'There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.’ Narrator Offred is a Handmaid serving the Republic of Gilead – formerly part of the United States. Her role is to bear children for her Commander, whose wife is unable to conceive. If Offred refuses, she will be hanged or sent to die of radiation sickness in the Colonies. Yet she can remember a different life, when she had a home, a husband, and – most agonisingly – her own child.
The Handmaid’s Tale portrays a chilling dystopia, with its military hierarchy of Angels, Guardians and Eyes, and its Birthmobiles, Econowives, Prayvaganzas and Salvagings (executions). Offred makes frequent references to the world she once knew and the freedom she took for granted – having her own bank account, wearing her hair uncovered, even something as simple as using nail varnish. Atwood skilfully dramatises the contrast between the grotesque strangeness of Gilead and ‘ordinary’ life going on elsewhere, as when Offred and a companion encounter a group of tourists from Japan. Forbidden to take pictures, the tourists ask, through an interpreter, if the women are happy. Both fascinated and repelled by the Japanese women’s ‘Westernized’ clothing, Offred replies that they are very happy. ‘I have to say something. What else can I say?’
Asked whether her book could be classed as science fiction, Atwood replied: ‘Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.’ First published in 1986, The Handmaid’s Tale was inspired by contemporary Western fears about falling birth-rates as well as by religious fundamentalism both in the West and East. It was a critical and popular success, launching its Canadian author on the international stage. It won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, and the inaugural Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction as well as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Anna and Elena Balbusso’s stunning illustrations skilfully highlight the regimented and hierarchical nature of society in Gilead.
Anna and Elena Balbusso are award-winning artists who live and work in Milan, Italy. They have illustrated several Folio titles including Ivan Turgenev’s First Love, and the great chivalric poem The Song of Roland. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is their next Folio commission. The twins shared their thoughts on illustration and their unique working relationship and illustration process with Footnotes.
What are your first memories of drawing?
We were three years old and drew on sheets of squared notebook paper with pencil and coloured markers but we also remember drawing on the kitchen wall and on white bed sheets!
When did you realise your creative abilities would be central to your career?
We knew from an early age. We were drawing at every opportunity, including during lessons. After secondary school we chose to continue our artistic studies at the Instituto Statale d’Arte in Udine (the Friuli region of Italy). It is a high school dedicated to art, specialising in the applied arts. After this 5-year diploma we decided to specialise in painting and art history at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan.
Have you always worked together?
During the summers at Brera we worked separately as graphic designers. Upon graduation we had intended to continue doing so but fate intervened. The first half of the 1990’s were lean times for advertising and graphic design in Italy. With no contacts and little design work we returned to our passion – illustration!
In Milan, there weren’t a lot of publishing houses, so one of us would get an appointment to show our portfolio and the other would arrive an hour later to see the same person. The editors commented they found this too confusing! So we created a single identity. We are very lucky because it is not difficult for us to work together, it is a natural thing and there is no competition between us.
What inspires your work, any particular artists within the illustration world?
The list of artists we admire is very long but we take our inspiration from art in general – painting, sculpture and movies from all periods – rather than individual illustrators.
Can you describe your process?
…it’s like making a film…
After carefully reading the story, we select the scenes we want to illustrate. We choose interesting points and also balance the number of illustrations throughout the whole book. We always start by talking and imagining what we want the project to be. It helps us to look at a lot of paintings from the period we are illustrating – in all our work there is a clear reference to artists and paintings. We make detailed notes about the characters and the scene of each illustration then conduct preliminary historical research to understand how best to create the characters and setting. We collect all of the references for each illustration – artists and art, sketches, photos of people… then we begin the rough drawings.
We develop the idea through various different colour layouts and compositions until we achieve the desired effect. We work and rework the illustration until we have a detailed visual of the scene. We use graphite pencil on tracing paper then we digitise our sketch and then work in Photoshop.
After this stage, we proceed with the finished illustration and start the process of colouring. We use mixed media, our visible brush strokes are all handmade not digital. First we paint each picture element separately (background, characters and objects) with black gouache and pencil on paper. Then we digitise them and use Photoshop to colour the image. The colouring process is very complex and has been developed after many years of experience. We always compare the CMYK colour against digital proofs to ensure colour accuracy. Our final illustrations are in a digital format.
What appealed to you about The Handmaid’s Tale and how did you go about working on the project?
We really appreciate that Folio understood that this was a perfect book for us. For a long time we hoped for a book like this and we loved the challenge. The theme of a woman’s body appealed to our sensibility. The story gave us the opportunity to create strong graphic images. To give a visionary interpretation and to create the right atmosphere for the story, we chose a futurist tone with accentuated perspectives and strong light. We used few colours and with a prevalence of red, black and white. Futurism, Russian Constructivism and fascist-period design were our references.
It was important to have a certain freedom of interpretation to better express what the writing suggests. It was very difficult to choose scenes and we gave up on many interesting options. Instead we tried to focus our attention on the woman’s body. Some situations in the story are very complex and we preferred to leave the interpretation of those to the readers of this exceptional text!
What appeals to you about working with The Folio Society?
The opportunity to work with intelligent, friendly and professional staff who value the artists they commission because they believe in and love their work. In our opinion this is very rare. It is a pleasure to work on books of the highest artistic value and production quality. We are humbled to have the opportunity to compare our work to the masterpieces of world classical and contemporary literature and top international illustrators.
When you are not working, what do you like to do?
We would love to travel more but it is not always possible. We love to visit the cities of art, museums, and contemporary art galleries. We love pastries and cake and go to high quality pastry shops in all the cities we visit. It is one of our passions. We love to walk around…. not run. We love fashion and we love to go to the cinema but unfortunately we never seem to have enough time.
Do you have any tips for budding illustrators?
It is important to study the history of art and to know the past as well as the present. Always strive to improve. Try to be very critical of yourself but never give up – although it is a very difficult job. Follow and respect one’s personality, don’t follow the trend of the moment. If you do, the risk is to be used and thrown away in a short space of time. At the same time it is important to know about new trends and tastes. Don’t forget it is a commercial world, but be careful in your choice of projects. It is important that the quality of your work keeps growing. Interpretation is more important than technique and special effects. Young artists must not work for free, only if it is for charity. And last but not least, enforce the law on copyright!
Anna and Elena Balbusso :-) :-)