How our books are made - illustrating Island Home

03 May 2017

Illustrator Chris Wormell tells us how he created the beautiful images that bring the Australian landscape of Tim Winton's Island Home to life. 

I did some illustrations for Tim Winton’s book Land’s Edge a couple of years ago and very much enjoyed it.  The chance to do some more for Island Home was not to be missed.  I say illustrations, but I wouldn’t say I ‘illustrated’ these books.  They don’t need illustrations; Tim Winton paints pictures vividly enough with his prose.  Illustrations would be superfluous.  I think what I was providing were decorative breaks in the text.  As such the images needed to be very simple – a moment, a thing, a place: if possible, something central to the narrative of the relevant chapter.

This all sounds rather considered. It wasn’t. I merely responded to the text as I read it, jotting down possible pictures as I went along.  By the time I’d finished reading I had a list of ten images and a fairly clear idea of how I saw them on the page.  Now I just needed to find out – among other things – what a Blue Ringed Octopus looked like…

            In the old days (I’m talking twenty or thirty years ago) the job of an illustrator was much harder.  Finding visual reference material was often a major operation.  Bookshops and libraries were searched for images, and long excursions made to visit particular locations.  Nowadays, of course, we are all just a few clicks of a mouse away from a wealth of images to help inform our illustrations.  Which is great.  But I sometimes miss the excitement of discovering a photograph of a long sought, obscure tropical plant, in a dusty old book, in a second hand bookshop on the Charing Cross Road.  It was a bit like discovering buried treasure.  Or the challenge of drawing a poorly stuffed specimen in the Natural History Museum, and trying to bring it to life.

Thanks Google, you’ve made life much easier and faster, and the world a whole lot smaller.  But also, just a bit duller too.  (I sound like a grumpy old man!  I could of course, still do things the old way…). An example of the wonders of Google:  Last year I was commissioned to illustrate a real life incident – a car, broken down on the side of an American highway on the plains of Texas.  My sketch provoked a whole bunch of comments from the rather pedantic commissioner.  The landscape wasn’t quite right; the lines on the road weren’t in the right place, and where were the mileage markers at the side of the highway? etc. etc.  I went back to the drawing board – or rather the computer screen – and got on to Google earth, found the highway, got down onto the ground via street view, followed the highway until, by checking the mileage markers, I found more or less the exact place where the breakdown occurred; almost as if I’d been flown to America to draw on the spot.  It was a pretty dull spot: dead flat grassland, dead straight road.  I did another sketch, and the client was happy, more or less, but I can’t help feeling the Texas plain of my imagination was a far more interesting place…

Like the pictures Tim Winton draws in the readers imagination.

Once my sketches had been approved I traced the images and transferred them on to lino blocks – reversed, so that when printed, the images would be as the sketches were.  Once the blocks had been cut they were printed on a small Victorian Albion Press.

Actually, the blocks were only partly cut.  Photoshop, like Google, has taken some of the hard work out of illustration.  As all illustrations (more or less) are delivered as digital files nowadays, and the prints scanned and sent via the Internet, some of the duller more time consuming parts of making the image, such as clearing away the background of the block, are much more easily, and speedily, done in Photoshop.

Here are a few of the finished images.

Chris Wormell is one of the finest and most versatile illustrators working in Britain today. Discover more of Chris' work at www.chriswormell.com.

Island Home, Tim Winton's beautiful, evocative, and sometimes provocative, story of his relationship with the Australian landscape is out now. 

>>>Start reading now

 

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