Waiting for the Raven
The Role of Patience in Illustrating
[The Five Owls, May/June 1999]
AMONG MY refrigerator-door magnets is a domino-sized rectangle with the saying, "God grant me patience, and I want it NOW!" Although this piece of white ceramic speaks volumes in my personal life, it is, in fact, the antithesis of my work as an illustrator. During the process of illustrating a book, I have found that patience often plays as significant a role as artistic ability. This was certainly the case when I set to work on the illustrations for W. D. Valgardson's Sarah and the People of Sand River, a story of a Canadian girl of Icelandic descent and her special relationship with a native Cree community called the People of Sand River.
Whenever I illustrate a book, it takes time for me to reach the juncture where I fully comprehend the characters and their story from every perspective and every angle. I always wait for the moment of revelation when I can smell the characters' blood in the media I am using, when I can see the tracks their history has left on the paper's tooth, and when I can watch them climb out of the the dark and into the light of my studio. When that moment comes, I can finally say, "So that's what that character or that situation is all about!"
Having illustrated sixteen books over the past twenty-four years, I am keenly aware of the physical ability of my left hand to lay down lines and shapes on a piece of paper. But creating images that speak with honesty and integrity and bring alive circumstances and history, culture and race (or whatever other variables bear on the story) can take infinitely longer. I can fill several pages of a sketch pad with thumbnail drawings in a day's work. Quick and uncomplicated, these tiny drawings get down only basic forms while giving me a sense of the possibilities for a complete illustration. I can flesh out the finer details of these thumbnails in the next step of the process where I draw larger, more complete pencil roughs, which are sometimes the same size as the final illustration. These details begin to reveal elements of character and circumstance while in the same stroke, put thoughts inside the protagonist's head. Potent with information about the character's journey, personality, place in time, and the specific event coming to light, these rough pencil drawings understandably take much longer to portray. I can complete a final pencil rough in an eight-hour day, but sometimes many more hours are required. The last step in the drawing process is to produce a finished drawing. This drawing becomes the prototype the black-and-white image onto which I will place color through the media I feel to be most appropriate for the particular story.
My hope is that all of the combined work in the various drawing phases will capture the essence of each specific passage of text that I have selected to illustrate. If I have been successful in my efforts to interpret the story and add meaning to its impact, the lines will be evocative and truthful, the shapes will add depth and credibility to the spaces, and the image will capture the mood of the protagonist's heart.
During the creation of the forty-three illustrations for Sarah and the People of Sand River my patience as an illustrator was put to the test. After spending thirteen months researching the history of Icelandic immigrants that settled in Canada in the late 1870s and completing all the rough drawings for the book, I was well into painting the finished watercolor pictures when suddenly I came to a dead stop. One of the images lacked an essence of character. I reminded myself to be patient, to wait for the moment when the character would reveal his or her intention. My faith in the creative process convinced me that the moment would come in time.
My problem stemmed from an initial image I had created to illustrate a scene about halfway through the story in which Sarah is working for a cruel laundress in Winnipeg and is forced to trudge through the snow, picking up and delivering laundry along the way. I couldn't understand or explain why the image had given me so much trouble or why I was unable to find a response to the text that went beyond the merely adequate. But my illustrator's intuition told me that this moment in the story was critical to Sarah. It was also important to the reader's understanding of Sarah's relationship with the Cree of Sand River and a mythic raven that served as her protector, possessing magical powers that would ultimately save her life. The response that I had drawn, though perhaps lovely to look at, did not capture the import of that pivotal scene. If I had left that image as it appeared in the finished rough drawing, the reader would have been none the wiser, unaware of the absence of something more potent and symbolic but I knew something was missing.
Every morning, when I entered my studio, that particular drawing was there to confront me, taped to the wall alongside all the other roughs in storyboard fashion. I painted sequentially through the book, my brush moving as the lens of a camera moves, from illustration to illustration, capturing Sarah's life. First I painted the cover, then the endpaper triptych, then the title page, then illustration number one, and so on through the story.
