Before the academic year was over I was working on an important side-project. The second book by author Vera Petrova called Vortex, about to come out.
After the success of her first book 6 years ago she wished to collaborate once more to create a second boutique publication, this time with illustrated chapters rather than just a cover. Saying I was excited would be an understatement.
What happened was quite interesting – Vera had had a look through all of my work online and liked several pieces which she thought would fit the esthetic she imagined for her book. I suggested making new work in accordance but she was set on several sketchbook pieces from the beginning days of my final year project ‘Cosmic Genesis’. As they were no longer of any importance to the outcome of the project, I felt they would fit well for the occasion. Thus they became chapter illustrations.
The cover artwork was chosen in a similar manner. Vera wanted her second book to carry on the layout of her first book (‘Instead of a Book’) – a short but wide image which flows from the back cover to the front cover as one long piece. A very fitting image I had done was, again from ‘Cosmic Genesis’, the 3.3m-long animation concept. She felt it was illustrative of her entire idea behind ‘Vortex’ so she had me send it over to her visual editor (Rumen Dimitranov), who shortened it wonderfully so it can fit the format without losing meaning.
You can see the finished cover below, as well as some of the illustrations inside.
I went back to the Lyric sketchbook I made at the start of second year (I might be mistaken, it was in 2013) sometime round mid September. I’ve been doing periodical updates, but I recently did a few big ones to pieces I’d already been updating and ones that I’ve finished before this summer.
A note on the Lyric Book – I wrote a lyric on each double page spread from random songs that I thought particularly interesting at the time. I thought it would be a good idea to try and illustrate bits of songs without being influenced by the song itself. It’s an curious process with surprising outcomes most of the time.
Around the beginning of summer I did a few concept drawings for three original fairy tales for children by a Bulgarian author. It was an exciting project and I quite enjoyed doing the artwork for it as the stories were so rich in characters. I hadn’t done anything so focused in a long time, I always try to add meaning and ideas of my own, so to me it was all about going back to that point of drawing from visual imagination – what we see in our heads when we read a story.
I tried to come up with original ideas with traditional tools, so to speak. I looked up a lot of old illustrations to fairy tales like Arthur Rackham, Virginia Sterrett, Tōshi Yoshida, and Cicely Mary Barker, but also a lot of contemporary ones like Angela Barrett, Chiaki Okada, Isabelle Arsenault, and the concept art for Tangled and Enchanted. It was incredible to look up all those illustrators I had glimpses of when I was younger, they were the most beautiful and magical things I’d seen and in a way they made me fall in love with illustration. So I wanted with this project to inspire the same thing but at the same time, not simplify it as much as a lot of illustrators today seem to do for children’s books.
So what I came up with as initial sketches were these…
I really enjoyed working on the stories even though I wasn’t sure what exactly I was aiming for in terms of a visual pattern, specific style or touch. That started becoming much clearer once I started working on the coloured images.
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.
Literally translated as ‘Us, Gods’, Nous Les Dieux is the first novel of a trilogy, in which the main character arrives on a strange island inhabited by all kinds of mythological creatures, where he would learn the hard task of being a deity under the guidance of the Olympian gods and goddesses.
The whole idea for the series came to be through the question “Well if you were a god, what would you have done?” In the books the focus shifts from what we perceive of the gods to the divine point of view, thus revealing a new understanding “of our historic past, of the possible future, of the struggles of our kind, and of the struggles of the gods.”
Apart from the existential part of it, I decided to pay special attention to the descriptions of the “mentor gods”. They were portrayed in a very specific way, and apart from the similarity of their clothes and the vague outline of their physical appearance, they are left to the imagination. All apart from Aphrodite… With the noticeably detailed portrayal Werber brings us to the idea that, ultimately, love, as well as beauty, is different for everyone. How many faces does the goddess really have? How many faces does God?
note: This book is quite important for the point I’m trying to raise in my dissertation. The questions of how we view the gods and what the gods really mean to us, and how that differs from how they were interpreted in the Renaissance and ancient times are, to an extent, explored within this book. The author’s unlikely choice of characters, famous historical figures as well as celebrities, who are being taught how to be gods, makes us question our definition of a god – can therefore anyone become a god, and if so, then why and how?
