Sara Ogilvie and John Lawrence in conversation
For the new issue of FOLIO magazine our art director, Sheri Gee, asked two of our favourite artists to discuss their approach to book illustration. John Lawrence and Sara Ogilvie held the following email conversation over the Jubilee Summer of 2012, which ranges from the menaces of saltwater crocodiles to tips for budding illustrators, and from the chills of Finland to Watership Down.
JOHN LAWRENCE: Sheri sent me a copy of your Wonderful Wizard of Oz last week, which is a fine production and I was very taken with your work. I’m enjoying the positive wit and directness of drawing, the fluency of it and the personal use of colour. She also sent me images from Box of Delights, and that is so lively and full of fun too. I’m itching to know how you go about illustrating but that may be your own private property! I hope when I assessed you at Edinburgh all those years ago [John was an external examiner at Sara’s degree show] that you got a good mark; if I was doing the same now I would give you a triple first!
I wonder how long it took you to make a start when you left art school and how long it is you’ve been working for The Folio Society? I did my first book for them in 1967 and that was ten years after leaving the Central School of Art. It was Daniel Defoe’s Colonel Jack, a long and rather rambling novel written in Defoe’s journalistic style. I enjoyed it thoroughly and thought of it as my first serious bit of book illustration. It gave me my first opportunity to do a series of large wood engravings which Peter Guy, the then Art Director, who sadly died last year, commissioned. I wanted them to appear larger than life to suit Defoe’s ability to capture the reality of the world around him. The Society made a handsome volume which I still open with pleasure. After Colonel Jack I went on to do another seventeen or eighteen books for the Folio and I’d like to mention some of them further on in our conversation.
I look forward to hearing from you and finding out more about your work and what you feel about book illustration at the present time.
SARA OGILVIE: I know you were an external examiner for many years and it is unlikely you would remember me amongst all those students over the years. But I remember that you were very supportive, and put me in touch with The Artworks agency and Allan Manham. As a result, someone from their Startworks scheme for young graduates came up to Edinburgh to see me and she gave me lots of advice. However, it was clear that I wasn’t right for them to take on. My work then was quite dark, lots of eerie etchings and plate lithographs which of course were time-consuming to make and don’t have the quick turnaround needed for a lot of commercial illustration. It was only a couple of years later that I realised how significant it was that someone had taken the time and effort to get on a train from London to Edinburgh to meet me and view my portfolio. But I was young and not ready to be a commercial illustrator. I just wanted to explore image-making more, and experiment with various printmaking media without thinking about client needs.
Looking back, I think for me personally it was right not to jump into the commercial illustration world straight away. During my postgraduate show I sold some work and was offered a solo show at the Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh. It felt like a good start, with something to work towards.
After art school there was a short period of ‘signing on’ before I took up a part time post at Edinburgh Printmakers’ workshop as a general studio technician. My job entailed everything from cleaning the studio, stocktaking inks and chemicals, watering the plants and going into the dingy basement to dredge old litho grit out of a water tank, up a ladder, in the dark (I hated that bit!). I learnt a lot about print from the specialist technicians there, venturing into stone lithography, screen printing and all kinds of experimental non-toxic print experiments that were happening at that time in the studio. The perk of the job was having my own set of keys, which meant I could work late into the night after the workshop had shut. I was lucky to have had this facility as well as the structure of a future show to keep me driven.
Further down the line I was made redundant but I continued to use the studio as a member of the workshop. Around about this time I had my first taste of teaching; a weekly life-drawing class, something I loved, and still love doing.
During the first few years out of college I was exhibiting work, sending prints off abroad to biennales and applying for opportunities and residencies which I saw in the Artists Newsletter. The illustration work started to creep in once I felt I was ready to push the work in that direction, but I would say it has only really been in the last twelve years that it has become more prominent. In the late nineties I really started to push for work, taking my portfolio to see people. I was computerless then, so it was all cold-calling and lugging the portfolio around London. I got used to hearing the phrase, ‘We like your work, but . . .’ It really was a learning curve. And it still is!
In the beginning it was difficult for me to get regular commissions, but because I was also making prints to exhibit and sell it didn’t get to me too much. The most important part was continuing to be creative. Right now, with my illustration work and the teaching I do at Northumbria University, I have less time for making prints, but that may change again.
