Henry Neff Blog Tour: “The Joy of Illustrating your Own Novels”

Henry Neff, acclaimed author of the epic fantasy series “The Tapestry”, is traveling the blogosphere to discuss his books and his writing. Today Neff joins us on his stop at Shur’tugal to share an incredibly interesting and insightful editorial regarding his efforts to illustrate his own novels. The post is incredibly informative and a fun read, and even offers a glimpse into his art process, including sketches and more. The third book in the The Tapestry series hit stores on November 23rd. Continue reading for Henry’s editorial!

The Joy of Illustrating your Own Novels

A Shurtugal.com guest post by author Henry Neff

As the author of The Tapestry, I’m a very lucky boy. I get to create a world of my own – an environment that combines my favorite elements of fantasy, science fiction, history, and folklore. It’s an incredibly energizing and empowering process to create a fantasy world and script an epic that involves heroes and villain, gods and monsters. But for someone who also loves to draw, my creative journey would have been incomplete without the opportunity to illustrate my own novels.

In this blog posting, I’d like to share with you how an author sets about illustrating his own story. As you might imagine, it’s a different process than working with a professional artist and offers greater opportunities and challenges. If I’m successful, I’ve created something that is a natural complement to my story. If the drawings are poor, then it compromises what might otherwise be a compelling narrative. For someone whose artistic talents fall in the “enthusiastic amateur” range, this can be a gamble.

I began by outlining specific goals. I wanted the drawings to look and feel handmade (no Photoshop) and I wanted them to complement the story’s atmosphere without dictating the reader’s experience. Each novel in The Tapestry has a small illustration at the beginning of each chapter and some eight or ten full-page plates scattered through the narrative. The former are intended to pique a reader’s interest and set an emotional tone while the latter serve to illustrate a scene. I never illustrate truly pivotal or climactic scenes as I feel these are best left to my reader’s imaginations.

My process and tools are old school. The materials I use probably cost about three dollars per drawing. They comprise a pencil, an old-fashioned dip pen, a bottle of waterproof ink, and a sheet of hot press watercolor paper. While I realize many artists are doing incredible work with computer-aided illustration and drafting, I still think illustration hit its zenith in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Take a look at the work of Arthur Rackham or Sidney Paget – their work is wonderfully expressive and exhibits some jaw-dropping technical mastery. Today, few illustrators have these raw skills because they never had to develop them – cameras and computers to do much of the heavy lifting. While I would never claim comparison to Rackham or Paget, I did want to capture some of the qualities that are found in work from that era. It feels human, handmade, and timeless.

I always start with a sketch. With a sketch, I’m playing with big concepts: subject, composition, and mood. In the example seen here, we have the demon Prusias – a new character that’s introduced in my latest book, The Fiend and the Forge. In the novel, Prusias is a pretty fascinating fellow – he can be gregarious and charming one minute and horrifically wild and dangerous the next. He might appear more human than many of his daemonic counterparts, but whenever Max McDaniels (the Tapestry’s main character) interacts with Prusias, he is reminded of the chilling line from the Bible’s Book of Revelation – “And behold, a great red dragon!” When it came to capturing Prusias’s essence for this drawing, I wanted to play with some of these elements.

Let’s look at the sketch. Prusias is in the foreground. He’s very close to us, which might be perceived as threatening, but his expression is rather placid. In the background, we see a glimpse of Blys – his capital that now stands upon the ruins of Rome. The demons have an eclectic culture and thus I wanted the architecture to represent aspects of old and new – everything from the Tsarist onion domes to minarets to the contemporary curves of a Frank Gehry. The original title of the chapter was “The Politican” – suggesting that Prusias was a master at manipulating the tiny puppets/people that can be seen milling about in the background.

I liked the sketch, but I didn’t love it. After all, Prusias needs to be a little scary and my sketch made him look more like a sleepy Rasputin than an imposing demon lord. And the background was too busy/unresolved. Furthermore, these illustrations are quite small – only a few inches to a side – and it’s often wiser to draw a few things well rather than many things badly. And finally, there was the dragon – this lurking presence of immense, ancient evil that Max could periodically detect. I should hint at that, no?

I addressed these issues as I tackled the final version. As both the author and illustrator, I’m always working on tight deadlines and thus I can’t indulge myself with endless sketches – I have to make two or three decisions and get going on the final piece. For the final drawing, I work with India ink. After using a dip pen for the lines, I build up the tones with thin washes and a brush. This gives the illustrations a rich, textured quality that translates very well to the printing press. It’s a great technique, but it also has its risks – if I make a serious mistake, I have to start over. There’s no erasing this stuff.

Fortunately, things worked out. The finished illustration meets all of my goals. Prusias is composed, but he also looks feral. If the eyes are windows into the soul, best run for the hills when he gets close! In the background, the partygoers have been replaced by the shadow of a dragon looking both sly and predatory. It’s a simpler drawing and one that does a much better job conveying the chapter’s defining qualities. I even changed the chapter title – “The Politician” became “A Great Red Dragon”. The drawing went into a cellophane sleeve and I moved on to the next.

I hope this blog posting has given you a sense of why I illustrate my novels and the process that I use. My hope is that being both the author and the illustrator gives The Tapestry real creative cohesion and that the drawings enhance the reader’s experience. These days, the illustrated novel is something of an anachronism as graphic novels (where everything is illustrated) and conventional novels (where pictures are rarely included) have come to predominate. I’m extremely fortunate and grateful that Random House was willing to let me illustrate my books. Their indulgence has allowed me to stretch my creative talents and produce something that’s truly my baby.

Looking for more posts and blog tour stops from Henry? Visit Forces of Geek, Henry’s stop yesterday, and Grasping for the Wind, who will be hosting Henry tomorrow. Lytherus will also play host to Henry this weekend. For more information about Henry H. Neff and The Tapestry, please visit www.HenryHNeff.com and www.RowanAcademy.com.