Creating James The Gentle Giant

I’m currently a week away from returning to art school to start my final year studying Illustration at DJCAD in Dundee. Before I go back, I have one final project from last year I want to share. The end result of the project was a magnetic puzzle with the title James The Gentle Giant. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve made so far at uni but also probably my favourite. I thought it’d be fun if - like with my Who Does The Moon Talk To? blog post - I showed you my entire creative process from start to finish. Before we go back to the very beginning though, here’s a preview of the final result…

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A Very Open Brief

Now back to the start of this project which began - as they all do - with a briefing. All the briefs we are given on my course tend to be pretty flexible but this one was particularly open. We would be putting on a group exhibition within the university showcasing a host of illustrated goods inspired by the Dundee University archives. Each of us was given a different box of archived materials to inspire our creation but how we took inspiration from the items inside and what we displayed at the exhibition was completely up to us.

What’s In The Box?

To kick off the project, we all went down to the archives in groups to be issued our boxes. We had been told about the project a few weeks in advance so had all gotten pretty excited to finally see what we would be dealing with. My box was in fact more of a file which was filled with old letters written by or to a man called James Cox. The contents was from the early 1900s so was all written in old fashioned calligraphy, most of which was incredibly hard to read. My eyes soon adapted to the old type though and I managed to make out most of the text. I flicked through around a hundred letters which were mostly written in order to let the recipient know that someone had died.

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To be completely honest, at first I was a little underwhelmed by my box. The letters were an interesting snippet of local history but they didn’t really inspire any stories for the most part. There were 2 pieces of text which did spark my interest however. One was a beautiful poem about the death of a daughter which used lots of emotive visual language. I didn’t follow this line of inspiration but am tempted to return to it at some point. The second was just a tiny snippet of text in which James Cox was referred to as a “gentle giant”. I found this turn of phrase charming so took note of it.

Along with the girth of frankly uninspiring letters there were 2 much more visual clues - a photo of James Cox alongside his brothers and another photo of the factory they all ran together. I decided that I needed to know more about James so I put away the dusty file and asked the internet…

Who Is James Cox?

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James Cox, as it turns out, was a Dundonian business man who ran the Camperdown works alongside his brothers. Camperdown was at one point the biggest jute factory in Europe. It was so big and housed so many employees that it became like as it’s own little village complete with a fire station and stables. It also became home to many Irish immigrants, so much so that it was nicknamed “Little Tiperary” - another line of inspiration I chose not to follow this time but may return to one day. Camperdown includes Cox Stack which is a huge chimney tower and a local landmark which still stands today. Reading more into his life, I discovered this wasn’t the only piece of Dundee architecture James had a hand in building as he also helped with the planning of the Tay Railway Bridge. This architectural angle seemed like a good starting point and so I began doing what illustrators supposedly do best - drawing.

Geometric Inspiration

Gathering a load of source material, I found countless interesting forms within the architecture James had a hand in. With my trusty dotted paper pad, I began sketching out some geometric shapes and patterns inspired by these forms whilst thinking about what end result they could inspire.

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I liked the idea of my part of the exhibition being interactive in some way and with this and the phrase “gentle giant” in my head, an idea for a narrative-driven game began to form. What if I created a game in which you helped a friendly Dundonian giant build all sorts of buildings and bridges? And so - whilst I didn’t I know exactly what form he would would take just yet - the idea for James the Gentle Giant was born.

Let’s Make A Poster

As well as working on my own display for the exhibition, I also got to design a poster to advertise it. The name of the exhibition was decided as “Unboxed” and I wanted to play with placing the type on a stack of organised shelves filled with all sorts of intriguing boxes. I kept the design simplistic and clean to reinforce the idea of archives being highly organised and pristine environments.

The posters were then risograph printed with layers of black, gold and red and plastered anywhere we thought we could get away with putting them. From the sketching to the posting, I really enjoyed the entire poster design process and it made me miss graphic design a little bit. I studied an HND in Graphic Design at college before switching specialisms to Illustration when I started at university. Illustration is definitely better suited to me but I love occasionally dipping my toe back into the world of grids and typography.