I find it inspiring that you have maintained such a strong and prolific relationship with The Folio Society. Did you actively pursue them for a commission or did they find you? Their link with illustrators who are also printmakers is an interesting one.
Reflecting back on my chat with the Startworks rep it was the time-consuming nature of my printmaking work that was a bit off-putting for them at that time. Your large wood engravings must be very time-consuming to create and I’m curious to know whether your signature approach determines who you can work for, and how you deal with a tight turnaround on commissions? Have you adapted any of your working methods due to the digital demands of art directors? Over time I have increasingly used digital methods of creating final illustrations. Now it is rare to have a day go by when I don’t touch a computer!
However, it is very important to me that the drawing and mark-making lead the way. My digital approach is very much like the way I would plan and create a print by layering colour over a predominant line-drawing that carries the artwork. I love using ink and experimenting with all sorts of media but it always comes back to the simple line-drawing and composition. If that isn’t working everything else falls apart.
What is important to you, John, when you enter into a new book project? Do you enjoy the research, and how do you go about getting the right material to build on? How long do you spend on the initial rough drawing and compositional planning? I imagine this is even more important to a wood engraver, in order to avoid too many revisions and re-cuts.
You gave a bit of back story on your first book, Colonel Jack, but I’d love to hear more on the books that came later and if you have any particular favourites in your back catalogue?
Look forward to your next instalment!
J.L.: You wouldn’t believe it but I’ve at last found your lovely long letter, forwarded on to me from Sheri in ‘Junk’. Can’t think why it was in there. I thought there must be gremlins in the works but I’m sure they were in my brain as well. There’s lots I want to say but I think I must save it if you don’t mind. I have to take the dummy of the book I’m working on into Walker Books and there’s still a lot to do (always is). It’s all about saltwater crocodiles, scary but mysterious and rather wonderful creatures if you can forget their eating habits. I’m going to enjoy engraving them – such textures! I feel that once the dummy has been approved and liked, one is halfway through the job which, of course, isn’t true, but it’s very encouraging.
I’m going to enjoy continuing our conversation and I hope those gremlins have been banished.
S.O.: I’m also working on a picture book at the moment and I understand how demanding different stages can be.
All the best with the crocodiles.
J.L.: I took my dummy of the crocodile book into Walker Books and it went down well (not a reference to the crocodile eating habits!). However there is still quite a lot of editing to be done so I won’t be able to start on final artwork for a week or two. I came back with a sense of freedom to get on with one or two other things which have to be sorted out.
I do remember that the rep from Startworks came up to see you after your degree and it was certainly a blessing in disguise that you weren’t right for them at the time. If you had been, you would have been plunged into commercial illustration, with all the deadlines and panic that involves. As it turned out you were able to explore both yourself and printmaking further, and give yourself a better grounding as an artist.
I can understand the Startworks rep being concerned about the time element, as there was a quick turnaround of work then, especially with the design agencies. Some of the quick engravings I had to do nearly killed me, but I also did a lot of drawn illustrations (pen and watercolour) so it wasn’t all hassle. Funnily enough it’s only in the last twelve or fourteen years that almost all my book illustration has been engraved. Before that, even though there was always a lot of engraving, all my children’s books were in pen and watercolour and it was Amelia Edwards, then the chief designer at Walker Books, who encouraged me to engrave them. This means that I now mostly use vinyl with my wood engraving tools (though I do manage to mix some wood in too) because the large format makes wood engraving too lengthy and expensive a medium to consider.
One thing I did discover with my wood engraving was that it was a good idea to fit a lot of small illustrations onto a large block and if I could design them in such a way that they could be sold as prints as well as illustrations, I’d achieve another source of income. There does seem to be a lot more interest these days in buying illustration. Do you know the Illustration Cupboard in Bury Street? I sell work there and that’s where Debra McFarlane had a recent exhibition. I find that I don’t have to part with original artwork (particularly drawings) but can sell my prints instead.
