Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A-Z: an illustrator's perspective

An illustrator’s tools are traditionally a piece of rough paper and a pencil for sketching out ideas, followed by a sheet of cartridge paper and a pen for the finished piece, but BeWrite’s ‘The A-Z of Punishment and Torture’ is not a traditional book; it’s an e-book. A different approach then? Would the illustrator need to be a techno-geek who has mastered the very latest graphics software? No. My illustrations for the A-Z were done using a cheap fine-liner pen on standard photocopy paper. The only hi-tech thing I did was to scan and email them to the publisher rather than posting the hard copy. As an artist, I like the fact that these pictures are artefacts and exist in a very real sense; that if I so wish I can frame them and put them on my wall without having to print anything out. Whether I’d want to hang them on my wall is another matter entirely. The clue is in the title. Punishment and Torture. Ouch. I like the rat picture, but of course rats aren’t to everyone’s taste. I saw one the other day outside my living room window. It was sitting on a bench and cleaning its whiskers. It looked for all the world like a dark brown squirrel but with a slim long tail instead of a bushy one. Sweet, I thought. My husband thought otherwise. Perhaps the rat won’t go on the wall after all.

So are these illustrations ‘rats’ or ‘squirrels’? I think they’re a bit of both. The rat itself was drawn for the ‘A’ chapter. I chose to illustrate ‘Animals’ rather than ‘Amputations’ as although I’ve done horror illustrations in the past, I’m not into nastiness and gore, and neither is this book. The information is fascinating, but it doesn’t set out to shock or sensationalise, and I was happy to bear that in mind when planning the illustrations. You’ll find nothing graphically revolting in here, but plenty to make you wince and wonder at man’s inhumanity to man.

For ‘B’ I had a wide choice: Banishment, Bastinado, Beating, Beheading, Bilboes, Birch, Boiling and frying, Boot, Boring, Brainwashing, Branding, Brazen Bull, Burial, and Burning. Whilst tempted to draw a thoroughly ‘boring’ picture, I decided that would be silly, so went instead for burning, and drew a young woman tied to a stake and surrounded by flames. I duly e-mailed the picture off to be approved or not, and was told she didn’t look miserable enough – fair comment, so I added a tear rolling down her cheek and turned her mouth down at the corners; a simple enough fix. The temptation to go over-the-top and give her a Münch-like ‘scream’ was strong, but I resisted. I wanted to go for subtle. Suggest the horror. Don’t shove it down the reader’s throat.

And so it went on. Sometimes I would draw something that was deemed too obscure or too far away from the text to work, so I would have to re-think. Sometimes the first drawing would be too simple to work as a full page illustration; sometimes too complex to work well on an e-reader. Sometimes the editor would love an illustration, only to change his mind a week later when it occurred to him that it wouldn’t work for one reason or another, and I’d throw heavy objects at the computer, spit a bit, blaspheme in a most unladylike way, take another sheet of paper and start again. Sometimes an illustration would look fine until we all realised that the hand with the knife going through it (‘M for Mutilation’) looked too much like it had six fingers. That one was a shame. I was proud of that illustration (I love doing hands). Sometimes internet searching for source images became frustrating. ‘I for Iron Maiden’ naturally gave me pages and pages of the rock band and little else. I learned as a result to refine my searches and put words like ‘medieval’ in front of such terms. I also made sure my firewall was strong and my anti-virus and anti-spyware were completely up-to-date as in order to get the best image results I had to switch off ‘safe search’ and scan page after page of gruesome thumbnails through half closed eyes. 

And sometimes I had to refuse. I was asked to do ‘Necklacing’ for the ‘N’ image. I couldn’t do that. I’d have had to google images that would have made me physically sick and given me nightmares. So I said ‘no’ and did ‘N for Noise’ instead. I’m a violin teacher. I know what sort of a torture noise can be. I set my camera up on a timer, stood in front of it, screwed up my eyes, covered my ears, and screamed (silently). The illustration you’ll find in the book is therefore one of my more unusual self-portraits, but I feel it has authenticity. And if any of my current violin pupils are reading this, rest assured, I wasn’t thinking about any of you. Not really.

After doing ‘P for Pears of Anguish’ (a seriously ‘ouch’ device) I took a brief time-out to do one-off commission for a friend who wanted a poem and a picture for her new baby grandson. I drew a puppy, as requested, and wrote a sonnet. Phew.

‘Q for Quicklime’ was problematic. It’s not the most picturesque stuff. Looks like lumps of chalk. I drew some in a bucket. It was either that or do something totally grotesque with people being boiled alive in the stuff, which was not the sort of thing I wanted to be drawing. This one was rejected, even though it was a beautiful picture of a bucket. It wasn’t until weeks later that the idea of ‘Queen’s Pleasure’ was mooted, and I was able to draw a stern looking Queen Victoria holding a bunch of keys. I’m still fond of the bucket picture, but can understand why Queen Victoria makes the better illustration.

The letter that had to be re-done most often was ‘V’. Robin Hood was suggested, as in ‘V for Vigilante’, but unless you go down the Errol Flynn/Men in Tights route I reckon you can’t tell it’s really Robin Hood, and I was trying to stay historically authentic. Instead, I decided to go with ‘V for Vendetta’ and draw the Kray twins. I liked the double portrait, but it was rejected on the grounds that they weren’t sufficiently well known internationally. I suggested Al Capone. Brando was proffered as an alternative. I disagreed. For one thing, Brando’s not a gangster. For another, any images of him would be copyright, so couldn’t be used as source material. I drew Capone. Reasonable picture, if a bit of a caricature, but the Krays one had been better. Both were finally dropped in favour of Batman. You can’t argue with cultural icons.

It’s now six months after I started on the project. Every picture has been approved, checked for errors, double-checked, the entire book proofread an incredible number of times by everyone, pictures checked again, emails flown back and forth, and now – finally – it’s finished and I can go back to drawing Connemara ponies and curraghs.

I’ve had a ball. I started off wondering what I was letting myself in for. I ended up thoroughly satisfied that between us – writer, illustrator and editor – we’ve produced a highly informative and fully illustrated exploration of the darker side of humanity that would make a most unusual addition to anybody’s Christmas list. Plenty of people are going to receive e-book readers this year as a gift and are going asking what they can read on their shiny new gadget that’s a bit different. The ‘A-Z of Punishment and Torture’ is the answer.

1 comment:

BeWrite Books said...

Yup, it was quite a trip, Cathy. And your input was magnificent.

It's not easy to tackle a subject like this with taste, giving the reader scope for thought and imagination without in-your-face exposition of some of the shameful cruelties perpetrated in the name of perceived morality and justice (past and present). You and author Irene Thompson have handled a difficult job with great sensitivity and the result is more effective than any cheap chamber of horror shock tactics could ever be.

*The A-Z of Punishment and Torture* is released tomorrow, folks (Wed Nov 10). It's the first title BeWrite Books has ever run solely in ebook formats. Print rights are held by the Book Guild, but this new ebook edition is a total revision, extended with new material, includes original art work from Cathy and is re-designed and re-covered by Tony Szmuk.

I'll post details on release. Cheers. Neil