Having missed out on last year’s ‘Picture This’ illustration competition, launched by Waterstone’s and featuring the indisputably excellent and wonderful Julia Donaldson (also 2011’s Children’s Laureate, incidentally http://www.childrenslaureate.org.uk/julia-donaldson/, succeeding the equally marvellous Anthony Browne) – because I had been labouring under the (mistaken) impression that I may not be eligible – I resolved to give the 2011 round a most earnest ‘whirl’. Alas, as I had only been peripherally aware of the contest since early June and had been embroiled in various other activities during that month, time had flitted mercilessly by and, thus, it was with no little degree of horror – upon receiving an email confirming my eligibility to participate on 22nd June – that I calculated I had approximately a week to come up with the proverbial ‘goods’ (and perform the astonishingly time-consuming administrative rigmarole of entry form completion, labelling, robust parcelling and postage – as those who read of my experience submitting material to the Bologna Illustrators’ Exhibition will have learned, in exhaustive detail…).
To engineer a competition as compelling as last year’s (what illustrator would not be catapulted into joyous raptures at the [potential…] prospect of working with The Gruffalo‘s author and dare to entertain the outrageous fantasy of emulating a working relationship as fantastically successful as that constructed with Axel Scheffler…?) would seem a tall – nay, towering – order indeed. However, entirely unfazed, Waterstone’s wheeled out none other than Michael Morpurgo: celebrated and extraordinarily successful (and prolific) children’s author, perhaps best known by the broadest spectrum of readers and the general populace as author of War Horse, now a critically and popularly – truly a golden combination – acclaimed West End show (adapted for theatre by Nick Stafford). As evidenced by the richness of his ‘back catalogue’, Michael Morpurgo – as well as having a rather brilliant and alliterative name – is a consummate storyteller and is to apply his great talent to the task of re-telling the classic fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. Waterstone’s arrived at the story selection by what has now become customary methodology, i.e. a public vote, and the ‘nation’s favourite fairytale’ according to this process was announced at the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts (Wales) at the end of May. The brief for contending illustrators was to create full colour illustrations of their interpretation of the three principal characters, together with a full colour double-page spread, to specified page dimensions (allowing for bleed, etc., and incl. crop marks), of any scene from the story. Excavating through the paragraphs and sub-paragraphs of fine print (of which there were many…) in the terms of entry, I unearthed the additional requirement that these illustrations be suitable for a 3+ years readership – a detail that I was relieved not to have missed, given both the discernibly older target age group for much of my recent work and the importance of this understanding in informing approach to the brief.
So, with only a few days to magic some appropriately early-years-friendly characters into being, and to banish all vestiges of the frustratingly pervasive Disney Beauty and the Beast from my consciousness (aided somewhat by revisiting the tale in as close to its original French incarnation as an afternoon’s Googling would permit), I began roughing out a few ideas:
After a little tinkering with various options, I settled on the three principal characters – Beauty, the Beast, and Beauty’s Father (the Merchant) – and for the spread, about which I was more than a little apprehensive (it being my first bona fide attempt at such a composition), I wanted to feature the Beast demonstrating his vulnerable, non-ferocious side by way on contrast with the intended character study, so chose a sort of split-scene construct: Beauty, returned to the familiarity of her home (L-hand page), but aware of the Beast’s suffering in her absence (R-hand page), courtesy of the enchanted mirror he had gifted to her. The spread I anticipated taking rather more consideration, once I had started sketching out some possible layouts and had encountered some logistical constraints within the page dimensions specified, so pressed on with the character studies:
Mindful of recent friendly suggestions/constructive criticism (Bologna; Portfolio Intensive) that the defining, black outline – that has characterized a significant element of my illustrative style to date – lends a rather contrived, staid feel, I have been striving to relax the lines a little and invite a sketchier, less taut appearance to my illustrations. I have to confess, it has been something of a challenge to ‘de-program’ and effect a little of the rewiring necessary to not apply all the usual processes to my drawing, but I have brought something of this adapted style into my submission pieces (just, please, don’t tell me if you can’t detect a difference…!).
The nascent double-page spread – which I had roughed out on Thursday (30 June) – would have kept me awake with palpitating heart and moist brow had I had the luxury of time to wrestle with my indecision and agonize over particular details of the composition. Fortunately, almost this entire (and, often, ultimately superfluous) component of the process was eliminated, allowing me to forge ahead with the always-thrilling and frequently cheering watercolour application. I thought I’d include here the central elements of the page composition (as described above), to show how the sketches translated to the final piece – particularly in the case of the L-hand page, featuring Beauty at home, where I had decided to reduce down the density of the illustration (I had been considering Beauty in the foreground, with supercilious sisters milling around in the background, and perhaps her father – just distinguishable – showing concern at her distress). The idea was both to provide a contrast, delivering (hopefully) a sense of distance between Beauty’s situation and that of the Beast, and to hone in on Beauty’s experience – her emotional response to ‘seeing’ the Beast’s suffering – as the focus of the scene by sloughing off any distracting background characters. From a practical, layout stance, I also had to consider where the text that would accompany the scene might be placed – with two pages of ‘dense’ illustration, this may present something of a challenge to the designer – and the relationship between the text and illustrations as it might be experienced by a reader. The R-hand page I had envisaged as completely filled by the illustration of the Beast, the contrast with the composition of the opposite page contributing to a sense of the different spheres inhabited by the two characters – Beauty’s rather immediate, familiar, homely if a little spare; the Beast’s shrouded in darkness but opulent and compelling – and communicating the vision that might be appearing to Beauty in the enchanted mirror (turned away from the reader in the opposite illustration). That sounds like rather an ambitious, even lofty, raft of objectives, but I hope I have managed to achieve at least some portion of these in my final rendering of the scene.
First, though, the roughs, which I drew separately and then experimented with placings in the final layout (Beauty shrank down from a size roughly comparable with the Beast to her current stature, I hope conveying her diminutive size and isolation as a ‘pedestrian’ interloper in the magic-imbued world that the Beast inhabits):
In the version of the story I was using for reference, Beauty envisions the Beast as dying when she doesn’t return to the castle within the 7 days specified and, wracked with guilt and brimming with compassion (of course…), she wishes herself back there. Despite (ordinarily) agreeing with the sentiment that children should be respected as more emotionally intelligent readers than they are often credited as I felt that, for such a potentially young readership, it might be more diplomatic/sensitive to represent the Beast as sick as opposed to slumped – apparently dead – in his castle. Perhaps I have compromised my chances with this decision (assuming that I hadn’t already blown it on myriad other scores, that is…), but I think I would stand by it with this reasoning, if challenged:
So, delivered into the very hands of the smiling receptionist at Waterstone’s offices in Brentford on Monday lunchtime, that may very well be the last anyone sees of it! The six finalists (there’s a second round…) are to be notified on or before 15 July – which does, at least, make it a mercifully swift verdict – but I shall be adopting my tried and tested disappointment-avoidance technique of concertedly not-remembering that I have entered at all, and concentrate on the next project: British SCBWI’s Undiscovered Voices 2012 Anthology illustration competition – deadline 20 August (2011)…