IN THIS NEW SERIES, I’M GOING BEHIND THE SCENES (OR, BEHIND THE PAGE) WITH PEOPLE WHO WORK IN THE BOOK INDUSTRY, WHETHER PROFESSIONALLY OR IN A VOLUNTEER CAPACITY. THIS WEEK, I’M CHATTING WITH LORENA CARRINGTON ABOUT ILLUSTRATING BOOKS AND DESIGNING COVERS. GRAB A CUPPA AND HAVE A READ…
How did you come to illustrate books?
Books and art have always been a big part of my life. I’ve been a working photographer and artist for a long time, and illustration is the perfect way to combine the two. I’d been thinking about illustration for a while, and how I’d like to approach it, then I meet Kate Forsyth. We were introduced via Twitter and got talking about the work we were doing at the time. I’d been working on an exhibition of montage photographs, where I’d gone looking for old fairy tales with girls and women who had their own adventures, and then made artwork around the stories. It turns out Kate was work on exactly the same project, but she was rewriting the stories. It seems to good to be true – we could hardly believe it ourselves! So of course, we pooled our resources and worked in secret, and then… Monique, we met you at just the right time!
(For those who may not know, Monique was one half of Serenity Press at the time, and was crucial in picking up and publishing our first book Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women. We’re ever-grateful to her!)
Thank you! I loved working with you. How would you describe your creative style?
My style and process is a little different to a lot of illustration you see. I use photography, and montage lots of images together to create the illustration. These photographs come from my local landscape, and farther afield; from objects I collect and photograph on a light box; and from the people in my life too. Sometimes I might only need eight or ten images to create the illustration, sometimes a lot more. I just finished one that used exactly 300 separate photographs.
I often work with the silhouette. It has been a signature style for quite a few years, but I do occasionally let more colour and detail shine through – take the cover of Wildflower as an example. But if I were to describe a random illustration of mine, chances are it would be something like: sharp silhouetted figures and composite creatures made from detritus from the landscape, in contrast against broad washes of colourful sky and forest.
You’ve illustrated fairytale collections for Kate Forsyth and Sophie Masson. How did you approach these projects?
I have fantastic working relationships both with Kate and Sophie. Working with both of them is a true collaboration – we email back and forth, share ideas and build our books together. Once we’ve decided on the stories, I wait impatiently for the text! I try to read through once without thinking too much about the illustrations (though they often do spring to mind) to get an idea of the shape and feel of the collection. I might start to feel colours creeping in, to reflect certain moods and locations; or get a sense of whether the illustrations need to edge into the gothic, or have more of a light touch. On the second read I start taking notes and sketches. My sketches are scrappy and involve stick figures, but they give me enough information to remember what I wanted to do. I tend to work on one illustration at a time, unless one is feeling like it’s not working. Then I’ll tuck it away and come back later. Once I’ve finished an illustration, I tend to send it straight to Kate or Sophie while it’s still fresh. One, I like to show it off straight away! And two, I find it helpful to get their reactions and feedback as I go. They might notice something I didn’t, which might inform how I put together the next one.
You’ve also designed covers for a number of authors, including myself. Is the process different? If so, how?
Covers are different in that you’re trying to depict an entire book in one image. Certainly not the whole story, but the feel of it, the important elements, and the genre. It’s very important to clearly show the right genre and readership. You don’t want your cosy English village murder mystery looking like a space opera, or your body horror thriller looking like a romantic family saga. As you remember Monique, we narrowed down your cover to two options, and ruled one design out in part because it looked like it might be edging into YA territory. There’s nothing wrong with young adults reading it, but the intended audience for a book must be clear. Readers get very annoyed if they feel like they’ve been mis-sold a book. And rightly so.
It’s tempting to try and pack as many elements of the story into a cover illustration as possible. But you risk both giving away spoilers, and over crowding the design. I try to limit myself to as little and possible, and let it say as much as possible. In your cover for example, we have an acacia blossom against dark clouds and raindrops. The blossom says a lot. For a start, and most obviously, one of your main characters is called Acacia. It’s a fragile flower, but it also looks like an explosion. The storm clouds loom ominously, but also hint at an important moment in the book. I’ll let your readers find their own meanings too! I do try to include little hints that don’t spoil the book, but are recognisable once someone has read the story.
How do you draw on your own life and environment to create your art?
I quite literally use my surroundings everyday. I photograph the landscape, and collect and photograph elements from it: feathers, twigs, leaves etc. Up until recently, I was using elements almost entirely from my local surrounds (and the odd beach holiday). In 2019 I spent a few weeks in France and Ireland, which has given me a fantastic range of new images to work with: actual castles and medieval interiors…
Coming back to your cover: the acacia flower was from a tree outside our front fence, I photographed the storm clouds from our veranda, and the raindrops were on the glass of our front door. All close to home as I could possible get. Quite handy, as we were in lockdown at the time.
What’s your favourite part of the illustration and design process?
Probably the early stage, when the project is fresh and ideas are whizzing about all over the place. And I can’t help but throw myself into the computer chair to try a brilliant idea that just popped into my brain. But I also love when I’ve settled into it too. When I know what I want the book to be, and I can see it take shape. I have to say my least favourite part is finishing, for a couple of reasons. Of course I’m usually sad to finish up a project I’ve been working on for 6 months. They become so embedded in my life over that time. But also, once I send off the illustrations, there’s nothing left I can do. What if I’ve made a mistake somewhere? Left in part of a photo I didn’t mean to? Or messed up some continuity with the text? Or used the silhouette of the wrong person?* Once I finish the illustrations for a book, I find it so hard to look at them again. Luckily, books take so long to come out, I can get some distance from them by the time it comes to promote it!
