01 March 2014
STONE GIANT illustrated by John Shelley - GIVEAWAY!
I had the lucky opportunity to go to Florence, Italy when I was in high-school. And there, I fell in love with Michelangelo's DAVID. It's silly to fall in love with a statue, I suppose, but I'd never seen one that looked so alive and so handsome! I was a hormonal teenager after all, and I was crushing, big time.
So when I heard that my friend John Shelley was illustrating a book called STONE GIANT: MICHELANGELO'S DAVID AND HOW HE CAME TO BE written by Jane Sutcliffe (Charlesbridge)... well! I had to interview him about it! (And yes, it turns out I'm still in love with David!)
Q. John, Have you ever seen David in person?
A. Yes, just once, though I’ve seen the copy in the Piazza della Signoria multiple times. Florence was the highlight of a European tour I took with my late wife in 2001 over a whole month. After running the length of France we spent almost a week in the city, our hotel overlooked the Piazza della Signoria so I saw the copy every day. The original is of course much more impressive than the one in the Piazza. For me, based for so long in Japan at that time, returning to Europe and seeing the pinnacle of the Renaissance was simply spellbinding, an experience I’ll never forget.
Q. Was it intimidating to replicate a master's work in two dimensions?
A. The biggest challenge was how to make the statue instantly recognisable as David, as I wanted to use a certain amount of characterisation for the human figures. I thought there were two ways to approach the statue – either very loose and stylistic (so the reader gets an impression of the work and fills in the rest with their imagination) or realistic, whereby I actually try to replicate the statue as it is. There are no half measures, you either go for style, or for realism. Michelangelo’s art is the whole topic of the book, so I decided to attempt a realistic depiction of David as he appears. Every minute I felt the shadow of Michelangelo breathing down my neck, I hope he can rest easy. It works well I think because there’s an obvious stylistic contrast between the statue and the live figures. It was all about representing Michelangelo’s work and not much about my style (as witnessed by the facsimiles I made of his sketches). However statues are interesting to render as the “sitter” fortunately never gets tired or moves!
Q. I have to know if there was ever any grumbling over showing the entire statue - David in all his glorious nakedness?
A. No grumbling but discussion, yes. The editorial team thought I should show his nakedness, I absolutely agreed, however we all felt it would be appropriate to save the “full frontal” until the finished statue was revealed. I know in some countries nudity in children’s books is frowned upon, in Japan I once illustrated Andersen’s Little Mermaid, depicting the mermaids with bare chests, and was told by several people that I’d have a hard time selling the rights to some overseas countries. I’m curious to see the reaction to Stone Giant! I tried not to make a big issue of it, it’s a depiction of an iconic statue, not a person!
Q. I love all the page details and framing elements you added to this book - it feels like a classic fairy tale that could have been around for 100 years! Was all that your idea?
A. Yes, I wanted to give the book a feel of the 16th Century, without going as far as being a pastiche. Stone Giant is a modern contemporary book, but the historic setting encouraged me to incorporate elements of Renaissance design, I wanted to place the reader in the times of Michelangelo, these design elements helped to show that on top of the reality of the dirty streets, the clutter of everyday life, its the art of the times that particularly defines the era for us. The more I researched the book, the more I was enveloped into the era, and absorbed by it’s art.
Q. The architecture appears accurate to my eye - but of course I didn't live in Italy in the 1500s. How much research did you have to do?
A. Here's a blogpost about my process: http://johnshelley.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/stone-giant.html.
Q. You've been to my blog before, to celebrate the release of HALLOWEEN FOREST written by Marion Dane Bauer. Obviously, I'm a fan. How did this particular project come to you?
A. I actually first met editors from Charlesbridge in Italy, at the Bologna Book Fair some years ago, so perhaps there lies the germ of the idea! A few years ago they first commissioned me to create black and white drawings for another title Family Reminders, a novel set in Colorado in the late 19th Century. For that book, having never set foot anywhere near Colorado I relied exclusively on period photos and research. Charlesbridge were very satisfied with the work I did, so perhaps it was my love of research combined with familiarity with Italy that persuaded my editor to consider me for Stone Giant. Of course, I leapt at the chance!
Q. This book looks like a slightly different medium from how you usually work. Can you walk us through your method? (I'd love to share a photo of your studio if you have a good one.)
A. The spreads were created in pen and watercolour as most of my books, however since returning to the UK I’ve been experimenting with a variety of watercolour papers, each with different characteristics. This book was drawn and painted on Canson Fontanelle paper, a fine surface for both pen and ink line and watercolour, however it’s not as strong as some other papers, as I found to my cost at times!
Also, though I have an established style and generally use the same techniques, I always try to adapt to the feel of the writing and the mood of the text, sometimes this takes me in directions subtly different from previous books I’ve worked on. Every book is different, I dislike when illustrators simply slap their same branded style onto everything they do, rather (to quote one of my favourite illustrators Mervyn Peake), book illustrators should have a chameleon ability to match the tone of their pictures to the world created by the author. This book spoke to me of sun lit Italian courtyards, of cluttered orange roofs and yellow brick, and of the Renaissance. Hence the pictures took their own path, but it’s still very clearly my work of course!
Q. You're way over in England, so it's hard to market a book in the US. But it seems the market might be bigger and bigger the closer you get to David himself in Italy. Are museums carrying STONE GIANT?
A. The Japanese edition of Stone Giant was rushed out in advance in order to coincide with the first major show of Michelangelo’s work in Tokyo at the end of last year, I’m told the book was definitely on sale in the gallery shop as well as other outlets across Japan. For other museums and markets – well, it remains to be seen. I hope!!
Q. Was this a satisfying project to work on? It certainly seems like it would be!
A. Oh I loved it. Historic research, the art of the Renaissance, fascinating true stories, I was in my element. It was certainly a tough book, with a lot of detail and inevitably some conjecture, but the research challenges were beautiful, and engrossing. For some spreads (especially the demolished buildings of the Piazza) I felt I was recreating things that have been lost to our generation, which was intensely satisfying. And I got to work in the shadow of the great Michelangelo himself, what more could I ask for!
Q. Thanks so much for stopping by John!
A. Thank you Elizabeth!
Charlesbridge has kindly offered to give a free copy of STONE GIANT to one of my lucky commenters. Must live in the US or Canada to win. Enter below.
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