As you probably know, the internets contain everything known to humankind, and Charles Dickens is no exception. In my research over the years on this particular project, I keep finding websites and blogs devoted to the man and his works, and I would like to share just a few that I find myself visiting over and over.
I’m not opining on any of them, as they each have their strengths and they are all worth visiting. Some, like the Charles Dickens Museum, are websites for particular places in the real world, while others are compendiums in and of themselves. For the most part I’ve picked up text from their “About” pages, and some I have invited to submit a paragraph or two to expand on their mission statements.
So in doing magazine and book illustration for a few decades, I picked up a couple of technical terms. For example, an illustration is called an “illo”, a sketch is called a “ruff”, and a deadline is called a “#!!@! deadline”.
Illos done for print are termed by their size, and from biggest to smallest are called a spread, full-page, half-page, quarter page, and spot. Spots are fun because they are usually simple, a quick visual read, and they don’t necessarily have to carry as much narrative weight as a full-page does.
Research sketching is one of the most important steps in doing any historical illustration work, and that requires good reference materials. In the years B.C. (Before Computers), any illustrator worth his or her salt had a “morgue”, or a collection of photos filed in boxes or file cabinets, usually alphabetically, of any or all things in creation because you never knew what you would be called on to draw.
My four-drawer file cabinet is long gone, but I saved various reference books, including a couple of books of old wood engravings. For the most part pre-dating photography, these books are amazing for the sheer breadth of their content.
I did these sketches, copied from wood engravings in IMAGES OF WORLD ARCHITECTURE, a huge book that is stuffed with beautiful images of stone age ruins, palaces, cathedrals, soddies, middle-class homes, and every conceivable style and type of building from around the world, arranged alphabetically by country, and from ancient history through the end of the 19th Century.
These sketches were done of course from the section on England and were selected for their visual interest and detail. I may at some point incorporate one of these buildings into a finished piece, but the nice thing about reference sketching is that you slowly absorb the very aesthetic of the period, and can then invent with confidence, picking and choosing which elements convey the story and mood most effectively.
I think it’s also important to not simply copy, whether the source material is a photo or artwork, but rather to “learn” the facade, the window styles, or the porticoes, and to understand the parts and how they work together. The goal is not perfect accuracy, but verisimilitude, the appearance that things “look right”.
Richard’s high spirits carrying everything before them, we all went out together to the top of the hill above the village, where he had ordered a gig to wait and where we found a man with a lantern standing at the head of the gaunt pale horse that had been harnessed to it.
My favorite part of doing any kind of historical or genre art is researching the appropriate costumes. In my magazine illustration days it didn’t come up much; mostly I was drawing doctors, nurses, businessmen and contemporary kids and grownups of all kinds.
With subject matter like Dickens, costuming the characters not only correctly, but in a way that tells us about their personalities, is part of the job description!
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
Charles Dickens is probably one of the most photographed men of the mid-19th century. There are also tons of portraits, etching and paintings. I knew at some point that I would be doing a portrait of him myself. It was sort of a given. With hundreds of photos available, good reference material was not a problem. The thing is though, in those days, photography didn’t allow people to smile!
The weather had been all the week extremely sultry, but the storm broke so suddenly—upon us, at least, in that sheltered spot—that before we reached the outskirts of the wood the thunder and lightning were frequent and the rain came plunging through the leaves as if every drop were a great leaden bead. As it was not a time for standing among trees, we ran out of the wood, and up and down the moss-grown steps which crossed the plantation-fence like two broad-staved ladders placed back to back, and made for a keeper’s lodge which was close at hand. We had often noticed the dark beauty of this lodge standing in a deep twilight of trees, and how the ivy clustered over it, and how there was a steep hollow near, where we had once seen the keeper’s dog dive down into the fern as if it were water.
As I’ve been exploring the world of hand-made printing techniques of various kinds, more and more I find myself looking at, investigating and writing about woodcuts. There’s a good reason for this, apparently!