Spring 2018 sees Raven’s Wand published as a deck of oracle cards, lavishly illustrated with characters from the book and with exclusively written meanings. Today – a closer look at ‘Relics’
If you could have sailed around Britain’s coast two centuries ago, there’s a chance you’d have seen large, flightless, black & white seabirds known as Great Auks. They effectively lived an identical lifestyle to penguins, but by 1844 (according to records) the last one was clubbed to death and eaten. This crime was committed in Iceland – but wait, there is a challenge for the killing of the last Great Auk from the nearby Faroe Islands. Think about it – what kind of accolade is genocide? What person or nation would argue that credit for a certain genocide belongs to them? And here I’m not singling out Iceland or The Faroes, all nations have exterminated one spices or another, and often, many species. The true madness of this is its banality: a species was exterminated – so what – it happens – next. The same sort of thing happened to Britain’s wolves, with the last one being killed in the 17th century according to most sources. ‘Relics’ was drawn with these facts in mind. Look closely and you’ll see not just flesh and blood wolves, but wolves hidden amongst the rocks and trees. Witches hid them there to save the last of them, and to me this is what witchcraft is truly about – respect for living things. I say ‘to me’ because there are many interpretations of what witchcraft is, but one thing’s for sure – it wasn’t a witch that battered that lone Great Auk to death in 1844, but hey – so what – it happens – next.
When I illustrated the story of Peter Pan a few years ago, I spent the best part of 10 months working solidly on Peter’s world: Neverland. Day after day I’d get out of bed and face hours of intensive work at the drawing board bringing J M Barrie’s famous story alive.
I must be one of the very few people who’s never seen the Disney version of Pan, and my first real introduction to the story was reading it in readiness for illustrating it. Immediately it struck me that Peter wasn’t the youthful hero I’d always imagined, but rather a spoiled and distinctly selfish brat. As the weeks and months dragged by and the portfolio of images grew, I came to dislike Peter more and more, and instead find a growing sympathy with his nemesis – Captain Hook. Hook is the far more interesting and complex character. Peter is often obnoxious because he ‘feels like it’, while with Hook we glimpse a reason for his fall from grace. And before anyone berates me for my harsh comments about Peter, remember – amongst other things – he tries to shut the window and prevent Wendy and Co returning home so he can keep her forever, and it’s only the look of despair on the sleeping Mrs Darling’s face that softens his heart. Hook’s bitterness stems from his resentment of Peter’s bravery (or recklessness to be more accurate – he faces off against a pride of lions just to impress his new friends) and more importantly, his ‘cockiness’. That’s when Hook and I became partners – I can’t stand our new age of arrogance that’s replaced modesty, and where those who shout loudest simply must be the best because, well. . . they’re the loudest. When Hook attempts to poison Peter’s drink, he relents and the better part of him thinks twice, but it’s the ‘cocky’ smile on the sleeping Peter’s lips that inflames him again, and so in goes the poison! Sadly – Tinkerbell came along and ruined it all by drinking the poison draught to save Peter’s life. (And remember how Tinkerbell encouraged the Lost Boys to shoot Wendy down with an arrow – to kill her and ensure she didn’t have a rival for Peter’s attention? Twisted, eh?)
When it came to drawing Hook falling into the crocodile’s waiting mouth I felt the story had lost its most intriguing character, and to some extent its heart. If my nemesis had been a selfish and arrogant little boy who infuriatingly always got the better of me, I’d have become a twisted villain like Hook too. And so – Captain James Hook, scourge of the cocky everywhere – I salute you!
One of the great joys of writing is the freedom to reinvent traditional themes. In Raven’s Wand we meet witches for the first time, and instead of the ugly crones of propaganda we find that witchcraft is a peaceful faith, and its followers include men, women and children alike. Also, out go flying broomsticks and in come lightning-staffs and thunder-sprites. For me, reinvention is a cornerstone of fantasy art and writing. Why should every dragon look the same? Fairies get the same treatment. Out go fairies as mischievous magical folk, and in come animalistic nature spirits who escort the dead to Evermore.
