Tag Archives: Steve Hutton

Less Says More

 

This is one of those images that came out totally different to my original idea, which was to draw a non-commercial, scary picture just for the hell of it featuring a cute fairy trapped in a spider’s web and about to be eaten: sometimes I’m just ‘bad’. But you might be wondering what changed; after all it’s a picture of a cute fairy trapped in a spider’s web and about to be eaten, is it not? Well, strictly speaking, no it isn’t. The original image I had in mind was of a child-fairy screeching in terror as the huge and very hairy spider plunges it fangs into her helpless little body (I never said I was a nice guy) but although that would have made a satisfying shock-joke image it would have lacked drama: the fairy gets eaten – end of story. Being someone who loves to draw and write too, it seemed a shame not to draw a picture with a narrative rather than a foregone conclusion, and so the image changed. . . I made the fairy older, to give her more of a fighting chance, and rather than draw the spider already tucking in, I pushed it further into the background, and then to add more impact and suspense I veiled it in a sheet of web, leaving just a pair of probing legs to tantalize (and perhaps revolt) the viewer. Lastly I offered my fairy a slim chance of survival in the shape of her fallen wand illuminated by a shaft of light, and combined with the title ‘Katrina’s Wand’, the question is will she or won’t she reach it in time? I leave that to you, but for fairy fans out there who see Katrina flitting away to fight another day, remember that spiders need to eat too. . . perhaps I ought to draw the reverse picture; of mum spider sobbing in her kitchen surrounded by starving spiderlings. Those blasted fairies!

Destroying Angel

destroying-angel

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 . . .

The story of a drawing

independence

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!

Night & Day

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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. . .

Pencils

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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 . . .

A Rare Bloom

Flora 150

One of my personal favourite characters from The Dark Raven Chronicles doesn’t take centre stage often and is easily regarded as a support character, although if she were to vanish, then places like Wildwood-coven would dry up and die. Her skills are crucial to Wildwood’s survival and it’s no exaggeration to describe her feats of magic as miraculous, and perhaps even holy.
She cannot make herself invisible, topple mountains, or shoot bolts of lightning from her fingertips, but The Illuminata nevertheless regard her brand of magic as deeply subversive, and toxic to their own agenda. Her powers are so profound, yet so fundamental to everyday life, that she is easily overlooked, but for me, Flora embodies the highest values of witchcraft. What good are lightning-bolts and superpowers if at the end of the day you have nothing to eat? Through the grace of the twins, Hethra and Halla, Flora can summon crops in any soil and any season, and turn barren earth into a productive garden in moments. For an organisation like The Illuminata, that control populations and nations through poverty, this is truly a terrifying prospect. Who would toil in the mills and mines to stave off starvation if they could emulate Flora’s miracle? Nobody. The foundations of Victoria’s Empire would sink into the sand, the pyramid of power would be inverted and the masses set free. All of this a witch like Flora could achieve if her magical skills were shared and spread.
For me, she is a hero of dignity and modesty, neither of which were accidental. Too often, heroes in popular film and fiction win through strength and force, and all too often female heroes have to become like men to achieve their victories. Kolfinnia and Flora take up arms to defend their world, but reluctantly and with consequences, and along the way they may have to take lives. Neither is it accidental that Flora is maimed – who can fail to spot her eye-patch – as when I crafted the character I knew she would be perhaps the most gentle yet most profound of Wildwood’s witches, and because cosmic laws are cruel and ironic, I imagined that she would have faced the greatest violence in her short life, because evil always seeks to undermine the greatest goodness. Flora was half-blinded as a girl, as punishment for being born to a witch. Her mother, Roslind, was taken for correctional-blessing, a civilized way to describe interrogation and capital punishment in The Illuminata’s world. And so Flora’s scars are found both inwardly and outwardly, affecting both flesh and spirit, yet her greatest triumph is to cling to her dignity and humanity despite all that’s been taken from her. As the story unfold, Flora’s skills prove the lifeblood of her coven, and later, when adapting magic to devise new ways of fighting The Illuminata, Flora’s talents veer from growing crops to growing thunder and lightning . . . although it would spoil the surprise if I were to explain how. She might not be a Lycra-clad, kung-fu babe with an attitude (thank Oak!) but Flora packs a punch that can topple empires, and best of all she’s modest about her powers and gentle with it – the rarest of blooms.

