This Folio Life: Putting together an entry for the Book Illustration Competition

Art Director, Sheri Gee, guides us through the process of submitting an entry for the Book Illustration Competition.

Have you ever wondered what makes a good illustration, or a good binding design? Is it bound up in a personal aesthetic, or can a winning formula be applied? Entrants starting out in this year’s Book Illustration Competition may well be asking themselves these very questions as they begin to read and plan their illustrations.

The competition is now in its eighth year, and this year’s chosen book is a collection of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Selected Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Given the plethora of Holmsian imagery that already exists, from illustration to TV and film adaptations, crafting original compositions while staying close to the text will be a challenge.

For each illustration commission there are key questions that need to be answered, almost subconsciously, which help us achieve the right tone, visually. It’s the answers to these questions that inform our search of illustrators’ portfolios before we commission, and I think anyone entering this competition should ask themselves what are the most important factors that the illustrations should convey. This varies for each book or genre. For instance:

  • Does the author give specific details about the characters’ appearances? (I advise noting down every description very carefully and, if necessary, researching other literary descriptions of Holmes and Watson that may have been given in Conan Doyle’s other stories and novels). Which particular characters ought to be shown?
  • Does the narrative involve a lot of action? What scenes ought to be shown? Is it better to build tension rather than illustrate the climax of a story?
  • Is the narrative mostly conversation-led? How can that be visualised in a compelling way?
  • Is landscape/setting very important to the book? When reading, does it add to the atmosphere?
  • Is the book set in a specific historical period? Where/how can that best be researched and visualised?
  • Does a certain style of illustration suit the atmosphere or genre of the book, or the period in which the book is set? Would any styles or techniques be unsuitable?
  • Where will the illustration be placed? (Colour illustrations can only be placed in certain places, where the signature (which comprises 16 pages of text) falls.) If the last scene is illustrated, can it be placed earlier in the story without giving anything away, or is it best to avoid illustrating the final page?

Once an illustrator is commissioned, we will help to make sure that the historical details in their artwork are correct and that characters and scenes are in line with descriptions given in the book, but for an illustrator working on their entry it’s extremely important to act not only as an illustrator but as an art director and editor as well, checking their own work and doing careful research. Not paying attention to character descriptions, or getting a scene or an obvious detail wrong, can hinder an entry greatly. The planning and research side of the project is so important – a breath-taking entry can easily be disregarded if it’s ill-planned or badly observed.

Designing a binding for a Folio Society book is a skill in itself, often quite set apart from a paperback design both in terms of the techniques and style of artwork required. Because many of our bindings are blocked, we often ask our illustrators to think in one or two colours to be used on a coloured cloth, and to work with linear and solid forms, rather than tonally. We’re looking for a striking cover that will stand out not only in the hand, but also on our website or catalogue when the image is reduced in size. The cover shouldn’t give anything away, but it should make the viewer want to read the book – enticing them in. We tend not to be too prescriptive with our fiction binding commissions, allowing the illustrator to be inspired by the text and explore the imagery to work out creative solutions to the problems that a reduced colour palette and solid forms can create.

Because of our rich history of 70 years of publishing, and because we often publish classics that have been tackled by other publishers, it’s important to consider other editions that have been produced to avoid similarity.

Sherlock Holmes set from The Folio Society, published in both 1993 and 2004

A Sherlock Holmes set from The Folio Society, published in both 1993 and 2004

Last year’s entrants, for Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, had a particular challenge – creating a binding to fit within an existing series style – and we saw some fantastic examples. We hope you agree that Darya Shnykina’s winning binding is perfectly in keeping, setting the scene and inviting the reader into the narrative. I wonder whether it’s easier for an illustrator to have free reign or the constraint of a series?

Mansfield Park, from The Folio Society

Mansfield Park, from The Folio Society

Characterisation and conversation, and the tensions therein, were very important for Mansfield Park, and Darya’s work stood out from the start. Her illustrations used the space well (in one the background is used to frame the characters) and aptly complemented the scenes she’d chosen. Her digital technique, though a very modern process, has a sensibility that would suit many genres and periods. It was a delight to work with Darya on the full commission as she gave us a glimpse into Fanny’s world.

Darya Shnykina with her Folio Society edition of Mansfield Park

Book Illustration Competition 2017 winner Darya Shnykina, with her Folio Society edition of Mansfield Park

To find out more about entering the Book Illustration Competition, and download the Arthur Conan Doyle text and the instructions, please visit House of Illustration.

Add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *