On Revision in Illustration

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.

9 thoughts on “On Revision in Illustration

  1. Thank you as ever for your patient explanation of your process. I wonder if the poet in this project has worked similarly, or did she give you a completed text to work from in the beginning?

    • I think I may not have been as clear as I set out to be in this post, because I wanted to explain that I had very little text at the beginning, and all my early work was made on the basis of discussions Olivia and I had about every detail of the story and how we wanted to approach it. Later, when the text began to arrive, it did so in segments, and so there was a gradual reveal of the poem into which I was able to insert the images I’d made in advance. When needed, I revised the images in the light of the emerging text. It all felt entirely comfortable to be working in this way with Olivia. From the start we understood each other and found the collaboration stimulating. It’s not the way I’d always choose to work with an author, but with this poet and project, it was a perfect arrangement.

  2. What a treat to read this post today Clive. I’ve so appreciated the insight into your process for this book and seeing the extraordinary images that are emerging. The magic looks hard won sometimes but it feels like the most beautiful picture book is unfolding before our eyes here, I’m just in awe of the work!

    • Awww, thank you, Phil. When you and I worked on the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, I felt an equivalent sense of ease and collaboration between us as I’ve felt with Olivia on this project. It can be daunting making sense of the miasma of creative ideas that float about at the start of any project, that have to be marshalled into something tangible. Creative, collaborative trust is the foundation I’m always looking for. Choose your collaborators carefully, and the rest will follow.

      • Likewise Clive, working with you on H&G felt a very natural process for me too.
        What’s developing from your work with Olivia on Beauty and Beast looks such a creative tour de force, I’m knocked out by these images 🤩

  3. Fascinating and fabulous Clive! So looking forward to the final result.
    Do you have dates for the exhibition yet?

  4. This is great, Clive.
    I know you love the film, but your, and Olivia’ s book is going to be better. Even if it is made as a tribute to the Cocteau film.
    And to see your fireside stone faces, with their one eyebrow ( “marca de la casa” ) is a feast.
    I could never have enough of these entries.
    Love from Madrid

    • Hello Maria. Lovely to hear from you. Your enthusiasm for this project is much appreciated. It’s a marathon of creativity, largely because I’ve been thinking about it for so long and I want to serve the material as well as I can. Each morning brings new challenges. I wake up with unease because something I’ve made the previous day is bothering me, and then go down to my work table to figure out how to solve the problem. Everything is an invention, a new making, a journey somewhere untried before. (Or untried by me.) Time is flying. The deadline presses. I must go down right now and start my day. Greetings from the Ystwyth Valley. XXX

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