Monday, September 17, 2018

Q&A Interview with illustrator and lettering artist, Sarah J Coleman aka Inkymole, Capsules Books, September 2018

Reproduced here from an interview by Michelle at Capsules Books

Interviews are funny things. 

You have to be honest, but keep your professional veneer; you can’t show off, but it’s important to talk about your achievements, since you’re being asked about them. I’m often surprised at the things I say in interviews, as I find myself being more candid than I expected to be. And sometimes, when you read them back, it can be like reading about someone else! 

But whatever the outcome, it’s always my hope that there’s something useful in it for those who take the time to read it.

© Sarah J Coleman / Sarah was the first person in 25 years to illustrate the cover of American Playboy

Hello Sarah!

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your creative practice, recent work and future projects.

Please could you tell us about how you started your creative career?

It started very young, as soon as I could hold a pencil! But, in a nutshell, I did a degree in Illustration where I was a bit hermit-y, in the with cleaners at 7am and out with the security guards at 10pm. I won an award for my lettering and started working for clients before I graduated (I did a book cover for Carrie Fisher and a couple of other small pieces) before going on to work full time…there’s quite a lot I also did in between, but your readers may keel over asleep if I list them all!

We are very proud to be featuring your work in Ascenders Volume.1, Leaders In Contemporary Illustrationout in December. Could you tell us about some of the pieces you will be featuring in your printed portfolio?

Thank you. I’m excited to be part of a new publication, and one based in in a country that’s not the one I live in! I’ve included some recent chalk work I did for a French client, as I love to work in different languages. I’ve also chosen a nice collection of book covers, as they’re great for demonstrating the breadth and diversity of the lettering work I do. And I do do a LOT of books!

© Sarah J. Coleman

One of your most recent projects is illustrating the 200th anniversary edition of Wuthering Heights to coincide with the 200th birthday of Emily Brontë. The book is available now and your cover looks incredible, we’re excited to see all the illustrations within.

I understand that this was a story very close to your heart from a young age, and you’ve even exhibited at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. How did it feel to be asked to commemorate such a landmark edition and as a long-time reader, did you always have an idea of how you wanted to represent the characters and settings? Did the final result finish up to how you originally envisaged?

I felt a great sense of responsibility but also big excitement. I had to talk myself down from the ledge of thinking ‘this has to be the best work you’ve EVER done’ to a much more relaxed state of ‘let’s just let the ink flow, and see what happens organically’. I know the book so well, in the end all I needed to do was tune into it. The end result was better than I had hoped, but I could never have predicted that particular outcome! I like those jobs the best.

Wuthering Heights for Harpercollins UK, © Sarah J. Coleman

We understand you’ve recently celebrated some career milestones, with over 450 books illustrated (covers, interiors and both) as well as reaching over 25 years in illustration. You’ve certainly come a long way since winning ‘Best Handwriting in school’.

What would your advice be to your younger self?

Yes it’s flown. Seriously, 25 years have gone by in what feels like 5, and I know I still think like a new illustrator — anxious to promote, always feeling the competitiveness of the industry, never comfortable with resting and always thinking about what’s coming next.
My advice to my 23 year old self would be to try to make sure there’s always time for mucking about. I work so fast and furious for clients, particularly on work I get through my agent, that I sometimes forget that I’m not a machine I need time and space to develop. Often, development and experimentation happens ‘on the job’ — which is a good way of making it happen, but risky, and quite pressured. Investment in self is absolutely vital, and I feel the areas where it’s lacking of it as I get older; I know other illustrators feel the same. But I would let my 22-year-old self know that she was right to join the gym as soon as she left college!
(By the way I doubt my handwriting would win a prize now — it’s like The Picture of Dorian Grey; the more I’ve worked publicly as a lettering artist, the more my ‘real’ writing has deteriorated!)

Next year sees the release of activist Malala Yousafzai’s third book, which you’ve created the front cover for. You’ve previously worked with her on ‘Malala’s Magic Pencil’. That is amazing! How does it feel, knowing that the work you have created with a Nobel Prize laureate will be seen by millions of people around the world?

It feels nice, and although I treat it like a another job while I’m actually working on it — simply to make sure the same level of objectivity and efficiency is applied — I receive the finished books and get a warm glow across my face!
They could have chosen any lettering artist in the world, yet they chose me, so I feel very privileged. She is truly an excellent role model, and not just for women and girls.

