As a child I collected and tended tadpoles, as children still do. I loved to catch and hold the tiny frogs caught in our swimming pool. Their back legs did a perfect breaststroke.
As an adult I discovered the green tree frogs of northern Australia, with their wonderful tendencies to crouch under toilet lids and croak deafeningly in drainpipes. I rescued and washed one in a dish one evening (he was under my bed, wrapped in a dust bunny) and let him out with pride into the rain.
A frog encounter is always a privilege, and so was this one…
Recently I was offered an unusual commission: to produce a tattoo design incorporating as many colourful frogs as would fit along the length of one well-muscled male arm.
My client’s twin passions for these gorgeous amphibians and for eye-catching body art would thus be joined in one stunning and permanent design. You can’t get closer than that when it comes to wearing your heart on your sleeve.
A challenge implicit in any artistic commission is trying to mindread the images, tastes and expectations in the client’s head. It’s a far cry from producing an artwork from one’s own head in accordance with one’s own preferences.
My client had few specifications: 1) brightly coloured frogs 2) a monochrome background of waterlilies or similar. The advantage of this was that I could choose my frogs and how to place them. The disadvantage was not knowing whether my client would approve the chosen frogs and their placement.
I was shown a book of tattoo art favoured by my client, and a particular design (colourful autumn leaves on a swirling monochrome background) which gave me a pointer. I was relieved to hear that tattoo artists alter for size and perspective to transfer the flat design to human curves. This meant no Michelangelo-style tricks were needed on my part.
Internet research. I searched for photographs of the most vivid frogs possible. I looked at waterlily pads.
Composition. I played with cut-outs of frog tracings (made from my laptop screen) to find a composition I liked. It took two tries as I disliked the first and redid the design with a bird’s eye perspective to best display the frogs’ skin patterns. This meant finding more frog photos with view-from-above postures.
Transferring the design. I retraced the design onto a single sheet of tracing paper, and then onto a smooth watercolour paper.
Painting the design. I coloured the frogs using artists’ quality acrylic paints chosen for their brilliance and saturation. I pencilled in the lilypad background. I signed the work.
From start to finish the process took me about 20 hours, nearly all of which was intensely concentrated work. I seldom take on commissions to illustrate and this one reminded me how much creative energy, persistence and skill is required.
My client was thrilled. Me too.
It will take many hours for the tatooist to transfer our frog fantasy onto human skin. Will the colour be as vivid? Will the frogs look more three-dimensional? I can’t wait to see.
Art enshrines the beautiful and aims to capture the essence of things, and to share its vision with the wider world. My painting will be framed and hung and viewed by a few people. But how many more will be drawn to look as my client goes about his daily business. Perhaps they’ll spy a sucker-toed foot protruding from his sleeve or the splashes of colour on his bicep. They’ll look closer, and see these amazing creatures in all their exotic spotted and striped glory, their scarlets and yellows and blues. They’ll remember this unusual and striking tribute to frogs.
My thanks to Simon for a different kind of opportunity to feel into the shapes and outlines of frogs. I was enchanted by the variety of a species that always delighted me and I now know their bent knees and snub noses intimately!