The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 1

I loved drawing witches as a child. The idea of them was vivid in my imagination, terrifying as all hell but thrilling too, in the way of all things that were scary/lovely. Besides, I’d seen The Wizard of Oz, so I knew witches could be vanquished if you could get ’em with a bucket of water before they zapped you!

As I grew older and my interests matured, the witches got left behind, along with all the other juvenilia. (Though I kept my green-eyed Pelham ‘Witch’, and she lives with me still.)

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Then a few years ago for no reason I can put my finger on, I started thinking about Hansel & Gretel and what a strange and interesting tale it is. And of course in my mind’s eye, creeping behind the children who were lost in the wood, came that apex-predator, the witch! Before I knew it she was flowing from my pencil, and she’s been flowing pretty much non-stop ever since.

The first image to appear (see below) was intended as a design for puppet. Long, long ago the first glove-puppet I’d ever made had been a witch, and this little sketch springing unexpectedly from the murky depths of childhood’s fears, felt like a desire to get in touch with the old thrill, a conjuring bright and energised, back from when creativity was still a new experience.

I didn’t actually make the glove-puppet, but I pieced together a collage, in order to better see her.

Soon I was making dozens of drawings, obsessively defining and finessing my notions of what a witch should be. Nothing new, but just a recognisable shorthand for a witch. Squat, hook-nosed, spindle legged, sporting either a peasant headscarf or a steeple-hat, incongruously carrying a handbag as she trotted about on short legs, quite mumsy but for her piercing, unnerving stare. But still a joke at this point. Nothing too threatening.

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Sometimes she was German!

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She’d already begun to make public appearances here at the Artlog and at Facebook when Simon Lewin of St. Jude’s enquired about whether I might contribute something to his magazine Random Spectacular. I suggested something on the theme of Hansel & Gretel, perhaps a short story with illustrations. So that’s what I did.

And that’s pretty much where the Hansel & Gretel ‘project’ really took off. On Facebook I wrote that I’d so much enjoyed making the short illustrated piece for Random Spectacular, that I rather fancied producing a more substantial version of it, perhaps even ditching the text and going with the idea of a picturebook. Simon left a message suggesting that we should talk some more, and thereafter we began planning.

In short order I had to make a dummy of how I envisioned the layout of a picturebook, plus a single, worked-up image that would define the look of the illustrations for it. I knew that here was a star vehicle for a witch, but she would need to to be mesmerising in appearance if it were to work. This is the finished drawing I produced: the witch in full attack mode, accompanied by gingerbread henchmen and with sweeties deployed as missiles. The Hansel and Gretel characters as shown were easy to draw quickly and consistently. Bean-shaped and wearing school uniforms, they had short legs that couldn’t out-run a witch in flight. Though the witch’s design evolved further, the children’s remained constant. They stayed the same from this ‘sample’ drawing until the book’s completion.

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As work began in earnest, I was still endlessly toying with notions of who the witch was and what her defining characteristics would be. I created a sort of natural-history for her, as though her evolutionary path had at some point bifurcated from the one on which humans were headed. I had the above drawing as a template, though I kept tinkering with her, rethinking the principles of how she would fit together to do what would be required of her.

She would be short-sighted. Witches in fairytales are often described as short-sighted. In the sample drawing I’d scattered her gown with eyes because I’d had the idea to make good her ocular deficiency with a garment stitched with eyes that could do all the seeing for her. It was based on a gown in a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, embroidered with eyes and ears as metaphors for her being all-seeing and all-hearing. (A coded message to the world that the queen’s spies were everywhere!)

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The witchy fangs would be those of a carnivore, but like a serpent’s would fold back into grooves in her gums so that she wouldn’t be inconvenienced by their length when speaking! She could pass for a toothless crone until she was ready to feast! Here’s a spread showing her looking toothless in the finished book.

I even made a flat card maquette with a little mechanism that raised/lowered her teeth to  the eating or resting positions, and another that made her eye roll back in its socket as a preparation to feeding. (The eye-rolling-back thing is very creepy, based on apparently what happens when sharks lunch! And though not used in the final book, not wasted either, because all those researched details add depth to the creativity.)

But the weirdest aspect of this witch, was that her nose was a prosthetic, used to hide what lurked beneath, which was an arrangement of scent-seeking tentacles to guide her to prey, even in the dark! It was to be the ‘big reveal’ at the dramatic highpoint of the tale, the moment when Gretel would catapult into action to save her brother.

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So when hatted and with artificial nose in place, the witch could pass for human, which is what would work best in terms of her survival. But once the hat and the nose came off, then she was ready for business!

When we made the stop-motion animated trailer to promote the picturebook, I made a three-dimensional model of the witch’s head complete with tentacles, and cameraman Pete Telfer shot it deliberately out-of-focus. It’s seen only for a flash edit of the tentacles ‘flowering’ out of the cavity, but it worked a treat!

 

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Here’s the trailer, complete with models made by Phil Cooper and music by Kate Romano.

The Hansel & Gretel picturebook came in paper covers, published by Random Spectacular in 2016 in a smallish edition. Though it’s quite hard to find because it’s never been distributed much beyond the Random Spectacular online shop, it did what Simon Lewin had offered at the outset, giving me the opportunity to explore a fairytale entirely through the medium of imagery. It also got me working  with colour separations, a technique that would serve me so well later, when I came to collaborate with the Penfold Press.

 

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Click HERE to purchase the Hansel & Gretel picturebook:

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To celebrate having got to the finishing line, master-bookbinder Christopher Shaw made a specially bound and boxed edition for me, and he produced something of such extraordinary artistry that it lifts my heart every time I look at it. Presented within a heavy red leather box tooled in gold with the outline of the pursuing witch, the book has boards covered in mustard-yellow linen, blind-stamped and inlaid with hand drawn oak-leaves placed as though blown across its covers. I love it.

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Next time – The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 2: Mr Pollock’s Pantomime

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5 thoughts on “The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 1

  1. Isn’t it odd the things that ‘stick’ from childhood.
    In my head I can clearly hear, I think from primary school (and with a tune):

    “Hansel and Gretel were lost in a wood,
    soon it got dark and they hadn’t any food.
    They came across a house, made of gingerbread and spice,
    they wondered who could live in a little house so nice.”

    Love, as ever, from your short sighted chum
    ‘Bern’ the witch!

  2. Layer upon layer of real horror. What a mind you have, Clive! Imagine a film with people and sfx of course being made of this. Guillermo de Toro, eat your heart out!

  3. Only yesterday I was browsing through some of the Hansel and Gretel images we’d produced for the Goldfield Productions project on tour at the moment, and it struck me how many manifestations of the witch you’d conjured in recent years Clive. And today, hey presto, the first in a series of posts about just that subject; terrific!

  4. WOW !.
    I can’t wait for next parts. ( I know, I know you have such a lot of work now, with books and DVDs ( I hope ), coming out before Christmas ; we, your fans, shall have to have patience ).
    Love
    M

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