Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Illustrating 'You Will Be Found', by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

This was a massive job.

Hence, this is a fairly massive blog.

If you want to read the lot - get the kettle on! And settle in.

~ † ~

When I was first contacted about this job by Sasha at Little, Brown,  I knew nothing about the musical 'Dear Evan Hansen', nor its story; I was ignorant of its success and didn't know anything about its songwriters, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (though I later found out I knew a lot about their songs!)

I'm not generally a musical fan, and as such, this was totally off my radar.

Unusually for me, I didn't immediately set-to with an hours-long Duck Duck Go search of the musical, its characters or its writers. Knowing only that this was to be a 'the book of the song' - the most famous and well-loved song of this extremely successful Broadway musical - all I was eager to find were as many renditions as possible of it, learn its words, understand its rhythm and cadence. Which I found, and listened to, and watched, over and over.

I had a Wiki-read of the plot, knowing that its themes were large and heavy, and with a seriously hectic timescale in mind, got to work. In a very over-simplified summary, and without issuing spoilers (I've since been to see the musical) Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of a struggling, lonely lad who happens upon a way to put himself in an unexpected position of both power and likability, but only via his genuine desire to soothe the pain of others, and bring comfort. En route he becomes distinctly less likeable as we watch his own needs begin to obscure his original aims in his painfully human search to belong, and a series of well-meant but ill-judged decisions turn good intentions into a slowly-building, inevitable implosion. And it's all played out on the howling screens of social media against the backdrop of high school politics. 

What I did know at the very beginning was that suicide, isolation, loneliness, dishonesty and grief are handled with a steady but surprisingly deft touch in this story, and the song, adopted by people around the globe, appeared to have become something of an anthem; a go-to in the vein of 'Let it Go' or 'Greatest Showman's 'This Is Me' from 'The Greatest Showman', which Benj and Justin wrote (along with all its other songs - and they also wrote them for 'La La Land', and 'Trolls', which I love).

30-something illustrations plus cover were all to be delivered to a crazy schedule. Over 100 pieces of individual artwork were made for this book, and this blog is a summary of the processes I went through to develop the look and narrative for it.

What had brought Little, Brown to me were the illustrations I'd done a couple of years previously for Andrea Gibson's 'Take Me With You', tiny, all-ink pieces created in response to individual lines taken from Andrea's huge poetry archive. This was the one that really caught Benj and Justin's attention:

Maybe it was the fact that it was a piano that drew them in; maybe the sadness of the dead plant with the tuning fork stuffed in it. But it gave me something to start with.

As I started to make suggested pieces for the book in order to establish its vibe and voice, I began to feel like they should be a little more expressive, and loose. This wasn't just me inventing an excuse to throw ink around for the next five months (although, that's exactly what I did end up doing!), more a question of following where my nose took me, if you know what I mean.

These early offerings were met positively, created in black and grey, with the colour scheme to be dictated by the strong Dear Evan Hansen (hereafter referred to as DEH) branding. We tried to work out the cover at the same time as the first few spreads, the cover always being the most urgently needed - with all the art created with inks on A2 and A3 paper, using brushes, dip pens, monoprinting, bleach, pencil and fineliner.

This very early spread eventually evolved into its final version, though quite changed:

A little collage came really naturally to these early illustrations, tearing through paper, cutting holes for absence and missing people:

At the same time as establishing a look for the inside, we had to move fast on the cover. It needed to be strong and simple, and I made many versions - we knew the figure was important, we knew the sky was important (Evan is very lost at the start), and we knew the title had to take centre stage.

We *also* suspected there might be gold...well, I did, and thus made sure the roughs said so (in the end, it was an emboss and a spot varnish - not bad, not bad!)

Evan's isolation was key, so the figure became a repeated motif throughout - sometimes alone, sometimes with company. Note the early spellings of Benj's name, before I'd got to grips with it!

The tree for the cover, which also ended up appearing many times inside, was made with four shades of blue ink, and a few shapes were auditioned:

And here's the final cover. This is the paper wraparound, with the addition of a healthy sprinkle of ink blots.

While the cover was being sorted, I had to crack on with the first few spreads (the whole thing was a creative juggling act!) Collage came very naturally, as it allowed for layering and organic experimentation, as in the early spread for this line of the song, our little person pondering whether they can overcome that challenging thing ahead of them, the enormity of the mountain making them feel tiny.

