In the Realm of the Poet

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Work continues on my collaboration with poet Olivia McCannon on a new retelling of Beauty and the Beast, to be published by Design for Today. Working with Olivia is a revelation. Ideas bat back and forward between us in e-mails, and I find the conversations to be revelatory. We both make discoveries through the processes of discussion, exploring connections and explaining new ideas to each other, and I find that the e-mails and all the ideas they contain are as equal a source of the images I’m making as her evolving text. Recently Olivia wrote to me that she believed there was a rich seam to be considered in regard to Cocteau’s casting of the role of the Goddess Diana in the 1946 film, and that’s opened a whole treasury of possibilities about the living statues, which we’ve adopted for our own version of the story, and how their origins might be explored.

In another e-mail she wrote thrillingly of her imagined source of the jewels the Beast bestows on Beauty, and afterwards I could barely sleep for a week with excitement in anticipation of the images that were evolving in my head out of her ideas.

Above: detail of an illustration in progress: the Beast carries the unconscious Beauty to her bedchamber.

At this stage I can explain no more. While I enjoy sharing the creative processes of making images, in this instance I don’t want to offer them before they’ve been realised and the book published. Suffice to say that this is going to be a version of Beauty and the Beast like no other.

On Memory, Love and the Translation of Magic

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My current project to make a new illustrated edition of Beauty and the Beast for the publisher Design for Today, has been a strange and challenging one. The starting point had been the 1946 La Belle et la Bête by the artist/playwright/director Jean Cocteau.

It can’t be denied that I’m in thrall to the film, and have been since I saw it in my early teens. But of course being in thrall isn’t the best place from which begin a proper relationship. Thrall paralyses. Like passionate love, it has the power to unhinge and cloud judgement. At the beginning I wanted to respond to the film, but couldn’t find a way to do so without the result turning into a sort of graphic novel version, and I knew that approach was not for me.

When the writer Olivia McCannon accepted my invitation to come on board, the creative conversations she initiated set me on another trajectory, as I knew they would. Words have always been prime motivators in my creative process, and even before any drafts of text emerged, Olivia’s e-mails alone became my sources of inspiration. She returned to the pre-Cocteau fairytales as a preparation to re-examining the film, and that was a huge help in circumnavigating the debilitating awe of Cocteau’s achievement preventing me from making progress. I’ve since learned not to return to the film every time I want to examine an aspect of it, but to recall a sense of how it made me feel after having first experienced it all those years ago. I’ve had to learn the art of translation.

I realise that without videos, DVDs and the Internet, after my cinema viewing of La Belle et la Bête there was a gap of nearly twenty years before I was able to revisit it. Something had flourished in that absence. The love I had for it was of an experience cherished and recalled. It was as much about how I was feeling at that time of first viewing, as it was about the film. In the interim my own creative imaginings had filled in and embellished many missing parts. So now it’s those ideas – the ones that sprang from the first viewing – that I draw on to create images that are both of the film, but also expressions of my dream version of it.

I have to keep working at this phenomenon of ‘recollection’, to ensure I’m in the right place. A technique I use is to sit with a DVD of the film, not watching it but jotting down thoughts in a notebook, prompted by the soundtrack. In this way I’m more able to access deeper memory. It’s the deep memory I need for this work. It gives me more than any studying of the film yields, though of course I’m doing that, too. I study, digest and evaluate. Then I set all that aside and go back further, to the visceral, early response. I read the parts of the text Olivia has offered, and her wonderful notes. Then I set about fitting the jigsaw puzzle together.

La Chasse

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Beauty & Beast, my dream-project with poet Olivia McCannon and publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, is my Winter 2020-to-Summer 2021 project. With all other commitments completed or slightly shifted, I can give it my full attention. This is one that’s so challenging and demanding that I need to go at it at a headlong tilt. It can’t be done in stages and set aside between times.

La Chasse is an idea I’d been thinking on as a double-page spread for a year or more. The hunt in the 1946 film isn’t witnessed. There’s a glimpse of a dead animal, and then the unforgettable scene in the corridor outside Belle’s room in which she finds la Bête, his dress disordered and blood-splattered and his hands smoking, as though he’s burning from within. It’s the one moment in the film where Belle looks disgusted by his appearance/condition. Her face twists into ugliness as she throws her flimsy scarf at him, commanding him to clean himself up. It’s hard to watch, given his evident distress.

What we know (well, what some of us know) is that this curse strips humanity from him with every act of beastliness, and like the person with dementia heartrendingly aware of the memories being stolen by the progress of the disease, so la Bête is in a state of bodily horror as his shape and nature shift until he’ll reach a point where he will have no recall of his former self.

