If you haven’t heard, The Matheson (Gainesville’s History Museum) and SAW (The Sequential Artists Worskhop, Gainesville’s comics art school) have teamed up to produce and create “What the Lions Saw,” a book illustrated by local artist and SAW teacher Justine Mara Andersen, hereby known as “me,” your friendly neighborhood narrator, and written by Mae Clark.
I chose to share the cover first just to set the stage, ’cause I don’t have much to say about the process of drawing it… why? Because I ditched most of my process, sat in front of a blank sheet of paper and a folder full of lion photos, and drew it. Usually I sketch and sketch and work out every detail in advance, and I’ll walk you through some of that shortly, but on this occasion, for some reason I took a deep breath and trusted that it was all going to manifest itself on the paper… and it did. Sometimes I think that like songs that are plucked out of the air by songwriters, drawings often exist in the fibers of the paper before anyone puts pencil to the paper. What is meant to manifest will manifest.
It started, of course, as a pencil drawing that I then inked. It’s important also share that I don’t really think in color when it comes to art, I think in line. To me, this image works in black and white all on its own, so even though when you see the book it will be in color, here is the only place you will be able to see the cover in all its original black and white glory! Sometimes I wish people did not have the idea that black and white equals cheap. How I would have loved to have simply gone with a black and white cover! But alas… what is is what is.
Ah… but there is still plenty of glorious black and white magic between the covers… and that sounds vaguely like a dirty joke between inkers.
What was so exciting about this illustration job was how rich with opportunity Gainesville’s history is. There were no shortage of picturesque possibilities, and while I aimed to get the historical elements visually right through research, I chose a timeless yet hundred year-old illustrative style that I combined with a romantic and universal viewpoint, as sadly, it seems history has become less and less romantic as more of the truth has surfaced. Well, dreadful as the truth of history may sometimes be, I am a firm believer that there is still room for romance, at least stylistically, and in the manner in which I chose to render the scenes. I chose to approach this more as a fairy tale than as cold hard history in that the style is evocative rather than literal, and the approach fanciful and free. I have to admit, I was worried at first about taking on this project, as it was rather huge from an illustration perspective, so I decided to go into the first meeting bold and declare, “Nothing kills creativity faster than a committee, I want creative control. Give me that and you’ll get me at my best,” and was surprised to see that the Matheson gang eagerly nodded. So, thanks to the wisdom of the Matheson crew, I was able to do exactly that, give you all my very best! It’s a rare client that has the insight to trust us creative professionals to do our jobs and actually be creative. So often the life is manipulated out of my work by overzealous micromanagement. It seems a lot of people want to see their ideas on paper without taking the time to learn how to draw.
I’d like to now walk you through a show-and tell of the process for one of the drawings, probably one of my very favorites, the first illustration.
This entire book was based on the illustrations of Russian artist Ivan Bilibin, his work I found very appealing, and I had hoped that by binding myself within the limitation of paying homage to Bilibin, that I would maintain a singularity of style, limit the variables, and keep my work wistful, romantic, and that I would have a template to work from wherein simplicity and details worked in a sweet harmony. In other words, I chose this style to not only limit the variables, but to learn something.
This concept came quite quickly, in fact, a lot of these images I had ideas for from the very first time I read the script, many of them came to me and I had to sketch them in the hour after I first looked the manuscript over. Rarely have I had ideas come so freely.
Looking back at the first sketch (seen above), I am surprised how close this one is to the final version, with some notable differences. For one, I hadn’t seen the actual lions that used to sit atop City Hall, so I just dropped a pair of lions in, and as I loved this concept and design for the scenes of “washing the lions,” I hoped like crazy the actual lions would fit into this composition.
They didn’t… we’ll get to that.
Also, I have to laugh at remembering why the image above is cropped so closely. On the original sheet of paper I drew that on, the sketch only took up about half the page. At some point I had called Tom Hart (SAW founder) to get his credit card number to pay off a bill the school has been taking care of, so, naturally, I wrote it in the margin of this handy piece of scrap paper.
Yeah… but I forgot that and handed the sketch over to Peggy McDonald so she could send out teasers for the upcoming book. It was my understanding that these sketches would be shared… which means… as you have just figured out no doubt, that I had potentially just sent Tom’s (my “boss”) credit card number out on the internet!
No… seriously… OOPS!!! Fortunately, we caught the problem and cropped the image before anyone else ever saw it… oye!
Soon after I did a second sketch to try and work out the specifics, having still not seen the lions themselves.
