I had the opportunity to briefly work on a live project, illustrating a children’s book. I decided to do a little research, as illustrating for children is not really what I’m used to. In the library I found a book which sparked my interest – Magic Pencil: Children’s Book Illustration Today.
The book was published to coincide with the British Council exhibition of the same name. I found it inspiring as “illustrators don’t often find themselves in galleries” (Joanna Carey, p11) something that’s been on my mind since first year.
Anyway, I was focusing on this book mainly because after flicking through, I saw some examples I recognized, as well as others which I found curiously compelling. Here’s some of what I came across…
“I’ve got two sorts of drawing. I draw passionately all over paper tablecloths, napkins and backs of envelopes. But drawings like that are difficult to convert into anything useful. Sketchbooks are different, important to me, so I can jot down ideas on the spur of the moment that probably wouldn’t come back to me otherwise – dreams, and other things that pass fleetingly through my mind.”
I can very strongly relate to what she is saying as my summer has been concentrated precisely around a sketchbook of that kind. I was impressed by this image instantly, as soon as I saw it I was there, running through the woods with that girl and all the animals… despite the disproportionate figure, everything about the image takes you to that place, and everything you see is in motion. The animals being caught in action is what makes them disproportionate yet highly realistic and… well, believable. The mind only needs an outline, a scene to fill with subconscious content. In this case, my love of the forest, the sensation of running in the forest, and my adoration of Princess Mononoke, probably one of the most developmentally influential films of my childhood. This is what I believe our tutors are trying to push us to achieve for ourselves in our illustrations. That ’empathy’ that all of second year was about.
To be honest though, I was equally if not more impressed by her illustrations for Voltaire’s Candide or Optimism.
With my own affinity to pen drawings and cross sketching I can’t help but be amazed by these pieces. I can’t even put it in words; let’s just say everything about them simply resonates with feeling and meaning. I especially love the touch of a bird flying over the head of the gentleman whose head’s being blown to bits. There is a similar element in Piero della Francesca’s “Baptism of Christ” (1450), a dove flying right above Christ’s head, as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. “It is foreshortened to form a shape like the clouds.” (Source) In this case, not being able to see the whole bird makes you initially think it is a seagull, (nautical theme in place and all that), and yet, the spread of the feather tail is wide enough to be a dove’s (not to mention that seagulls are quite large birds). Touches like this add so much more depth to these already impressive, intelligent (thought-provoking) artworks!
“One thing I’m always conscious of is that illustrations can fail. I’m well aware of the dangers. I know that the wrong illustrations can literally destroy a dream and, however powerful the text, it’s the images that stick in the mind.”
I felt the same weight with the work I was focusing to do, so I can relate to what he is saying. I was remembering my own impressions with illustrations as a little child and all those books that I refused to even touch, and I would hide at the bottom of the book case my younger sister and I shared. I used to hate them because of how dark and scary the illustrations were, how bright and overwhelming the colours were, it all felt like acid being chicked at my face, I didn’t feel inspired either by the look or the feel of it. Even my mum reading the story out without me having to even look at the book was an unpleasant experience and I’d insist that she changed it. Because I come from a heavily communism-influenced country, the illustrations I was exposed to at a young age weren’t always the most considerate ones, if I can say that. It was amazing when I did find books I agreed with, and that happened more often than not, but I can’t help but remember the negative emotions I associate with some illustrations…. (You can see those in a separate post here.)
I see this as a really important illustration advice. For some reason it feels like our tutors are trying to teach us the same thing but without the honesty of whether the purpose we have given our work is being fulfilled. Whether our work influences in the way we wish it to or differently. Sometimes it’s better to be told you’re going in an unfitting or downright wrong direction, than to be left doing tons of work for something which would just be discarded or refused. But then again it’s about us knowing the type of work we do and how it fits in the world. In the end it is our fault if we’ve put our work in the wrong context, and so we must live with the ripples that choice has created.
“When you start to draw a building, for example, as you get to grips with the perspective, you begin to understand how it works, how it’s put together, and with cutaways you can explore it even further.” I find it very important, when portraying something to know what you are portraying. In a sense, that analytical way of looking at things is what I grew up to admire. Wishing I could be Sherlock at a very early age, I was really interested in noticing the details that no one else would, the little bits that could give you secret hints about how the whole thing (or person) works.
When I first saw Stephen Biesty’s illustrations when I was little, I was just entranced. I couldn’t look away, I had to assimilate every single detail and just know how those things worked. As far as I remember it was a castle, and I was just amazed at all the little tunnels and the servants’ quarters, and then there was the stables and the chimneys and the hidden doors and stairwells and dungeons and… there was just so much going on! It didn’t matter where you looked, there was something going on in every bit of the image.
I find it ultimately impressive and inspirational, and yet, Biesty says himself “There’s a huge amount of research, the work itself is very laborious, and so it all takes a long time — often as long as fifteen months to complete one book.” This is something I feel like I’ve never experienced. It made me realise how much time i usually spend on my own artworks and how I usually get frustrated and leave them after a while. As this year, we will be working on one project which will bloom into our degree show, I feel like staying with the same project for a longer period is something vital in the practice of any illustrator, even if for just one project. It’s about how far you can take an idea once given the chance, how well you can understand it for yourself and interpret it visually.
“I can’t say the work gets any easier. In many ways I keep making it more difficult for myself, trying to make things more real, not in a literal, photographic sense, but in an emotional sense, telling the story by capturing the essence of the situation, giving it some meaning. Ardizzone did it, not just in books, but also as a war artist, and Quentin Blake does it. It’s a question of creating another world, believable in its own right. It’s all in the drawing.”
I can’t not agree with these words. Whenever I do my own work I am constantly asking myself the question of whether I am truly portraying something on an emotional as well as cognitive level. In a way, illustration, and all art really, opens you up to what could be interpreted as a sixth sense, the ability to see, understand, relate, and respond instantly to that world within the image…
“One of the first things I realised when I was studying illustration in art school was that most illustrators, with a few exceptions, like Tomi Ungerer, or Saul Steinberg, only work in one style, which they stick to for the rest of their life. And I realised early on that I didn’t want to commit myself in that way. My work changes according to the text. It’s such a great luxury to read a text and just draw, without worrying about ‘style’. And it’s good to keep changing – it makes you feel like you’re still learning something.”
Interestingly enough, I came to the same conclusion myself, with my own course-mates. It was a struggle at first, I didn’t think illustrators were really allowed to change styles… but then everything became clearer and clearer when I took a step back and realised it was impossible for me to limit myself in such ways. I agree with Tony Ross that it is incredibly important to be able to explore your capabilities and to change, shift, adapt, morph, with every next text that comes up, learning, becoming better, finding ways to draw you never thought you would… And not to mention, all art movements started off with a series of experiments and explorations of new ideas.