Friday, February 24, 2012

Authenticity and fairytales

For a number of years I have been dreaming of illustrating the Serbian fairytales. While flipping through the books on fairytales illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, Arthur Rackham or John Bauer, I would often wonder how to tackle such a challenge. A few years ago I did illustrate one Serbian fairytale for a Norwegian publisher, as a part of the collection of fairytales from all around the world. In fact I was offered to illustrate two fairytales, but due to my busy schedule at that time, I declined the second one and did only the pictures for the shorter tale. I was so eager to do this job that, instead of painting a one page and a half page illustration, which I was commissioned and paid to do, I did a double page and a one page illustration. Unfortunately, the book was never published.

As it is the case with the most of our dreams, if we dream them long enough, they will eventually come through, in one or another form. Last summer a respectable publisher from Serbia with an appropriate name Čarobna knjiga, which means Magic Book, asked me to participate in a major book project on Serbian fairytales. There are in total 11 illustrators involved in this project, the book will have 224 pages and will be published in Serbia in September this year. No doubt, a major and rather prestigious book, that is intended to set a new standard for that kind of illustrated books, as far as the Serbian market is concerned.

Due to my agreement with the publisher, I am not able to show you the finished paintings (in fact I am still very busy creating them), but I can show you some of the preliminary sketches and studies.

One of the illustrations from the Norwegian project.

You probably noticed that I did different sketches of the same character, which means that I take this task very seriously and that I am not easily satisfied with the first design. One might say that I search for something that I am apparently not able to struck instantly. The thing I am mostly concerned about at this stage of my work on this particular project is the authenticity and the national character of my designs and paintings.

When it comes to illustrating the national themes, one inevitably has to deal with the historical and ethnological authenticity. The specifics of a certain culture like traditional clothing, architecture, various artifacts, human physiognomy, landscapes, and all other things that have to express the national aspect of the story in question, suddenly become an important issue. But while it is quite obvious that one has to be as authentic and as accurate as possible in terms the costumes and props when depicting a specific historic moment , it is something quite different when you deal with fairytales, myths or legends. Although all these stories are mostly a product of fiction, never the less they are firmly rooted in a certain cultural frame. The question I have been asking myself since I have started the work on this book, is how authentic and historically accurate one has to be when dealing with a folk tale, a fairytale. It is clear that a certain doses of authenticity is required, because for instance, a knight from an English legend has to look as a proper English knight, otherwise it has not much sense to call it an English story. At the same time too much history in the fairytale pictures might kill the magic.

How did a Serbian medieval knight, or prince, looked like? How does his castle looked like, what kind of dress did he wear and what kind of designs decorated his clothes? These are quite normal questions, but the answers are not easy to find. After the mighty Ottoman Turks invaded and gradually conquered medieval Serbia and almost all of the Balkans at the beginning of 15th century, the radical and thorough change took place. In the subsequent 5 centuries of the Turkish rule much of the medieval Serbian culture was lost, destroyed and reshaped on the basis of the conqueror ‘s culture. Apart from some indications in the old manuscripts, the more or less canonized depictions on the frescos in the medieval churches , and the poetic and romantic writings in the old epic poetry, there are virtually no solid indications of what a Serbian prince and his world looked like. Generally speaking the Serbian medieval culture was primarily influenced by the Byzantine culture. But, there are indications that the Serbian rulers have imported clothes and armor from Italy and Hungary. Some Serbian kings had married west European princesses, as well as the princesses from the surrounding kingdoms, who inevitably brought some of the fashion from their native cultures, influencing to a certain degree the Serbian court. Besides, it is known that the Emperor Dušan’s personal guard consisted of the German mercenaries, who were dressed as the western soldiers and knights from that period (see the paintings of Emperor Dušan by Paja Jovanović). So, when a fairytale starts with: “Long time ago there lived a king who had three sons…”, you know that you have to place the story in the pre-Turkish times and that you have to deal with the insufficiency of the reference material.

A warrior, fresco from the 13th century church

But (fortunately there is a “but” here) we are dealing with a fairytale, which in my opinion does not have to be exactly historically accurate in terms of clothing and props (it even sounds a bit silly – a historically accurate fairytale, right?). However it is necessary to show a sufficient amount of basic elements that would suggest the national character, and to depict the rest as suggestive and imaginative as possible.
As long as we are suggesting or showing the right direction, and as long as we infuse our designs with enough imaginative and evocative material for the reader’s mind to be captured and inspired by, we are on the good road. It is all about pointing the “finger” towards the right symbols and archetypes. Our preconditioned and programed mind would do the rest.

