Do you know the feeling when you read something that is just so achingly beautiful that your heart swells to fill your whole chest? It’s the feeling I get when I read the undulating lines of Dylan Thomas’ play Under Milk Wood.
“I will warm your heart by the fire so that you can slip it in under your vest when the shop is closed.”
It’s the same feeling I get when I read what Abra has written so far for The Waves, the Waves. Now, maybe, only maybe, I’m a little, teeny-tiny bit biased about that…well, I might as well just come out and say it how it is…I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read! But what do I know, eh? Anyway, the point is, it’s just lovely, as an illustrator, to work on something that really inspires you but it can also have its challenges, namely: expectation. This is my Achilles heel. When the writing is good enough to leave lasting and compelling images in your mind it’s so exciting to anticipate the fabulous illustrations that will be informed by them. But translating the tantalising glimpses of the pictures imagined onto the expectant page can be a little more difficult…for me at any rate, you know? This is what I have struggled with when illustrating:
“This, she thought, is what it feels like to surrender.”
As soon as I read those words I knew that I had to conjure, somehow try to capture (in a Cartier Bresson style decisive moment), the essence of surrender. That feeling of letting go and sinking into blue oblivion, so beautifully evoked by Abra’s writing:
“Coldness filled her glass glinting self up to the brim and life poured gratefully out. She kept falling. Arms caught her and enclosed themselves about her, cradled her through the darkness, caressed her brow. This, she thought, is what it feels like to surrender.”
My first attempt, over a year ago now! ended in an unsatisfying blue wash after some more promising sketches in my sketchbook.
I’ve always found blue a very…sinkable colour. I remember standing in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and feeling that I was falling inwards into the painting. That’s what blue can feel like. But I find I can get over excited by the colour. I love it so much that it can sometimes take over the picture and I’ll forget to think about other important factors in an illustration like tone and contrast. That’s what happened here. I made another attempt almost a year later.
But I got to this stage and fell victim to my expectation again. I almost physically loathed it, metaphorically ripped it to shreds with frustration and, after many tear-filled attempts to rectify the horrifying mess (as I saw it), thrust it to the back of my pad in a state of banishment to think about what it’d done. Several months later I took a tentative peek behind the empty sheets of paper to see the disgraced picture and found, not the abhorrent disaster I remembered, but something worth saving. In fact, with a clearer head, it became obvious that all the image needed was to be finished off. Yep, that was all. So that’s what I did.
Actually, there is really something quite poetic in the fact that, in order to complete the illustration, I first had to surrender my expectations. I should have read those words more carefully.