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

Colouring the Imagination

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Back at the beginning of discussions with Simon Lewin about the proposed picture book of Hansel & Gretel, he suggested that I produce the illustrations as ‘separations’. My method of making illustrations up until that point had always been to paint as intended for reproduction. However, Simon works with print-makers, and the Random Spectacular imprint he created as an extension of his work at St Jude’s is one where he explores print-related projects that interest him. I am not a print-maker – or I wasn’t back then – and his suggestion meant I was going to have to learn some new tricks.

Separations are the layers of colour used to reproduce an image. Simon explained that my images for Hansel & Gretel could be made as separations on layers on drafting-film or heavy tracing-paper, prior to digital scanning. The digitised layers would then be ‘assembled’ in the computer ready for printing. Images made in this way have the feel of those in early illustrated books, when the colours were printed in separate passes.

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Simon’s vision of how the images might be produced was encouraging, but it would all be new territory for me and I didn’t want to let anyone down. He remained reassuring and persuasive, explaining that he’d guide me through the processes and then personally assemble the images ready for printing. He would design the book.

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I began researching and adapting the Grimm Brothers’ story to what I thought might work in a picture book. Initially I produced quite a lot of text, but eventually pared that back to twenty-seven words scattered throughout forty-eight pages. Enough to make a coherent narrative and to lend ‘voices’ to the various characters. I planned to letter the text myself.

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Above: lettering from the final render of the opening page spread.

Simon and I agreed on a square format book. We planned the dimensions of it and the number of pages, including four fold-outs that would spring surprises and carry forward the story-telling. What we put together at that point remained the template for Hansel & Gretel to the completion of the project.

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Above: rough schematic of how the book would appear when looking down at the top of it it, the pages fanned to indicate the inclusion of the fold-outs. The positions of the fold-outs would later change so they were spread evenly throughout, and they became full rather than half-pages.

I planned to make the images to the printed scale. This way I wouldn’t have to be thinking about how reduction might impact the artwork.

First came small, rough sketches, and later, maquettes of the characters. The children sprang to life almost immediately, barely changing from the earliest scribbles to how they appear in the book.

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However the parents evolved somewhat startlingly in ways I hadn’t expected.

The father eventually became a creature made from empty seashells, suggesting the hollowness of a man nagged and criticised to a point muteness.

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Over the months of development the mother became increasingly grotesque, and that eventually impacted on the witch, because I had to find ways to make her even more scary than the ‘bad’ mother.

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Before the final work of rendering began, I completed a made-to-scale dummy-copy of the book, with every image planned down to the smallest detail. The only element missing was the colour, which I was still thinking about. I passed the dummy to Simon Lewin when we met at the opening of Jonny Hannah’s 2015 exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It was a wonderfully exciting event packed with Hannah enthusiasts, and Simon slipped the dummy unopened into his bag for later study. After he’d sent an e-mail signing off on it, I prepared to make the final renders.

In June 2015 I’d met Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press to discuss whether we might collaborate on a print. We made a single, editioned screenprint together – a first for me – and as a result of that enjoyable and successful experience, we planned a project to produce a series of fourteen prints based on the the medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Dan guided me through the process of working on layers of drafting film with brushes, crayons and pens. Due to the complexity of what I planned for the Gawain images, for each print I first produced a fully rendered painting to use as my guide to making the separations.

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a) original painting of The Armouring of Gawain made as my guide to creating the separations

b) layers of separations on drafting-film held in place by registration pins on the right

c) the completed screenprint

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Because of this, by the time I came to make the artwork for Hansel & Gretel I was feeling more confident about producing separations. However, having spent so long working out how to tell the story and creating the visual character of the book, there simply wasn’t the time to make paintings of all the pages. I hoped that as the colours of the illustrations were going to be more simply deployed than those of the Gawain prints, then the lack of guide paintings wouldn’t be a problem. I’d simply ‘imagine’ how the images were going to reproduce in colour.

The Hansel & Gretel drawings were made in black pencil on heavy board. With the exception of the separations for the cover (see top of post) which were cut from red lithography film, the separations for all the illustrations were produced in opaque paint on drafting film. Because separations define the areas of colours that will come at the later printing stage, they can be made in any colour. I used red oxide. At this stage the layered artworks looked quite strange.

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Between us Simon and I had agreed on a simplified palette of seven colours for the book: mid blue, pale blue, dark red, mid yellow, dull pink, black and dull yellow, selected from a universal Pantone chart. On each drawing and separation I indicated which colour I intended for that layer. Some of the black drawings were intended for reproduction in colour. Keeping track of how all this would look required a lot of imagining. When making a drawing I intended for reproduction in colour, I would scrawl that colour in large letters on a post-it gummed to the upper corner, to remind myself that contrary to how things looked in front of me, this was not going to be black when printed.

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Above: Hansel & Gretel drawing in progress, and below, digitally scanned and proofed by the printer in mid blue and dull pink.

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Some artists scan their drawings and separations and digitally colour them on the computer screen to get an idea of how they’ll look when completed. But I don’t have those skills, and so I have to work ‘in my imagination’.

The completed drawings and separations were scanned by Saxon Digital Services and then printed by Swallowtail, both in Norwich. Saxon and Swallowtail made significant contributions to the outcome of the translation from artworks to book. The original drawings were rich in mark-making, tonality and detail. I’d used etching needles to create hair-thin bright lines against the sootiness of densely worked pencil. Although made in black, the drawings had a delicate silveriness that came from the grain of the paper surface and from reflected light, and the printed images would have been pummelled to death had they been produced with too dark a contrast. Neither could the layers of colours be allowed to obscure the details and textures of the drawings. I lost a lot of sleep worrying about it all. But the results, when I saw them, were perfect. Every last detail had been reproduced, down to a thread of saliva stretched between the jaws of the witch as she anticipates dinner!