You ask about other books I’ve done for Folio. One of my favourites in recent years is The Once and Future King by T. H. White, a very witty and quite eccentric text where the author has transferred the Middle Ages into Victorian times, or so it seems to me. I engraved this on vinyl, as I also did with ‘The Arthur Trilogy’ by Kevin Crossley-Holland, a very lively writer and a friend of mine. My Robinson Crusoe, reprinted in 1998, was engraved on lino. I felt that wood engraving would be much too sophisticated for DIY Robinson. The lino when engraved has a homely torn effect.
I do agree with you about the importance of drawing and, like you, I’ve done a lot of life drawing and love it. As regards research for a new book project, I’ve always taken it very seriously and am not happy until I’m really acquainted with the subject matter. Once I feel it’s under my skin I can work more freely and am less inhibited. I have various staple reference books for costume, history, nature etc. and sometimes my sketchbooks (of which I have many) are helpful. Of course, if there is a chance for me to go out and draw on the spot I do so very readily, as I did with Richard Adams’s Watership Down years ago. The computer though is invaluable, and saves me many trips to the library on my bike.
Tell me more about how you balance your teaching and illustration commitments, and I’d love to hear about the picture book you’re working on.
S.O.: Busy times at the moment. I have a couple of picture books I am working on for both Simon & Schuster and Random House. Both are at that interesting and probably most challenging point; pacing out the images and drafting roughs with the right compositions and text and image balance. For me this is the most interesting and trickiest part – working out how it all fits together. There are monsters and mishaps to devise and as always it is taking me longer than I expected.
Before working on picture books I had underestimated how involved the process was. I definitely developed a stronger respect for picture book illustrators when I worked on my first one. I know it is a common misconception that making a picture book is simple, however I firmly believe that if the book has an ease to it, it is the sign of skilled authors and illustrators at work making it look easy.
From your descriptions it seems that you have created illustrated work on such a diverse range of subjects in both your picture books and your Folio commissions. I’d love to see your Watership Down. I was gripped by the story as a child, and a bit disturbed by the evil slavering General Woundwort in the animated film!
You are so right about getting the subject matter under your skin in each project. So much to work out; a bit like an actor researching to get in character. I always tend to amass vast piles of jottings and initial visualisations but end up only using a fraction of them. But I never see it as time wasted. I trust the process to get me towards a stronger understanding of the themes within the text I’m working with.
It is strange that in the last four years or so I have been working more on illustration that is specifically for children. It seems to have grown in that direction, even with the Folio Society books I have illustrated: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, and its sequel The Box of Delights. I have enjoyed working on all of them and really love the challenge of creating the image for the binding. I particularly enjoy the blocking of their covers as I feel quite at home organising the separations due to my printmaking background.
I became more aware of Folio Society books when I entered one of their competitions in around 1995/6. The competition book was Franz Kafka’sMetamorphosis and Other Stories. I created a set of two-colour screen prints for each illustration, using a muted palette which ran through the whole set. I remember working frantically at Edinburgh Printmakers to get them completed and by the skin of my teeth met the entry deadline. I was delighted to be shortlisted, and all of the shortlisted contenders were exhibited at a gallery space in the Royal College of Art. I remember taking the trip to London to see the show and being impressed by the other works. Quentin Blake announced the winner on the opening evening. Sadly it wasn’t me, but I do remember it was someone who had created the illustrations by digital means, which at that time was still seen to be very new and groundbreaking.
Fifteen years later it was a surprise to get a call from designer Gavin Morris to tell me The Folio Society were considering a handful of illustrators for their edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and would I send some samples for consideration. Fortunately I had created a Tin Woodman in a previous design job, which they had seen on my website. This time much to my excitement I got lucky and won the commission. Then came the realisation; it was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a big book, one of the best known and loved stories. Could I do it justice?
It was a revelation when I read the book. Like everyone, I knew the film very well but had no idea that the book had much more going on in terms of extra characters, adventures and dialogue. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so some of the characters, like the Tin Woodman, retained many of the original Denslow and MGM characteristics we know. However there was so much visually to play with in terms of the settings, encounters and characters met along the way, which is where the new imaginings played their part for me. I tried to stay faithful to the text and put what I thought I knew of the story to one side.
I’m still very proud of the book, especially with the care and attention the Folio Society put into the creation of the physical object. I’m a pushover for rich coloured ink on paper!