Fairies take a lead role in the final novel of the series, Lion of Evermore (published this autumn). This test-sketch shows a scene from the book’s climactic battle – when entire fairy nations have to fight for survival against a vast plague of their infected kin. Morgus is not just a magma-fairy, but the leader of his nation, and he battles valiantly against a horde of infected iron-fairies.
He’s certainly more than just a big fairy, but is even Morgus strong enough to stop the iron infection . . ?
Spring 2018 sees Raven’s Wand published as a deck of oracle cards, lavishly illustrated with characters from the book and with exclusively written meanings. Week by week, I’ll post my thoughts and comments on the forthcoming cards. This week – ‘Destroying Angel’
Destroying Angel is the first novel in the successor series to Raven’s Wand, and tells the story of Freya Albright’s boat-full of witches that fled Wildwood-coven, but subsequently vanished . . .
I wanted Freya’s story to remain part of the Raven’s Wand world and its Victorian setting, but still to have its own unique feel. Freya and her crew of nine are a tight-knit bunch, and their camaraderie is as often touching as it is earthy and amusing – and it needs to be considering what they face. Paying homage to a favourite of mine, Beowulf, the first story sees a remote northern outpost under siege from a powerful and destructive entity. This creature came not from a dark cave or the depths of an icy lake however, but from the blackness between the stars – in fact it is the blackness between the stars. A tale of isolation, suspense and deception unfolds, as the tiny mining town of Lokk bars the gates, and looks to a rabble of unknown soldiers to protect them from they believe is the Devil himself, but they find other allies too. It’s here that Freya and her crew prove their worth when they’re forced to fight alongside Illuminata mercenaries in an attempt to defeat an entity as old as the universe and as desolate as the vacuum of space.
I had a lot of fun with Destroying Angel, despite its dark tone and (gosh!) a sex scene or two (I told you it was different to Raven’s Wand!) and whereas characters take their turn in the spotlight in Raven’s Wand and its sequels, the focus remains on Freya and her crew throughout this new series. In doing so, I’ve been surprised by just how protective I’ve become of Freya & Co, as if they’re family. When they laugh I laugh with them, and when they’re in danger I’m anxious for them, but they do have a mysterious (and often stern) guide and protector . . . he’s dead, but that doesn’t cramp his style, and while he’s not known for his sense of humour, it’s thanks to him that a certain ‘Clovis’ found a certain door marked ‘Rowan’, and if he hadn’t, well, Raven’s Wand might have had a totally different ending. You’ll have to wait and see . . .
2018 sees the release of The Raven’s Wand Oracle Deck, featuring 44 pieces of my Wildwood art. I thought I’d give readers a look at what goes on behind the scenes during the creation of these works . . .
‘Can you draw me a man, but like a tiger?’ I can’t recall the exact wording but that’s how this character, Tiber, came to be. The brief was just that – brief – which suits me fine. And so I set out to draw a ‘tiger man’. At the time I was in the middle of a major commission elsewhere and had to break off for a week to complete this, which really put the pressure on. I kept looking at the clock, knowing I couldn’t afford to run over. I opted for a Siberian tiger, because I knew I wanted snow in the background, and I had great fun inventing Tiber’s little caravan. Despite all of this enjoyment, the pressure racked up. I remember it was January, and storm after storm rolled in, and the electric was on and off, and without light (and my trusty stereo) I can’t work. At one point the electric was off for 36 hours, and still the clock was ticking. I’d also just moved house, and the new place was grim and unwelcoming, and I was itching to get on with some DIY and make the place ‘mine’. So in the end, with all the odds against me, it’s something of a miracle that the image manages to capture the sense of stillness I was lacking when I drew it!
Something the Dalai Lama said long ago stays with me – that every human soul, regardless of nationality, culture or gender, seeks to live a life of happiness, free of suffering. And he’s right. What people define as ‘happiness’ is wildly variable, however. Some find their ‘happiness’ only through material riches or domination of others. When this is the case it’s easy to see that what they’re seeking isn’t really happiness at all, but the alleviation of their own fears, jealousies or insecurities – which in turn makes them feel better – which in turn conveys a twisted sense of ‘contentment’. See how easy it is to cause mayhem in the name of happiness? This doesn’t undermine the Dalai Lama’s wisdom but it does give a startling insight into human behaviour.