From start of project to conclusion, Simon Lewin was nothing less than magnificent as chief enthusiast, publisher, designer and project manager. No detail escaped him. He never put any constraints on what I produced, at all stages finding solutions to smooth the way forward for me. Moreover there was no deadline, meaning the work could develop and unfold without the pressure of a completion date.  There have been no compromises on Hansel & Gretel. Not one. The book is exactly as I wanted it to be.

Hansel & Gretel

The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale reimagined by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Published by Random Spectacular

Printed by Swallowtail, Norwich

Scanned by Saxon Digital Services, Norwich

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Hansel & Gretel: Don’t Go Into The Wood!

Producing the Hansel & Gretel book-trailer was a team effort that wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support of my collaborators.
Film: Culture Colony Vision
Models: Philip Cooper
Music: Kate Romano

Hansel & Gretel Prelude performed on the toy piano by Kate Romano and recorded by Rob Godman

I’ve worked with Pete Telfer of Culture Colony Vision many times over the past ten years. He’s produced several films about my practice as an artist. Pete was cameraman and all round facilitator on the animated film I made to accompany Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival, and he filmed and edited the animation and model sequences for the music theatre project of The Mare’s Tale. (Composed by Mark Bowden in 2013 with a text by Damian Walford Davies.) Pete gently guides me through the processes of my ‘film’ projects. He is unfailingly supportive and manages the delicate business of giving me enough freedom to experiment, while ensuring that I don’t make a complete dick of myself.

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Phil Cooper and I have been friends ever since he caught a train from London to turn up at a maquette-making workshop I gave in Swansea that I was quite sure no-one would attend. He is a maker to his fingertips. When I saw some of the models he was producing as part of his exploration on the theme of German Expressionist film, I pounced and asked whether he’d consider creating a model version of the witch’s house for my Hansel & Gretel book-trailer. He used my drawings as a starting point, and then freely extemporised on the theme. I love what he created.

In September 2016 Phil arrived at Aberystwyth station carrying a suitcase packed with all the models and materials necessary to make his magic in our dining-room-turned-pop-up-animation-studio. Out came the steeply-pitched cottage, the conical-roofed tower, the boulders and ruined archway and a huge variety of trees, enough to cover the dining-table in an arboretum of impressive dimensions. We reconfigured the set several times over the two days, to get the most film coverage, and Phil glued and brushed and tacked cloth and crumpled tissue paper into the strange topographies of our fairy-tale wood. Moreover between the set-building and tweaking, he took to animation as though he’d been doing it for years.

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Kate Romano came late to the team. Just as I was beginning to panic that my original idea of creating a music free soundtrack for the trailer out of strange noises – all of which I’d have to create and record – wasn’t going to work, I took it into my head to suggest that she record a few bars on one of her toy pianos for me to use within the soundtrack. Kate suggested that she take a tilt at composing a beginning-to-end accompaniment for the film, and her Prelude for Hansel & Gretel, played on a two octave toy piano, is the result. I wasn’t able to show Kate any footage before she wrote and recorded the music, though she’d seen a dummy copy of the picture book. The character of what she produced was perfect, and Pete and I cut the trailer to fit it. I think the music is better for not having been tailored shot by shot. I was able to synchronise images to the soundtrack where the fit was good, and to cut across it when that seemed the better option.

Rob Godman is a composer in his own right, and a friend and regular collaborator with Kate. However I’ve never met him, and so his contribution of recording her playing of Prelude for Hansel & Gretel is a particularly generous one. He has my heartfelt thanks.

In 2014 Simon Lewin of St Jude’s undertook to publish my proposed picture book of Hansel & Gretel  under his Random Spectacular imprint. His support underpinned the project from start to finish. The book-trailer has been made to celebrate our bringing the picture-book to its conclusion.

Hansel & Gretel 

The Brothers Grimm fairy tale reimagined by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Published by Random Spectacular, November 2016

Printed by Swallowtail, Norwich

Scanning by Saxon Digital Services, Norwich

Random Spectacular is the publishing imprint of design collective and print gallery, St Jude’s. The imprint was launched in 2011, providing the opportunity for St Jude’s to explore further collaborations in printed and audio form.

The picture book will be available for pre-order at Random Spectacular from Monday 30th October. (Halloween!)

www.randomspectacular.co.uk

the serendipity of where images fall

While tidying up my desk, I noticed how well these collage images from two quite separate projects looked when sitting next to each other. I straightened them up, took a couple of snapshots and began pondering on the matter of the illustrated book of fairy tales that’s been in the back of mind. Just playing around here really, moving on a little from the Hansel and Gretel  work of the enamelware service and my Alphabet Soup submissions.

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I have no commission for such a book, and no text. I don’t know whether I’m in the world of a child’s book or toying with the idea of one better suited to adults, though I don’t really like to make those distinctions. While it might be a ‘livre d’artiste’, I don’t want to go down the route of self-publishing. You’ll have gathered by now that I have no idea where the hell I’m headed with this, but my brain is buzzing with ideas.  I tell you what though, if a publisher of any variety comes-a-calling at the Artlog, I’ll be ready for a chat. And if anyone else has ideas, please feel free to suggest them.