I am really looking forward to reading the second novel (Le Souffle des Dieux/ The Breath of the Gods), and then I’ll possibly try and get the third one when I go to Bulgaria in the summer. It is so unfortunate that Bernard Werber’s books haven’t been officially translated and published in English (neither in the UK nor the USA, which I find quite curious) because I can’t use any of the text directly as a quote unless I translate it myself.
On a separate note – I would actually love to create a few paintings inspired by the trilogy. Drawing up a new version of something because I don’t like how it looks takes me back. I used to do it all the time with characters from different animations. I must say that I am really not impressed with the images for multiple reasons. Perhaps as art and design in Bulgaria have only recently been reborn (and growing stronger and more highly appreciated than ever for the past ten years) and things like dreadfully assembled book covers weren’t really something to consider much and were being endlessly excused and made acceptable by the constant repetition of popular sayings, namely, “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Well, sometimes an incredible book needs an incredible cover.
At the end of year 1 we received a project on which to work on during our summer break, named BIOGRAPHIES. Each one of us was assigned a different name chosen from a range of historical figures whom everyone knew of, such as Marie Antoinette, Alexander the Great and Al Capone, and some, like Tandeusz Kantor and Mikhail Bulgakov, whom few or none of us had heard of before. The tutors chose each assignment on the idea that we have something in common with that specific person, either in our artwork, our names, background or personalities.
I was assigned Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, famous for writing the novel Master and Margarita. We had that book in our summer reading list last year and I showed up to an illustrator trip to Abergavenny reading it, which caught Anna Bushan’s eye, and then Amelia Johnstone’s as well and soon they were all talking about me reading Master and Margarita.
While I was back home I mostly did research. It’s what I started off with and soon ended up realising it was going to be really hard to find any good books about him. After a long search and lots of hours online, looking at biographical information, I finally found a biography in the form of a book from the 80’s in a used/antique book store in one of the shadier parts of town. My mom had to use some help from booksellers she’s worked with who found several of Bulgakov’s books which are no longer being sold anywhere, even used/antique bookshops.
In the end reading those books was quite interesting and pleasant. His style struck me as fluent, sarcastic in places, tragi-comedic in others, strangely contemporary and in the end that all blends into a series of absolute page-turners.
The final outcome for this project was supposed to be a handmade, hand-bound book of 24 to 32 pages. The book was to be a visual biography. We simply had to let the images speak for themselves. In order to do it properly I started developing a sketchbook.
I wasn’t quite certain at the beginning as to what my final piece would be or look like. I decided to make myself a Research & Ideas sketchbook in order to keep track of all my ideas and thoughts for this project. There are many pages in that book with ideas that I absolutely loved but which didn’t see further development for various reasons.
I believe that once again, my view of the city changed. During the Easter holiday, while I was back home, all I could think about while walking on the streets was where I could find a source of inspiration and I consciously tried to find things I could use for my project work.
After that walk around town with my mom (previous post) everything became really clear in my head, all my ideas aligned perfectly, like pieces of a puzzle – I was really excited.
For this final piece I decided to put together a book of illustrations using the masking fluid/tape/watercolour technique which actually helps convey my ideas quite easily and clearly. My idea to focus on reflections also took root in the illustrations as the windows of the buildings can be perceived as both reflections of the sky and sneak-peeks of the people’s private lives.
The next 6 images are all details of an additional A1 final piece, which is really important for the final work. (My initial idea was to have it in a frame on a wall (or hanging in the air) with a table in front of it on which lies the Hidden City Book of Illustrations. But we don’t get to exhibit our work like that.)
(Unfortunately I lost all other photos of the book and the works inside it. I will be able to upload them once the assessment is over. I truly apologise for this, there will be an update as soon as possible.)
This is a full image of the additional final piece. It was inspired by the view from the windows of the fifth floor of the Cardiff Central Library.