Day 8: Three Approaches to “Ozymandias”

I’m calling this theme Ozymandias even if that doesn’t feel quite right. What I mean is something along the lines of:

some things are big and surreal and we are so very small

And I have three illustrators to compare today! Two Australians: Shaun Tan and Rovina Cai, and Nico Delort who’s Canadian/French. Each of those links contains a bunch of illustrations for each, so you know what I’m talking about.

Some commonalities

Limited, and muted colour schemes.* People are often (though not always) very small on the page. There are often large differences in size between objects (eg man and god, foreground and background, people and architecture).

These together help the work to feel epic, and large scale. If the biggest contrasts are value and physical size, you are emphasising scale and distance. Bright colour can muddy the waters of why an object is important, so why risk the distraction?

Incredibly intricate and detailed, every bit of the page shows care and attention. I’m not totally sure why this is true of all three. I guess it makes sense that if your people are small you’re going to need to render down to a fairly precise level. It’s something I personally like though, so maybe it’s a similarity that’s self-selected on the basis of my own preferences, rather than the theme.

Lighting is fairly realistic – though sometimes the source is mystic or unclear – and it’s regularly used for compositional effect. I think this is often true in surreal work. It helps an image with unexpected objects to ‘read’ easily, and to jar your brain a little more. If the lighting is ‘flat’ or surreal in itself, that’s a different focus. It’s also true that epic scenes respond well to dramatic compositional lighting. It helps a scene feel a little magical and important.

Some differences

In rendering, the illustrators vary dramatically. Delort’s high-contrast scratchboard technique uses bold straight lines even to describe rounded edges and clouds. His work tends to feel dramatic and demanding. Cai’s flowing wispy pencil shading technique has, instead, an eerie feel to it. Tan’s shading technique is unobtrusive. He’s simply rendering the objects, which gives the indication that perhaps this is all real.

Last year I described Cai’s work as full of nostalgia and aching, where Tan’s feels like you’ve tilted your head sideways and missed a step. Cai’s feels like a dream, where Tan’s feels like you’re there. Delort’s perhaps feels like a vision, a forewarning that flashed up and is now imprinted on your retina.

This is supported not just by the way they make their mark on the page, but also the things they choose to draw. Cai’s objects transition from one thing to another, skirts swirl away into clouds, forests are made of wolves, buildings are unnaturally empty, and birds fly through spaces where there should be no birds. If it wouldn’t exist in a dream, it isn’t drawn.  Tan, on the other hand, draws objects to completion. There are bumps and dents and grates and pipes. Everywhere you look is another indication that this is a world that works, even though you have no idea how. (I am particularly focussing on his book Arrival, but his other work is similar. There are cables and cords, bureaucracy and public transport.) Delort’s worlds are real but focussed, staged and with unnatural lighting. A shaft of light illuminates the building. It’s a real, solid world, but there is nothing prosaic about it. There are cracks and fallen rocks, because that feels mythic and ancient. There are cars and ramshackle buildings because they tell you where you are. But there are no stray pieces of litter around, no cables or cords or garbage bins. And if there were it’d be because they were somehow very, very relevant. Delort’s work says “this is an important moment, remember exactly what you see” where Cai’s is a dream already sweeping itself away from your memory, and Tan’s is a slice of a weird everyday life.

And that’s all for today, folks! It’s tempting to compare every aspect of their illustration process but I think it’s probably more important to keep moving. I mean, yesterday I didn’t even talk at all about the differences between how Wahl and Campion draw people and that’s really important to me!!! But anyway, there are things to do, art to make, and I can always come back to topics later.

*Tan also often uses bright colour schemes, but when thinking which of his books represented the smallness of humans best, this is the one that came to mind.


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