Last night I went to a fantastic event at the British Library, in association with The Folio Society and House of Illustration. Focusing on the importance of illustration in all fiction, not just children’s books, there were three illustrators in conversation about their work and, in particular, their work for The Folio Society.
The Folio Society are an inspiring publishing firm, dedicated to publishing incredibly beautiful illustrated books; their philosophy, ‘Great books should be outstanding not only in literary content but also in their physical form.’ Really – what’s not to love ! Have a look at their website here – their books are really too lovely and varied for me to do justice to !
Illustrator Peter Bailey was there chatting about his work on Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. Peter’s work is very fine, with a definite etching quality to them. The three covers (above) he worked the illustrations in negative, giving them such a beautiful, yet slightly haunting quality. I unfortunately haven’t read the trilogy, but from friends who love it – this is very apt. I really love the evocative nature that the simplicity of line can produce. There was a brilliant write up in The Guardian a few years ago on his work which is definitely worth a read here.
Peter had some really interesting points on working within the field of book illustration, particularly the daunting task of bringing to life a story, and in particular its characters, that the reader themselves can – and usually does – interpret in their own way. The third illustrator, Alexander Wells also touched on this point – giving an amusing anecdote about illustrating a character with curly hair before going back into the text only to find out the character had been described as bald with a beard !
I particularly loved the work of the second illustrator, Sara Ogilvie and, of course, could not resist purchasing the book she illustrated for The Folio Society, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz ! She, like a lot of us I imagine, knows the movie inside out, but has never read the book – so had the daunting task of illustrating something that has, in a sense, it’s own very concrete visual reference. To help with this, she researched everything she could that had visually come before in this famous tale – the movie, theatre productions, foreign editions and even some Oz graffiti. I did a little research myself on some of the book covers that have come before …
Sara then tried to understand the story from her own point of view. The cover is a beautiful piece of book design – reminding us what the book, as an object, has over it’s electronic counterparts ! Inspired by Athenian vases where the figures exist in a three diminutional journey around the vase, so too do the Oz characters journey around the cover and slipcase – as you pull the book from it’s case the characters journey continues to Oz – hopefully my photo’s, although not exactly doing it justice, illustrate this effect. The book cover itself, with the lion intertwined with OZ is a tribute the W.W. Denslow’s original title page.
Illustrating a whole book is challenging and fascinating process for illustrators. A key point all three illustrators reiterated was the skill – and challenge – in having to choose key events to illustrate that not only carry the narrative through, but are also regularly positioned throughout. They also discussed, what I thought was particularly interesting, when designing the book cover only they would given just a synopsis of the book as opposed to the complete manuscript. I wonder how restricting this is for illustrators? I know myself, often after designing the complete interior of a book (admittedly I design only non-fiction), the cover designs before and after designing the interior, can be very different and usually a lot more informed and successful after.
They also all agreed that the computer is a fantastic tool but, for them, the initial hand drawing is essential – it doesn’t matter how good your computer skills are, if the original drawing isn’t up to it, it’ll never quite work. So true ! Well – true in my own approach, it is far too easy and distracting to go straight to Indesign and start ‘playing’ with layout/grid/fonts. Far better to find a cafe somewhere, sketch book and brief in hand, to ponder the essence of the book you’re about to ‘sculpt’ into shape …
A brilliant evening that has left lots to ponder – not least of all how exactly am I going to house all the beautiful Portfolio Society editions I want to buy ?!