatre at the University of Toronto to mark the 60th anniversary of Lester B. “Mike” Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the 1956 Suez Crisis. At the time, the Nobel selection committee credited Pearson with “saving the world” through his work with the United Nations.

Everyone on last night’s panel agreed that there was no better time to think out loud about the significant role Canada must continue to play in resolving and reshaping the current global disorder.

What became clear pretty fast is that the “big swinging dicks” vying for power right now are the kind who delight in pumping toxins into democracies. None of the distinguished panel used the term “BSDs” (thank you Michael Lewis), but all of them, as former and current Ministers of Foreign Affairs, were very blunt about what is at stake, and how Canada must step up and assume our historic role as Chief Architect of multilateralism.

Multilateralism — or collaboration around a common good — is the Canadian ideology that Pearson espoused as Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, and, later, as Prime Minister. Empathy, bridge-building and peacekeeping were the great hallmarks of Pearsonian diplomacy and they became the agreed upon values the West adapted after World War II, said McDougall. Pearson understood that democracy depended on our ability to manage our different opinions.

But Mike was a realist, and no lap dog to U.S. foreign policy (a common slight thrown our way). Pearson knew that diplomacy without arms was like an orchestra without instruments, but war as an instrument of policy would no longer work in a nuclear age. We cannot defend our values by war, he said, because war has come to mean total destruction. His exact words from his Nobel acceptance speech were: “We have ensured by our achievements in the science and technology of destruction that a third act in this tragedy of war will result in the peace of extinction.”

Pierre Trudeau understood that too. “I don’t think I’m speaking out of school if I share this anecdote,” said Axworthy. He recalled a moment in the early 1980s when he came to a cabinet meeting one morning and Trudeau announced that he wanted to lead a mission to go from capital to capital around the world and “suffocate nuclear weapons.” “He wanted to be the voice of clarity and courage, and to say things that other leaders were afraid to say.”

Axworthy brought up other seminal (albeit lost) moments in history when Canada spoke her mind. “We were the first country to declare ourselves a non-nuclear nation in 1945,” he said. “We had the fuel and the delivery systems, but what was the trigger for that? There were no nuclear protests in the streets.” It was decided in confines of cabinet, he discovered in his readings of history. The way we made our country come together through public policy shaped who we became.

“We were also the first nation to tell the Americans that they or the Soviets would destroy the world,” said Axworthy, “and that they had to put their nuclear weapons under international control.” Mike Pearson looked Harry Truman and McGeorge Bundy in the eye when he delivered that message. On American soil, Pearson later spoke out against Lyndon Johnson’s participation in the Vietnam War.

Axworthy, who got back last week from a six-week trip to the Balkan Peninsula, said that “the degree of animosity in Europe right now is a Brexit-style anguish. It’s everybody for themselves. The system is broken.” What was clear in his rounds of talks with the Balkans is that they believe that Canada will be the leader the world needs.

But as former Defense Minister, Bill Graham pointed out, “there is no peacekeeping in the traditional sense anymore,” not in a digital age, a nuclear age and with the rise of drones. We need to address peace by removing the causes of war and by looking at the international organizations we belong to and strengthening then.

The evening ended with Clark saying, “We have even more influence today than we did in the 1950s. No one has our reconciling competence, and we don’t have to sit at the head of the table to do the work.”

When fellow Albertan Chrystia Freeland arrived on stage, she got right down to business. “We have another Pearsonian moment before us,” she told the crowd. “Canadians feel a national connection for oppressed people around the world. It’s up to us, the next generation, to modernize, renew and shore up those multilateral institutions that Pearson built. As Lloyd pointed out, people around the world think Canada can do this. The hard part is we have to deliver ”

“Pearson’s Four Faces of Peace: Power, Policy, Prosperity and People” was hosted by Pearson College UWC and Massey College.

But as Freeland recently tweeted in her dealings with the U.S. over NAFTA: “Capitulation is not a negotiating strategy.” She has arranged to have T-shirts emblazoned with that tweet made up for Trudeau’s cabinet. How about some loud socks too?