Cocteau may have averted his camera gaze from the hunt and kill for technical reasons. Jean Marais as la Bête and Josette Day as Belle were both weighed down by elaborate costumes that while gorgeous, dictated that their scenes together be conducted as a dream-like and stately Pavane. Marais was athletically built and fit, but his costume and make-up were not made for running. We see him make a brave dash for the undergrowth, and that’s that.

Above: Belle calls after La Bête as his animal nature gets the better of him when he catches scent of prey.

These days CGI would step in to render him as fleet and lithe as Spiderman, and we wouldn’t be any better off for it. But as an artist/illustrator, the moment of the kill is one I can’t turn away from, and so for months I’ve played with visual ideas to bring the moment to life.

The sequences in the Beast’s gardens were stitched together from film-footage made at locations, particularly at the Chateau of Raray. The gate above, now stripped of the ivy and undergrowth that made it so picturesque when Cocteau turned his camera on it, became an architectural anchor for the illustration, though I simplified it considerably so as not to imbalance the composition.

I also reinvented the flanking Caryatids into more enigmatically watchful Sphinx-like creatures, as an interesting distaff to the living male statues that flank the fireplace and breathe out plumes of smoke in the Beast’s dining-room.

Above: from my Beauty and Beast project book.
Above: the Raray Gateway simplified and reinvented into an illustration.

A fully worked up study for the illustration (see detail above) experimented with textures and shapes. But in the end I decided to reverse the Beast so that he attacks the animal from the front, disabling it the way a big cat hunts, by blocking its prey’s windpipe. It also made the image read better, as Western readers have an eye-direction that moves left to right.

Here’s the image in the final render.

The iconic lace, stand-up collar has come undone. It’s a slightly strange and abstract shape that works in context because readers will already be familiar with the collar from previous images. The trailing sleeves are still in place, but the breeches are gone, and one powerfully taloned foot has now become too distorted to fit into the single, elegant, lace-cuffed Chevalier’s boot that remains. The Beast’s fashionably slashed sleeves mirror the injuries made by those meat-hook claws that lock into flesh to hold the creature steady.

Dozens of drawings, from the briefest of sketches to fully-worked-up paintings and detailed maquettes have helped me get from idea to illustration.

On finding Beauty and her Beast

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From an Instagram conversation with artist, Dinny Pocock

Dinny: It’s fascinating to see these (sketchbook) pages. By the naming of the characters it would seem – on the surface – ‘easier’ to portray the nature of the beast, but you give Belle such strength and expression. It’s overwhelming.

Clive: Finding the hearts of the characters has been quite the journey of discovery on this project. The Beast’s appearance occupied me more at the start, because there is an undoubted allure in creating a ‘monster’. I found that what worked wonderfully in the 1946 film with an actor in an ingenious makeup, didn’t translate well to the page. When I stuck too closely to portraying Jean Marais’ Beast, mine looked worryingly like a teddy bear with fangs. So a lot of effort went into finding a balance that referenced the Marais/Cocteau creation, but took it where it needed to go in order to work on paper. I had to reconfigure the face, de-humanise the eyes and create an underlying carnivorous ferocity, all while holding on to a sense of the noble. I studied big cats, but far more profitably in terms of inspiration, hyenas. As for finding Beauty, that’s been in nearly every way, the harder task. I knew that to make this work it wouldn’t be enough to portray physical loveliness. Crucially the important things are what underpin the surface of the character. She’s fearful, conflicted, uncertain and unanchored. That’s a lot to suggest. I’m pleased you find the studies of her to be moving. It’s what I hope for in the book.

Below: stages of the character design process begin with studying and making drawings of the the film, but then move on to many sketches and maquettes:

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Beauty and Beast

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I’m happy to make the formal announcement that Olivia McCannon and I are currently collaborating on our exploration of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, which will be published by Joe Pearson at Design for Today. The project began with Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, though while inspired by that masterwork of cinema, our version is increasingly evolving its own character. I sometimes say that it’s not so much a version of Cocteau’s film, than a dream we’ve had of it. (I’ve been dreaming about La Belle et la Bête a lot recently.)

