Nate Christopherson on Illustrating “Things That Are” by Amy Leach05/07/2012
hether contemplating a moth’s mazy course across a grocery store parking lot, comparing gods to donkeys, or compiling the taxonomy for a bestiary of fantastical creatures, Amy Leach delights the imagination in Things That Are, her forthcoming collection of extraordinary essays that practically begs for enchanting art. Nate Christopherson’s pen-and-ink illustrations for the book radiate a dynamic wholeness, a feeling that the entire scope of the wild world can be wrangled into a three-inch square, that inky black expanses and ghostly white traces can channel a primal lifeforce. Amy Wolner, a Milkweed intern, interviewed Christopherson about his artistic process and why his art jibes especially well with Leach’s poignant, ever-surprising ruminations on (to quote another great observer) life, the universe, and everything.
Milkweed: What types of artistic tools (pens, watercolors, paints, charcoal, wood-printing, computer software) do you use when you begin a project such as this? Which medium are you most familiar with?
Nate Christopherson: I am most familiar and enamored with the graphic arts of engraving and intaglio, and my pen and ink work is intended to reference the marks made in both those disciplines. All of the images in Things That Are were created using pen and ink. I used a matte black ink, and both fountain pens and brushes to create these works. The images are drawn on a translucent material called Opalux that allowed me to draw black lines, but also scrape away white lines as an engraver would.
The goal was to use materials and a technique that would require as little digital manipulation as possible. Except for the fact that they have to be scanned at a very high resolution and the scanner’s light sensitivity has to be manually adjusted to pick up all of the details, there is no digital manipulation. What you see in the book is very close to what the original image looks like.
Could you give a short explanation of the illuminated style of illustration for those who are unfamiliar with it?
Illuminated books started out as religious texts that monks devoted years of their lives to decorating in the Middle Ages. The Book of Kells from Ireland is probably the most famous example. I was first introduced to illuminated books through the Nuremburg Chronicle, and I think it is still probably my favorite example. The Nuremburg Chronicle is a beautiful fifteenth-century book that has well over a thousand wood cuts in it. Albrecht Dürer is also reported to have received his early training working as part of the team of artists who created this book. I also really love William Morris’ much later illuminated books from his press Kelmscott Press.
These drawings are devoid of color beyond the black and white scale. How does this change or emphasize the identity of the figures you portray?
Amy Leach’s writing is very reverent towards the minutiae of the universe. I wanted to create imagery that was intimate and precise in a way that would echo the feel of Amy’s writing—art that would ask the reader to pay attention to little details, but was still harmonious and quiet. The contrast between black and white is pure in a way that lends itself to detailed layouts on a small scale.
In terms of the technical aspects, I like to “gather my whites (or darks).” That is, I try to create a composition that is mostly either dark or white, and I use the opposite to create areas of emphasis within a composition. I always highlight this rule when I am talking about good black and white composition because I think it is a fundamental part of what makes images work.
How do you begin a drawing? Do you storyboard it along with the text of a book?
Illuminated books often have an underlying pattern that gives structure to their compositions. The final drawings all began with this pattern and were allowed to evolve as I worked on them, so that the pattern probably goes unnoticed for the most part in the final art. I think the fact that each piece began with that pattern provides for a certain harmony between the separate pieces.
Do you create your drawings one by one, or do work on many at the same time?
I tend to work on one image at a time (though occasionally I get carried away). I often relate the production side of my art-making to long distance running: I have found that doing it well requires careful, almost ritual preparation. The process is often physically and mentally draining, with a brief burst of elation at the end when you get what you have been trying to capture.
The larger pieces used to represent the two sections of the book, “Things of Heaven” and “Things of Earth,” are stunning and lush, fantastical yet real. How do you organize a medley of topics into a single panel of art?
The underlying pattern I used in all of the images in this book is most apparent in the illustrations for “Things of Heaven” and “Things of Earth.” The smaller details within each image were worked out individually first, and then I fit them into the pattern and altered them accordingly until everything seemed to work together.
It is interesting to consider the way the drawing process differs between small images, like the drop letters, and larger scale images, such as the “Things of Heaven” and “Things of Earth” illustrations. A spontaneity and rhythm occurred when I was working on the drop letters that I think is a result of the very limited options the scale of those images allowed conceptually. The larger images have a much more elaborate and tightly composed feel to them, which I think was the result of the more disciplined and focused work that I had to do in order to complete them.
How did you go about creating images that will be ultimately produced in very different sizes (letter art, half-page art, full-page art?)?
These images were drawn to the scale that they would appear in the book. The drop letters were drawn on a one-inch square, the chapter illustrations were roughly three inches by three inches, and the “Things of Heaven” and “Things of Earth” images were drawn at five-by-nine inches. Because of the amount of detail in the images this is really the only way I know to create a reproduction in a book that is close to the original.
Which drawing is your favorite in Things that Are? Were there any chapters that you had no idea what to do with in terms of drawings or drop letters?
I really love the beaver swept out into the ocean under the night sky, but also really love the flamingos flying above the cloudline at sunset. Things That Are really brought out a love for the nighttime sky for me. It is always interesting to look back on a series of drawings and to see what patterns emerged, and I think that was clearly one of them.
“Twinkle Twinkle” was the hardest chapter to illustrate in many ways, because so much of it was describing something that we really never see from earth.
All images by Nate Christopherson, an illustrator based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Find out more about him here. All rights reserved.