Folio Art Director Sheri Gee speaks to Sean McSorley, winner of the 2014 Book Illustration Competition, about his work on our new edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and how it feels to receive his first book commission while still studying for a master’s degree.
SG: How did you find out about the competition? Did many of your class also enter?
SM: I’ve actually entered the competition every year since it began. The first one was announced around the time that I’d decided I wanted to be an illustrator, about five years ago. I knew about The Folio Society already and I guess I came across the competition while doing a bit of research into the industry.
I think a few people from my class entered this year. My impression is that entering competitions like this is a feature of a lot of undergraduate courses, but not so much at MA level as they tend to focus one overarching project. My project was already related to book illustration though, so I was able to fold the competition entries quite neatly into my MA work and was probably able to give them a bit more focus as a result.
SG: You have come to illustration from an unusual but helpful route of first doing a degree in English literature. What made you choose to study illustration?
SM: I really enjoyed art when I was young, and at school we were lucky enough to have had quite a traditional drawing and painting education, but I hadn’t done anything with it for years, aside from maintaining a general interest in art. After my undergrad degree, I worked in an office doing something totally unrelated to both my degree and illustration. Then in 2010 I did an illustration short course – for fun really – at Central St Martin’s. I met some professional illustrators, learnt some Photoshop skills, then something clicked and I decided it was what I wanted to do.
It was a steep learning curve of course, and I was perhaps a little over-confident in the beginning, but I managed eventually to develop my work and to start picking up commissions. I always had the feeling that I’d missed out on a university art education, and that I’d pushed my work as far as I could on my own. Also, it was quite isolating to be struggling to do something like that without a network of other people working towards the same thing. So the MA seemed like the best option and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made, I think.
SG: Had you studied Heart of Darkness at school or university? In what way did your English degree inform your final pieces? Was it a help to have that background?
SM: Not at school but at uni I whizzed through it as a background text to the later modernist stuff I was studying. I can’t say it made a huge impression on me at the time, although I know it backwards now of course, and I came to find it quite fascinating. The close reading skills I developed helped immensely. In each individual scene I tried to visually represent some of the themes and motifs which are woven through the text as a whole; that of decay, for example, or the dark, dream-like absurdity of the colonial enterprise. I think this helped to make the images more coherent as a series and I hope it makes them richer to look at alongside the text.
SG: This is your first book illustration commission. Have you worked on a series of narrative illustrations before, perhaps for a personal or college project?
SM: Yes, it certainly is my first book commission, which made it all the more exciting but also very daunting. In terms of narrative series, thinking about it, I’d probably only done my previous three entries into this competition. Reading the book each year, entering images, then seeing the shortlisted pieces was a great learning experience and allowed me to try to work out the strengths and weaknesses of my own entries.
SG: How did you find working with a publisher?
I really enjoyed working with the team at Folio. The back and forth of selecting scenes and producing roughs was very rigorous. It quickly became apparent how focussed I had to be on the real detail of the text – Heart of Darkness is remarkably descriptive for such a short book, probably because it was based so heavily on Conrad’s own experiences. Finding a balance between that detail and an imaginative interpretation of the book was a challenge but it was great to be pushed and to know that everyone was working together to make something of such high quality.
SG: In what ways does the process of working on a live commission with an art director differ from college projects and tutors? How did you find the process of selecting the scenes?
There was a very different focus between college and working on the commission. Our tutors at Camberwell were also demanding, but were pushing us towards experimentation and finding our own personal voices as illustrators. We had to produce a final, coherent series of images for our degree show, of course, but the route towards that was more circuitous and experimental. In working on the book there was obviously a fixed outcome to be achieved and more of a sense that I was working to produce something as part of a team rather than just for myself. Looking back it was great to be doing both things at the same time, though there were times I wished I could focus on just the one for a while.
SG: You have an interesting style that marries traditional techniques, including printmaking, with digital. Why do you like working in this medium? Do you work in other mediums?
SM: I’d always used ink drawing as my main medium, but early in my MA course we had workshops on a lot of different techniques. A monoprinting workshop had a particularly strong influence on me. I really enjoyed the messiness, the variety of moods and textures that could be created, and the possibility of accidents informing the work; maybe it’s my inexperience but I can never predict exactly how a print will turn out. For Heart of Darkness I found it was particularly useful for suggesting foliage and organic forms. I really enjoy the combination of the control of the line work and the spontaneity of the print making. Monoprinting is also fantastic because you don’t need much space or many facilities to do it, which is obviously great now I’ve finished college.
We also made rubber stamps out of pencil erasers. I should really thank the tutor who suggested they’d make really good endpapers for books, since that’s exactly what I went on to use them for, as well as for lettering. I don’t really use other media at the moment but I’m still developing and I’ve definitely learnt to be open to trying new things out.
SG: Can you talk me through your process? Do you start with sketches or do you work straight on the computer?
I usually start with a compositional thumbnail sketch to get the general gist of things, and then work it up in a larger pencil sketch before inking it. I make lots of prints for texture, and photocopy the drawing to make stencils for prints where I don’t want to use the line work directly. I then scan it all into the computer and put it together in Photoshop. My use of the computer varies: sometimes I use it extensively to alter colour and have all the elements on separate layers; sometimes I ink directly onto prints and just use the computer for tidying. It generally depends on the complexity of the image.
SG: What programs do you find most helpful when illustrating?
SM: I use Photoshop for the vast majority of things, but I also really enjoy using Illustrator to make type and the odd graphic element.
SG: What is your working environment like?
SM: Well having finished college in July, I’m relegated to working at home again but I have a nice big desk and all the kit I need. The kitchen often becomes an impromptu print-making facility – my housemate is fortunately very understanding. I’m hoping to sort out some studio space in the not too distant future but it’ll do for the time being.
SG: Do you have any heroes of illustration or favourite artists? In what way do they influence your work, if at all?
From commercial art I think Edward McKnight Kauffer – he made deceptively simple images that were extremely rigorous in their design, but also very expressive and communicative – and other early 20th century designers like Jan Tschichold. I was introduced to a lot of the classics at school and I think the stark lighting used by Caravaggio, Fransisco Goya and Joseph Wright of Derby had an impact on how I like to light things, but then I also really like film noir, so it’s probably more likely to be that. Mark Rothko too, for the impact and atmosphere his pieces create, although I can’t really see any direct influence there.
SG: What are you working on now? Have you any aspirations or plans for the future?
SM: I’ve been asked to work on a children’s book so I’m just getting to grips with that at the moment. Obviously I’d love to do a lot more book cover design and illustration. I’ve a strong interest in politics and current affairs too, so I’m trying to build up my portfolio to get some editorial commissions.
A Folio book was definitely an aspiration so I’m very pleased, and surprised, to have done that so early on. In terms of future aspirations, I loved Jonathan Burton’s work for BAFTA – that would be a great gig – and a New Yorker cover would be pretty tremendous … I’m not asking for much. More generally, I want to just keep developing my practice – I’m often reminded how much I still have to learn when I see other illustrators’ work.
SG: What book would you most love to illustrate?
SM: I’d love to do any Flann O’Brien book, but probably At Swim-Two-Birds most of all. It would be great to try to capture the student’s life in Dublin in the 1930s, the sheer weirdness of the goings-on in his writing and the different narrative layers. Also it’d be a good excuse to visit some Dublin pubs for reference.
Explore more of McSorley’s illustrations on http://seanmcsorley.co.uk/
Our new edition of Heart of Darkness will be available to order from 14 October, part of our upcoming Christmas Collection.