Sunday, January 15, 2012

Inspired by the Old and the New: History of Illustration (Exercise 1)

This exercise (the first in my Illustration course with the Open College of the Arts), involved researching a historical illustrator and a contemporary illustrator, comparing their styles and the media they worked in and then producing two illustrations, based on the same subject matter, in the style of each illustrator.

Here are my finished pieces for this exercise, on the theme of "The British Countryside", based on the style of Edward Bawden (fig 1.) and C.S. Neal (fig. 2):

fig. 1

fig. 2

And now for the longer part (for my OCA tutor and anyone else interested in the process behind these images).

Part 1: Historical Illustrator - Edward Bawden

For this exercise, I chose to research Edward Bawden (1903-1989) as my historical illustrator.  Bawden was fascinated with the printing process and much of his work was done via linocutting, lithography and copper engraving.  It is evident in the images from his prolific career (particularly his work for London Underground, see fig 3), that Bawden was very much an "observer" of life and had a great ability to find humour in day-to-day life.

fig 3.

Did his work seem "old-fashioned" to me? Well, in some ways, it looked almost contemporary, perhaps because of the clean graphic lines which the various printing processes he used (linocutting, lithography and copper engraving) lend themselves too. Perhaps also because there is a current post-modernist trend for all things "vintage". But then when you look closer at the images, the subject matter tells you they are off a time gone by (barber's shops, people wearing hats, more buses than cars on the streets of London). Also the detail in the technique immediately shows that this is not work that has been created digitally.

This high level of technique using printing media would be the first hurdle in creating a piece of work in Bawden's style. However, I started off by copying some of his simpler compositions (fig 4a, my drawing, and 4b, Bawden's original.)

fig. 4a

fig. 4b

Inspired by sketches and photographs I had taken on a walk along a canal in Buckinghamshire with my mother last November (fig 5 and 6), I decided the subject matter for my artwork for this exercise would be "The British Countryside".

fig. 5

fig. 6

This theme felt in keeping with the work Bawden did for London Underground, illustrating places that people could travel too by tube.  I chose linocutting as my medium, something pretty new to me, but a medium Bawden used frequently.

Overall I was reasonably happy with the result (fig. 7). The decorative border (of bird footprints), the composition, textures and everyday people are all inspired by Bawden's work. With hindsight, it could have had some of the underlying humour of Bawden's work (perhaps one of the swans going after the dog, although I wasn't sure if that would convey the right message about visiting the countryside). It is far from a perfect example of linocutting (I am still very new to the technique), but I like that you can tell this was made by hand.

fig. 7

Part 2: Contemporary Illustrator - C.S. Neal

I became aware of the work of Christopher Silas Neal (see through the children's book "Under and Over the Snow" (fig. 8). It is illustrated beautifully and perfectly for the subject matter. I then discovered he has done much work for the New York Times, as well as other publications and book covers.

fig. 8

On his website, C.S. Neal tells you about his processes. He works using a combination of drawing, painting, braying, hand lettering and other manual techniques and then he composes and colours the elements digitally. This combination of digital and manual techniques elevates his work beyond the often too perfect, machine-made look of digital illustration and imbues it with the definite touch of a human hand. His style often plays with perspective: large subject matter in the foreground, with your eye then being drawn to something much smaller way off on the distance.

As I am only just starting to learn the Adobe Illustrator software, I didn't feel I yet had the skills to produce artwork in C.S. Neal's style digitally. However, it struck me that essentially he works in collage. So, I opted to use manual collage techniques with coloured paper, pencils, pastels and a variety of hand printing techniques (that I learnt on a recent printing course) to create my "contemporary" C.S. Neal inspired version of "The British Countryside" theme (fig. 9 and fig. 10).

fig. 9

fig. 10

From what seemed like an impossible task in the beginning, I'm pretty happy with the final artwork. I like the textures from the hand-printed elements of the collage, particulary the trees at the top (made by inking up some folded brown paper) and the house and I like the shape of the swan and the textured "plaque". I'm not sure about the reflection, whether that takes up too much room at the bottom of the composition, so perhaps that would go if I did this again. I think the image could look a bit more like the British Countryside too - it's a little too open and not green enough, but that probably comes from taking the "Over and Under the Snow" book as inspiration - it's set in North America.

What I have learnt from this exercise:

It has been really informative to look at other people's work, both historical and contemporary and to have a go with some of the media that these illustrators have used. Next time, I will try to consider more options and do more "thumbnail" sketches before deciding on a final idea. I need to think a bit more freely, consider more options and just play around with techniques a bit more. I have a tendency to be fairly single-minded in my thought process (probably from my days as a lawyer), planning and executing everything carefully, so now I am conscious of this, I will try to loosen up a bit!

Nevertheless, I have learnt both technical skills (linocutting, printing, drawing, painting textures, hand-lettering, collage) as well as compositional skills. I hope to improve on these throughout the duration of the course, but I am happy with the start I have made through this exercise. I will definitely continue to expand my knowledge of historical and contemporary illustrators and work on both manual printing and collage techniques and getting to grips with digital illustration.

Key Resources:
Edwards Bawden's London, Peyton Skipwith & Brian Webb
Design: Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Peyton Skipwith & Brian Webb


  1. Beautiful pieces! Wonderful interpretations of both styles (with your own special touch still in there). Sounds like a great class!

  2. Great job on these illustrations and on explaining the process! Sounds so interesting...
    I love your first illustration - the black & white - based on the style of Edward Bawden - with your own style in there too. Thanks for sharing. happy CED! xoxo