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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Gentle Charis and her Friends at Ignatius Publishing

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We live in a world where there is so much by way of argumentative dialogues, endless competitiveness, jostling for pole positions, public crowing and an unwillingness to listen to others, that when creative endeavours are conducted with kindness and gentleness, it’s a blessed relief from what we’ve all had to become more accustomed to.

Marly Youmans and I have long been friends who like to collaborate. She is a wonderful friend, but also a poet and novelist greatly admired. I first came across Marly when I saw her name signed to a comment on a blog where she was defending me as an artist, though we’d never met or had any previous contact. I wrote to thank her and we became e-correspondents. Later she came to Wales to stay with us at Ty Isaf. She’s the narrator of a short documentary about my maquettes, a contributing author to the 2011 Lund Humpries monograph about my work and she was present at the Gregynog Gallery of The National Library of Wales for the opening of my sixtieth birthday retrospective of paintings. We’ve been working together almost from the start of our friendship. I make her book covers and when time and budget allow, the chapter headings and decorations too.

In part Marly moved from her previous publisher because of me. I’d decided I no longer wanted to work there, though I hadn’t expected my leaving would precipitate Marly’s departure. I had thought there would simply be a change to another artist, but I had not taken into account that though Marly is the gentlest woman, she is nonetheless stubborn about the things that matter most and her loyalties are fierce. I was rather shaken by the events, but though I repeatedly said that she should stay, she quietly went about doing things her own way.

Ignatius are the publishers of Charis in the World of Wonders. Marly gently brokered an arrangement that her editor there would look at my work, and if the Ignatius team were confident that Marly and I were a good match, then we would all proceed together. From the outset the mood has been collegiate. Everything discussed with thoughtfulness, everyone with eyes on the goal to make a beautiful book. I doff my cap to Roxanne Lum who guided me through the way things are done at Ignatius and who was so receptive to my ideas, and to Diane Erikson who has worked so hard to make Charis in the World of Wonders the lovely edition that it is going to be.

This week Marly and I saw the almost finished page layouts, with my drawings in place making the announcements to the eleven chapters. The matching of images to chapters was done at Ignatius. I offered no guidance and as it happened neither did Marly. Both of us agree that whoever made the matches did so with great care. Marly writes:

“Diane,
Well, I shall let Clive be the arbiter of images! But we are both entirely pleased with the care for clarity and detail, as well as the beautiful spacing that really gives the pictures so much more presence. And I have to say that I’m happy that Ignatius is so responsive and also so polite in working with a visual artist. That made me glad, as Clive is dear to me.
Just now I went through the list, and I do suspect that somebody has thought carefully about placement, where possible. It is absolutely right that the horse begins and the ewe (so many good symbolic sheep associations) ends the story. I especially liked the amusing placement of the rabbit for Wedlock (preceded by the ancient emblem of married constancy, the swan), the owl for a chapter of wild wanderings, and the open-mouthed dog for the “frampled” household chapter. Some were logical, like the bird at a chapter with birds, or the various domestic animals scattered in chapters set in villages. Somehow I really like the luminous peacock–the most mystical thing in the group–as an image representing “Path in the Dark.” The squirrel with his little acorn bag (I know it’s not that, really, but it looks that way, accompanied by Far-faring!) is another that amuses me. And the cockerel crowing out the news of the epilogue…
So yes, I do think that we are happy and content. Thanks to all who helped to make us feel so pleased with the way the book-to-be appears: well dressed and lovely.
In good cheer,
Marly”
(Forgive me Marly for sharing the e-mail. I think it illuminating to show how well things may be done when a team toward the best outcome. This has been the most positive experience. I’ve been extremely lucky with all my book commissions throughout 2019, for Design for Today, English Heritage and Phoenicia Publishing, every one of which has been a pleasure.)
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Above: sketch from my project book of the Ignatius imprint for the cover.

Charis in the World of Wonders

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Back in 2012, at about the time I was just beginning to think about the subject of Hansel & Gretel as the source material for a small project (how little I realised what lay ahead), I began work on making the cover and chapter headings for Marly Youmans‘ epic poem about a group of resourceful children surviving in a post-apocalyptic future.

dsc04523Thaliad (published by Phoenicia, Montreal) is compelling in just about every way imaginable. When first I read the manuscript, the narrative, characters and foundation story of Marly’s creation held me fast. I read it over and over as I made the images. For my inspiration I delved into museum archives for examples of the patchworks, embroideries, silhouette portraits, paper-cuts and Fraktur drawings that seemed to me to be the most likely art survivals in Youmans’ vision of an America torn apart by an undisclosed cataclysm.