Olivia McCannon is a poet and translator. Her collection Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet) won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Prize. A new collection, Z, is forthcoming. She has translated the poetry of Louise Labé and Ariane Dreyfus, and a Balzac novel (Penguin Classics). Her doctoral research at Newcastle University (Northern Bridge/AHRC-funded) considers the potential of poetry and translation as ‘arts of living on a damaged planet’. She is currently collaborating with Clive Hicks-Jenkins on an illustrated Beauty and Beast that is both a response to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête and a poetic regeneration of the story’s sources. 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins has developed a reputation as an artist who works with poets. For over a decade he’s collaborated closely with the American poet Marly Youmans, producing book-jackets and page decorations for her anthologies and novels. His illustrations will accompany Simon Armitage’s new translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, to be published by Faber next year. Beauty and Beast will be Clive Hicks-Jenkins third collaboration with publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, and his first with Olivia McCannon.

In 2019 Design for Today published Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes with illustrations by Clive Hicks-JenkinsArmitage and Hicks-Jenkins had worked previously on the Faber & Faber 2018 illustrated edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it was the illustrations for their second book collaboration, Hansel & Gretel, that caught the attention of the judges of the V&A Illustration Awards, resulting in the artist being named the winner of the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award. Design for Today has just published Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ picture book The Bird House in their ‘Bantam’ series.

Illustrated Book Award Interview with the V&A’s Rebecca Law

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Please find the Interview

HERE

Endpaper for Hansel and Gretel in which the children’s world is made of vintage building blocks.

The March Lockdown put an end to the proposed V&A exhibition of works by the several categories of Illustration Award winners. There is be no V&A 2021 Illustration Award, and the current plan – all being well – is to re-schedule the postponed 2020 winner’s exhibition for next year.

I was so pleased to be asked to take part in the V&A interview. It enabled me to credit all those who brought Simon Armitage’s text to the page. Particularly the publisher, Joe Pearson, who I hold in the highest esteem, and Laurence Beck, who meticulously ‘cleaned up’ and colourised my drawings ready for printing. (I put him through so many palette variations, and yet he remained unruffled and good humoured throughout.) The book was a team effort, and everyone worked tirelessly to get it to the finishing line.

My thanks to all at the V&A, especially to Rebecca Law, my contact throughout, who asked interesting questions in the interview. (link at top of page)

The Big New Adventure

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I’ve loved Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête since first I saw it. Loved it, been thrilled, haunted and in thrall to it. I never tire of watching it, sometimes quipping that it’s the film to throw in my coffin to keep me company in the afterlife I don’t believe in.

Above: preparatory drawing for an illustration

For the longest time I’d been wondering how best to honour and homage the film. To begin with I toyed with the idea of making a series of paintings, but then together with Joe Pearson at Design for Today – who published Hansel & Gretel last year – hatched a plan to produce an illustrated book in collaboration with the poet Olivia McCannon, who I’d been longing to work with. Joe, Olivia and I are in agreement that neither a straight adaptation of the screenplay nor a picture book version of the film could do justice to our ambitions. We’ve opted instead for what we’re referring to as a reinvention of Cocteau’s masterpiece characterised less as a translation, than a ‘dream’ of the film.

Above: my portrait of La Bête, the first image made for the book

I’ve filled drawing books with preparatory material. Characters and places have been exhaustively explored in order to find versions that will work to best advantage in illustrations. Iconic visual aspects of Cocteau’s Beauty and her Beast In their Christian Bérard costumes have been pored over, their shapes, textures and design characteristics examined, simplified and reconfigured so as to work graphically on the page. I’ve built maquettes and three-dimensional model sets to help with my compositions.

Above: maquettes under construction

With the groundwork done, I begin the real work of construction. There’s no dummy yet, but I estimate forty illustrations. Time to get busy!

Above: Jean Cocteau’s handwriting in the film’s opening credits

The Mother’s Story

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Creating the characters for the Simon Armitage re-invention of the story of Hansel & Gretel, proved a long process of development. To begin with the visualisations were for the stage. Only later did I have to think about the translation of the stage characters to the book published by Design for Today.

In the case of the mother – who in Simon’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes is a loving and protective one, far from the wicked mother/stepmother of the original story as told by the Grimm brothers – I created the basic idea of the character as she’d be presented on stage in a shadow-puppet form. My very simple design defined her overall look, though without too much detail.

Once the initial design was established and agreed between me and Peter Lloyd, he further developed it into an elaborate, articulated shadow-puppet, ready to be used in animation sequences for projection onto a screen during the live performances. It went through several stages.

As finally seen on stage, the shadow-puppet version of the mother was an extraordinary creation by Peter, stout of form and with a ruined, almost bovine peasant face deeply scored by hardship. But the careworn appearance belied her character, because when animated for the camera she transformed. Dainty on her feet and with expressive hands and a bobbing, bird-like demeanour, her anxiety for her children’s safety, became her defining characteristic.

