Illustrating Life, the Universe and Everything

Jonathan Burton, the illustrator of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and the (just published) Life, the Universe and Everything, walks us through the process of illustrating a Folio edition. 

Zaphod Beeblebrox

Zaphod Beeblebrox, partly inspired by Russell Brand

 

1. The process starts with noting every single scene and character interaction so I can find my way around the book. This helps me to select the most appropriate scenes, evenly spread throughout.

2. It becomes a complex balance of illustrating the parts that I find the most inspiring whilst having a sense of responsibility to the book as a whole in order to do it justice. This means sometimes sacrificing ideas that I¹d love to draw but ultimately don¹t fit the books’ needs. I¹m pretty brutal.

Also I have to be sure that the important characters are represented and that I vary the surroundings between large vistas giving a sense of place and close-up interactions.

3. I present the chosen scenes to Folio and at the same time I design some of the characters and collect references. For example, Zaphod Beeblebrox’s outfits are based on references to Marc Bolan, Freddie Mercury, New York Dolls, Russell Brand’s hair etc. Marvin the Paranoid Android went through many different stages before I chose to have him as a clunky ‘retro’ style robot.

4. Once the scenes are agreed on I create many thumbnail sketches playing with angles and compositions so that there is an interesting variation throughout. Deciding on the final sketch is the the most difficult stage for me. The decisions I make here determine the work I will have to create as a finished piece, and I battle with what needs to be in the scene that has narrative significance and what might be distracting.The process of illustrating Life, the Universe and Everything

5. I present the sketches with scene descriptions and if necessary we’ll discuss how certain scenes can be improved and I¹ll make any revisions needed until we¹re all happy. Then I panic and realise I actually have to make those sketches become a believable world.

6. For the finished drawing I work on textured canson paper with pencil on a light box, with the sketch underneath so I can use it as a guide. With all the references at hand I draw out, erase and redraw until I’m happy.

The process of illustrating Life, the Universe and Everything

7. Then I’ll scan the drawing onto my Mac and colour it in Photoshop, starting with underpainting the shadow areas and treating the whole canvas as I would using real materials, building areas of colour and detail on many separate layers. I use a Wacom tablet so it feels very tactile. I can rotate the drawing and use the pressure-sensitive pen to avoid going outside the lines. I work hard to make final pieces look like hand-coloured line drawings that have a warmth and realistic feel. The advantage of the computer is that I can make huge decisions about colour balance very easily. I often change my mind throughout the process, which wouldn’t be possible with traditional means.

Jonathan Burton is an award-winning illustrator who has worked on a number of our editions. To find out more about his brilliant work, visit his website: www.jonathanburton.net.

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