Outside the Box Part 2: Serendipity, Materials, Images & Narrative

If there’s a Part I, then, naturally, a Part 2 should follow. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to use many different kinds of materials in my illustrated books. It’s very engaging — and it keeps changing.

Merriam Webster defines serendipity as  “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for.”   Over the past couple of years, regular visits to the Scrap Exchange, Durham’s creative use center, mentioned in my last blog post, Part I, have provided me with quite a bit of serendipity. Sometimes I’d be looking for one thing and find something else.  Usually I was looking for things I could use for my artwork. It might be something to hold brushes , pencils or paint, or objects that could be used for drawing references, but with my two latest books, Eurydice and The Night Dances, I had begun casting about for things I could actually incorporate into the images.

I love stories, especially short fiction, and I also like to write, but I am not a natural born storyteller, so I prefer to have a narrative to guide me.   This is probably what most illustrators do — begin with a story and create images to enhance it.  I choose narratives that offer the kinds of images I like to make, so I’ll usually have something of a preconceived idea. Then I have to go about getting down my daydreams with pencil and paint.

But as these two projects evolved, I  discovered that  even with a particular story in mind,   the variety of new materials were actively helping to shape both narrative and images. For example, from the Scrap Ex   I had bought a stack of gorgeous scrapbooking paper which inspired me to make a folding fan for one of the figures in The Night Dances. I viewed an online tutorial to refresh my memory about how to do this, then started making so many fans that I had to go back for more paper! The fans, though small, were too large for the figures, so I went to Affinity Photo tutorials to learn how “extract” them from their backgrounds , resize and position them to use as page ornaments, or to insert into a tiny hand.   And when I wanted to depict the twelve princesses descending the stairway to the underworld, the fans came to the rescue. Let us stand in for the princesses — a cascade of fans!   To my delight and amusement, I realized that the ribbons I had attached to each fan resembled dancing legs. 

Once you start coming up with this kind of solution for a visual problem, it’s invigorating to see how easily you can come up with the next one. I suppose that  “thinking outside the box “is what artists who work with found materials routinely do. For me, it was a fairly big leap. And now that I’m up in the air I’m curious to know where I’ll land.

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