Animating Peter’s shadow puppets was a pleasure, because they were so beautifully conceived and executed. My animation assistant was Phil Cooper, who also designed the sets for the stage production.

When the time came to re-examine the characters for the illustrated book, I had to think again about the mother.

In illustration form, without the medium of animation to more fully express her character, after trialling some images I felt weren’t working (see the two above) I decided to made her less stolidly shapeless than in her shadow-puppet form. Though my work retained clear vestiges of Peter Lloyd’s weary, middle-aged shadow-puppet mother in all of her paper-cut, filigree complexity, in one image I was able to carry her back to when she was a young and expectant first-time mother. Sometimes lines of text which in a live performance flash past, in a book may be paused at and reflected upon in an accompanying image The physical act of reading, looking and turning pages, imposes its own, slower pace.

Creativity has fluid boundaries. I would have loved to show more aspects of the mother in the book, but in the end it’s important to be rigorous when deciding on which visual ideas will best express the story, and which need to be trimmed away. So she appears just three times: at the beginning, in the company of her husband, in an image showing her pregnant with her daughter (inspired by Chagall), and at the end of the book, in an image that shows her fate.

Scores, possibly hundreds of sketches, from thumbnails to fully worked maquettes and illustrations, were made in order to arrive at the three images of the mother in the published edition of Simon Armitage’s text. But if tomorrow I had to illustrate a story in which she made a reappearance, I could portray her with no hesitation. I could draw her as a child, as a young woman, or as a woman for whom life was quite different to the version in our book. I could draw her in a heartbeat, because I know her so well.

The Design for Today edition of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, is the winner of the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award. Copies may be purchased:

HERE

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In Birdland

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Peter Wakelin will be interviewing Clive Hicks-Jenkins on the 29th September, 19:00 – 20:15. The first in a planned series of online art interviews organised by the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, admission to In Birdland is free. There are 100 places available for the live event which may be viewed around the world, though registration is required.

Click HERE to register.

About this Event

While caged at home for lockdown, Clive Hicks-Jenkins has surrounded himself with birds. His projects have included his miniature picture-book Bird House for Design for Today, a new print of birds and beasts for the Penfold Press and illustrations for Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, forthcoming from Faber & Faber. Birds have appeared often in Clive’s paintings, notably his series on St Kevin and the Blackbird and CASW’s The Virgin of the Goldfinches in Llandaff Cathedral. In this live interview he will talk about how birds weave their way through so much of his work, his inspirations and practices and his collaboration with the Poet Laureate. There will be time allowed at the end for audience questions.

Above: Illustration from Simon Armitage’s The Owl and the Nightingale

Below: St Kevin and the Sunflowers. Private Collection

Below: Startled Peacocks: Private Collection

Below: Illustration from Bird House, due out from Design for Today in November

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Interview on winning the V&A illustrated Book Award

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Jayne Paddington of Southampton Solent University interviews me:

 

JP: Tell us about the book illustrations you created.

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The book had an unusual beginning. As an artist with a background in theatre, in 2017 I’d been commissioned by a music ensemble to helm a new production of Hansel & Gretel. The producer had seen and been impressed by the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop (see above) and wanted to capitalise on the success of that. She’d begun talking with the composer she had in mind for the project, and as I was already collaborating with Simon Armitage on the revised and illustrated edition of his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber & Faber, 2018), I suggested he join us as the librettist/writer.

 

Simon titled his re-working of the fairy tale, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and it previewed at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2018 before a national tour and a London premiere at the Barbican. A recording of the piece was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 during Christmas week, 2018.

 

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At some point during the pre-production of the show Simon suggested we might work together to produce an illustrated book of his libretto/poem. We discussed the options for publishing and  I recommended we speak with Joe Pearson at Design for Today. When Joe agreed to undertake publication, work on the book began in earnest.

 

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Set in a war zone, Simon’s version of the fairy tale took a completely different tone to the original by the Grimm Brothers by changing the impetus for Hansel and Gretel’s journey from that of abandonment by feckless parents, to an agonised decision by a loving father and mother to send their children away from the bombings.

 

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By this simple change the story became one of love and sacrifice, rather than of duplicity and abandonment. He was very clever too at conveying the degrees to which children mis-hear and misconstrue, and his text is full of moments when the siblings’ actions are based on their misunderstanding of events.

