This Folio Life: Lela Harris on illustrating The Color Purple
We spoke to self-taught artist Lela Harris about her experience of creating her astounding artwork for The Folio Society edition of The Color Purple.
What was it like being selected to illustrate one of the great novels of the 20th century?
Being chosen to illustrate The Color Purple was like winning the lottery. I was just flabbergasted to have been selected as I had been creating artwork purely as a hobby and sharing my work on Instagram, so this was my first professional illustration commission. I’d read the novel when I was much younger, but the first thing I did was re-read it, picking out particular scenes that resonated with me and making notes. I already love the 1930s photography of dustbowl America, which feels so familiar to me – there’s something about that era that fascinates me, so I was able to use these images to develop my illustrations.
If the beginning of the novel is bleak, it evolves into something truly uplifting as the characters grow. I had a pretty bleak childhood myself and some of it felt too close to home, but this also helped me to connect with the characters. I love the way Celie emerges as a strong, confident and compassionate woman as she gets older. I had fun creating Sofia too; she’s a character who fights to the end and I wanted this to come across in her portrait. I made a point of not watching the film as I didn’t want to crowd out my own ideas but I definitely want to watch it soon.
How did you find creating your first professional illustration commission over lockdown?
I think strangely being in lockdown was actually quite helpful for me. I run my own online business and was able to pick and choose the hours that I went into work, so this gave me the headspace and time to focus on the commission and fit in drawing at home. The weather was also amazing and as I’m lucky enough to live in a beautiful part of the world, I was able to explore lots of local walks that I hadn’t been on before and ponder characters and compositions for the book.
Tell us a bit more about your process of creating the illustrations: do you see characters in your head and then draw them, or do they evolve during the process?
When I was working on The Color Purple I wrote a lot of notes as I was reading the book, pulling out scenes that I thought portrayed the essential essence of each character and then I spent quite a bit of time imagining not so much the faces of the characters but more the expression in their eyes.
Before committing anything to paper, I thought deeply about the characters during long dog walks – the Lake District, where I live, is a great landscape in which to find inspiration. But if it takes me a long time to mull over the characters, it might take just an hour to draw them. Before I began, I had butterflies, but Folio art director Raquel Leis Allion, who discovered me on Instagram, told me to just do what I do – that they loved the way I captured the essence of people. Along with the editor Robert Davies, Raquel supported me through the whole process and gave me the space and encouragement to develop my ideas.
Once I had a gaze fixed in my mind I then did a lot of research in the New York Public Library online archives, looking through photographs commissioned by The Farm Security Association which focus on the lives of sharecroppers and migratory agricultural workers in the USA during the 1930s. This wealth of reference material gave me the visual foundation to start drawing the characters in the novel. The faces always evolve as I draw, which is what I love about drawing. You can start off with quite a definite idea of what you would like to draw and then the drawing takes over and the charcoal decides what the end result will look like!