Above: illustration for Marly Youmans’ Glimmerglass. Mercer University Press, 2014

 

While Youmans is a universal writer in the sense of her understanding of craft and context, there is something so quintessentially American in her creative rhythm, her voice and her vision, that the folk arts of the United States stitched into her DNA have become entangled in mine. After Thaliad I drew on the same resources for her novel Glimmerglass (Mercer University Press), so it’s no surprise that the style of work I’ve evolved for her has become the bedrock of what I’m now more generally known for as an illustrator. After all those practitioners of the early American folk arts – the stitchers, limners and decorators with their European transplanted roots – have a visual tradition I recognise and am at home in. Thinking back, I recall the very first time I set eyes on the arts and crafts defined as Pennsylvania Dutch (and sometimes Pennsylvania German), it was as though I was in the company of old friends.

 

As I begin work on Marly’s latest novel, Charis in the World of Wonders for Ignatius Publishing, once again I’m channelling the artisan, amateur and itinerant folk-artists of Colonial America, and my chapter headings seethe with a bestiary that might have sprung from the pages of a sourcebook for sampler embroidery.

Above: tiny sketch from my Charis in the World of Wonders project-book.

The Book of the Red King

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Praise for THE BOOK OF THE RED KING

“Marly Youmans is brilliant, perhaps a genius. Her poems tell a story, offering us a vision of, well, I would say the Trinity, but that is only one possible interpretation. After a difficult and sometimes dangerous journey, a Red King, a Fool, and Precious Wentletrap converge into one, a resurrection that is heavenly. Is it true, or is it fable or fairytale? “When I want to write a new book,” she has said, “I run across the land and leap off the edge of the known world.” Her formal poems are impeccable and include sestinas, villanelles, rondels, rhyming schemes she may have invented, and perfect metrical patterns. Every poet can learn from this poet, and the reader—the reader will be spellbound.”

–Kelly Cherry, poet, novelist, and former Poet Laureate of Virginia

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“The Book of the Red King by Marly Youmans is an ambitious, magical book about the nature of power and language.  The Red King and the Fool, while they control different realms, make us consider whether it is better to rule on earth or in one’s imagination. In these gorgeous poems, Youmans makes the case for both.  Whatever side we take, Youmans reminds us of the paradox in each.  Even if we side with the Fool in this world of “hurt joy,” we are left with the realm of poetry.   It is not a bad trade.  For those who love well-formed poems and for those who love fantasy, this is a must-read and a distinctive, evocative voice. There is no one like Marly Youmans.”

–Kim Bridgford, celebrated poet, editor, and director of the global conference, Poetry by the Sea

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“Marly Youmans occupies an imaginative space that straddles both the present and the mythological past. It is the territory of Yeats and Tolkien, and Youmans shares not only a taste for primal imagery with these great poets, but also their love of rhyme, rhythm and sound.”

–A. M. Juster, award-winning poet and translator

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The Book of the Red King by Marly Youmans, is published by Phoenicia Publishing. Cover art and illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Designed by Beth Adams. Copies may be purchased directly from the publisher:

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Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins: the poet and his illuminator

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I offered the term ‘illuminator’ to Marly Youmans some years ago when she asked me how I wanted to be described in terms of making images for her books. I went for the word used for the often anonymous artists who decorated early manuscripts with glowing intensity. I love being Marly’s illuminator, and we’ve been travelling hand-in hand for a long time now. I’ll be decorating her Book of the Red King for Phoenicia Publishing this year. There’s an ease and trust between us that’s creatively liberating.

The same comfort is in place with Damian Walford Davies, for whom I’ve made the covers of his trilogy of narrative poems, Witch, Judas and my yet to be released favourite, the ghost story Docklands. Simon Armitage is proving to be another easeful collaborator, leaving me and the team at Faber to get on with things. Trust, of course, is at the heart of such relationships. It’s either there or it isn’t. It can’t be negotiated or contractually enforced, and it’s at its best when the author knows the images don’t have to illustrate, so much as create a mood in which to set the words. Sometimes the images can even play against the text, without in any way disrupting the flow of meaning. It’s a magic thing, and it either happens or it doesn’t. Like all intuitive creative processes, I’m quite convinced that no practitioner could show precisely how to do it. I always know when I’ve got the idea right, and can move forward in confidence to see a book through to completion, but I find it impossible to explain why.

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I’m not entirely sure what it is that so consistently brings me to work with poets. Saturday’s exhibition opening at MoMA Machynlleth was the culmination of the close-on three year task printmaker Dan Bugg and I set ourselves to make 14 screen prints inspired by Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation of this extraordinary narrative poem, but it was only after the first six images had been editioned and published that Simon saw the work and wrote to me about it. Two years on we’re in the process of adapting the images to Simon’s forthcoming revised edition of the poem, due out from Faber in the Autumn.

