The Witch, the Director and Mr Mitchum

At the start of the project to tell the story of Hansel & Gretel in pictures, I made a single, worked-to-completion, wide-format image to show the publisher, Simon Lewin, how the finished illustrations might look. Here it is.

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The witch hurtles like a bird of prey, pursuing the children in a hail of Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts and assorted confectionary. However, much changed between the trial image and the final artwork. To begin with I reversed the action, propelling the momentum from left to right so as to continue the action in the direction of the page turns. Here’s the image as it appears in the book, though without the colour that was added at the printing stage.

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And because the finished design became a spread with an added right-hand fold-out, I had to make sure that the witch and the children were hidden completely when the fold-out was in the closed position, which meant they had to fit exactly into two thirds of the composition. When the spread is first opened, with the fold-out in the closed position, the house stands on the left-hand page, while the right offers a view of the children approaching it across a bridge as the witch, bent and hobbling with the aid of a walking-stick, heads toward them. Here’s a detail of the drawing, photographed before it was finished.

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When the fold-out is opened, the terrifying transformation has taken place. Moreover the viewer has been catapulted closer to the action to see in detail the witch’s awful appearance, clawing at the fleeing children’s backs.

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There are four page fold-outs in the book, and with each I wanted the ‘reveal’ to carry the narrative forward. In two I also included a shock moment, rather like a jump-cut in a film.

The children in the trial drawing are exactly the same as they appear in the finished book. However the design of the witch changed a little, anatomically. The underslung jaw of the early drawing was jettisoned, replaced with the more typical hooked nose/chin profile of fairy-tale witches. I knew that those teeth couldn’t possibly fit into her jaws when closed, and so in the two close-ups where they’re not apparent, I imagined them as being hinged, like a snake’s, folded back into grooves in the gums until required. I even made a witch maquette with a little mechanism that unfolded the fangs from horizontal to vertical as her jaws gaped, and slid smoothly back again as they closed. I didn’t really have need of it for the illustrations, but I always find that I work better with that kind of background information.

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Finally, here’s an image from Night of the Hunter, the sole film on which actor Charles Laughton worked as a director. It’s a cinema masterpiece, but it was misunderstood at the time and Laughton never directed another film. Robert Mitchum as the murderous ‘Preacher’ scrabbles up the cellar steps in pursuit of his step-children, and I realised even as I drafted my composition that I was remembering Preacher’s clawing hands, hellishly intent on mayhem. In Night of the Hunter, the children escape. In Hansel & Gretel, they don’t.

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