As the weeks turned into months, my day of reckoning finally arrived. One winter afternoon, I completed the illustration preceding the one that was causing me such grief. I knew that the following morning I would have to confront the troublesome image. It was next in line, and I am a sequential man.
I read and reread what Valgardson had written with simple eloquence: "Sarah picked up and delivered laundry in snow that was nearly up to her knees." I looked and looked again at my clean pencil-drawn image of her body, bent against the cold by the weight of her loaded wicker basket set atop a wooden sled. A cluster of houses and a church could be seen in the background. A brilliant sun shone in the clear cold sky. "She had no winter boots, only thin leather shoes." I had seen no need to draw her feet here, since they were hidden beneath the deep prairie snow. "Her feet got so cold that when she returned to Mrs. Simpson's house, she cried when her feet started to thaw." I hadn't illustrated that sentence because this image was already established as an outdoor scene on Winnipeg streets in the 1890s. "Wherever she went, the raven flapped along behind her but he never came close and never spoke." In the illustration, the large black bird appeared as Valgardson had described it, following Sarah like an airborne shadow.
That night I lay in bed unable to sleep, fighting off frustration and fatigue. All the while, the pencil image of Sarah, struggling with her burden, haunted me. And then I was falling asleep, one of those heavy descents into that void of rest where I could actually feel the physical movement of my body as it drifted downward through the dark, the mattress, and the box spring. Suddenly the floor came up to meet me, and just before I hit that wood surface, I jolted awake. I opened my eyes. I heard my own voice inside my head saying Valgardson's words: "Wherever she went, the raven flapped along behind her but he never came close and he never spoke."
In an instant, the troublesome image flashed before me, not as a pencil rough, but as a completed watercolor image. To my surprise, the brilliant light of day was gone from the Winnipeg street. The sun had set, and the moon was full and round, its halo shimmering in the night sky, casting a soft violet light over the snow. The frame houses and church, huddled together against the dry cold, were almost lost in their own shadows. I searched for Sarah. To my relief, she was still there just as I had originally drawn her, except that now she was fully realized with light and shadow reflecting her inner strength. I looked behind Sarah to the spot where the raven should have been, flapping his wings as Valgardson had described him. The raven wasn't there! I searched the street. My eyes darted up into the winter sky. I tracked the path of stars. Miraculously, they formed the outline of the mythic bird with its wings spread wide.
"Thirteen months!" That was my own voice again, loud inside my head.
My research for Sarah and the People of Sand River had led me into the protagonist's Icelandic-Canadian culture, then beyond it into the culture of the Cree of Manitoba, Canada, and finally into the symbolism and myth surrounding the raven. I hoped that my research would help me portray both peoples (of which I was not a part) with dignity and respect and with as much accuracy as was humanly possible. Never presuming that I could ever fully comprehend what it meant to be a native person of any century or someone of Icelandic ancestry, I was mindful of the possibility that if I did my job well, if I slipped the boundaries of race and reached the place that marks us all as human, I could appear to have at least stepped humbly into their shoes and walked alongside them.
During that critical research period, I had been reminded of the fact that the native people believe the raven is a constellation and like the stars of night that make up that constellation, the raven is always present. "But he never came close and he never spoke." For thirteen months that rich symbolic piece had lain buried beneath the mountain of information my research had unearthed, eluding my ability to capture it at the most relevant moment in Sarah's life and in the right context of Valgardson's story.
I respect rare, precious moments like these. They are the miraculous moments of illustration, for ultimately they take the artist and the reader a great distance beyond what is merely an adequate response to the writer's words into the realm of extraordinary truth. Such moments, however, do not happen in the purely temporal length of time it takes an artist's hand to draw lines on paper lines that sometimes become a bird flapping its wings. They occur only when the artist's hand and brain and heart and memory are patient enough to wait for the moment when they align themselves like the stars in a constellation.
Copyright © Ian Wallace