After two selling Gawain exhibitions with the Martin Tinney Gallery (Part 1 in 2016 and Part 2 in January this year), MoMA Machynlleth is hosting a three-month-long exhibition of the 14 prints plus preparatory material made over the period of the project, from sketches, maquettes and painted studies, to stage-proofs and the ‘drawings’ made on lithography film that produced the colour separations for the screen prints.

Simon is softly spoken and on Saturday he read from his Gawain translation with deceptive diffidence. Nothing declamatory or overly emphatic in his delivery, but a mesmerising eloquence and intensity that effortlessly bewitched the audience. He gave a masterclass in how to do more with less, and I’ll remember it always.

Below: the most important critics, Dan Bugg’s children, Alfie and Elsie take in the exhibition before the doors open. Both are pretty proficient in the printing studio, and so they have the insiders’ perspective.

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Farewell to 2017

2017 was jam-packed with work and events from start to finish. In the Spring the Música en Segura festival took me to Andalusia for Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time concert, for which I’d made images to be screened during the performance.

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Back in the UK at the Lotte Inch Gallery in York, there was a two-person exhibition with my friend Sarah Raphael-Balme, and in Wales an exhibition at Oriel Tegfryn of all the drawings I’d made for the Random Spectacular Hansel & Gretel Picture Book published in 2016.

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Below: specially-bound cover of Hansel & Gretel made for me by Christopher Shaw

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The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock‘s Toyshop in Covent Garden was launched, alongside a beautiful pop-up card based on the theatre and a handsomely packaged game of Hansel & Gretel ‘Pelmanism’.

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I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts by Southampton Solent University. I lectured and/or taught at Southampton, Hereford and Cambridge, and these were wonderful interludes in an otherwise gruelling schedule of project deadlines. I guest curated an exhibition, Imagined Realms, at the Royal Cambrian in Conwy, and was able to invite a spectacular array of artists I both admire and love, to take part.

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By far the lion’s share of effort went into completing the fourteen screenprint series in collaboration with Penfold Press, based on Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation of  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in time for the forthcoming exhibition opening on Jan 10th at the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff. The exhibition will be accompanied by an illuminating text from curator and art writer James Russell.

 

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Below: separations on lithography film for The Exchange, and the completed print.

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Below: Gouache, ink and pencil work on board  – The Stain of Sin.

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More news about what’s planned for the Gawain series to be announced shortly. News too of Hansel & Gretel, who are about to embark on a thrilling journey in the company of a whole bunch of old and new friends with whom to enjoy the adventure!

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I’ll be making a visual accompaniment for Daniel Broncano’s Música en Segura 2018, this time to the music of Stravinsky –

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– and there’s to be a sweetly pretty new Pollock’s Toy Theatre project.

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In the US Marly Youmans has produced a scintillating new collection of poems that I’ll be making a book cover and decorations for, and there’s to be an edition of Jeffery Beam’s Spectral Pegasus poems, illustrated with my series of paintings from the Dark Movements series.

2018 is set to be a year of seeing long term projects developing in ways unanticipated at the times of starting them. Plenty of challenges ahead, then. And deadlines, of course. Always there are the deadlines.

 

 

 

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What I’m not

I’m often asked what kind of art I make. I know my face clouds over when the question comes, because the answer isn’t simple. Easier, perhaps, to say what I’m not.

I’m not a landscape or a still-life artist …

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… though earlier in my career I painted both.

I’m not a portrait painter and never have been, though everyone tells me they recognise Peter in my drawing and paintings.

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I’m not an abstract painter, though I love abstraction.

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My painting doesn’t aspire to realism, but rather to inner truth.

I’m not an illustrator though I make covers for novels and poetry.

Recently I’ve made my first picture book, though it’s not a children’s picture book.

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I’m not a print-maker, though I’m currently making a fourteen print series of screenprints with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Based on the translation by Simon Armitage.)

Penfold C cmyk-2While I’m an atheist, my work often explores biblical and faith based themes.

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I’m not an animator, though I made the animations for the 2013 stage production of The Mare’s Tale (composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies)…

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… I was commissioned to make an animated film to accompany a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival…

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…. and last year in collaboration with artist/model-maker Phil Cooper, film-maker Pete Telfer and composer Kate Romano, I created an animation as the online trailer for my picture book Hansel & Gretel. (Published by Random Spectacular.)

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Sometimes it’s not possible to make a simple answer.

 

 

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