“Pearson’s Four Faces of Peace: Power, Policy, Prosperity and People” was hosted by Pearson College UWC and Massey College. #LBP60th

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An apple a day

November 2, 2017


Watercolour apples by Alison Garwood-Jones




Yesterday, as I thought more deeply about the loony collapse of the United States (see Kurt Andersen), and all the people down there who appear to be cheering on the destablization of entire systems of meaning (see Stephen Marche), I picked up a makeup brush I’ve never used on my face and painted some apples. Because that’s what you do when humans confound you, you turn to nature for expressions of truth.

Mastering watercolour glazes has been on my To Do List for months. Switching brushes — from a no. 6 round to a Chinese-style makeup brush — was a good move.  I’m getting better at laying down broad swaths of colour with soft, wobbly brushes and waiting for them to dry. Patience is key. The resulting magic is a balm. I like them apples.

It’s impossible — for me, anyway — to paint an apple without thinking of Paul Cézanne, the French Post-Impressionist painter. I’m an art history major whose neural pathways have been carved by years of slide lectures. I even wrote an entire Master’s Thesis on Cézanne’s art.

Paul was an ornery guy who didn’t understand himself, or anyone else for that matter. Humans were a mystery to him. Art was his excuse for avoiding all unecessary contact with their stupidities and gross habits. His art focused on volume, not light (like Monet). Exalting volume made him feel more whole, more grounded as an artist and a person.

Other people use food to get that same feeling. Barbra Streisand is so nervous about the current political situation in the United States, she ate her way through this interview with Alec Baldwin. She is very aware that the changes to her eating habits since last November are turning into a problem. I think she should go back to making art. A new song or a new movie would curb her appetite.

I wrote about Cézanne a couple of years ago on this blog. Let’s revisit his life.

I will astonish Paris Cézanne quote

Cézanne was a grumbler, a mumbler and a first-class curmudgeon. He was the sort of guy who would fling open his shutters and scream at distant barking dogs if they were interrupting his thought process. It’s not what you’d expect of a resident of Provence, that bourgeois mecca for cooking show enthusiasts and coffee table book collectors. In short, he was the Boo Radley of Aix.

Neighbourhood boys would hide behind bushes waiting for Cézanne to leave his studio so they could pelt stones at him as he ambled along the crunchy gravel paths leading to the summit of his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. He’d scream and wave his cane at them. Even his coachman got an earful: “You what? You raised the price of the carriage to Château Noir to three francs return? You’re fired!” (the current associations with that phrase are unfortunate).

Not surprisingly, Paul’s wife, Hortense lived elsewhere. But it was better that way. She was an inveterate gambler and spent more time in casinos than art galleries. One bad match turned Cézanne off all other future prospects. Women freaked him out. That uneasy relationship to the fair sex made him replace the female model he needed for his bather paintings with marble sculptures. He loved his son, but only stayed in contact with him through letters.

Today Cézanne’s shoe prints are cast in metal along a number of Provencal roads and paths he regularly walked on. I followed them like a dance chart the last time I was in Aix. He would have hated being hounded like this, but hundreds of thousands of people do it every year.

Cézanne never hid the fact that life overwhelmed and confused him. That’s why his art and biography resist the rosy, romantic haze that’s settled over Monet and Renoir, and why many people, including this writer, appreciate how persistent he was in trying to resolve his confusion through art.

That confusion made him ill-mannered and probably paranoid  — in short, not the sort of guy you’d invite to parties. His contemporary, Toulouse Lautrec, knew how to whoop it up. And records show that Manet was courtly to his core and great dinner party guest. Not Cézanne. Here’s what I mean, “All my compatriots are hogs compared to me,” he wrote in a letter to his son. “I can never get away from the meanness of people, be it theft, complacency, infatuation or violation, the seizing of my work. And yet nature is beautiful.” But even that beauty caused him pain. “I’m so slow at realizing my ideas and that makes me very sad,” he said.

One day, while painting only a few hundred yards from his studio, the clouds turned black and boiling and a thunderstorm cracked the sky in two. But Cézanne kept painting through the lashing rain. “I cannot attain the intensity unfolding before my senses.”

He continued his outdoor research because painting was his consolation against life. A few hours later, a laundry cart picked him up and two men placed him on his bed. If Cézanne were a novel, William Styron would have written it and Alan J. Pakula would have directed the movie.