You’ve illustrated world renowned philosopher and spiritual teacher Ram Dass’s new book — ‘Walking Each Other Home’ which is out now.Could you share a quote from him that particularly resonates with you?

As it happens my copies arrived this morning! And this quote popped out of the page at me as I was flicking through (it has a LOT of pages!):
“You are not dead yet. It’s not too late to open your depths by plunging into them, and drink in the life that reveals itself quietly there.”Good huh?

© Sarah J. Coleman

2019 is an exciting year for you with a top secret project released, involving a very famous film coming into book form for the first time!
How did you get involved with the project, and when will we know more information?

It came from a publisher I’ve worked with a lot in the past, but an art director I’d only done one book for previously. I think my combination of inky, layered textures, the darker stuff I naturally lean towards and the ability to create strong type centrepieces pointed flow-chart-style to me! I haven’t got a final publication date, but I think it’s early summer. I believe it’s hardback, and special finishes are currently being discussed!

© Sarah J. Coleman

You have built up a diverse and successful business, working across everything from a record label, to advertising, film production and of course, illustration.
Could you share some advice for young creatives looking to establish themselves commercially?

Gosh that is quite difficult. The landscape I graduated into was very different from the one I enjoy working in now. But I think there are commonalities.
  • It won’t happen overnight, building a career takes investment and you need to be brave, taking risks, having a stab at things.

  • It will always be hard work. Especially just as you think it might start to chill a bit — that’s when you need to sink your teeth in!

  • Talk to people, a lot — in person, and pick up the phone. ‘Business’ is just another word for relationships, with money thrown in!

  • Authenticity is key. You are only you; you can never be ‘them’, and their successis notyour failure.

  • Do not take social media at face value — massive pinches of salt and a humorous dose of cynicism will keep you from thinking everything and everyone else is unattainably perfect! It can be your best friend and your worst enemy, so treat it accordingly.

  • Look after your body and your mind. Start now. How you handle both will directly shape your 30, 50, 70 year old working self. There is no business without you.

© Sarah J. Coleman

Finally, could we ask about your pseudonym, Inkymole, how did that come about?

Rather undramatically! My surname is Coleman, and because I was short sighted at school with pretty thick bins*, that got turned into Colemole, which got shortened to Mole. The inky but came as a result of a lifetime spent with ink and paint on my fingers and just started to sort of get slung in front of it. Clients were calling me Inky on the phone, and when sarahcoleman.comwas already taken when it came to buying my first domain, inkymole.comwas free — so I bought that! Et voilà. Inkymole! 
*British slang for glasses!

© Sarah J. Coleman

Friday, September 14, 2018

Walking Each Other Home

"We sit on the edge of a mystery. We have only down this life; so dying scares us - and we are all dying. But what if dying were perfectly safe? What would it look like if you could approach dying with curiosity and love, in the service of other beings? What if dying were the ultimate spiritual practice?"

So begins the new book by beloved, world-renowned spiritual teacher Ram Dass, and his close friend and fellow teacher Mirabai Bush. This book is the 'follow-up' to Ram's other writings, arguably the most famous of which is his 1971 'Be Here Now', which has become a classic manual for conscious being, and an account of his spiritual journey, consulted and referred to by millions of humans worldwide. I was given the opportunity to illustrate this book at the beginning of this year, and as a long-term yoga practitioner (*cough* as I picture my yoga teacher noting my recent absences!) with a growing, more recent interest in the 'self that can't be shown in Instagram' - the spiritual self, the one that's hardest to recognise, be true to and look after - I grasped this opportunity with both grateful hands.

My yoga teacher had talked of Ram Dass many times and I'd seen his books in her collection, so I knew he was culturally very significant, and much-loved; he's a bewilderingly curious character. Born Richard Alpert, he began life as an academic and clinical psychologist, a colleague of fellow clinical psychologist Timothy Leary at Harvard University, before establishing the Harvard Psilocybin Project with Leary, which is precisely what it sounds like - experimenting with and documenting the beneficial effects of hallucinogenic drugs - and the 'Good Friday Experiment', the first double-blind study of drugs and the mystical experience in 1962 with Walter Pahnke.