When I write my characters I ask myself, ‘what’s this character after – how do they find their contentment, and what lengths are they prepared to go to?’ With characters of high morality it’s easy. Kolfinnia’s happiness is knowing Wildwood-coven will always be her home. Valonia’s happiness is seeing her witches thrive. Moral characters have the shortest and most direct routes to happiness. Then there are ‘grey’ characters such as Hathwell, whose ‘happiness’ is the challenge to find his courage and make amends for serving an organization he doesn’t fully believe in, but having aided their crimes.
Beyond ‘grey’ characters we have the true villains, usually surrounded by a host of ‘greys’ who excuse their actions as merely ‘following orders’. True villains require perhaps the most sensitive writing of all. Their route to happiness is often very convoluted and troubled, although this won’t show on the surface.
Of the three chief villains of The Dark Raven Chronicles – Samuel Krast, Victor Thorpe, and Sef – each of them is plainly destructive and immoral, but look closely and you’ll see the real tragedy; there is redemption waiting below the surface. These villains might be immoral, but not amoral. They know that their actions destroy the sacred quest for happiness in others – and very rarely the reader will see them struggle with this. It might be just one sentence amongst hundreds of pages, such as Victor Thorpe’s brief twinge of conscience in Flowers of Fate, but it is there . . . and for those readers who’ve enjoyed Victor’s company and wonder where this devil’s moral moment went to, look carefully at his initial reaction to the terrible choice laid before him by his bullying grandfather, Barlow . . .
When the pitch-black of a villainy is garnished with a speck of white or grey, it provides the reader a toehold – something that they can identify with in an otherwise alien and opposing mindset. If done right, we might end up actually developing some empathy with our villain (I only say some empathy, not a whole lorry-load!).
Lion of Evermore will be published later this year, in the autumn. Sef takes the role of chief villain, and although the pages and strewn with his depravities, always remember that all he is seeking is a state of ‘happiness’ – just as we all are.
As I write, the summer solstice isn’t far off (well, for those of us in the northern hemisphere) and although all the celebration around this festival points to light and energy, I personally can’t help but start to think of the darker nights. ‘Tomorrow, the daylight will be a fraction shorter,’ I tell myself. It isn’t as gloomy as it sounds, because on December 21st I always begin to think the opposite; ‘tomorrow there’s a fraction more light!’ I think this even when it’s still dark at 4pm and the weather is locked into days and days of endless rain (I say rain because it seems to snow very little here in the UK anymore).
In honour of the solstice I drew this illustration entitled ‘Night and Day’. The young woman in the picture is of course a witch, but her striking look is only intended for the big day itself, and she won’t get up every morning of the year and spend hours applying her ceremonial face paint. I like to think of the witches I write about as being practical, humble and very down to earth. Drawing faces is challenging but always rewarding – when they come out right – and on occasion I’m lucky enough to work one-to-one with art students. Recently I was working with one GCSE student, strengthening her figure drawing skills, and we moved onto faces and portraits. Rather than draw with a pencil, I broke out the oil paints and chunky brushes and we had fun painting all the blocks of colour that comprise a human face. My own approach has become totally instinctive over the years, and I don’t stop to think consciously about how I go about drawing or painting a face, but with someone sat beside you and watching your every move, you suddenly have to justify every dab of the brush or squeeze of the tube.
I think I surprised my fellow painter when I started adding greens and blues to the flesh tones, and talked of ‘warming colours up and cooling them down’. In fact, hearing it aloud I even surprised myself. There are no such things as ‘black people’ or ‘white people’, and nobody’s skin tone remains the same throughout the day. The way the light plays across a face, or the way surrounding objects influence colour all change what the viewer sees. As we get older our faces change (usually not for the better!) and we accept this without question, but we stubbornly stick to the idea that our skin can only be one colour. As an artist I find this merely amusing, but from a social-political viewpoint it becomes very divisive.
