process for my writer portraits series

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.

 my final illustration of Virginia Woolf

my final illustration of Virginia Woolf

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.

 my first - overly stylized - attempt at drawing Virginia Woolf

my first - overly stylized - attempt at drawing Virginia Woolf

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.

 Starting anew on Virginia Woolf's portrait

Starting anew on Virginia Woolf's portrait

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.

 My finished illustration of Albert Camus

My finished illustration of Albert Camus

 my finished illustration of Franz Kafka

my finished illustration of Franz Kafka

 my finished illustration of Ernest Hemingway

my finished illustration of Ernest Hemingway

 And finally, my illustration of Julio Cortazar, with the little Cronopio's in the background.

And finally, my illustration of Julio Cortazar, with the little Cronopio's 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.

 a look at the notebooks I have made with prints of my writer portraits

a look at the notebooks I have made with prints of my writer portraits