Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Illustrations of Earthsea

If you've been reading my blog, it has probably become apparent what I love to read and watch, what inspires me and fuels my imagination. Avengers to Isaac Asimov and now to Ursula K. Le Guin. I adore her Earthsea Cycle. Though I haven't finished reading all the books in the series, her style is very old school (i.e. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George McDonald), and her tales of Earthsea are haunting and rich with the traditional folklore of wizards, dragons, and magic, but have a lot of philosophical depth and originality. I love that her stories are driven by the characters and their inner growth, rather than the externals, i.e. the wizards, dragons, etc, yet all of it is thoroughly developed and woven together. Of the books I have read, I loved every one, but something particularly drew me to The Farthest Shore, which is the third book in her series. It is centered on the Archmage Sparrowhawk (or Ged as is his real name) and the young prince Arren and their quest to save the world as they know it from a great Darkness that is undoing all things. Pretty traditional, but her execution is not as the story follows these two characters. I find it rather reminiscent of the journey Frodo and Sam take into Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, as the Archmage and Arren meet many trials on their journey into the Dry Land (the place of the Dead), and sacrifices are made. The book approaches ideas about Death and Immortality, but also of personal growth. Simple, but somehow profound through its telling. It is mournful, ethereal, but not without hope. The imagery really stuck with me, and so when taking an advanced drawing class at my college, I decided to do 5 illustrations for this story.

The illustrations had to be large format, 18 x 24, which is not traditional for me. I also used charcoal and white conte, which is not my normal medium. It was challenging for both these reasons and since I was working on a colored paper, which would serve as my medium tones, and had to work in the darks and lights with the charcoal and conte. It was a little awkward because I usually build up my shading by many, many layers of light shading, so going from light to dark, but I sought help from a great early 20th century illustrator (my favorites!) Elihu Vedder and his work on the Rubaiyat. It is hard to find really good examples of his work on the internet, but I once saw a show where they had all of them displayed at my local art museum, and they were absolutely stunning to see in person! Here are just two examples:

He worked with the medium toned paper, building his dark and light value tones. His touch is so soft and subtle, and I love the movement he creates in his figures as well. In these two examples, the one on the left you are drawn in by the twisted arms of this angelic creature leading this young woman. Your eye follows down the delicate twists of his cloak and her dress, but then you are drawn upward by his wings. On the right, the weeping woman's contorted body becomes one with the swirling contortion of the cloth around her. It is so elegant in its execution. There was just something about those early 20th century illustrators in the way they were able to capture the emotion and power of stories, fairytales, and poetry in their use of line, texture, and subtle hues. Normally they had a very minimalistic color palette, or at least from those I am usually inspired by, and I think that adds to the atmosphere and power of their art.

My main source of inspiration for my illustrations was Elihu Vedder, but I also drew from Gustave Dore and Arthur Rackham, who I've spoken on before. Here are examples:

"The Destruction of the Levithan" by Gustave Dore
& "Undine" by Arthur Rackham
Gustave Dore was an illustrator who mostly worked in engravings, which I think is so impressive considering the scope and detail he was able to achieve. Looking at the example I had here of the leviathan, you can see the drama he creates with movement and line. The swirling mass of leviathan and water is so dynamic and it is all engraved into a wood block! Arthur Rackham's work is just gorgeous, and what I love is that in many of his pieces the characters almost become one with their surroundings, by the uniform of color, movement, and lines. In this example Undine is blown by the wind into the very landscape of branches and forest growth. It is otherwordly and rich with detail.

With these images in mind, I began my work. They are listed in chronological order of the story and I have below each of them the excerpts that I chose.

"The oarsmen sat like carved statues.
Crewmen stood in the waist of the ship, their eyes shining a little.
Alone on the port side stood a man, and it was  from him that the light came,
from the face and hands and staff that burned like molten silver.
At the feet of the radiant man a dark shape was crouched."

"He was running the darkening gloom, faster and faster, around the sinking
inner lip of a pit, an enormous whirlpool sucking down to darkness..."

"As he gathered brushwood for their fire in a creek-valley, in that red light,
Arren glanced up and saw a man standing not ten feet from him.
The man's face looked vague and strange, but Arren knew him,
the Dyer of Lorbanery, Sopli , who was dead.
Behind him stood others, all with sad, staring faces. They seem to speak,
but Arren could not hear their words, only a kind of whispering blown
away by the west wind. Some of them came toward him slowly."

"With all the skill of his life's training and with all the strength of his fierce heart,
Ged strove to shut that door, to make the world whole once more."

"When Arren woke, a grey fog hid the sea and the dunes and hills
of Selidor. The breakers came murmuring in a low thunder
out of the fog and withdrew murmuring into it again."

I really wanted to make the surrounding atmosphere strong around these characters, with swirling clouds, water, or stone, and the characters flowing with it as one. This is how I felt while reading the book, her atmosphere thick with the Darkness that was invading the land. It was isolating, cold, and mysterious and this effected the landscape. I kept with the movement of the lines, clouds moving into sky, into water, into stone, into cloth, into trees, etc which creates a steady rhythm. In this way, I feel that it heightens the feeling of the fantastical, making the landscapes like dreamscapes, more surreal and magical. This movement is something that I felt was key in the early 20th century illustrators that I've listed above and one of the reasons why I'm so drawn to their work.

So, despite my often frustrations in working with charcoal, I enjoyed creating these pieces. I hope you have enjoyed them as well. My next posts I hope to be able to share new pieces, but seeing as this month was so busy for me, I thought it would be a good opportunity to show some earlier work that I don't usually get to show. It was also a great excuse for me to photograph and make this into digital copies. Anyway, please come back in a few weeks, and have a good February!


  1. Danielle, your art is beautiful! I enjoyed reading this and seeing the art you described. Wonderful. :)

    1. Thank you so much, Jessica. I always love talking about art, whether mine or another's, just as much as making it. I'm glad you enjoyed this post!

  2. Hi Danielle,

    This'll be my second attempt to comment on this post. ;)

    I'm glad you shared these images, the background for them...and your influences. Those artists have a place somewhere deep down in my memory banks...especially Dore.

    Your charcoals have so much depth and light to them...that second one looks like it goes on to infinity in that background. I find charcoal to be such a challenging and frustrating medium too...but it looks like you have an excellent feel for it!

    Ciao fer now : )

    1. Thank you once again, Jeff! I'm glad the depth and light comes across in these images. Yes, the second piece is one of the strongest of the series, and that is because I had this image already in mind before I even took the class, so had more time to think about it. It was a challenge to do such large pieces in only a semester's time! I'm probably not going to ever work in charcoal again, haha, but it was good to get a feel for it and these were fun to create. :-)