 

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With regard to how the images were made, the overall intention was to capture something of the golden age of lithography printing that both Joe Pearson and I greatly admire. One of the hallmarks of the process is that the images are reproduced on uncoated paper and have a matt finish.

 

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Above: work underway on an illustration, and below: as it appears in the book.

 

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I made the drawings in black pencil, some on paper and some on granular lithography film, with occasional use of collaged textures that I produced myself by various means. I made separate ‘stencils’ in crayons and paints on lithography film for the colours. The layers of drawings and stencils were assembled digitally by the book’s designer, Laurence Beck, which was the point at which the colour was added.

 

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Below: detail of the image as it appears in the book.

 

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Another attractive hallmark of old-school lithography can be the slight mis-registration of the various colours. This is something I’d intentionally cultivated in my artwork for the book, and Laurence was very careful to reproduce the effect in the finished images.

 

JP: How did it feel to win? What will happen now as a result of winning?

 

It’s been a strange time to receive my V&A Illustration Award in a summer when the building has been closed. The event was originally to have taken place at the museum in June, but was indefinitely postponed at the time of lockdown. There was to have been an exhibition of the artwork at the V&A, and that too was cancelled.  I heard about the announcement not from the museum, but from a press release they put out. While it’s very exciting to have been honoured in this way, it can’t be denied that reading about it in an unexpected online press release has not had the excitement factor that an event would have brought to it. I’m guessing they will either hold a smaller event later in the year, or failing that I guess the trophy will be delivered in the post.

JP: Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?

 

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When you’re working to a text by the poet laureate, you don’t have to look any further than the words. I knew Hansel & Gretel inside out because I’d already designed and directed it for the stage, so I had a very good starting point for the project. Nonetheless, the moment the stage tour was over I began from scratch again with the text, dividing it up and making a very rough dummy copy that set out lines-per-page and earmarked where the images might go. And because the publisher and I had considered that first dummy very carefully, though the details sometimes changed over the period of illustrating, the overall shape and number of pages remained pretty much as we set out at the beginning.

 

The next stage was to make a huge project-book in which I began the process of designing every visual element I intended to show: human characters and what they wear, settings and the moods generated by them, objects, animals and events.

 

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It was exhaustive and stretched to several hundreds of images. (Enough for three books really.) Even if something appeared only once – such as the ‘imagined’ hyena that appears early on – I drew it dozens of times to work out what the image would bring to the book.

 

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For a bridge described by the author as ‘arched like a hissing cat’, I made more than fifty drawings of arch-backed cats, hump-backed-bridges, cat/bridges and bridge/cats, gradually finding the hissing cat/bridge hybrid that best conjured the mood of the scene.

 

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Simon is an incredibly enriching poet to collaborate with, and to do justice to him I find ways of accompanying his texts in ways that will take the reader by surprise. I  begin with the words of course, but often the places most profitable for illustration are the spaces between them.

 

JP: What advice would you give to our students wanting to one day follow in your footsteps?

 

Well they can’t follow in my footsteps, and shouldn’t want to. They should find their own ways, and travel by routes of their own devising. My careers have been various. I didn’t start as an artist, but as a choreographer and director, so I came late to the easel and even later to illustration. My experience is that the wider your interests, the better you’ll be at whatever you do. I don’t go around thinking about illustration all of the time. I read (voraciously) listen to music, study history, try to understand the world, try to understand people and stash away everything I learn in the place marked ‘material to be be used on some future project!’ I study art of all varieties and periods. I collect art, vintage toys (particularly wooden building blocks), textiles, puppets, masks, comics, fossils and books. I’ve collected all my life, whenever I’ve had a bit of spare cash. Some of the things I’ve collected ended up in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and migrated from that to the book.

 

Below: from the shelves of my tinplate toy bird cabinet…

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… to the stage production of Hansel & Gretel 

 

… to a double-page spread in the book:

 

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This little cavalryman migrated from my sitting room…

 

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… to an animated sequence in the stage production …

 

 

… to a preparatory drawing for the book …

 

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… to full render separations on paper and lithography film …

 

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… to the final colour book illustration. (Detail)

 

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All my collections fuel my work. I never have to start from scratch with any illustration project. Somewhere in my collection, there will be a starting-point ready made. I just wander around looking at what I have until I find it. It’s a more organic process than trying to conjure something out of nothing.

 

Here’s a link to a little film about the making of Hansel & Gretel.

 

http://www.designfortoday.co.uk/hansel-gretel

 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, 2020.

 

Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes

Author: Simon Armitage

Illustrator: Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Designer: Laurence Beck

Publisher: Design for Today