Illustrating the Story, or Thoughts in Paint – Part 3

How about some background on how I did my work for the illustrations for Flash Fiction February at Fictive Dream? I’m going to write a few posts on topics related to the process. I hope they might give you some insight into how I approached the illustration of a collection of very different pieces of short fiction.

Flash Fiction February is in progress right now, by the way. Take a look!

Putting paint to paper, story by story

The themes, materials, style, all the generalities of the project, all had been decided…and now it was time to work. Fictive Dream editor Laura Black began to send me stories in December, 2018. As in the September Slam event, she sent me a plain and a marked-up copy of each story – in this way, I had a chance to read each story and form my own ideas, then compare them with her thoughts.

I highly recommend this practice. It allows the illustrator free range of imagination and allows the editor to have their say, too, in a way that allows for comparison and expansion of views.

Getting started

After reading the story, I wrote down phrases, thoughts, ideas, whatever came to mind, in a notebook I set up for the project. I also drew out possible schemes for the illustrations.

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How did I get to this step? Well, let me give you some background. I’m an avid reader. I was an English major  in college and wrote lots of literary analyses. I worked for a bank for many years, making loans to commercial borrowers, and every step of that process was document in detailed memos. I am analytical by nature.

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So much of my past had prepared me to view these stories not only from the perspective of the surface plot, etc., and to pick out visual scenes from the works, but to take apart their structures, to view the narratives as objects, almost, with forms and characteristics that could be made visual.

Remember, I’m making abstract pieces, not representational ones. I knew that I needed to express the meaning of each story in symbols, shapes, forms, rather than in explicit images.

Let me show you, rather than tell you: an example or two

The first story I worked on was This Is Not a Pencil Box, by Angie Spoto. You see my notes below. Since it was the first story, I was feeling my way.

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As I wrote to Laura when I sent her the images:

To me, the story is full of boxes and breaking out of a box (the bully is flummoxed by out of the box thinking). This author was also quite clear on colors. So all the images include box shapes and rectangles, more or less. I included yellow pencils, green box, and white shoes.

I made four images, the most I did for any story, because I needed to find my way. I created one image including collage, with the others being paint and ink. Without sounding too airy, I needed to see the story as a physical object and then to paint what I saw. Here are the results.

The next story I worked on, Family Gathering, by Paul Beckman, was the only one that I did just one image for. The structure of the story and therefore the artwork was very clear to me right from the start.

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As I wrote to Laura when I sent her the image:

There are complainers on one side, there are laughers on the other side, and the mother and twins are in the middle; they are the glue that is holding this occasion together, and they somewhat absorb elements of each side, they mediate the party/the composition, but they are also distinct entities themselves and have a separate view point. So I visualized this story as three panels and each got its own color. The red in the middle one to me represents the three and their apple pie and focuses the composition visually, as the three people focus the story.

Here is the image.

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I hope this gives you an idea of my process in taking an author’s words and turning them into a painting. Here is what I said to Laura in the email accompanying the first images I sent her:

Once I started to work on actual stories the theoretical became real and I got a better idea of how in my mind to think about a story in somewhat non-representational terms. It became clear to me that it is necessary for me to translate the story elements into the art in a coherent composition or else all you end up with is – a colored background for the name of the competition.

My aim is to make each piece really individual because each story is.

Next time I will talk about the management of a project such as this one – with many stories and illustrations in various stages of work, how do you keep up with the details?

8 thoughts on “Illustrating the Story, or Thoughts in Paint – Part 3

  1. Laura (PA Pict)

    I really enjoyed seeing your notes for this process and I find it interesting that I make notes for an illustration commission in much the same way, just brief words and phrases, a very simple composition diagram, notes on colours. Really interesting to see.

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Thank you. I always make notes and little sketches to bridge words to images even if I don’t later follow them to a T. I think and figure things out by doing them and this method is essential for me to be able to start the illustration.

  2. MoiraG

    As a poet currently working collaboratively for the first time, with a musician, I found this of interest. And your thoughts on the ‘boxes’ story made me think more about a prose piece I’m writing that is very much about a character and his relationship to boxes. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Thank you! I found this project challenging but exhilarating and I think it brought out so many thoughts and ideas that I would not have otherwise ventured to express or even thought of. Plus just being fun.

  3. Laura Black

    Fascinating to learn how you approached these stories and to actually see your notebook with your thoughts. I notice that in this early stage you were already envisaging a lot of detail eg. splatters, sun splotch, as well as the overall picture. For anyone planning a collaboration I whole heartedly agree that it’s important to find a practice that allows all parties a say but doesn’t stifle creativity. For us the practice of working on ‘marked’ and ‘unmarked’ copies of text was a successful one. I’d also like to say how important it is to find a collaborator with whom you share work values, if I may put it in this way. Very much looking forward to your next post on how you managed the project.

  4. Fictive Dream

    Fascinating to learn how you approached these stories and to actually see your notebook with your thoughts. I notice that in this early stage you were already envisaging a lot of detail eg. splatters, sun splotch, as well as the overall picture. For anyone planning a collaboration I whole heartedly agree that it’s important to find a practice that allows all parties a say but doesn’t stifle creativity. For us the practice of working on ‘marked’ and ‘unmarked’ copies of text was a successful one. I’d also like to say how important it is to find a collaborator with whom you share work values, if I may put it in this way. Very much looking forward to your next post on how you managed the project.

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