Illusive Treasure | Illustrating Treasure Island
Sterling Hundley, illustrator of The Folio Society’s new edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, recounts the perils of creating new artwork for a novel with a rich illustrative history.
More and more, indulging in the comforting pages of a well-written story requires us to deliberately turn away from the clamor of gadgets that alert us to forgotten responsibility and instead settle ourselves within the confines of our own imagination. In my role as an illustrator, I’ve always looked to add to the story; not to change, alter or reiterate, but to supplement a missing piece to the narrative that feels as much at home as anything the author has written.
Know this: the ghost of N. C. Wyeth – the renowned American illustrator whose paintings for Treasure Island count among his masterpieces – haunted and nearly defeated me throughout this project. What hubris to take on this manuscript given the history of the story, the author, and, most directly for me, the penultimate legacy of one of the greatest visual storytellers the world has known.
My first sketches are always crude, simple and direct – symbolic notations that appeal to me visually. A group of these roughs were sent through to Sheri Gee, Art Director at The Folio Society. Once these were approved I started to work with models – family members, friends and colleagues enlisted to fill certain roles – using props and different lighting. I photographed my models under duress – while running, climbing, jumping, swearing, or falling.
Then things got hard. Very hard. My illustrations required a storybook feel, and I knew that paint quality would be a significant concern. My initial paintings, which were 2’ x 3’ wet-into-wet oil paintings on panel, proved to be problematic in scale. They mirrored the attitude of Wyeth’s too closely, without the proficiency. The paintings weren’t without merit, or application, but I put them aside in search of a more contemporary, personal response to the story, to show the relevance of publishing the novel in this modern age. I returned to a drawing-first approach, one that allowed for a more fluid and deliberate stylization.
While the drawings conveyed energy, movement and even violence at times, the strokes of the original paintings created a palatable fluidity and movement of their own. The problem became how to marry the two. I needed a tool that would allow me to combine these disparate approaches into a cohesive visual statement. So, I called Kyle.
Who is Kyle? While teaching at the Virginia Commonwealth University, one of my students brought to my attention a remarkable set of digital brushes for Photoshop. They had been created by an old friend, and fantastic illustrator, Kyle Webster. I got in touch with Kyle and explained to him my need for a digital brush that could mimic the effects of painting wet-into-wet oils. Kyle created digital brushes that loaded and unloaded the ground color in an image, and the brush set became the perfect tool for aligning my uneven stylistic approaches. What’s more, the digital workspace provided another opportunity to add a contemporary element to Stevenson’s timeless tale.
The work was completed, submitted, adjusted here and there. I hope that I (we) were able to get some part of this right. A heartfelt thank you to all of my cohorts in this process. I quite literally could not have done it without you.
Explore the new Folio edition of Treasure Island here.