So, when the summer solstice rolls around in a week’s time, remember those miserable sods like myself, who start to brood over the dark nights ahead, and remember it’s not all light and happiness, just as the wider world isn’t black and white – even though things would be simpler if it were. On June 22nd, our witch will scrub away her striking face paint and go back to having skin that is wonderfully but subtly multicoloured, but only if you learn to see it right. . .
Sprite Sense – Part II
A warm welcome to all of those just discovering Raven’s Wand! Readers frequently tell me how much they adore thunder-sprites, and so I thought I’d post a series of short articles about these wild but popular creatures. Tonight we look at Lifespan, Distribution and Flight. More to follow – enjoy!
A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . LIFESPAN
Witches and thunder-sprites have partnered up for untold thousands of years. They remain a pair from the day the witch finds a thunder-sprite and proves their worth, until either the witch dies or their lightning-staff is broken. Breaking a staff is never deliberate, as no witch would wish to be parted from their sprite, this only happens by accident or in battle. Sprites then return to the thunder-heights and their Lord, Silver-fist, where they become part of the endless cycle of rain and storm once again. They might be born again as another bolt in another place, but with a new name and likely no memory of their former life or witch. Although covens are found in all corners of the world, sometimes lightning strikes in very remote places, and the sprite will go his whole life and never see a human, let alone a witch. In these instances, he will live happily inside his tree until the day it dies, which could be many centuries, or just days if the lightning-bolt was too severe, but the line between a living tree and a dead tree is surprisingly fuzzy . . . When the tree is nothing but rotten mulch, it can be clearly argued as being ‘dead’, but some trees are cut for timber to make furniture and houses, and they can last for many centuries after the tree was felled – as can any sprite still living inside them. Skald and his fellows speak fondly of one such sprite, named Torn. No witch came to claim him, and eventually his tree was felled to make a large four-poster bed for a grand hall. Sleepers in that bed often woke in the middle of the night screaming in terror, claiming an ‘imp’ had been scuttling through the canopy. Torn might not have found a witch, but he kept his sense of humour!
A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . DISTRIBUTION
When Clovis crossed the star-sea to come to Kolfinnia’s aid, he (not surprisingly) had a lightning-staff and thunder-sprite of his own, named Torrent. Torrent lived by the same laws, and even spoke the same language as thunder-sprites here on Earth, even though he was from light-years away. He even looked identical, although his feathers were more emerald than sapphire. Here on Earth, animals quickly evolve into subspecies if separated by only a short distance, so how can creatures from light-years apart be so similar? The answer is that thunder-sprites are born from natural laws that are universal – the power of storms and lightning. There’s lightning on Jupiter just as there is on Earth and it obeys the same laws of physics. Torrent might be from a long way away, but in every sense he is a brother to Skald and every sprite on Earth. The only difference is that on Torrent’s world (which for the record is Vega), the thunder-heights are commanded, not by Silver-fist, but by a different Lord. In thunder-sprite legends, these Lords were always journeying to other worlds to meet strange creatures and even visit their sleeping dragons, just like Hethra and Halla.
A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . FLIGHT
The reason witches and sprites originally formed working partnerships is one of those stories that’s so old nobody can get to the truth of it, although it seems every coven has its own legend explaining the origin of the witch/sprite union. One theme that remains common in every legend however, is the sprite’s love of flight. According to thunder-sprites, there’s nothing like the initial rush of streaking down from a thunderhead at supersonic speed, burning hotter than the sun’s surface, and then crashing into the earth below. It is the ultimate thrill ride. Sadly, for such action-loving creatures, if they strike a tree they’re committed to living in that tree until the day it dies (unless of course the bolt kills it), and that could be many, many years. Working with witches allows the sprite a chance to escape the confines of their tree and fly frequently, and gives a witch an invaluable ally and a magical tool in the form of a lightning-staff. Thankfully for sprites, the witches that come looking for them are at that pre-adolescent age where they feel ready for anything, and are only too happy to fly hard and fast. Some things never change . . .
