On Revision in Illustration

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Work on Beauty and Beast. Text by Olivia McCannon and illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. To be published by Design for Today in October 2021.

Dissatisfaction is a part of the artist’s armoury of creativity. Without it, how would we ‘grow’ ideas?

To begin with there was nothing tangible, just the notion of making a book that had been rattling around in my head, seemingly forever. There was no text, only a huge admiration for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, La Belle et la Bête, shared with the poet and translator Olivia McCannon.

Olivia and I emailed each other for over a year, working out what there might be in terms of a book. Would it be a new translation of Cocteau’s screenplay, a return to the origin tale and a reinvention of it, perhaps in a contemporary setting, or something else entirely? Maybe something with threads running through it in homage to Cocteau’s masterpiece. A hybrid, both new and old, creating a dialogue with Cocteau and his fellow creators.

When I began preparations, there was much research, but as yet no text. Olivia and I were still exploring ideas. I’d been making maquettes and character studies, but everything was still undecided. My maquettes referenced the film, but also changed the characters. They weren’t likenesses of the actors playing the roles.

Early paper maquette of la Bête

As our talks focussed in on the notion of a hybrid creation, I made a single illustration – one I felt confident about as the foundation block – to which another was added, and then another, and another.

The first illustration

I’ve never worked in this way before. My illustration projects have always been responses to an existing text. But on this book I’m working with conversations with the writer as the starting points, and fragments of text still in flux. In illustration, the decisions made at the outset affect everything that follows: the way the characters look and what they wear. The settings – the buildings, rooms, passageways, gardens and landscapes of all the locations of the story. Every detail considered, invented, revised and rendered.

A group of images made out of sequence to the emerging text, grows. New images are added to make connections between them. Gradually a narrative in pictures emerges, but it’s a creation that morphs every day because each new part of it not only adds to what’s gone previously, but changes it. Each emerging section of the text, changes it. My starting point is invariably a scene from the film, which then transforms into a version I believe will work on a page. So a scene in which multiple cuts show Belle, la Bête, a table laid with silverware, crystal and fruit, an overmantel clock chiming, living statues watching from the shadows and a fire-blazing, gets condensed to a single double-page image.

Belle et la Bête in a frame from the film
One of two living stone busts that support the fireplace
Lay-out drawing for a double-page illustration of the scene
Study for a living statue

Illustrations become sandwiched by others that affect them. Sometimes an image is cancelled out and discarded, but more usually changed to better deliver what’s needed at that stage of the story. Things that weren’t issues, become so overnight. An idea I thought was coming over with clarity, becomes muddled because its context has changed.

Illustration underway
Detail of la Bête from the first version of the dining-room
Detail of the fireplace head from the first version
In the second version, the Beast and the stone head have changed
Third and final re-working of La Bête

I try to avoid obviousness when making images to accompany a text. I draw inspiration from Olivia’s emerging narrative, but largely attempt to colonise the spaces between her lines of poetry.

As the book expands, and the passages of text emerge to fit together with the images I’ve already completed, then my revisions begin. Perhaps I see that the adjustment of a character’s glance might better signpost the page-turner’s forward trajectory, or profitably pause it. A new line suddenly makes clear that the image is needed as a bridge to the next page turn, and an adjustment could aid that process. I enjoy the challenges of patching illustrations with newly worked elements, of discovering forgotten aspects and realising on reflection how they work better – or not so well – as I’d originally thought. The revisions don’t show in photographs and won’t show when printed, but the changes will be apparent when the works are exhibited in a gallery in October, when close inspection from oblique angles in bright light will reveal the myriad surgeries. I like the idea that the journey will be visible in the surface of the artworks, like age-lines in a characterful face.

Letter to Catriona

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Catriona Urquhart, Poet. 1953 -2005

Dearest Catriona

It’s sixteen years since you left us on May Day 2005. I didn’t believe it at the time, and I don’t believe it now. Your voice is as clear and true in my head today as if you were just downstairs and calling me to tea. That morning my friend Susie Savage picked up the phone in Penparc Cottage that I didn’t hear ringing because I was sitting in your chair in the garden, and I knew the moment she appeared at the back door the news she carried, because her face was stricken at what she had to tell me. Everything in life changed at that moment: my chum, confederate-hatcher-of-plans, confidante and muse, companion-gardener, playmate, poet-in-chief and heart-healer, gone.

The stick in a pot that you gave me all those years ago, now planted in a garden to which we came after your time, has grown into a magnificent Walnut tree big enough for us to picnic under its shade. (The photograph here was taken several years ago, since when it has grown a great deal more and we’ve raised its canopy.) I see it every day, from the house and whenever I’m in the garden, and it will always be ‘Catriona’s Tree’ for me.

I never thought there would be other poets after you, but I was wrong. First there was Marly Youmans’ whose poetry carried me on wings of creativity, and with whom I’ve been collaborating for about a decade and a half, making covers and illustrations for her poetry and novels. More recently there has been Simon Armitage, now our Poet Laureate, whose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I illustrated for the 2018 revision from Faber & Faber, and who I’ve since worked on with two more books: Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, for which I won the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award, and The Owl & the Nightingale, another translation by him from the medieval, due out in October this year. How proud of me you would be for these poet friendships and collaborations. Soon there will be Beauty and Beast, a reinvention of the fairytale and film that you and I talked about so much, shaped by the poet Olivia McCannon into something that’s thrilling to be working on, and it too will be out in October this year.

I think so often of conversations we had, and the conversations we would have now, were you here to have them with. In fact (Shhhh, tell no-one) I do have those conversations, and I hear your answers, and you’re as unexpected and funny now as you ever were in life. But still, still, still I miss you, and I always will.

Did I tell you that little dog Jack died? I can’t remember now whether I did. Three years ago. That connection with you, too, now severed. He’s buried here at Ty Isaf, so we have your tree and Jack in the garden. It’s a marvellous place and you would love it. Yesterday I watched as redstarts dashed back and forward to drink from the birdbath, and laughed at the antics of Mr & Mrs pheasant, the family of jackdaws and the marauding squirrels, all arguing away under the bird-feeder hanging from the big apple tree on the turning circle of the drive. Let’s take a walk later today. I want to share news.

Your loving friend

C xxx