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

Featured

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 Mother’s Story

Featured

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

>>><<<

Interview on winning the V&A illustrated Book Award

Featured

Jayne Paddington of Southampton Solent University interviews me:

 

JP: Tell us about the book illustrations you created.

DSC00107 (1)

 

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.

 

52348504_10157080294578436_4550672834006876160_n

 

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.

 

PastedGraphic-1 (14)

 

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.

 

PastedGraphic-1

 

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.

 

PastedGraphic-1 (1)

 

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.

 

IMG_5927

 

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

 

PastedGraphic-2 (1)

 

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.

 

IMG_5889

 

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

 

IMG_1010

 

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?

 

PastedGraphic-12

 

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.

 

IMG_5873

 

IMG_4125 (1)

 

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.

 

IMG_7484

 

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.

 

IMG_7479

PastedGraphic-2 (2)

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…

IMG_1833 (1)

… to the stage production of Hansel & Gretel 

 

… to a double-page spread in the book:

 

PastedGraphic-2

 

This little cavalryman migrated from my sitting room…

 

IMG_4727

 

… to an animated sequence in the stage production …

 

 

… to a preparatory drawing for the book …

 

IMG_5037

 

… to full render separations on paper and lithography film …

 

IMG_5071

 

… to the final colour book illustration. (Detail)

 

IMG_8587

 

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

Re-making the Fairy Tale

Featured

PastedGraphic-2 (1)

Daisy Wynter wrote to me at Instagram re. Hansel & Gretel:a Nightmare in Eight Scenes:

 

PastedGraphic-14 (1)

“I love your work so much, I can’t stop looking at it and the wonderful textures you produce. Is it colour pencil or some kind of printing technique for these images?”

 

IMG_0985

I replied:

“The drawings were made in black Faber Castell pencil on either paper or lithography film, with occasional use of collaged textures that I produced myself by various means.

 

IMG_1010

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 is the point at which the colour was added.

IMG_0991

We did it this way so that we could experiment with the colour palette, and this turned out to be a great advantage because along the way we radically changed our ideas to those we’d set out with.

IMG_1012

The overall intention was to capture something of the golden age of lithography printing. I’m not keen on illustrations that are essentially photographs of painted artwork reproduced on coated art paper. We planned on uncoated paper and a matt finish throughout the book, and the slight mis-registration that can be one of the delights of lithography and screen printing.

IMG_1007

The images and text feel integrated in this way, especially as we added colour to some of the text to denote which characters are speaking.”

 

Below: several layers of pencil and crayon on lithography film. These were separately scanned and assembled in the computer…

IMG_5076

… at which point colour was digitally added.

IMG_8587

Below: the tailpiece of the book.

IMG_1017 (1)

 

“And the award goes to”

Featured

PastedGraphic-14 (3)
The results of the V&A Illustration Awards have been announced, and I’m happy to share here that I’ve won the 2020 V&A Book Illustration Award for Hansel & Gretel: A Nightmare in Eight Scenes by the poet laureate, Simon Armitage, published by Design for Today (Joe Pearson) with book design by Laurence Beck.
It’s a wonderful outcome for a project that started back in 2017 when Simon wrote a reinvention of the fairy tale as the text/libretto for a music theatre production commissioned by the Goldfield Ensemble that I directed.
5491
Set in a war zone, the story took a completely different tone to the original by the Grimm Brothers when Simon changed 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. Even before the premiere at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival I’d begun work preparing images for the illustrated edition of the poem, which was published in 2019. The beautiful book that resulted from the collaboration with Simon, Joe and Laurence was ample reward for the hard work, but the V&A award is the cherry on the cake.
PastedGraphic-2 (15)
Copies of the book may be purchased from Design for Today,

Russian Bird: the constant muse

Featured

The Russian Bird is a marvel of clockwork ingenuity. Though a little faded from too much sunlight in her youth (we’re more careful with her now) her mechanisms are still strong.