Now this already sounds like a fulsome life well lived. But by now, this person was also a published author and on the Board of Directors at Cambridge, Massachusetts, with several foundations to his name (did I say his PhD was on 'achievement anxiety'?) So I'm leaving a lot out of his story, as there's so much to tell - but we can cut to the travels to India, and the study under a spiritual teacher which led him to be the character we know now. For more about Ram's life, read his easy-to-digest life story here.

So. It’s long been said that I get all the ‘difficult’ topics, illustration-wise — constipation, period pain, cancer, erectile dysfunction, IBS, depression, dementia, contraception, Crohn’s — all handled by my pens. This new book is about dying, and how to do prepare for it with grace and I wasn't surprised to receive the commission! It's another potentially difficult subject of course, and an obviously upsetting one, which was partly the point of its creation - we just don't like to think about it. But becoming older and more fragile physically, 86-year-old Ram and his friend Mirabai wanted to explore the journey towards death, grieving and loss, with humour and a lightness of touch, so that we may read it too, and look forwards with our eyes calm and open. After all - it's coming. We just don't know when or how.

I know - it all sounds very idealistic, and rather lofty when you're sitting at work stressing about finishing the next job, how to pay for this and that, worrying about the car repairs and when you'll next get time to watch another Glow/clean the bathroom/send that next promo. But Ram reminds us in the opening pages that 'we have a real deadline'. And that, of course, made me laugh; we do, and I'm a great one for thinking there's always time tomorrow, so reading parts of this book were...maybe a little sobering.

But it's a light read, and it's beautifully written. The illustrations, a mixture of real and digital ink, are sprinkled generously throughout the book from full-page images to tiny spots, and each one was a pleasure to do. I worked both in the studio and in an Edinburgh hotel room where I was based at the time for an on-location job, working on this book in the evenings. All created in shades of blank ink, and eventually turned blue for the pages, the limited palette made for some challenges with regard to contrast and clarity, but I enjoyed having parameters.

The subject matter did not spare the horses either - the request to illustrate a burning ghat had me peering sadly at image after image online, before realising this was simply the kind of visible send-off we're just not used to seeing. For them, it's not only healthy, but desirable and normal. After that, the drawing was easy. Animals and plants play a large part in the book because of Ram's location on the island of Maui, and the wicker coffin was a very meditative thing to create. My favourite illustration in the whole book however is not the busy full-pager of birds and leaves and lettering - much as I loved doing that one - but the simple, lone rock. Who knew that I would like the simplest of drawings the most, used as I am to cramming in detail. In fact, the feedback I kept receiving was to 'give air' to the images. Always keen to give 'value for money', I can lean towards crowding my illustrations, so as I did them, they moved from writhing detail to very minimal. (There are over 40 illustrations in the book, so to see them all, you'll have to buy it!)

Interestingly, within a couple of days of starting the first test image, I was involved in a distressing incident which resulted in a man's arrest and my having to give a statement to the police. The night it occurred I missed my deadline, which then took up all of my focus and worry. With the reassurance of my overseeing agent (thanks MP) and a sympathetic client, the immediate anxiety about the deadline gave way to the gravity of what I'd witnessed, and I was able to put the deadline anxiety aside and settle into some quite time dealing with the incident and the people involved before returning to the job a day later. When I look back at the piece I was working on at the time, I can see the franticness of the work, and the eagerness to compensate the client with what I felt was necessary in the light of the missed deadline - but then I also see, as the pieces progressed over the weeks, a sense of proportion introducing itself; a lightening, a calming, and a more conscious approach, despite a very big list of illustrations. Which is all very, very interesting.

I aim to read the book from start to finish now - a little at a time - and enjoy the placement of the illustrations the designer has chose. You can buy a copy direct from the publisher and most good bookshops. Choose carefully - there are myriad other, more deserving independent book shops that would appreciate your hard-earned money aside from Amazon (and who pay their taxes!)

Thank you to Jennifer from SoundsTrue for the opportunity, to Matt for helping me stay focussed on this lengthy, sprawling job among myriad others, and to Ram and Mirabai for writing the book. I hope did your words justice.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

A Room Away From The Wolves

Nova: transient astronomical event that causes the sudden appearance of a bright, apparently 'new' star, that slowly fades over several weeks or many months. 

