Writers' & Artists' Clare Povey spoke with artist Olivia Lomenech Gill about her most recent illustration project, Jessie Burton's feminist retelling of Medusa. Olivia talks about the challenges of recreating an iconic figure as well as the process of book illustration.
Content warning: The ninth question contains discussion of sexual assault.
How did you become involved in working on Medusa?
Actually, I find it hard to remember. Since I started to work on the project, a bit like Medusa herself I went into exile by moving country. I had already worked on Fantastic Beasts with Bloomsbury, so there was maybe a bit of a precedent as far as snakes were concerned, though this was an altogether different prospect. In December 2018 Bloomsbury sent through an excerpt of the text. I knew it was a retelling of Medusa, but the name of the author was still secret. I do remember being initially apprehensive about the human-snake thing, but as soon as I read that passage of text, my doubts vanished.
Medusa is naturally an iconic figure. Did you look at previous iterations, paintings, film depictions, etc. or did you decide to have a ‘clean slate’, so to speak, when creating her?
There are not many, beyond the few that most of us will be familiar with: victorious Perseus holding the head of ‘the Gorgon’ Medusa, or her severed head depicted in mosaic form, and centuries later, in sculptures and paintings by Bernini, Caravaggio and Rubens. But in all of them she is depicted as hideous: a monster. So yes, I chose to steer clear of all these precedents, and instead started looking for a ‘real life’ Medusa to draw. When I was embarking on this process, a Classics professor said to me, "Surely you know that there are no ‘real life models’ for Medusa or Perseus, both of whom are entirely mythological." But Jessie has done exactly that; she’s brought Medusa magically to life. We can relate to her. So with the help of the models I worked with, I tried to make artworks to match.
From the outset it was decided that the book should be set in the landscape of classical Greece, even though it is a contemporary retelling of the tale, and of course there is so much to draw on from this period in terms of art. However, if there is one thing that can be said about the world of Mythology, it is that it is not ‘real’. The ‘characters’, often gods or goddesses, are embodiments of characteristics rather than real people. On top of that, most myths are extremely male dominated and austere; women are cast in the roles of mistresses, victims or sorceresses. All the stories are played out in a world that feels many worlds away from ours.
Medusa has a number of beautiful, larger images. How do you navigate illustrating a double spread and ensure that nothing of the illustration is lost?
I find the larger spreads easier as I tend to work quite large anyway. Many of the artworks for Medusa are A2 or even A1 size. I’m not good at fitting things into boxes, and have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to crop marks. I make my work the old fashioned way, physically, so often I might take an existing copper plate, or piece of plywood and start work, as long as it seems ‘about the right size’. Of course that sometimes means there’s a bit of ‘fiddling’ to do later on in terms of making it actually fit the page. It became apparent early on in the process of working on the layouts that the characters and landscapes demanded their own space, so we condensed the illustrations into whole page, or double page, spreads, which in themselves I probably conceived a little bit like stage sets.
How do stories and art intersect for you?
That’s a question that is either really easy or totally impossible to answer! For me, working most of my life as an artist, stories have always been integral to any piece of work I make, maybe because of my training in theatre, which for me is where all the art forms come together. I don’t think I ever thought about this until my work got labelled as ‘narrative-based’, which, in the context of ‘fine art’, was seemingly a bit of a dirty word. For me, though, I find it difficult to even conceive of a piece of work without there being some narrative impetus behind it, however far one might depart from there. This means that I can’t paint a still-life or a landscape or a portrait if there isn’t a ‘story’ to be told, much though I might yearn to be able to do those things.
We look to art for beauty and pleasure, which is of course important in itself, but for me the ‘purpose’ of art (if it has one) is to go beyond the decorative and tell stories, which is at the root of all art forms, and why our ancestors were painting on the walls of caves.
How has training in theatre had an impact on your art?
What was really interesting for me, when I had my first commission to illustrate a book, (which came totally out of the blue as the result of a chance encounter with a well-known English author), was to see what it was like actually working to a text. This can be seen as a constraint in ‘fine art’ terms, a curtailment of freedom. But for me, someone who needs a narrative to work with, I welcomed the opportunity. I miss the collaborative process of theatre, the interaction with other art forms, so for me working on a book was really exciting. Artists are often solitary, whereas a book is a collaboration and I really welcomed that.
I understand Jessie also has a background in theatre, and when I first read the text for Medusa, I almost read it as a stage play. Most of the book is a conversation between Medusa and Perseus, though even that has an enormous dramatic tension because they are hidden from one another on either side of a rock. Medusa knows that Perseus must not look at her, though she doesn’t know exactly what will happen if he does. Then you have these epic scenes of storms at sea, clifftop vigils, the transformation of Medusa into a gorgon, the transformation of Perseus into a statue. It reminds me of a Strauss opera in a way, but at the same time the story is told in a very human way.
You are a self-taught artist. Could you talk me through that process?
I was really lucky to have the encouragement, and opportunity, to draw when I was quite young. Many don’t have that privilege, and feel drawing is beyond them, when really it’s just a discipline like anything else. I had a teacher who was hugely inspirational, and taught the ‘simple’ act of drawing from life, encouraging us to always carry a sketchbook and draw whenever possible – at the bus stop, in a music practice, wherever. That probably sounds out of date now everyone has quality cameras at their fingertips, but I still think there is no match for sitting in front of a subject long enough to draw it. There’s a relationship there that doesn’t exist in the snapping of a photo. So wherever possible I try to find real life subjects to draw, and was lucky to find some wonderful models for Medusa, Perseus and their canine companions.
