Most of the time, there is some personal project I am working on or that is brooding in my mind, waiting to be worked on. Sometimes it takes a long time for these projects to get finished, revisiting it from time to time when I have the chance, and sometimes I don’t even notice at first that an experiment is turning into a series of finished illustrations. This was more or less the case with my series of writer portraits.
When deciding on what to do for a personal project, there usually are three things that I bear in mind: it has to be something that helps me finetune my illustration style and skills, it has to be something that I feel is missing, or not defined enough in my portfolio, but most importantly: I have to really have fun doing it.
A while ago I had the urge of doing a portrait again. It had been years since I did any portraits, and since I had always been used to drawing faces in a realistic style that more or less was taught to me during all the years of drawing classes I took at art academy as a child, I wondered if I would be able to do a portrait in my own style. First, I had to decide whose portrait to draw. It had to be someone that was important to me and whose face I was already familiar with. Having a certain relationship with the person helps reduce that feeling of voyeurism I get when staring at a person’s face for a long time, and of all the portraits I did before, the ones that bore the most likeness and had the most inner depth, were the portraits of people I knew.
It didn’t take long to decide: it had to be Virginia Woolf. Not only have I always been into literature and spent years of my life working as a bookseller, on top of that, Virginia Woolf is, due to her strong but feminine voice in predominantly masculine times, and her brilliant writing style, one of my favorite writers and a role-model to me.
Next step was deciding on the technique, although that was hardly a ‘step’. I had at that time just finished a picture-book project working with only blue and red colored pencils, and the whole idea was to see whether I could apply that reduced colorsheme to a portrait.
Eagerly, I began sketching, stylising her face in a more or less art-nouveau manner, focusing on the movement of the lines, and emphasising the planes in her face. Then I completed the sketch in blue and red and added a floral background. I had such fun doing this, and I was so content with how the illustration was taking shape, that only the next day I noticed that I had over-stylised her face. I would have been satisfied with the illustration if it were an imaginary character, but I wanted to draw my beloved Virginia Woolf, and this drawing lacked all of her softness.
So I started anew, in a more realistic manner, focusing more on the softness of her face, and less on stylising it, and I felt this time everyone would recognize her, and still see that the illustration was done by me.
Now of course I couldn’t stop there! I wanted to do a series, so I made a list of all of my favorite writers, and out of that list I chose the ones that had a face people would recognize. That is why Kafka, Camus and Hemingway made it to the grande finale, and Rilke and Faulkner didn’t.
Next, I started making colorshemes for all of them. I felt that the red and blue I had used for Virginia didn’t fit all of them, and I wanted to give them colors that would fit their books and personality. Now that I read that, this does sound like a difficult task, but what I did is just recall the imagery that was evoked in my head while reading their books, and of course, those images came with colors. For instance, when thinking about Camus, I thought about scenes in his books placed in warm, brooding Algiers, of large rocks alongside dark blue water, and men diving from those hot stones, so the colors I chose were prussian blue and a warm, earthy orange tone that was a combination of cornelian and burnt ochre. I did so for all of them in the same manner, although I have to admit I cheated a bit when it came to choosing the colors for Kafka. I associated the images in his books with smudgy brown hues, almost deprived of color, but I didn’t like that for his portrait, and I felt it would stand out from the rest, so I went for a light burnt ochre and crimson alizarin (don’t you love those color names)
I also recycled the images I associated with them as patterns I used as background to their portraits. The background for Camus is vaguely inspired on pictures of Algiers, for Kafka I drew bugs as a reference to his novel ‘Metamorphosis’, for Hemingway I drew fish, as a reference to ‘the Old Man and the Sea’, and for Virginia I chose flowers, as a reference to a beautiful short story of her, called ‘Kew Gardens’, and of course the opening line of ‘Mrs Dalloway’.
The last in the series I did was a portrait of Julio Cortazar. He is much less known, but I drew his portrait as a birthday present for a good friend of mine who owns a bookstore named after the characters in one of his books: the Cronopio’s. Those ‘little green moist creatures’ as they are described, also found a way into the portrait in the background.
Of these portraits I had a series of postcards printed, and prints that I used as covers for a series of handmade notebooks, which I am now selling in my Etsy-shop, StudioEllenL.
I did finish this series a while ago, but there are new ideas brooding in my mind to expand it with more writers, or make a new series of portraits of classic actors, or important women in history, or, or, or… sigh.