Jonathan Burton on Illustrating Fiction

Jonathan_Burton_BWWhen interpreting a book, an illustrator has to balance his own imagination with the responsibility he has to the story and the reader. In my own work, to avoid being over-imposing, I allow certain characters an element of mystery. I like unusual angles: shots from above, from behind the head, or cropped so we don’t see faces or expressions. I think it gives the reader a chance to participate instead of being told exactly how things are.

An illustrator shouldn’t be too nervous about letting their imagination go wild. The best book illustration ‘illuminates’ a story, rather than slavishly sticking to every word. The only way really to do justice to a story is to jump in, rummage around and show the reader not only what they may not have seen, but also a new way of seeing it.

Quentin Blake is normally associated with illustrating themes of childhood, so he’s an interesting choice for George Orwell’s dark tale Animal Farm. Blake’s drawings are loose, energetic and even fun. The contrast works well mainly because Blake is a great observer of character and draws his animals with a fearless line and invention. The lack of colour and detail involves us more than an overly descriptive approach would. There are many spot drawings, uncontained and scattered around the book, which add to the energy of the line work.

The full-page illustrations by Anne-Marie Jones in Sons and Lovers also have a loose and energetic approach, but here the violent and quick brush marks mixed with the sharp edges of cut paper complement the emotionally charged story well.

More descriptive – but joyously so – are Beryl Cook’s illustrations for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. It is a great example of ‘illuminating’ rather than illustrating, where the artist has gone into the book’s world and enthusiastically shown us a way to see. It’s the perfect marriage of illustrator and story.

With such classic books an illustrator needs a sense of freedom to make big decisions that will complement and enhance the stories – and create illustrations that can be as inspirational and thought provoking as the words themselves.