The other thing, perhaps, about being self-taught is that I tend to mix up media in ways that, were I ‘properly’ trained in a particular discipline, I might not. I did do some training in printmaking, including an MA, and learned the basics of etching, drypoint and more. But I’m not hugely technical, even if I’d like to be. It’s like cooking. I’d really like to make a dish that looks like the photo of the recipe, but by the second ingredient I’ve already gone off piste, and that’s just how it is. I really like using etching, perhaps perversely, because of the constraints it brings, the problems that the technical process can pose, and therefore the ‘accidents’ that can arise. I use printmaking in combination with collage (called ‘chine colle’ in print-speak). This adds another – or several – layers of unpredictability to the process. Another thing I’ve done is work with printing plates to make paintings. This came about when I had no access to printing facilities and started working on recycled photo litho plate, using drypoint techniques, and oil paint. There is a bit of all of these techniques and media in Medusa.
What is the selection process for scenes and characters to illustrate? Is it a collaborative process between you and the designer/publisher?
It depends on the book, and how the designer chooses to direct the project. I can speak only from limited experience but I’ve been lucky that, so far, I’ve had quite a free rein and the art directors concerned have been accommodating. For Medusa, the art director Stephanie Amster did produce layouts with suggestions as to what sections of text might be illustrated and where they might go. I always start off by annotating or drawing on the layouts, even painting on them, though photocopy paper doesn’t take paint so well! This amounts to a sort of ‘visual brainstorming’, or thinking out loud. You know that much of what you come up with at the beginning is rubbish but you have to start somewhere. At first the idea was to have numerous details scattered through the book with a few full page spreads. However, it became quickly apparent to me that the illustrations should be full page, and we narrowed down between us which scenes should be illustrated.
Do you have a favourite illustration in Medusa?
That’s really difficult to say. Every time I work on a project, I find myself doing things I haven’t done before, which is what I really enjoy, even if it feels a risky way to work. That’s what is so wonderful about working with a good text. It throws up challenges to try to meet, things you may never have otherwise thought of doing.
Because of working on this during a move of country, and in a temporary studio, I found myself drawing and painting many of the illustrations. Up to a point this was fine, but I felt there was something missing. I came back to our old workshop in the UK, where my printing presses were still standing, waiting to be moved, and started reworking quite a lot of the images with etching and drypoint. So there’s a real mix of techniques in the book. It’s hard to say which is my ‘favourite’. I love the ‘Birds and Sun’ double spread because it was the first time I've used ‘yellow’ in a combination of etching, chine colle, and colour printing. That might sound ridiculous, but for someone who works largely in black and white it felt like a serious step out of my comfort zone.
I also loved doing Medusa standing on the headland with the night sky. I’m fascinated by constellations. I introduced the Perseus Constellation, literally doing dot to dot with stars, to create a ‘warrior’ figure brandishing his sword in one hand and holding the ‘Gorgon’s’ head in the other. This was to me a simple way of referencing the ‘classic’ version of Medusa’s story, and marking the turning point in her story where, staring out to sea with her destiny literally hanging over her, she takes her story into her own hands and turns fate around.
Another favourite was Athena. She’s so beautiful and evil. It’s hard to understand a woman being so acutely jealous and wicked as to curse a young girl, as she does Medusa. I did borrow a little from Rembrandt’s Athena, who wears a helmet with an owl embellishment. And then I added some real owls. (I’ve always wanted to draw owls. They aren’t in the text, but since Athena’s symbol is an owl, I felt she should be surrounded by them, with their staring eyes. A bit like Blofeld’s cat perhaps…)
Was there a particular illustration that was most difficult to create?
I think the most difficult thing about the whole book from the beginning was the fact that we are not ‘used’ to seeing illustrated books for the teenage YA readership. Books with pictures, apart from ‘fine art’ books, are associated with young children’s literature – ‘picture books’. So I wanted to make it quite graphic, mostly monochrome, to better suit a teenage readership; but the story, set in Greece, with seascapes and sun and heat, demands colour. And I didn’t get to Greece. Instead I drew from more local shores, the North Sea and North Atlantic. But even if the Breton coastline has colours similar to the Mediterranean, with vivid turquoise water and deep blue skies, the temperature, particularly in January, is not at all the same!
The other challenge was how to show what cannot be shown. This story is of rape. Medusa, in her fishing boat, is stalked persistently by Poseidon, who ultimately threatens her with death in a violent storm if she doesn’t submit to his will. We had discussions as to how to represent this menacing presence. Should he be a sea creature of some sort, or of human form? I decided to stick with the form of a man, of giant proportions, who lurks in the depths.
But the problem is always about sensitivity, and censorship. Whilst even young people are exposed to all sorts of explicit imagery on the internet and on screen, there is, particularly in the US market, a taboo around nudity. Artists are used to study anatomy and draw life models, but sadly the naked figure has so many other connotations to do with sexualised imagery or pornography. So there was a challenge as to how to depict the brutality of rape without showing too much ‘anatomy’, but without reverting to the classical cliché of a drapery-clad, weeping woman. That's also why the dried octopuses are there. Medusa is a keen fisherwoman, and when I saw images of octopuses hung out to dry, I found them quite disturbing, literally strung up, violent red and bloody looking. In art, the strongest message can come across in the most oblique fashion.
Olivia Lomenech Gill has a first-class degree in Theatre from the University of Hull and an MA in Printmaking from Camberwell College of Arts, and has built her career as a professional fine artist. Olivia’s first professional illustration commission, Where My Wellies Take Me, written by Michael and Clare Morpurgo, was shortlisted for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal and won the English Association Picture Book Award. She is also the illustrator of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling. Olivia lives and works in Northern France with her husband, a paper conservator. Visit her website to discover more about Olivia and her work.