You mention the interest in buying illustration these days and I do think in the last few years there has been a return to an interest in craft and the handmade. With our touchscreen lives these days I think people want to reconnect with artefacts which display raw materials and the hand of the artist. Like yourself I’ve evolved with the technology and now it is a necessary part of my profession but the handmade is still hugely important and I think always will be at the core of the work I make. I still have the need to get my hands dirty!
Balancing teaching with illustration is tricky at times. Each can demand a lot of energy, and late nights are inevitable. I recently cut back on the teaching a bit to get more of a balance, as a tired mind struggles to be creative. That said I do enjoy teaching and have worked with some very talented students over the years. I’ve taught in a variety of places in both Scotland and England, and also spent a year teaching in Minneapolis in the US which was a really great experience. I find the best students are always those with natural curiosity. I think you need a big dose of that to be a good illustrator, especially as you don’t know what subject you are going to be dealing with next.
What do you think are the important qualities for an illustrator to possess? And more specifically in terms of illustrating for books?
As picture books for children provide the building blocks for literacy by following a story through pictures do you ever question the role of illustration in adult fiction?
What is interesting to me with The Folio Society is how the internal illustrations work for the adult audience who will be visualising through the words alone. I know people who consider illustrations to be an intrusion within an adult book as they start to direct the reader’s imagination. However, a Folio Society reader must embrace the images within the pages of their books.
Do you find making book illustrations for adults any different and do you adopt a different approach? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it.
Lastly, what do you do when the illustration work and ideas are just not going to plan? Do you have any rituals or tactics to get you back on track? I always find it interesting to find out how artists deal with those creative dry spells! I like to potter about in my back yard; a bit of plant watering and re-potting is good. Impromptu baking can work wonders too. Returning to the drawing table with a cup of tea and a freshly baked slice of banana bread can often turn things around!
Perhaps we can sneak in a couple of other emails over the Jubilee weekend. I’m starting to see a fair amount of bunting around!
J.L.: I very much enjoyed your last email and we seem to have many thoughts in common about illustration.
I think it’s quite tricky working on two picture books at the same time – living in two worlds, as it were – but I’m sure you’re managing very well. Now that my medium is almost invariably engraving and each book takes me a long time, I don’t think I could manage two at once, although I do break off to do shorter jobs.
I’m glad you enjoyed Watership Down as a child. I was delighted when Penguin offered it to me in 1974, but it landed me in quite a controversy. The film was about to be made at the time and I was asked by the producer to characterise the rabbits before I started on the book. I spent a month or two doing this with great enjoyment (General Woundwort had a touch of Samurai warrior about him and Bigwig came out as a real toughie). The producer very much liked what I was doing, but finally the whole thing ended up at cross purposes. Richard Adams wanted to retain a natural feeling with his rabbits and the publishers were thinking much more in terms of a journey through the Watership Down countryside. My agent at the time advised me that if I signed the film contract I might not get the book. So in the end I didn’t sign it, much to the producer’s annoyance, and I had to pay a lawyer to get my drawings back! Out of interest I’ve just looked up the ‘Illustrated Watership Down’ on Abe Books. Three copies are listed, the most expensive and apparently in good condition is £169, so I won’t be adding that to the few rather well thumbed copies I’ve got. I’m sorry to have spent so long on this saga, but I often dream of having another go at the book with more emphasis on characterisation – dreams of another E. H. Shepard perhaps!
I think The Folio Society makes such a good ploy with their bindings. When I was given the opportunity of using a lot of silver on The Once and Future KingI was genuinely thrilled, and as I told you earlier the book has always been a favourite of mine. Way back in 1969 the Folio asked me to illustrate George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody. The binding for this was a line-drawing of Mr Pooter setting off for work in the morning from their new house in Holloway: 6, Brickfield Terrace. The litho of the drawing on a yellow cloth seemed to suit the content and I was pleased when the book became a popular choice with members over the years. In fact I don’t think it’s all that long since it went out of print. My wife had found two large volumes of the Illustrated London News, 1891 and 1892 (contemporary with the first edition of The Diary) and a family photograph album of the same time in a junk shop. I spent about six weeks drawing my heart out with this marvellous reference beside me. (I did base my drawings of Mr Pooter on Weedon Grossmith’s illustrations because I thought the character had already been created.) It was the pick of all those line drawings which went into the book – giving a feeling, as I hoped, of jottings in a diary.