The notion of loneliness is pivotal to the musical, and runs through the pages of the book. There were many ways I wanted to show it. This spread wasn't used, but it speaks to the idea that you can be surrounded by people, but still feel totally alone - or indeed that you want all those well meaning people to go away.

I really wanted all these little all-inclusive faces to stay - they weren't used, but they did come back to the final pages in a different form:

I wanted these faces to be suggestive of thumb prints, for their obvious power to symbolise individuality; expressions are mixed, some somewhat unsure, some quietly comfortable, some sad:

Solving the problem of the 'disappearing' lines was tricky. It was terribly easy to go literal on these lines. So my process tends to be exactly that - if there's an obvious or literal solution, I do it; execute those ideas, get them 'exorcised' and onto the paper. Having got them out of my system I can then move on from them - or, as often happens, end up wandering back to them, realising that they aren't actually as visually literal as perhaps I thought they were.

This person has cut themselves from the background; a maelstrom of swirling dark ink strokes and rain:

This is how it looks in the book (less of an 'Alien life form'!)

Disappearance could as easily have been communicated through lettering; here the dyes in the ink decrease with increased watering-down. The footsteps were maybe a touch too 'signposty', so they were removed.

Other spreads were subject to the same kind of see-sawing between literal and pictorial. In this rough sketch our little figure - no particular gender, no particular age - is directing the rain away from them. Let it pour! I've got my (virtual) brolly!

That spread must have had five or six iterations before it eventually became this - a huge surprise, as I didn't think for a minute the chaps would go for it. But they loved its writhing movement and chaos!

I'm happy about that of course, because I was having the time of my life quite literally hurling ink at paper, and working in the most free and abstract way a lot of the time. 

Some spreads took a lot of working out and were subject to much e-wrangling - with one in particular taking us right past deadline and into hours before print cut-off. This one saw many sketches - one of my favourite rejects, the windows in this old and tired but welcoming house encourage our little person up the steep, charcoal hill to where the light is:

This version put them on a gnarly sea:

And this one is fairly close to the version that went into the book; the fragile growth of a tiny plant.

Since the song was in my head for the whole of the five months I worked on this, I could (and still can) recite every line in my sleep. This pair of lines was subject to exactly the 'go literal then work outwards' method; starting with a person in the self-preserving foetal position, broken into pieces courtesy of ink scored though with bleach lines (though the character itself is too alien-like):

Again I played with a type-based treatment for this too - slicing the word through with scalpelled, inked paper:

This is very close to the final book version. Large brushed letters eat into the solid background, with bleach ink blots cutting further into it:

I loved that this one utilised one of my big-galaxy drawings, a huge moon behind the little person holding up 'U' (you...)
This is a first-week sketch vs the final book version:

I could honestly go on talking about the process; it was enormously satisfying and a serious challenge at times, both in terms of time pressure and ticking all the delicately-balanced boxes that illustrating these lyrics and their themes demanded. But I can't; this blog would just go on and on.

By the time we'd finished the job though, I'd generated a pile of over 100 pieces of individual art, with backgrounds, washes, textures, experiments on top. In the end the only way to really see this book is to buy the book! With over 30 spreads and myriad pieces of artwork hidden elsewhere inside, it really is too much to blog here. And I like to leave some surprises. But here are some of my favourite details, and some of the 'inkounters' I had on the way.

This is the hardback cover which sits beneath the paper wrap:

These endpapers were a total triumph - INK!

I love the drama in this one. I kept being encouraged to go more minimal - which was a strange dilemma for someone who naturally likes to fill a page with detail, but also feels completely at home with the simplicity of a single brush-stroked letter. I think there's a feeling that when I'm 'on the clock', I need to be giving "value for money" by totally filling an image - something which I said to Sasha, Little, Brown's art director on this book, who promptly laughed at the notion!

And finally: to celebrate the release of 'You Will Be Found', I had my nails painted with Evan's shirt stripes, a starry sky from the book, and of course: that now-legendary line.

Thank you to Benj, Justin, Sasha and Farrin, and to Leigh from whom I was regularly quarantined at my desk for months on end, my hands a blur of blue ink, sheets of paper, emails and mess piling up.

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