*Note, I have actually done all of these, and thankfully were able to fix them!
Some illustrators prefer not to liaise with authors when interpreting their work, What’s your approach to this?
I love building a relationship with my authors. I firmly believe that a collaboration is far bigger than the sum of its parts. I understand the need for distance sometimes, and why publishers sometimes encourage a space between author and illustrator to allow for creative freedom. I like to know what a writer sees in their head when they’re writing, and if I’m going in the right direction. I don’t necessarily ask them to lay it all out for me, but their own visual imagination was part of their creative process, and it’s always going to be helpful to know if I’m building on their vision rather than crashing through it. Even if I do something completely different to what they imagined, it helps to know that they’re pleasantly surprised (or horrified) early on in the process rather than after I’ve finished.
What do you do when something’s not working?
I’ve learnt to walk away when something feels truly stuck (which is different to me just procrastinating!). I make a cup of tea. Take the dog for a walk. Or do something else creative. Draw something, or do some writing. Doing some that’s still creative, but in a different medium, can help kick the inspiration back into gear, or give me an idea for something different to try. Sometimes I just put aside that illustration and start another one. A bit of time away from it usually helps, but it does sometimes mean that I get towards the end of an illustration project, then realise I’ve got several half-finished, not-working illustrations left over to sort out. I’m not particularly happy with past-Lorena in those moments.
What are three qualities an illustrator needs to have?
Ooh, dot point time! Ok:
- A bit of an obsessive personality. I’m terrible at stacking the dishwasher, but I will spend days arranging 274 hundred flowers into a millefleur inspired by The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry.
- A love (and some knowledge) of books, and all the people who make them. Obvious I know, but it helps to understand the field in which you’re working. It’s possible to be an extraordinary artist but a terrible illustrator. You must know or at least be interested in learning about what makes a good book, how to play well with other people, and how to use your skills to make someone else’s writing sing.
- You need to know how to see, and then how to show. Some kind of creative skill helps, but not necessarily drawing or painting. So many people tell me they’re terrible at drawing. I know! Me too! But there are so many ways of expressing yourself visually. I teach workshops in which I send people out to gather sticks and leaves to make collage illustrations: no pencils allowed. My technical skills are all in photography and Photoshop. Find magic in the ordinary, and find your own unique way to share it.
Tell me three ingredients in a good book cover.
These might sound counter-intuitive but here are two to start with: clarity and ambiguity. As I mentioned above, a good book cover will tell you a lot about the story within, without giving it away. And also… it has to be eye catching. You can, and should, judge a book by its cover, and it needs to intrigue you, tell you something about what’s inside, and make you pick it up in the first place!
What’s a myth about book illustrating you want to bust?
Apart from the fact that very few book illustrators are millionaires? Actually illustrators and billionaires have one thing in common. We tend to fall out of the tax bracket, even if it’s out either side…
Hm, I guess a lot of the myths tend to apply mostly to publishing in general. It takes a very long time for a book to get from a signed contract to the bookshop. Serious, ages. Like, a couple of years. Publishing is a slow moving machine. Also, formatting matters. We spend far more time than you’d think, thinking about page ratios, colour profile settings, gutters and margins and bleeds. Far too much time…
But, all the rumours about illustrators themselves are true. We’re stunningly talented and very lovely people. Often somewhat shy, but we can be tempted out of the house if you ask us to come sign a book for you. And we’ll be nice to your children.
What are you working on now?
Let me consult the calendar. I’ve got a picture book due soon, which I’m finalising the illustrations for. Satin is written by Sophie Masson and will be published by Midnight Sun in March 2023. I’m about to start work on my next book with Kate Forsyth. It will be our fifth collection of fairy tales together for Serenity Press. I’m also getting ready to put together publisher pitches for a couple of secret projects with exciting people, and lining up a couple of tentative public events this year, with fingers crossed all over the place. I’ve just picked up another cover commission, so I’m reading that manuscript now. It’s fabulous. Oh, and I have two books coming out in March with Serenity Press: The Gardener’s Son and the Golden Bird with Kate Forsyth and Magical Tales from French Camelot with Sophie Masson.
And of course there’s always stuff I can’t talk about yet, so stay tuned…
Which book do you think everyone should read?
I can’t think of a specific book off the top of my head… and we’re all such different readers. Most importantly, read what makes you happy and don’t let anyone shame you for it. Whether you love reading Russian short stories, cat detective mysteries, historical romance, sci fi, non-fiction scientific deep-dives into fungi (which is exactly what I’m listening to at the moment), middle grade novels (they are the actual best), garden guides, cookbooks, slam poetry, high fantasy, dark fantasy, erotic fantasy… epic 200k word doorstops or picture books. If you get value and joy from it, then that’s the book you should be reading.
What was the last book that made you cry? And laugh?
Still Life by Sarah Winman. I’ve been raving about it to anyone who’ll listen. It’s set between London and Florence from WWII through to the 70s. It’s one of those glorious books that feel like real life, but heightened. The audiobook is wonderful too. Sarah narrates it herself, and the combination of her acting experience and knowledge of her own characters makes it absolutely perfect.
Do you ever skip to the end of a book?
Never! But I will put a book down without finishing it if it doesn’t capture me. I’d rather abandon a book and start reading something I do love, than spend two weeks stalling because I can’t get through it and then miss out on all the good stuff I could be reading!