Another binding I was pleased with was when Folio republished Tristram Shandy in 2005. The first edition in 1970 had a rather sober binding – those were early days for me and I had a lot to learn. The 2005 binding has a large Uncle Toby on his way to see Widow Wadman, followed on the back by his faithful servant Corporal Trim. Again an emphasis on characterisation; one of the touchstones of illustration. I think you should be justly proud of your Wizard of Oz, which has such an animated feel for all the characters, human and otherwise.
I was intrigued to hear about the Metamorphosis competition exhibition at the RCA, as I might have been there. I had my teaching day at Camberwell up until 1993 and Sara Fanelli, to whom I was tutor, also entered the competition. I’d kept in touch with her and was following her progress with great interest. She invited me to the prize giving, but whether it was ’94 or ’95 I can’t remember.
It was good to hear what you feel about teaching and I agree that students with a natural curiosity turn out well. I’ve always said (listen to the pedagogue!) that you should have the imagination and curiosity to inhabit the drawings you make. If you’re there on the spot then you really know what’s going on! As to a different approach in working for adults or children, my guide is the text and if you’re faithful to that, without being slavish, then you can’t go far wrong. Some people are never going to enjoy illustration and do find it intrusive, but I’m sure that if the illustrator is well chosen most people will appreciate the added dimension. Long may people enjoy beautiful books, elegantly decorated or powerfully illustrated. Do I hear Mr Kindle knocking on the door?
As to when illustrator’s ideas are drying up or not going to plan, I just think you have to be patient –admittedly that’s very stressful when you have deadlines. I find it a good thing to try and creep up on a drawing unawares, perhaps not sit over it, and then attack it when it’s least expecting you.
S.O.: Since we last emailed I have been trying your ‘creeping up on the illustration and catching it unawares’ technique! A top tip indeed!
It occured to me since our last email that you will have known many of the staff when I was studying at Edinburgh due to the Brighton connection: Jonny Gibbs, Maggie Gordon and Andrew Restall. I was thinking about Andrew recently when some students were illustrating and designing stamps for the Royal Mail RSA competition. He was a very talented illustrator and designer. I was looking at his stamp preliminaries in the context of the recent student project and thinking how incredible they were: each one a miniature painting perfectly formulated for a small space. I haven’t seen him for many years but I hear he is painting and exhibiting.
Do you have much time these days amongst your book work to create imagery purely for exhibition? You talked of the Illustration Cupboard where you exhibit your prints – are these predominantly illustrations from your commissions?
I often think illustration is a double-edged sword. In the earlier years you can invest a lot of time experimenting while trying to get a foot in the door. As you progress, and commissioned work grows, time for purely self-initiated work becomes more limited. With this in mind do you manage to hive off some free artistic playtime to keep things fresh and to surprise yourself? Some of my best work and ideas have come from unpressured banks of time. When I can, I enjoy making artist books or creating a body of drawings and prints based on a theme of interest.
I have read you discussing the historical traditions of wood engraving, and mentioning chapbooks. Have you made any for yourself or for commission? Do you ever do any large scale woodcuts? I’m a fan of the woodcuts of Leonard Baskin, Frans Masereel, Michael Rothenstein and J. G. Posada. Other favourites of mine are Saul Steinberg, Edward Burra, Dieter Roth, Daumier, Mary Blair, Richard Diebenkorn … I could list more, but who are your favourites?
The back story to your experience with the Watership Down commission was really interesting to read. Thankfully I have not had to use a lawyer in any commission disputes so far – it must have been frustrating to have to fight to get your artwork back. I had a look on the web to see some of the book illustrations and I enjoyed the movement in your pen work; you can really feel that grass moving!
You talked about having another go at the characterisation of Watership Down, and it occured to me that I have never wanted to revisit a past commission. I do always reflect on what I have done, especially when I see it in print, and of course there are always things I could have done differently. But I do always feel I have done the best at the time and on a different day and in a different mood I might have come up with something completely different.
