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.

The Dragon Princess

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The 2019 English Heritage Story-Telling Competition

In 2019, while I was artist-in-residence for English Heritage, one of the briefs suggested to me was that I might create illustrations as prizes for the winners of the five categories of an English Heritage story telling competition. It was a new experience to consider, inasmuch that I’d have to agree to be involved from the start so that the announcement could be made at the launch of the competition. This meant that I’d be committed to the project before getting to read any of the stories, which is not my usual way of working. But because I thought the idea had the potential to be stimulating for the young writers, I accepted.

The 5-7 category winner was Sophie from the Midlands with her story of The Dragon and the Princess, set at Kenilworth Castle. Most of the stories submitted for the five categories were based on history, but Sophie had written one in which she had a protagonist who appeared to be channeling her inner Daenerys Targaryen – though without the attendant carnage.

I thought the story charming, and believed I could contribute something to it. In an ideal world I would have enjoyed having dialogues with the winners so that I could exchange ideas with them and have a sense of what they wanted for their stories, the way I would when illustrating a commercial publication. But this was deemed by English Heritage to be too complicated, and so I worked using only the winning texts as my guides and inspirations.

Below: developmental drawings toward the illustration for The Dragon and the Princess:

There were so many directions I could have taken with the illustration, and it felt limiting to produce only one when I could see so many possibilities. (I loved the idea that Perdita ‘torched’ the castle before setting off for her new life with Dennis, presumably so that there was no chance of her being forced to return!)

All five illustrations for the competition winners were started and completed during lockdown, framed and then collected by a specialised art-carrying service that delivered them to the recipients. There was no contact between any of us. But then quite unexpectedly Sophie’s mother messaged me at Facebook.

“Hi Clive, I’m the mum of one of the English Heritage short story winners that has received your wonderful Illustration of her story. She is absolutely thrilled with it – you have bought her story to life and she couldn’t be happier! Thank you so much for a wonderful bit of art that will stay with my daughter – and with us as a family – for ever!”

Later she added:

Sophie would love to see the process you took, as would we. Her headteacher is very excited to see the illustration too, and so it is going into school on Monday to be shown in a full school assembly, albeit via Zoom ‘beamed’ into each classroom, but the excitement is still valid!

Above: Sophie, the Age 5 -7 Category Winner of the English Heritage Storytelling Competition, with her prize of an illustration of Dennis the Dragon and Princess Perdita.

The Dragon and the Princess

Once upon a time, a king called Titon lived in Kenilworth Castle. The knights of the castle were fearless, the guards were strong, and the castle was expertly built. The king wanted it this way because of his big secret: his daughter, Princess Perdita. King Titon loved Perdita so much that he would have kept her in a little jewellery box if he could have! But he did not realise that this was bad for Perdita. She was lonely because her father wouldn’t let her do anything. 

One day a fierce dragon by the name of Dennis came to the castle. He breathed out fire in rage as if he were in a terrible tantrum. Everyone in the castle was scared so the knights and guards started to fight Dennis. They fired arrows at him and tried to cut him with their swords, but Dennis was too strong and too fast. What they didn’t know was that Dennis was only angry because everyone he met was scared of him and he was sad because he was friendless. 

The last few knights and guards fled, and they took the king with them. When they came to take Perdita too, she hid from the guards in a wardrobe. Princess Perdita looked out of the window and saw the last few guards and her father leave. She knew what it felt like to be lonely and understood Dennis’s feelings, so she ran downstairs and outside to meet him. Dennis went up to her, but he wasn’t angry anymore. 

Princess Perdita bravely walked right up close and looked straight at him. “Hello, I’m Perdita. Would you like to be my friend?” she asked. 

Dennis couldn’t believe his ears. “Yes, please!” he roared with a big smile on his face. “I’m Dennis. Pleased to meet you.” 

Then Princess Perdita had an idea. She asked Dennis if he could breathe fire over the whole castle because she didn’t want to be a princess anymore. She would rather be a dragon’s best friend and fly on his back all over the kingdom. Dennis was so happy to finally have a friend he agreed at once. And that is how Kenilworth Castle fell into ruins. 