 

IMG_6259 (2)

When fully wound she turns her head from side to side, her beak opens and closes, her wings flap, her tail bobs and she sings with considerable brio. Her voice, powered by bellows in her chest, while not the sweetest nonetheless has an impressive vibrato. I always think her more a music-hall artiste than a concert-platform diva. More Vesta Tilley than Dame Kiri te Kanawa!

There’s certainly no point in anyone talking while she’s performing because she drowns out all competition, which is pretty impressive for a lady of her small size and considerable years.

IMG_1833 (1)

She moved audiences when projected onto a screen during performances of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, beautifully accompanying the music that conjured a forest full of birds. Here’s the sequence, though alas without the live music accompaniment. (She was not best pleased that the composer eschewed her voice, but stepped up to the challenge of conveying her role through the medium of mime like a born silent movie star!)

When the poem by Simon Armitage that had been the libretto of the production was published in an illustrated edition by Design for Today, the Russian Bird was awarded a double page spread, and in it she’s quite the Queen of the Forest surrounded by her retinue of smaller birds, all pecking away at Hansel’s path of scattered crumbs.

PastedGraphic-2 (19)

Deeply conscientious about her duties as artist’s muse, she’s a tireless model and will go to any lengths to facilitate whatever’s required of her in the studio. For her forthcoming appearance on the cover of the picture book Bird House for Design for Today, she carried a Byzantine palace knapsack-style on her back, standing unflinchingly for an entire afternoon while I drew her.

img603

She’s made guest appearances in several galleries and museums. Here at MoMA Machynlleth she takes centre stage on the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre that toured the country in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes in 2018.

 

IMG_8317

You can see in these snapshots that she loves demonstrating to an adoring public that she’s the inspiration behind what is clearly – in her opinion – the most important illustration in the book of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes.

IMG_8328

IMG_7684

 

IMG_8043

She’s never slow to be my messenger, and friends are always won over by her bright eyes and sprightly demeanour.

IMG_8696

Below: in a tiny theatre of her own, produced in a small edition for members of the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Harlequinade Club.

 

IMG_8257

When not making public appearances, Russian Bird is tirelessly creative in the studio, always game to collaborate with other toys on making scenarios she thinks may offer me new pathways to paintings and illustrations. Here she is in a stunning tableau vivant interpretation of Death and the Maiden.

IMG_9781

Here we catch her giving one of her renowned masterclasses to an eager young student.

IMG_9766

None of us at Ty Isaf knows where we’d be without her.

IMG_8018

 

 

Old Bus-Ticket Pink!

PastedGraphic-1 (9).jpg

I’m on the most wonderful adventure with publisher Joe Pearson and his assistant Laurence at Design for Today, and Simon Armitage’s glittering reinvention of a fairytale favourite has given us the most thrilling material to work with.

Simon’s Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, formed the text to Matthew Kaner’s music in a production featuring the Goldfield Ensemble, plus actor, puppets and shadow-play, that I directed this year. (A recording of a performance of it given at Barbican is being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on December 22nd.) In Spring 2019 the text is being published in a beautiful Design for Today edition, masterminded by Joe.

We’re currently tweaking the colours, a muted and atmospheric palette of dusty pinks, blues and yellows that I’ve nicknamed my ‘old bus-ticket’ range. (I think Farrow & Ball should take note!) This is the first ‘colour illustrated’ book I’ve produced for a contemporary text, and the process – thanks to Joe’s meticulous care for the book and our joint ambition to make it truly splendid – is the most fun I’ve ever had on an illustration project. What a great experience our work together over the past few months has been! My thanks to Simon, who came up with the idea of the illustrated edition and asked my help to make it happen, and of course to Joe, who unhesitatingly took up the challenge.

The palette for Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, draws on the faded colours of old bus tickets.

6087977-assortment-of-old-bus-tickets.jpg