Out of the Woods: part 1

Although I made a first pass at the dummy copy of Hansel & Gretel quite a while back, I’ve been re-visiting it and making significant changes. (It always pays to sleep on things for a while.) This is to be a picture-book, and the images have to carry the narrative.

With such an iconic story, there must be a balance between relying on what viewers already know of it, while not taking too much for granted. Plus there is the dream-like element that I envisage, and the surprise twists of the story that need to be conveyed without over-burdening the images with explanation.

I’ve restored the ‘bad mother’ theme. It seems that when the collection became popular, parents were uneasy with such notions, and the Grimm brothers obligingly excised them from subsequent editions.

But it seems to me that in fairy tales, the horrors lie not just in the realm of the unknown outer world, but in the familiar places that should be safe. What could be more horrific than an uncaring mother who puts her children in the way of a predatory cannibal witch?

From my workbook.

There is not enough food to go around.

This mother is implacable, and her meaning is clear.

The father is weak, and says nothing.

The Witch’s cottage has been through many guises, from brutal modernism… a concrete bunker bristling with lollipops… to gingerbread gothic. This is how it looked in the Hansel & Gretel piece I made for Random Spectacular that led to the current project.

More recent images from my workbook.

I envisage it hyper-coloured and sweating sugar-syrup!

I’m constantly paring back and simplifying. This…

… became this. The small format works better with cleaner outlines.

A dried plant stalk, picked on a mountain walk last year, has become a model for trees in the witch’s wood.

A threatening forest also recently appeared in the Dark Movements toy theatre…

… and something like it may well find its way into Hansel & Gretel.

More soon.

mapping the narrative of a fairy tale

Work on Hansel & Gretel with Simon Lewin at Saint Jude’s Prints has begun in earnest.

We’ve agreed that the book will consist of 32 pages (8 x 4 spreads) with four fold-outs. This format offers 15 double-pages in which to tell the story. The image below shows an overhead view of the open book with the pages fanned. (The fold-outs will be full-page sized, though for clarity in the image they are shown as being quite narrow.) The book will be square in format, and in colour.

My story reference is the translation by Lore Segal made for the two-volume The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1973, with illustrations by the peerless Maurice Sendak. (The copy on my shelves is one of my most treasured illustrated books.) However, my Hansel & Gretel is to be a picture-book, with a text of only two words that appear at the beginning of the story, and at the end. For the rest, everything must be conveyed in images.

Below: roughly working out the progression of pictures across double-spreads with fold-outs.

In order to shape the story in images, I made a spread-sheet of the page openings. On one set of narrow paper strips I wrote brief descriptions of all the aspects of the story necessary to convey the narrative, and on another set, I noted the images I was most excited about making that were central to my vision for the book. To begin with there were far more descriptive than image strips, and overall, far more strips than could possibly be contained within the available space. Nevertheless with this overview of the narrative, I could see where multiple story elements could be condensed into single images, and quite quickly I began eliminating strips.

My goal was to pare down to a single narrative/image strip per double-page. Once this had been achieved it became clear there was ample space in the book for me to tell the story.

The spread-sheet additionally helped me distribute the key visual images… the ones that I thought held the most potential for dramatic impact… evenly throughout the book. At a glance I could see the shape of the drama.


Above, the description of an image… the ghost of the murdered witch streaming from the chimney of the gingerbread house… and below, a rough lay-out of how it will appear across a double-page spread.

The page fold-outs enable the narrative of a single image to extend to the next stage of the story. Here the children appear to be successfully making good their escape from the witch’s house, but with the fold-out opened, she and her gingerbread henchman are nearly upon them.

Below: character sketches.

I’m in the process of compiling a ‘dummy’ of the book, so that Simon and I have an agreed plan to work from. I’ve also started building maquettes of the characters, to help me find the best compositional devices for depicting them, and I plan to build a model of the gingerbread house in the woods, to better picture what I want it to be. (A model will help me create an overhead viewpoint of it.)

Below: worked up character sketch.

Peter Slight and the Killer Gingerbread Zombie

Peter Slight is making a three dimensional ‘Killer Gingerbread Zombie’ to help in the promotion of my Hansel & Gretel from Random Spectacular when the time comes. I love Peter’s delightful figures, hand-carved in mixed-medium, though with all the gleaming perfection of plastic toys. He made a wonderful blue Krampus for me (illustrated below) after seeing a collage I’d produced of the demon that comes at Christmas to spirit away naughty children.

Here is our conversation about living dead gingerbread.

  • Peter S: I’ve attached my favoured sketch of the zombie gingerbread man. It’s pretty close to my original sketch of him, but incorporates the tump and stray Allsorts, which I think do make for a stronger design. I tried out some more ‘dynamic’ poses but they all looked like he was diving to save a football! My models usually take on a life of their own and tend to evolve as I’m making them, so it may not end up looking exactly like the sketch, and is therefore more of a guide than a rigid template. What do you think??
  • Clive H-J: Those eyes might be smaller and set higher in the brow, to give a more sinister expression. And he’ll need a texture to suggest gingerbread, or he could look like an evil jellybaby! But I think it’s all looking most promising. I do like the Allsorts, which somehow contextualise everything better.
  • Peter S: Yes, I see what you mean I will change the eyes and send you a revised sketch. Do you imagine them as concave, inset dots or as small convex ‘mounds’? 
  • Clive H-J: In my drawings I’d imagined them as holes, so that when standing against the light the zombie’s eyes would evilly glitter. Could that work? If not, then tiny currants probably, pressed in like you sometimes get on gingerbread.