Cézanne turned to painting like prayer (God didn’t have his ear). It was a daily ritual, part of his search for answers, and a way of giving thanks for the abundance of beauty around him. To give order to the barrage of sensations fighting for attention in his chatty mind, he developed a painting stroke that organized colour into something that looks like a lineup of mosaic tiles. Renoir’s strokes were fluffy, Seurat’s dotty, but Cézanne’s strokes clicked together like puzzle pieces, or piano keys.

There’s a beat to the order of his brushstrokes that holds you in front of his paintings before you realize you better move on, other people need to look. To me it feels like tribal music. The strokes take control of the rhythm of my heart. Everything Cézanne saw and painted got that treatment, from the mountain all the way down to an apple.

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Viking girl

October 27, 2017

Viking cartoon by Alison Garwood-JonesCartoon by Alison Garwood-Jones

Doing anything well takes discipline. This is Hildegard. She’s a Viking warrior with a stringent daily routine involving running, journaling/goal setting, and practicing her fencing. Not much gets in her way, especially men.

But, at some point, she’ll hit a wall. The need for balance — not exactly defined in the Bronze Age, albeit keenly felt — will creep into her life. The company of Jesper, her cat, won’t be enough. She’ll resist that feeling with all her might, pressing her face into Jesper’s fury belly to make it go away. But it will keep working on her like a wood-boring beetle until it breaks her will and forces her to figure out how to live anew.

Materials: Tombow Brush Pen and a few swipes with Photoshop.

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Jann Wenner

October 14, 2017

Jann Wenner sketch by Alison Garwood-Jones

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Push your talent

October 10, 2017

Comic strip by Alison Garwood-Jones

This is my first attempt at a page for a comic strip or graphic novel. The hardest part, so far, is unifying the look and the palette.

In this romp through the forties (above), I came up with the drawings before I had a story in mind. Now I’m gathering them up in sequence to see how they look together and what story emerges. Not bad.

In another project I have on the boil, I have an entire story, but no drawings. It’s a short story I wrote four years ago that I want to try and map out visually.

Most illustrators I’ve looked at can draw in many different styles, but they choose a style appropriate to each story or assignment so it reads cohesively. All of these are revelations to me as I delve back into my childhood pastime: art.

Over the last year, I have posted drawings in every illustration style imaginable to my Instagram feed, from hand-drawn sketches to digital posters. I’ve been doing that to test the what I like doing, and find out the limits of my talent. Some styles (like loose brush strokes) hide what I haven’t mastered yet in human anatomy. Line drawings, on the other hand, force you to be accurate with things like hands and foreshortening. I have a multitude of challenges ahead of me that regular life drawing classes could fix.

All in all, I love seeing my progress. It’s impossible to miss since Facebook keeps throwing up anniversary posts, showing me what my drawings looked like a year ago. I’m getting better.

#GraphicNovels #cartoon #illustration #pentelbrushpen


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More than words

October 3, 2017

Bar scene, watercolour by Alison Garwood-Jones

The proposal, watercolour painting by Alison Garwood-Jones

Watercolour sketch of guys in bar by Alison Garwood-Jones

This blog started out as a place to write. That was ten years ago.

Today words have lost their lustre for me. I’m shocked and put out by the way language has being kicked around, mocked, and misused. I used to rely on words to express truths. My love for and response to them was intense and loyal. It still is.

But now that so many careless hucksters are messing with the reputation and integrity of language, the power words have over me has diminished. I find more truth in drawing.

I’ll continue to write and read, and read and read, but I’ll mend my broken heart over all the post-truths passing themselves off as language with colour and lots of lucious, inky lines.

Above: “Your local,” “She said ‘no'”  and “Mulling over her answer”— three brushpen and watercolour drawings by Alison Garwood-Jones inspired by life in the 1940s.

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New York State of Mind

September 28, 2017

New York Subway, Illustration by Alison Garwood-Jones

A bygone newspaper era. New York, 1945.

Today it would be phones. In France, everyone still reads novels on the Metro.

#illustration #watercoloursketch #subway #MTA 

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