As a student I went on an exchange trip to study in Finland in the winter of ’92. I remember wandering around in snowy sub-zero temperatures, drawing on location. It was best at night when the light from street lamps cast interesting shadows on the snow covered streets. I found that sketchbook recently in the attic and it was worth the painfully numb hands to grab those on-location sketches which in turn became a book of etchings. The sketchbook is a good reminder to me that extra effort to get what you need leads to more unexpected images.
My last question is this: if you could put your illustration commitments to one side and create some uninterrupted time where you could work on anything of your choosing, what would you do?
J.L.: I’m glad my tip about creeping up on a rebellious illustration and taking it by surprise has been helpful.
I do know Andrew Restall and Jonny Gibbs and we do swap Christmas cards though the last time we met was at Aldeburgh, some years ago, when the two of them were sharing an exhibition during the festival. I hear about Jonny and see something of his work as we are both members of the Society of Wood Engravers and I do admire Andrew’s strong, organic paintings. I have met Maggie Gordon, both in Brighton and also during my time as the Illustration Assessor at Edinburgh.
I must confess to being so caught up with my illustration work that I don’t take time away from it to get on with self-generated projects. I’ve always dreamt of being able to, but it’s the freelance illustrator’s fear of falling off the tightrope that prevents me from looking either up or down away from my current commission. I must say I am lucky to be kept very busy for most of my time and also that I’ve been able to tackle a wide range of work that has saved me from becoming stale. Engraving is a stimulating activity in itself and taking the first pull after a few day’s work on a block is always an exciting moment. In the early days when things were quieter I did several large linocuts and I also cut into the shiny side of hardboard to release rather an unusual chalky texture underneath.
I am a fan of the woodcutters you mention, particularly Leonard Baskin and Frans Masereel and I taught for some years on the same day at Camberwell as Michael Rothenstein who was a great exponent and explorer of the relief print. One person you don’t mention is Antonio Frasconi who is well worth a look. My wood engraving hero is Eric Ravilious, always full of invention and wonderfully graphic. I knew Joan Hassell quite well and always admired her Jane Austen engravings for The Folio Society. It’s always given me a lot of pleasure that I was introduced to wood engraving by Gertrude Hermes in the 1950s at the Central. I learnt a lot about the underlying drawing within an engraving from her, and the energy and all-important excitement in the mark-making.
As to revisiting a past commission, it’s probably only for Watership Down that I’d want to. It was an important book for me and is Richard Adams at his very best. The idea of a creature, human or otherwise, living so close to nature that the two are interchangeable haunts me. I was intrigued by hearing about your trip to Finland in ’92 and the precious images you captured in your sketchbook. There’s nothing as valuable or truthful as the immediacy of one’s response to new surroundings. I’m afraid I’m getting very Samuel Palmerish.
To answer your last question about what I would do with some uninterrupted time when I could work on anything I wanted, I would still be wearing my Illustrator’s hat. I really do need a long narrative to work with and to comment on. Perhaps I’ll find it tomorrow! Your last email has set me up with so many questions to answer that my reply will surely come over as very egotistical.
This may be our last official instalment but I hope we may be able to correspond from time to time. I will be very interested to hear how your picture books are progressing and about further work you may be doing for The Folio Society.
S.O.: Thanks for your email. Lots of interesting answers.
I think your comment about the freelance illustrators fear of falling off the tightrope is very interesting. With this in mind I think for most illustrators the best way is to believe that that the rope stays taut and to keep looking forward!
Thanks for telling me of Antonio Frasconi. I didnt know his work and it is really great. I love artists who are able to make the everyday magical. Terrific mark-making and design.
I’ve really enjoyed our exchange John, and yes lets keep in touch.
All the best with your picture book (and the tightrope walking!)
Its been a pleasure,
SARA OGILVIE graduated in 1993 from Edinburgh College of Art and has since established herself as a leading book illustrator and printmaker. She has illustrated the FS editions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights.
JOHN LAWRENCE is a multi-award-winning English illustrator and wood engraver. He has worked on over twenty titles for The Folio Society since 1967 including Tristram Shandy, The Diary of a Nobody and ‘The Arthur Trilogy’.