Perhaps a good example of this can be found in the sources of inspiration that I have used while designing my King Marko, the main character from The Legend of Steel Bashaw. Because of the nature of this old tale, it is obvious that this king comes from the obscured pre-Turkish times and therefore has to reflect something that the imagination of the public will unquestionably relate to the Serbian medieval noble knight, although as I just said, nobody knows how these knights exactly looked like.

The sources of inspiration I used while designing King Marko were:

- Blue trousers are inspired by the paintings of Paja Jovanović.

- The design of his breastplate was inspired by the old coins that were found at the archeological location of the Russian city of Novgorod.

- King Marko wears a traditional Serbian shoes, that probably did not exist in the middle ages, and if they did exist, a king would surely NOT wear them.

- He wears a yellow tunic under his armor that comes from the famous Rembrandt’s painting “The Night watch”

- The general design of his armor is inspired by the relative complexity of the armor of the Byzantine warriors/knights.

- Marko’s exaggeratedly long mustache indicate a feature on the man’s face that was so common in the Balkans in the past. My grandfather, for instance, who was born at the end of the 19th century, for the most of his adult life had a long mustache. As an old man (he died when he was 96) he looked like an iconic bard from the Serbian epics.

That’s it. Until now, I haven’t heard anybody complaining about King Marko not being authentic enough.

So, my conclusion is that as long as the sum of the details and symbols in our designs and compositions points out towards the right direction and brings the desirable associations and emotions to the surface of the reader’s/spectator’s mind, without damaging the magic, and maintaining and supporting the required illusion (the suspension of disbelief), we are achieving our goal as illustrators of this kind of stories. After all, as illustrators, fantasy illustrators in particular, we are a kind of dream makers. At its best, we help create dreams that make up the foundations of reality.

Dream well

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Quilt project

A few months ago, while I was at IlluXcon, LizAnn Lizotte approached me and ask if I would be willing to participate in a quilt project. She asked all artists who were present at the show to do a sketch, or a painting, on a little square of cotton cloth. She would then put these painted patches together and make a quilt. When the job is finished, Pat Wilshire will auction it off to raise funds for art student scholarships.

Other artists of note included in the project are: Justin Gerard, Donato Giancola, Raoul Vitale, Omar Rayyan, Vincent Villafranca, Matt Stewart,  Jordu Schell,  John Harris, Chris Moeller,  Allen Williams, Jeremy Caniglia, Eric Velhagen, Tom Taggart, Didier Graffet,  Soutchay Soungpradith, among others.

So, I said yes, and brought my piece of cloth home, in order to make a quick oil sketch of…something. The size of the cotton patch was about 4 ½ X 4 ½ inch, or 11 X 11 cm. The deadline for delivering the painted patch was the beginning of January, but because of my busy schedule, I was not able to meet the due date. Then, at the beginning of February, when I was asked if my little sketch was finished, I felt bad about not keeping my promise and decided to “punish” myself by making a little painting, instead of making just a quick sketch in color. So, I did this little painting of a silly giant.

I was surprised to discover how much fun I had while making this little painting. The cotton cloth was very finely woven and it was surprisingly easy and joyous to apply the oil color to it. I than realized that I could do some little experiments and try to find out how this miniature format would fit me. The experience was very refreshing and insightful and I decided to do more of this kind of little silly paintings. If my busy schedule permits it, I might do a couple of them and bring it with me to the Spectrum Live show. So, if you have always dreamed of having an original Meseldzija in your collection, but did not have enough funds to finance this dream, this is your chance. With the help of just a couple of hundred bucks you might persuade me to sell one of these little paintings to you.

See you in Kansas City in May!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Conan Commission, part 4

Here are the new progress shots of the Conan painting. A few days ago I somehow managed to bring the painting to the edge of disaster, when I tried to paint the background. I needed to define the color and the values of the background first, in order to know how to tackle the rest of the painting.  It just did not work out. I got more and more desperate as I started to realize that my initial intention to paint the background  lighter than the foreground, was not a good idea after all. So, at the end of the exhausting day, I finally decided to make a radical change and to rearrange and repaint the background.

The painting looks still quite messy and far from being finished, but at least now I know how to proceed with it. 

Some paintings are destined to have a relatively smooth and more or less clearly defined path. Others are unpredictable and have a stubborn character. The paintings with the less “tamable” character tend to cause some headaches and sleepless nights, never the less, they often help us to transcend the dusty and established routes, and our cliché-thinking, that from time to time  need to be shaken a little, in order for us to grow and to bring our work to another level. I guess that not everyone likes the turbulences that the change often brings with it, but if we want to be completely honest, we have to admit that the change (together with the transience) is the only permanent and certain thing in Life. It will never disappoint us by its absence. So I say, don’t be afraid, embrace it instead, as much as you can.