The problem was, once I saw the real lion, I realized they were seated. OK, so here’s the rub, I chose throughout the book to play a little loose with such things, with reality, as the lions are drawn out of this position later (as though they come to life), and I had also made the decision to sometimes render them as the copper lions, while sometimes as magical live lions depending on what suited the illustration. The cover, which you have seen, I thought demanded to be rendered more like a literal lion than a copper lion. However, for this image, the specifics of the washing of these lions demanded I draw the lions as they are. Plus, this piece set the tone, and I wanted to introduce our lions as they are. The other problem I had was that the composition I had worked out for this drawing I really liked, but the seated lions no longer fit, so it occurred to me to simply place them on low tables, which gave me an opportunity to draw a Bilibinesque fabric detail to skirt the table. Other changes came later, but above is the second sketch I did before ever seeing the lions.
Note also the red border. Sometimes I draw a scene out, and then work out the precise cropping later. In this case I needed the cropping of the composition to evoke the delightful compositions of Ivan Bilibin.
Below you will see the final sketch, which is pretty close, actually, minus one major element, which you might spot as we roll down. By this point I had worked out the rhythm of Bilibin’s compositional style, a sort of designed and balanced perfection. I chose to enhance that sense of balance by placing the elements in waltz timing… count the arrangement of figures on each lion… 1 – – 2 – 3! I did the same with the buckets as well as other elements of the composition.
I think you will see in the completed pencils below, that only minimal changes had to be made.
Among the changes were elements of symbolism. Sometimes symbolism occurs to me as a natural part of the creative process, and the symbols I used here also added to not only the waltz timing (see the old man with his back turned), but created a sense of time itself. I teach my students that really great narrative illustration can act like a time machine, capturing not only a present moment in time, but can also evoke the past and the future. In this case the act of washing something is in itself a statement of time. The lions got dirty in the past, are being cleaned in the present, and will be clean for a new purpose in the future. To me, that is the mark really great illustrations hit, they are not mere polaroids snapping a frozen moment, but evoke narratives that span from the past into the present and propel the viewer into the future.
Add to this that we not only see the people cleaning the lions in the here and now, but the old man with his back turned represents the past, Gainesville’s past, and the children (one with a good old-fashioned balloon, the other with a dreaded cell phone) represent the future. As for me… I hope we learn to become less obsessed with our phones and more obsessed with balloons.
One regret I have about the piece is that I did not include an image of the person who actually did the hard work of cleaning and instead slid myself into the image… I’m the skirted barefoot girl right up front!
I also wanted to establish right from the very beginning of this book that my illustrations were not going to be literal. Yes, here I chose to show the “copper” lions as they actually are, though I break that later, what I wanted to establish was an abstracted and stylized background so the viewer would not be shocked when the images broke free from literalism. The older I get the less interest I have in being bound or limited… dear God… set me free!
And of course, as anyone who knows comics knows, the pencils have to be inked. I do all my inking with a brush and ink, I’m old fashioned that way. I’d like to add that the inking is my favorite part of the process, it’s where I’m most confident, and it seems to be where the actual magic happens, for some reason the pencilling is often more like work than magic.
Just to offer you guys all another couple of lovely teasers, below you will see one half of the two-page spread I had illustrated celebrating that “The Yearling” was written in this area (the yearling itself will be in the upcoming book). I’d like to point out that what you see in the below image is essentially the view out my studio window, where I often see wild turkeys and deer… all of whom make far better neighbors than humans. Also note the subtle reference to the Hindu Deity Shiva on the tree… like many illustrators of the past (Alphonse Mucha, even Bilibin), I chose to include some personal mysticism. That tree out my window I often stare into when I am meditating (it has an actual third-eye), so I have been going out and marking it with three horizontal lines in ash. So, there you go, a little personal insight you may have never noticed had I not pointed it out! As an life long illustrator I believe that illustration is the highest form of Art (with a capital “A”) as all our university intellectuals and snobs have it all wrong. Rembrandt was an illustrator, Sargent was an illustrator, the Cistine Chapel ceiling is an illustration. All this bluster about “high Art” and “low art” is, frankly, built on absurd and faulty logic. If you want to dismiss illustration as lowly, then you dismiss Rembrandt, da Vinci and Michelangelo.
The final image I’d like to share I have little to say about it except that it is an exceptionally cool rendering of smoke and fire! And yes, you’ll learn more about this image when you read the upcoming book!
So, come on out December 14th and celebrate the launch of the locally written, illustrated and printed book,
“What the Lions Saw.”
I’ll be there… as will be the Lions!
For more, visit: barefootjustine.com
These illustrations are truly glorious, Justine. I really enjoyed reading about your process, and the thought and inspirations behind it. (I also love the fact that you included yourself!) Thank you for sharing this!
Thanks for the lovely comment.