Conjuring Up A Colour Scheme

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So back to the main project - my next task was to come up with a colour scheme. If you follow my Instagram, you’ll know I am a big fan of colour within my work and as I moved into a more 3D way of working I wanted to keep this element of the design strong. To ensure the colours scheme had some meaning behind it, I did a little bit more research. I found that a deep red and mustard yellow were very in fashion during James’ time in Dundee and paired these with some more warm hues as as well as cooler blues tones to reflect Dundee’s waterfront.

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Now I had the idea for a character, lots of geometric sketches and a pretty colour scheme, my Next step was to go digital. I know that for this particular project I could have actually skipped any digitising or at least come to it later but I find translating my ideas into something digital and clean is the best way to make sense of them for me and for others.

I presented the first draft of my digital plans (above) in a group crit and the response was pretty positive. The colour scheme was a winner and it was easy to see how the shapes could all fit together in a pleasing way. Constructive feedback included the advice to make sure any patterns weren’t just random but in fact inspired by real architecture and that - although artistic license could let me get away with having James be ginger - that a 1920s man probably wouldn’t be wearing a t-shirt and jeans. A a costume change and a few architectural tweaks later and I had the plans for my final forms in place…

During this very fun and stress-free stage, as well as playing around with putting all the colourful digital blocks together in different ways, I was also researching how I wanted my final puzzle to look. Pinterest unearthed countless beautiful, wooden, Scandi-inspired toys which I loved but I wanted my creation to stand out somehow from this playful crowd. I went back and forth between lots of ideas of what form the toy could take before deciding on the way which would work best form me. Wanting to keep the shapes as pleasingly exact as I could, I decided to lasercut them out of wood before hand-painting and sanding them for a soft, matte finish. As for the question of how to make them feel more innovative than your average toy - I decided magnets were the answer.

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Lasercut, Paint, Sand, Repeat.

The final and most pain-staking stage of the project was the building. This involved several trips to the lasercutters as well as hours of fiddly painting and sanding between layers to achieve the best finish possible. I’m not a stressy person but this part of the project did put me on edge. There were around 60 pieces to paint and assemble which in itself was quite a lot to get my head around but what stressed me out more was a lack of confidence in how it would look when it was all done. Digital design is where I am most comfortable because I know I can make that look professional but I was a lot less sure of my ability to make hand-finished creations look up to the same standard. As it was layers of thin lasercut wood, it wasn’t the most 3D creation you'll ever see but the step from 2D digital work to real life magnetic puzzle making felt like a big one.

The Final Puzzle

Once I finally had all of my pieces assembled into working magnetics, all I needed was a metal backdrop to play with them on. A fun hour in the university’s metal workshop - which before this project I did not know existed - and I had a huge sheet of metal which I cut and drilled holes in myself (with a lot of help from a nice technician called Jason). All that was left to do was to mount the metal on the wall of the exhibition, put my magnets on a shelf next to it and watch as people began to play.

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During the opening night of the exhibition, as well as drinking like there was no tomorrow, I perfected my explanation of what my piece was so here it is…

James the Gentle Giant is a magnetic puzzle inspired by the life and work of James Cox. The colourful geometric shapes are inspired by the architecture James had a hand in building when he was alive which includes the Tay Railway Bridge, churches and Cox Stack. Using them, you can create a character, building, bridge or something in between.

This little summary was even printed out on a little bit of card just underneath my puzzle which made it feel like a proper wee exhibition.

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Of course, given that it was a group exhibition, I wasn’t the only one with something on display. James the Gentle Giant was surrounded by equally colourful pop-up books, incredible architectural drawings, otherworldly ceramic terrariums and even some more gorgeous wooden toys. I am lucky to be in a class with some very talented people and I’ll be making more of an effort to share their incredible work on this blog over the coming months as we spend our final year together as a class.

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In case you were wondering, despite being quite worried about how it would all turn out, I am extremely happy with the end result of the project. It is definitely my proudest creation from my time at art school so far. Of course, during my final year I am hoping to create something which tops it. One of 2 personal projects I’ll be taking on is in fact heavily influenced by James the Gentle Giant. I won’t be continuing the project as such but instead am dreaming up a whole new bigger and hopefully better magnetic puzzle. I won’t say any more just now but watch this space for updates…