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The Art of Illustrating Words

Urban Creatures is set for an April launch. In anticipation, I talked to Alodie Fielding about her spooky, marvellous and magical inspirations and how she approaches illustrating my short story collections.

The first time I saw Alodie's work, I knew I wanted her to illustrate my books. Her market stall was full of wonderful jewellery, cards and artwork: I had discovered hidden treasure. It was obvious we shared the same taste and sensibility. To achieve my ambition of making my books a complete work, a thing of beauty to be cherished has been achieved through a fruitful creative collaboration of supportive publisher, a sympathetic designer and a talented artist.

Alodie has been kind enough to share her step-by-step development of the cover for Urban Creatures.

The finished cover illustration for Urban Creatures

What inspires your artwork and how did you develop your unique style?

A sense of humour and the absurd is very important to me. My style of executing the work may have changed and developed over time, but the content hasn’t really changed. So basically, I've always had an over-active imagination, and it has to come out somewhere, somehow.

I have always loved reading since I was young, particularly Joan Aiken, so she was a very early influence. I was always interested in historical costume and social history, even as a child. I had a fascination with the past, other worlds, so I suppose I always looked for forms of escapism. I remember my English teacher at Secondary School commenting that I always had my head in the clouds, daydreaming.

I remember several books my mum had as a girl, which contained really frightening artwork in them. They weren’t meant to be scary, but as a young kid, they were. All these things have had a big influence on my work and the same themes have recurred time after time.

1, 2 & 3 - I start with initial sketches and work until I get a design I like, and then make more detailed drawings. I scan the different images as layers into Photoshop. I like to get as many real textures and brush marks as possible into the original drawings and scans.

As a kid, I used to play outside with my friends all the time and we would spend whole summers outdoors on our bikes, building flimsy dens on Tooting Bec Common, making up adventures as we went. All this was done in sight of the oppressive Tooting Bec Mental Hospital (now gone), with its metal walkways and Victorian architecture. Various outpatients would also spend their days on the common, which added a tinge of peril.

Another influence looking back, was my mum’s mum. She would always tell me stories of when she was a young girl and I used to love listening to her go off into her past. When I stayed with her, we would look through her photos (or snaps, as she called them), the same routine every time. I think this gave me a romantic, sometimes wistful view of the past, which I think has affected my work.

My granny was also one for old wives tales. I still daren’t do any laundry on New Years Day, give gloves as a present or do numerous other things for fear of retribution.

4 & 5 - Sometimes I will print out the image onto paper and draw directly onto it with ink or pencil. I then wrap it around a similar size book to make sure the composition works as a cover.

Why do you think your artwork works so well alongside Sarah's stories?

I think it helps that we have a similar taste in imagery and are both drawn to history, and a slightly weird and gothic fantasy, fairytale world. Sarah saw me selling my work at a craft market and so I think that also helps a great deal, as she must have seen something in me and my work that spoke to her. Then when I read her stories, I felt a similar thing. It just works. It also helps that Sarah has a very clear vision of what she wants and conveys it very well.

6 - All the final layers are scanned and flattened. I took out the middle section and re-drew a lot of this image, as originally it was intended to have three panels with a pull out cover.

How do you collaborate with Sarah practically and creatively?

We start with the cover and discuss ideas. I like the cover to convey the mood of the book without necessarily referring to any individual story. We usually discuss the book contents, the feel and mood of the book. I do some rough sketches to make sure she is happy with the direction the artwork is taking. The illustrations inside the book are usually more specific to each story. Sarah will send me a few sentences about each story, so that I get a general idea about each one. She will often send me photos and pictures of imagery she likes, like a mood board. I use these as signposts. I don’t copy them, but they are useful guides as parameters to stay within while designing the image.

I don’t often read the whole story until I see the final published book, but sometimes Sarah will give me a finished story, or will give me more detail if I need it, as some images are harder to pin down than others.

Sarah is great to work with because she is very clear on what she wants and conveys it really well. She will also listen and consider alternatives, so if I suggest that something else might work better as an image she will take it on board. It is very important that this works both ways as I think the work is better for it.

How does your process differ when working on book illustrations?

It is always important to be true to yourself and your style of work when working for yourself and for others. If the author/publisher doesn’t understand that, it can be hard, particularly if they have a specific style or image in mind. The great thing about Sarah is that I know she likes the style I work in and this gives me a lot more confidence to be imaginative and creative.

As an illustrator working for someone else, you want to be true to yourself, but you also have to remember that ultimately the author’s words need to be respected. It can be a challenge to try to interpret another person’s thoughts and their world through your own imagery, but it is very rewarding when it works. Sometimes you have to curb your impulse to add other things or go off on another tangent and pull things back to remain true to the author's vision.

On a very practical level, it is also important to remember that you are creating a cover for a book, so when you are composing the cover image, you need to leave areas for the text and other bits and pieces to be inserted. In a way it can be good to have certain restrictions placed on you, as it can make you think outside of your own limitations, by making you have to think in another way. By being challenged and using your problem solving abilities makes you produce better work in the long run.

To see more of Alodie's beautiful work visit her website; The Crooked Style.

Urban Creatures is published by Claret Press and will be available in spring 2020.

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