When an illustrator interprets a text it is assumed that the end result should match the author’s description. So if the text says that someone’s hair is red you expect to see red hair – it is indeed a major feature of Ben Cain’s illustration from The War of the End of the World.
However, illustrations are not support mechanisms that simply confirm what has been written. The “illustrate what you read” approach works in certain cases, such as in children’s books, where it can be a useful teaching and learning aid. Mature readers do not require such affirmation, and this allows the illustrator to take artistic license . . . within reason.
Of course, there are are instances where it is important that the images do not stray from the text. When dealing with fact-based books, it is important to get such details as accurate as possible: maps, charts, graphs, documents historical/period costume, mathematical and scientific equations.
To achieve accuracy, the illustrator will send in a ‘rough’ (a sketch) to show how they have interpreted the text. For maps, say, prior research would have been done and an extensive brief sent to the cartographer. What is produced is then thoroughly checked by the editor, the author and, occasionally, experts in the field. With more interpretive illustrations, sketches are done and texts re-read to compare against the image prior to approval and proceeding to final artwork.
Fiction is naturally more open to interpretation. We recently published the Ripley trilogy by Patricia Highsmith with illustrations by Tom Burns, who works in collage. His wonderful images are a juxtaposition of realistic images placed within imaginative settings and moods. Tom needed to be accurate with maps, period costume and language yet remain true to his style.
The illustration below originally showed a telegram written in French. Close to final artwork it was noted that, while Highsmith never specified the language, the telegram should in fact be in Italian. This was corrected and changed, then re-checked. Finally a decision was made to take out the date so as not to show a time and day but rather left for the reader and text to affirm.
The artists are helped through the commissioning process by working closely with the Art Director and editors to ensure accuracy. But in the end the illustrator’s job is to enhance the atmosphere which writers like Highsmith so deftly capture through words.