Above: worked-up study from a project book, and below, the preparatory drawing for it:
I’m in the thick of my third project of lockdown, which is to illustrate Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, due out next year from Faber & Faber.
My project book for this is full of preparatory work exploring the themes of the poem, and I’m already well into final renders. I absolutely love the early stages when drawings are flowing freely without consideration or hinderance. No page measurements to worry about and a disregard for anything other than letting the creativity have its head. Everything conducted at a gallop.
But all artists face the dilemmas that come when the rough needs to give way to the smooth, and this project is no different from any other I’ve worked on in that respect. In the project book a single idea is drawn ten times… or twenty or more… and no finished artwork can ever contain all those ideas and all that unfettered energy. Whatever emerges when a hundred ideas have been distilled into one image, is going to be a different thing to where the whole thing kicked off.
The poem is set in an anthropomorphic universe in which the poet presents the exchanges between rival birds as a dizzying display of one-upmanship and smug self-regard. Accusations fly like missiles in the squabbles. Feathers ruffle and subside and are preened back into good order in preparation for the next salvo. There are moments when the rancour feels extraordinarily contemporary with anything found in the Big Brother household or at Facebook.
The drawings to accompany the poem could have gone in any number of directions from rambunctiously satiric to Berwick-like lyricism. At the outset Simon suggested I look for inspiration to illuminated manuscripts contemporary with the original writing, and to borrow and rework what I’d find most useful in them. I’d frame the translation with a contemporary response to historic images, just as Simon had reworked the poem in a way to speak to a modern reader. So words and images together dance in a territory somewhere between past and present, nodding to established traditions while building new ones.
It’s not commonplace in today’s publishing world to be given opportunities to illustrate poetic texts as densely as I’ve been fortunate enough to do, first with Simon’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then with Hansel & Gretel at Design for Today and now with The Owl and the Nightingale. I’m enormously obliged to the poet and his publishing team at Faber & Faber, and to Joe Pearson at @designfortoday, all of whom have been enormously supportive and patient in our undertakings together. Thanks too to Dan Bugg at @penfoldpress and @sirgawainscreenprints, and to Laurence Beck at @laurencebeckdesign.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to Mark Brown, who generously came to my help when digital adjustments needed to be made to some of the Gawain images prior to publication.