Long story short, we find ourselves morally indebted to an illustrator whose work you’ve seen, but whose name might not roll off the tongue. David Hughes’ work is the kind you can stare at for a good long while, sussing out details and maybe needing to close your eyes for a few minutes afterwards to recover, the way you do when you’ve been on a roller coaster in need of a safety inspection.
Eric Larkin – For The Folio Society, you have illustrated a number of classics, old and new: Juvenal’s The Sixteen Satires, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.
If you could illustrate any book (or series) what would it be and why?
David Hughes – I enjoyed illustrating One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was frustrated by the fact I couldn’t produce more and illustrate the whole novel in greater depth. A Clockwork Orange was always something I would appreciate the opportunity of pouring my graffiti over and Brother’s Grimm, fairy tales – what’s there not to like? What a challenge. To illustrate them honestly and without restraint. Macabre and beautiful, and not for children just the sophisticatedly childish…
The Folio Society have chosen some tough assignments for me in the past, but I feel they stretched me to produce a body of work that stands amongst my best work, and I have to say the sympathetic and supportive and intelligent art direction from art director Sheri Gee is a contributing factor.
EL – You not only illustrate for others, but you write and illustrate your own books. What are the origins of The Pillbox? And with all those great illustrations, would you recommend it as a nice bedtime picture book for the kiddos?
DH – Bedtime reading for kiddos – I am assuming you are being ironic? But if you’d want to read your kiddos a child sex murder ghost story without a happy ending I’d suggest you go and seek help.
However The Pillbox was originally intended to be a children’s picture book, but on doing some research on the east coast of England one morning in 2011, on a deserted beach in search of a pillbox that I wanted to re-visit and didn’t find, I was aware of an eerie atmosphere. It was baking hot that morning, the beach was deserted, the sea was still, and bathed in a hazy mist. Dotted along the beach and emerging from the sand were gnarled and twisted tree roots and the trunks of fallen trees. This part of the coast is vulnerable to erosion and the cliffs over the years have succumbed to the North Sea waves and storms hence the dead trees scattered along the beach. Out at sea there was one large upright dead tree standing tall in the water, skeletal, bleached white in the sun. This was when I decided the book ought to be about a murder. The mammoth was featured from the start, in fact it was part of the original title. Just further up the coast some time earlier, archaeologists had unearthed the remains of a mammoth, so it went from a small boy befriending a woolly mammoth to a sex crime. Probably not the best idea for a commercial success.
EL – In an interview you did with The Herald (Scotland), you talk about not doing roughs of your drawings. You prefer to just ink, right off the bat, and there’s your finished product. That sounds kind of incredible: like you’re trying to capture your emotional impressions of a scene before your brain can interfere with them. Is that at all correct? Why do you prefer this way of working? What happens when you do a piece and then decide it’s not really what you want (assuming that ever happens)?
DH – I once remarked in an interview to a similar question that at its best my drawing was improvisation on a theme, like jazz…. Is that an embarrassing statement or what? But it is true; in that case I was illustrating Shakespeare’s Othello and that project was completely spontaneous.
A client asks for roughs and it strangles me….
The Pillbox is I would estimate 85% first drafts, and I wrote the dialogue and text as I drew, on the hoof if you like. The drawings dictated the story, and I was determined to fashion a story, that was my main aim. Whereas my previous ‘graphic novel’, Walking the Dog, was about showing off my drawing ability over a number of connecting episodes and is deliberately challenging to read, I wanted to deconstruct the comic book genre (what a fool). The Pillbox drawings lead me through the story – I had a vague idea of the plot once I decided it would be a murder case, but the drawings are the driving force. I want my drawings to convey emotion, that’s why the first third of the book is a nod towards illustrating a classic, idyllic, British seaside holiday. Someone remarked it reminded them of Swallows and Amazons, and that was the intention. The lead character isn’t fully formed immediately, but it has a fresh, spontaneous quality, which I cannot replicate if I re-draw, so I went with it.
What happens when I decide a piece isn’t working? I draw it again. (Yes it happens.) But usually once I am into a project I have that energy, a rhythm, if you like, so it becomes easier to re-draw. Hope that makes sense.
EL – How is writing/illustrating your own work different from illustrating someone else’s work?
DH – Very different in most cases. I immediately feel constrained. In recent years my editorial and publishing work has been reduced to a trickle, and the reason for The Pillbox was I had no other work besides The Folio Society commissions. A matter of survival, to be honest.
EL – You’ve done a lot of caricatures of public figures. I assume that’s great fun: to get away with mocking really powerful people (sometimes gently, sometimes not). Can you say anything about how doing that kind of work changed after the Charlie Hebdo incident in 2015?
DH – Rarely fun. But I did produce some drawings in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. On a personal level, I have produced more drawings in reaction to various world events these last two or three years more than I ever did when I was in demand with magazines etc.. Obviously you can’t insult will-nilly, you can’t draw just any provocative image, knowing that you are insulting someone’s beliefs or way of life or race, and I hope I try and stay clear of stereotypes, but sometimes it is fun to use a stereotype in an ironic fashion. Unfortunately, irony doesn’t always come off in print. Some people get your work and others don’t. Anyway, I had the Roman Catholic church on my back in the 1990s, for a humorous piece I had in print. A New York cardinal became very irate at a drawing of mine, and he made sure the Pope was aware of its existence. The magazine never commissioned me again. I was dropped, despite being a regular contributor. Drawing is definitely not worth dying for.
EL – Any advice for young artists or illustrators?
DH – Be prepared to be ripped off, if you’re any good.
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Don’t trust the flattery.
Stick to your instincts if you can.
Keep your pencil sharp, and rinse your brushes regularly if you still use such old fashioned implements.
EL – What’s up next for you?
DH – Currently preparing for an exhibition featuring the original artwork from The Pillbox. I am part of a comedy festival to be held at the end of September in Aldeburgh – not a million miles away from The Pillbox‘s location. Other than that, I am trying to get a publisher for a children’s picture book that I have completed (and it is for children) – or maybe it is a work in progress… anyway, it was good to create a body of work that had no savagery, no political slant, just honest, comic and maybe even fun. Hope my answers make sense and thank you for the interest even if it came about through an illustrator’s exploitation or gaff as you put it.
Thank you for this opportunity.
EL – Ouch, and you’re welcome.
There he is. I swear, if David Hughes ever comes to LA with something to promote, we’ll try to get him into the store and ply him with beverages: I’m wondering if he’s got some Pope stories he doesn’t want on record. Fingers crossed.