  • Peter S: He does look a bit like a jelly baby in my picture, ha ha! 
  • Clive H-JNothing wrong with Zombie Jellybabies!
  • Peter S: The shading lines make him look more rounded and ‘doughy’ than he will be, and give no impression of his actual depth. (I’m intending to make him quite flat with rounded off edges like a regular non-meat eating gingerbread man) I didn’t put any texture in the sketch because i didn’t think I could show it accurately or without it looking visually confusing. The texture will be created using the rough scouring side of a sponge impressed into the clay whilst still wet. I’ve tried it before and it gives a very good biscuity effect, which can be lessened or added too depending on the number of ‘dabs’ applied with the sponge.

Here’s the delightful Krampus demon Peter made for me last year. It stands 13 cm high.

Halloween Greetings

Above: character study for the Witch in my forthcoming picture-book from Saint Jude’s Prints based on the fairy tale Hansel & Gretel

Halloween is being celebrated here at the Artlog with a post about one of the projects that will be occupying me over the forthcoming months. Simon Lewin of Saint Jude’s Prints has offered me the wonderful opportunity to make my first artist’s ‘picture-book’, which is to be my own dark and twisty adaptation of Hansel & Gretel. I produced a text and images for a re-telling of H&G that appeared in the Saint Jude’s magazine Random Spectacular 2 a few months ago, and though the current project took off from that re-telling, it’s completely different from its predecessor in all aspects.

Artwork for Hansel & Gretel in Random Spectacular 2

A finished page from the magazine, with artwork by me and design by Simon Lewin

I made many images in the process of preparing my contribution to Random Spectacular 2, and it was while playing with those ideas that I realised just how much I wanted to explore the theme as a full-blown picture-book.

Character studies for Hansel & Gretel

Below: Gingerbread Zombies


An exciting add-on to the project, is that my friend, artist/maker Peter Slight, is going to be producing a prototype Gingerbread Zombie model, and with luck, by the time the book is ready to launch, it will be on hand to help promote the publication!

Below: Gretel gets mad!

Henceforth images from Hansel & Gretel will be appearing sparely here at the Artlog, as we want to have plenty of surprises in store for when the book is launched. But to celebrate the serious (and exciting) business of beginning the project in earnest, here is a preparatory drawing showing the Witch and her evil Gingerbread Zombie henchmen in pursuit of the hapless children, amid a fusillade of confectionary.

Happy Halloween!

Hansel & Gretel, from Random Spectacular 2

Here are few pages of a version of Hansel & Gretel I wrote and illustrated for the art magazine Random Spectacular 2, produced by Saint Jude’s Prints. This idea has now blossomed into the full-blown project to produce a Hansel & Gretel book, Get Lost!, in collaboration with designer Simon Lewin, and work on it is currently underway.

For the short, Random Spectacular version of the fairy tale, I made the images and Simon added colour and made the page designs.

The cover of Random Spectacular 2 sports a splendid print by Jonny Hannah.

I believe there a few copies of RS2 are still available from the Saint Jude’s Prints online shop.

‘Random Spectacular’ at Saint Jude’s Prints

Above: H ist Für Hexe

I’m very pleased to have been asked by Simon Lewin of St Jude’s Prints, to have my work included in the second edition of Random Spectacular, the beautiful magazine he produced last year.  The first edition was limited to 750 copies, and sold out in two days. Here’s what Simon wrote about it at the time.

“As a result of working with a number of artists, makers and printers that we admired, Angie and I had been toying with the idea of some sort of printed journal. We had a shared passion for publications like Jake Tilson’s Atlas series, and the Motif books (published by Shenval Press from the late 1950s to the late 1960s) and wanted to produce something that replicated much of their spirit.
In 2010 Mark Hearld and Emily Sutton joined Angie and I to work at our studio in the Highlands and in the course of a walk round Loch an Eilein we had come up with the name and a commitment to publish.
We approached a number of contributors, some who would produce self-contained submissions, others who we would pair up to collaborate. We were delighted that everybody we contacted agreed to contribute to the first issue – and to donate their time which is allowing us to make this first issue a fundraiser for Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres – every penny above and beyond the printing and mailing costs will be donated to the charity who we have been proud to support in the past.
Simon Lewin. 2012
Above: detail of the cover of the first edition of Random Spectacular
As my contribution to the magazine, I’ve written a short story, a dark and subversive reinvention of Hansel and Gretel. To illustrate it I’ve generated crisp new images of the collages I produced last year as part of my exploration of the fairy tale for a one-off, hand-painted enamelware ‘nursery’ service. So be alert over at the Saint Jude’s website for the announcement of a publishing date, because if the 2012 edition is anything to go by, Random Spectacular No 2, will sell out very quickly.