Jessamy Hawke is a student illustrator who is about to leap in to the world of professional illustration having completed an MA in Illustration at Kingston University in London. Jessamy uses materials such as acrylic paint, pencil, pens, linocut prints and watercolour to create poetic imagery. The rhythms and whimsicality of Hawke’s drawn line are perfect for illustration – her speciality is to dig deep into her imagination to create worlds full of life. This week her work goes on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, having been shortlisted for the V&A Student Illustrator Award for her illustrations for William Wharton’s wartime novel ‘A Midnight Clear’. She is also the author of inspirational art blog http://aestronauts.com/.
Lisa: What drew you to William Wharton’s ‘A Midnight Clear’ for a self initiated illustration project?
Jessamy: I’m often inspired by the books I’m reading. ’A Midnight Clear’ is such a haunting book, with its landscape and storyline, that it seemed made for drawing. Wharton beautifully describes the novel’s setting in the Ardennes Forest in wartime France, with an abandoned chateau, hunting lodge, steep wooded mountains, and snow-lined trees. I found myself imagining and mapping the exact layout of the landscape from Wharton’s writing, and I wanted to translate it into drawing.
As well as the landscape, you have the novel’s unique storyline, where five American GI soldiers are posted to guard an empty chateau in the middle of WWII. They slowly realise they’re not the only ones hiding out in the forest, and tragedy unfolds from there. My illustration, ‘The Clearing’, focuses on the solitude of the GIs and how this changes when they realise they aren’t alone. ‘A Midnight Clear’ is a captivating and incredibly tense story, and it stays with you for a long time once you’ve read it, and I wanted to capture this in my illustrations.
Lisa: Can you tell us how you developed your ideas and what materials you worked with?
Jessamy: When I have an idea I turn to my sketchbook. If I’m using a book as the basis for my illustration, I map out the key scenes and write down the passages which stand out to me visually, to stay connected with the author’s writing. From there I draw an immediate response in simple black and white sketches. With ‘A Midnight Clear’, I initially mapped out over 50 storyboard sketches, and then chose the scenes I felt were most important and visually striking. In terms of materials, I often work in black and white, but with this book I felt it needed to be in colour. I used acrylic so I could create dense layers of forest and snow, as well as using subdued colours which I felt would add to the tension of the story.
Lisa: Which artists do you most admire and why?
Jessamy: This is such a tricky question as there are so many! Looking at landscape paintings, I love the colour in the work of Peter Doig, David Hockney, Pierre Bonnard, and Nikolai Astrup, as well as the atmosphere created by artists like Egon Schiele, Andrew Wyeth, and Norman Ackroyd in their landscapes.
Some of my favourite printmakers are Frances Gearhart (who made beautifully coloured woodblock and linocut landscapes), John Brunsden (who created very surreal rolling landscapes), Oskar Kokoschka (for his woodblock fairytales), and Joe McLaren (who makes very sharp and detailed black and white linocuts).
Lisa: How do you deal with occurrences where illustrations don’t look exactly how you envisaged them in your mind’s eye? You must sometimes feel a huge responsibility when working with such highly reputable literary works.
Jessamy: When I’m working on a set of illustrations based on a book like ‘A Midnight Clear’, often I’ve created such an in-depth picture of each scene that I can almost move around that landscape in my mind. From here it’s not difficult translating this image into a physical drawing. It gets more complex when I start using materials like ink, acrylic, watercolour, or linocut as they can be a bit more unpredictable, which is a good thing. Sometimes the most successful part of a drawing or painting ends up being something I stumbled upon while experimenting with layers of paint, pattern, or mark-making.
Ultimately, if I don’t feel my drawings do justice to the original story, I’ll put it to one side and come back to it later. A few months back I started illustrating one of my favourite Agatha Christie books, but towards the end I realised my pictures didn’t work with the story – they lacked the drama central to Christie’s stories. I might go back to that project and rework it this summer, and that’s something I really like about always having ongoing self-initiated projects running alongside commissioned work. You can dip in and out without time-pressures, and if you’re not happy with the outcome it can stay in your sketchbook until you want to try it from another angle.
Lisa: What has your experience on the MA Illustration course at Kingston taught you?
Jessamy: I spent a year studying on the MA Illustration course at Kingston and it was the best decision for me. I think the most important thing I learnt was to find the way of working which suits me best, and to keep doing that. For me, this involves being outdoors, walking, drawing on site, and linking my work with literature or poetry. Realising this means that even now when I’m not working to the same structure of course modules, I’m still working in an environment where I feel productive and inspired, whether it’s choosing books to base drawings on or walking in a particular landscape and creating drawings from there.
I also learnt that your work doesn’t have to look the same for it to be continuous and have its own ‘identity’. Before studying at Kingston I worked mainly in black and white, whereas I now also use coloured acrylic, black and white ink, watercolour, pencil, and linocut printmaking in my illustration. There are overlaps between each material, and I like to think that there’s a fundamental way of drawing which runs through them all in my work.
Lisa: Can you tell us about your blog ‘Aestronauts’?
Jessamy: I studied BA Linguistics and have always enjoyed writing, especially about art. I started writing my Aestronauts blog in 2014 because I wanted to talk about paintings in a way that was accessible, presenting visually and culturally interesting art without being too ‘wordy’. Researching into the stories behind images can completely alter the way you look at a piece of art, and I love writing short snapshots into the artist’s process and background, using a specific painting to reveal something new about the artist’s life. (http://aestronauts.com/)
Lisa: What are your favourite drawing pens to work with and why?
Jessamy: Last year I was introduced to the Pentel Brush pen, and I’ve never looked back! It has transformed the way I draw – it brings pictures to life. The calligraphy brush gives you different line thicknesses across one line, varying with how you hold it, which makes a drawing feel like a painting. I use this brush-pen a lot when I’m walking and drawing outdoors, as it’s a really portable way of using ink on the go. Then, for a complete contrast, I love using a Staedtler 0.05 and 0.1, to create a really delicate line perfect for more intricate drawings of people as well as drawing from found images.
Lisa: What does being shortlisted for the V&A Student Illustrator of the year prize mean to you?
Jessamy: Being shortlisted for the award has meant a lot to me. I applied for the competition never imagining I’d reach the shortlist, and I am so pleased to have been selected out of so many great student illustration entries. After graduating from my MA in January, the future seemed a bit uncertain beyond studying and I started to doubt myself as an illustrator, questioning what the next step was. Having someone external on the judging panel see potential in my work has given me a massive boost of confidence in my ability as an illustrator.
Lisa: What are you working on at the moment?
Jessamy: I’m currently working on several self-initiated projects similar to ‘A Midnight Clear’, where I’m drawing in response to some of my favourite novels, including ‘Crossing to Safety’ by Wallace Stegner and ‘Travels with my Aunt’ by Graham Greene. I’ve just finished working on a vinyl cover and a commissioned series of A3 linocut maps of London, and I’m really excited about starting a large scale illustrated map of my favourite landscape, which I’ll paint directly onto the wall of my new studio.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Jessamy: You can see my work on my website at jessamyhawke.co.uk, and you can follow my work in progress, as well as my research trips, on my instagram @jessamydrewthat. My entry for the V&A Illustration Awards can be seen here – http://www.vam.ac.uk/b/va-illustration-awards-2016/students/clearing, and you can read my blog at aestronauts.com. I’m also exhibiting three landscape works on paper at a local gallery in Banstead (at St. Paul’s Church, Nork) over the May bank holiday weekend.