Coloured Pencils – handy things to know . . .
All of my Wildwood art is drawn in colour pencil, and for those with an interest in this particular medium here’s an article about getting the best from your pencils.
First I gather the reference photos I’ll need, ones I’ve taken myself or sourced from elsewhere. Then I visualise how I’ll piece them together. I always use Daler Rowney pastel paper. It has a rough side and a smooth side and I always use smooth. Most of the time I’ll use Platinum: a neutral mid-grey shade. It might sound odd drawing on grey paper but I find that drawing with colour pencil on white paper spoils the effect, as the pigment leaves all the tiny dips and depressions in the paper uncovered and you end up with a kind of ‘white noise’ behind the image that breaks up its solidity. But that’s just me – a lot of CP artists like white paper.
Graphite can dirty the colours you lay on top, but to start with I sketch up my image with a 2B pencil, and this can take up to a day as I try out different compositions. Once I’m happy I have a choice – if the colour scheme I’m aiming for is dark then I can draw on top of the graphite (with care) but if it’s bright and breezy then first I’ll ‘dab’ off the graphite drawing with a pencil rubber so that it leaves the faintest of lines. I could of course draw faintly to start with, but that’d mean using a HB or 2H and that can leave ugly scratch marks on the paper. Sometimes I draw out my composition not in graphite but with a colour pencil, that way it’s guaranteed to be absorbed by the overlaying colours. The advantage of this is that there’s no risk of graphite smudging areas of delicate detail, such as a creamy complexion on a child’s face for instance. The down side of sketching with a colour pencil first is that they don’t like being rubbed out! You’re dealing with pigment that’s got oil or wax in, and the rubber can’t always get rid of the lines as it can with graphite – so be warned. If I draw in CP first then invariably I’ll use ‘nougat’ which is a nice subtle brown shade in the Polychromos range.
So now the under-drawing’s ready and the colour work can start. I draw a lot of human characters and they can be tricky, so I always start with the face which is the hardest part. If it goes bad then I scrap the picture and haven’t lost too much time. I use a range of colours, finding they all have their strengths and weaknesses . . .
Polychromos by Faber Castelle keep their point well and have good opacity, great for fine detail.
Prismacolor (American) mix and blend better than any other brand I’ve come across. They are softer, and so not as good for crisp fine detail. Not easy to source in the UK.
Derwent Drawing pencils come in a range of 24 earth/natural colours. They are great for nature studies and their cores are quite wide so good for laying down large areas of expressive colour.
Derwent Coloursoft have a wide core and are like Prismacolor in many ways, but I find them a little ‘chalky’ and so I only have a small range, although some of them I wouldn’t do without – cloud blue and brown-black spring to mind.
Lastly on the subject of pencils, don’t forget to include a good range of grey shades. I’ll often add a hint of grey to skin tones, sandwiched in between other pigments. Relying on colours alone can give an artificial ‘Disney’ look to a scene. So don’t forget the greys. I rely on my range of French Greys a lot.
Accessories: I have a small battery powered rubber that’s very handy if you’ve got to alter a small detail in a crucial place. It’s also great drawing tool in its own right, removing colour rather than laying it down.
Pencil extenders – better than throwing 30% of your pencils in the bin! Don’t know why more people don’t use them . . .
Scalpel – always use one for sharpening pencils and for scratching the finest lines in pigment to draw hair or spider silks etc.
Fixative: I use fix not to protect the drawing, but to get rid of wax-bloom. Once your drawing’s finished you might find it looking ‘dusty’ after a few days and wonder what’s going on. It’s wax-bloom. The oils in the pencils are now seeping to the surface. It’s easy to remove, you can either just fix it to seal it and restore the drawing, or wipe it gently with a soft tissue, and then either fix it or leave it – but the wax might come back. As I tend to work heavy there’s a lot of pigment on my drawings and the bloom can be a problem, so I let them ‘rest’ a few weeks then dust them down and spray them, but never spray too much at any one time as it’ll permanently discolour the drawing!
And lastly – tea, plenty of tea . . .