Written in 2019 by Sophie, aged 7

(Sophie is now 8)

The Art of the Cover

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When the race has been run and my brushes and pencils have been set down, my output of book covers is going to be very small in comparison to that of any commercial illustrator. I pick and choose very carefully from the offers that come in, and I spend incalculable amounts of time reading manuscripts and making notes and developmental sketches. I care with a passion about what I make.

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Below: for Charis in the World of Wonders Ignatius took the unusual step of allowing me to design their publishing imprint for the front cover. Interestingly because the imprint is now so integral to the narrative imagery of Charis’s story, it has a much stronger presence on the cover than it might otherwise have had, though the publisher can’t have known that when granting me permission.

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Though things are different now, in the past I underwrote the time it took me to make book covers with the income from my work as an easel artist. I did it because I simply love books. I love the art of the book. I love the way that a cover can reach someone who may never walk into a gallery to look at art.

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I work with publishers I’m comfortable with and who are comfortable with me as we all progress toward the desired conclusion. I don’t make covers for books I don’t like, or for authors I’m not convinced by or for publishers who haven’t taken the trouble to discover how I think and work. I don’t have the time to make those kinds of errors.

To date I’ve made more covers for Marly Youmans than I have for any other author. She was the first to suggest I might come up with a cover image for a book. Until then publishers had asked only for permissions to use my paintings – or details from them –  for covers, and with mixed results. So the idea of making a cover from scratch was an attractive one. The first book for Marly was her novella Val/Orson, and I’ve been been working with her ever since. Thinking about it, I see a pattern emerges, and at the heart of it is the certainty that I don’t want to make banal covers. All the authors I enjoy working with create layers of mysteries and ambiguities in their writings, and those qualities give me the space to grow images that interest me. If I’m not interested, I don’t want to make the cover.

Below: the front and back wrap-cover for Val/Orson (PS Publishing, 2009), before the title and author were added. It was a hardback without a dust-wrapper, which is quite unusual.

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Below: front and back wrap-cover for The Book of the Red King. (Phoenicia Publishing, 2019) After Val/Orson I began to include title and author to the cover artwork of all my books for Marly, the better to integrate words with images. It’s a practice that whenever possible I’ve held to with other authors.

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Since becoming the artist most associated with the published works of Marly Youmans, other writers have approached me with requests to make covers for their books: Damian Walford Davies, Mary-Ann Constantine and most recently Simon Armitage, who wanted not just a cover, but my entire suite of fourteen Penfold Press Sir Gawain and The Green Knight screen prints to illustrate the Faber & Faber revision of his translation of the medieval poem. Simon and I have since produced Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes for Design for Today, and I’m currently working with him on a yet-to-be announced book.

Below: Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes (2018, Design for Today) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2018, Faber & Faber)

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I’ve been in love with books all my life. Because as a child I read prolifically and precociously, from the moment I was allowed out by myself I could be found in book shops where wall-to-wall paperback covers offered endless visual stimulation. I was gazing raptly at the covers of novels long before I experienced art in galleries. To begin with it was the covers that led my reading. At best the book cover can be an invitation to a new realm, but it needs to catch your attention or it’ll remain unexplored. When opportunities allow for an image to wrap to the back cover, I enjoy the possibilities of springing a surprise. The front cover for Judas (see below) only offers a part of the picture. The spine runs a centimetre or two to the left of the title, and so it’s only when the book is flipped in the hand that the monstrousness of the distorted animal becomes apparent.

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Whenever I begin making a cover, the guiding principle is to make it catch the eye of a passer by. I will never deceive, but there has to be an element of the sideshow barker calling attention to the tent and the wonders within. All I have to do is get the punter to the tent-flap, to lift it and to look inside. Thereafter it’s all down to the author.

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Charis in the World of Wonders by Marly Youmans and with cover artwork and interior decorations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, is due out from Ignatius in the US in the Spring of 2020.

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