When I heard Nova Ren Suma's name, I thought it had to be a fabulous, eerie pseudonym, with its syllabic simplicity and its space-age middle name. I didn't even know the gender, at first, of this new author whose cover I would be working on - but I knew right away a) they weren't about to fade away! and b) I was fascinated. 

The appearance of Nova's new book 'A Room Away From The Wolves' is far from sudden - it took her a long time to write - but it has proved a sparkling new addition to the richly-layered teen fiction landscape. Without giving too much away, this is a ghost story with, as the cliché goes, a mighty twist, but set far away from any Burtonesque, Disney or period environment; the characters existing, instead, in modern-day downtown Manhattan. With references to a key character's former life in the 90s, this is a story that both a young reader and a 'grown'-up' can identify with chronologically as well as emotionally, with its themes of belonging, friendship, abandoned dreams, broken relationships and accepting who, and ultimately what, you are - and what you never will be.

I read the book first as a manuscript, which is always interesting because at this stage of the process,  the author is still making notes and fine-tuning. The finished copy which I read many months later did indeed differ from the original draft, and that's part of the reason I love doing books so much; getting that early peer into the writer's machine, watching the head-scratching, the changes of tense, notes to the Editor, syntax tweaks, even chicanes of storyline as the author changers her mind completely.

Thus, although a strong and simple story - one which I might add is crying OUT to become a film - this was a tough cover to crack. It could not be too overtly ghosty; such an approach is easy to make 'silly'. It couldn't be too literal; there are a lot of ethereal concepts to ponder, and a suspension of disbelief is required for the key events to make sense, but at the same time, the sense of place was important. Bina, the protagonist, couldn't be portrayed too specifically, as one person's vision of a central character is always different from the next - and Bina is, interestingly, somehow described both thoroughly, and ambiguously enough to toggle-switch-on the reader's own pencil of the imagination.

So what to do? Well, the art director, who I'd worked with on Dreadful Young Ladies And Other Stories, wanted another book that was beautiful. We knew this was going to enjoy special finishes. The book had to be very strong on a book shelf; Nova's previous novel The Walls Around Us had set a precedent there. 

The location gave me the initial starting point for the cover, along with the foggy cool of an early winter evening in New York:


But it was an omnipresent dark opal that gave us our central motif, and allowed the next round of roughs to emerge: I created a pile of opals in ink, and some big pages of hand-lettered titles, and used them to generate not-too-directed ideas in fast succession:

These also gave us our colour cues - the purple! Throughout, as is my usual process, I was adding title after title in different inked letters - avoiding the 'goth' and the 'romantic' traps, neither of which were right for this novel.

Then we needed to consider the geography. If you've ever been to Manhattan, you'll know how big the sky is, since you're always looking up at the skyscrapers. But if you can get across the water from Manhattan Island for some perspective, and look back out towards it from say Brooklyn or New Jersey - the sky is vast, and the city glows and hums. It positively sparkles - stars, buildings thrusting upwards, the occasional firework, with flashes of blue light for emergencies. This is where our opal needed to...explode into life. And so we tried a few iterations:


In these versions, our opal shards were to be finished in some kind of iridescent or metallic varnish; maybe even a holographic look, to truly make the cover twinkle. But then, Art Director Laura saw what we had been missing in the many roughs we were discussing - the central lettering, the mesmeric skyline against the moon, the purple glowering of the all-ink sky - and the window light. I'd added a single, tiny one in the lower buildings (for reasons you'll learn upon reading!) - and suddenly, there it all was.

With a little fine tuning here and a bit of preening there, the cover was before us. And this is the one it went to press with, on flesh-feel, pearlescent stock, which allows the lettering and the moon to glimmer through:

The back has a hand-written 'blurb' (no hand-lettering style fonts here - this is the real deal):

Watch the iridescence as the book moves in the light! (shady iPhone vid):

I am as delighted with this cover as it's possible to be, and I know that Nova is too. You can enjoy Nova's lively, conversational promotion of the book by following her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook - and to get a copy of the book, go here.

And if you're in the US, you can catch her one one of her book tour dates:

Thank you Nova, and Laura Williams, ever-patient art director!


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