Back Doors

Destroying Angel artwork

When I wrote Raven’s Wand, it was simply titled as such. There was no ‘Book I of . . .’ because there wasn’t a book II, let alone a series, but something wonderful happened as I typed chapter after chapter – I found myself getting excited about creativity again for the first time in many years. When I reached the last page I could have typed ‘The End’, but I knew it wasn’t the end. I just wanted to keep writing, and so I teased out the most logical story threads from Raven’s Wand and began weaving them again. The result was Flowers of Fate, and at last I was justified in adding ‘Book II of The Dark Raven Chronicles’. It might come as no surprise that I didn’t stop there . . . by the end of Flowers’ I still wanted to keep writing (lucky readers that you are!) and hence Lion of Evermore was born, and the story arc concluded. The three books grew organically, as a result of my continued desire to build the story rather than being plotted as a trilogy from the outset. Lion of Evermore concludes with the words ‘The End’. But it’s not.

If you like something, why stop? Book IV began to unfold, and this time I knew I couldn’t restart my original characters on a new journey, it just didn’t feel right. They’d told their story. What I needed was a new cast of characters, but from the same stage – witches from Wildwood-coven that we hadn’t met before. The trouble was who would they be and how would I introduce them, after all, how is it they weren’t mentioned before in all the action? The first solution was to find a ‘back door’ in the original book, and I’d had one particular back door in mind from the start. Without spoiling the plot, let me elaborate . . . Wildwood-coven faces attack, and its host of witches flee in a small flotilla comprising three boats. The idea was to rendezvous at a determined point and rally survivors. When it came to making this real in the story, I felt that having all three boats reach their destination safely was too snug and lessened the sense of threat. My solution was to ‘lose’ one of the boats. Two boats reach the rendezvous, while the third boat goes missing, along with her crew. It adds to the drama and sounds more convincing, and even mysterious. I could then get on with writing the rest of Raven’s Wand, but unexpectedly I found this missing boat cropping up in my mind like a stone in my shoe. I kept asking myself, ‘where’s it gone, and what’s happened to her crew, and who were they in relation to Kolfinnia – were they friends, peers, mentors, or rivals even?’ This unanswered question became my back door, and when book IV came along I knew it was time to answer it.

Book IV is entitled ‘Kolfinnia’s Coven’, and it forms a collection of short stories about Kolfinnia as a girl, growing up at Wildwood. It enabled me to greatly expand upon the witches’ world, and their beliefs, traditions, folklore and religion. I had great fun crafting creation myths as well as real life anecdotes from Kolfinnia’s early years, and I was also able to resolve the second problem – how to integrate a new cast of characters, with the original ones from Raven’s Wand. As Kolfinnia’s Coven effectively forms a prequel as well as a collection of tales, I was able to go back and introduce my new players, showing them growing up alongside Kolfinnia, and how they relate to her.

So, meet Freya Albright, as she appears in my illustration. She’s the captain of our missing boat, named ‘Speedwell’, and by the end of Kolfinnia’s Coven, we know her, and some of her crew, very well. Well enough in fact to see her take the helm as the new hero of the Dark Raven Chronicles, and at last we’ll find out what’s become of her and her crew of nine other witches. The result is book V and a different kind of tale to Kolfinnia’s. The focus remains on Freya and her crew throughout, and novels aren’t afraid to end on a cliffhanger. The tone is darker, and I’ve crafted new villains and threats, to break new ground and offer the reader a whole other side to the world of Wildwood. Entitled, ‘The Journey of Albright’s Boat’, Freya’s series begins with ‘Destroying Angel’ and introduces the most disturbing and shocking enemies witchcraft has yet seen, it begins to unfold a cosmology of creatures and demigods that show how magic extends not just beyond a coven or a country, but across the stars and planes of reality, life and death. But there’s still plenty of room for the intimate human dramas, and the warmth that binds a coven (or crew) together through thick and thin. All of this I owe to that back door, inserted casually into Raven’s Wand all those years ago. I never knew then what was waiting behind it, and certainly I never expected to find Freya’s story so intense, humourous, terrifying, and so far-reaching.
I’ll end this blog with the rather electrifying fact that The Dark Raven Chronicles are littered with back doors. Some of them are there on purpose, while others are hidden even from me, but I’ll root them out, and if I find something worth writing on the other side, I’ll take you along for the journey. I promise, this is only the beginning . . .

A Story Within a Story

The Fairy's Tale

This illustration is entitled ‘A Fairy’s Tale’. In it, master-storyteller Chikabok entrances a gathering of woodland folk with a vivid tale. The gathering comprises a fantastical array of creatures, including keddy-potts, drummon-toadies, snap-dragons, slug-fairies, baby mountains and potato men, as well as Chikabok himself, who is clearly a magpie-fairy. Confused? You need not be . . .
Within The Dark Raven Chronicles, witches have their own customs and of course their own traditional tales. We might grow up knowing certain popular nursery rhymes, and it’s the same with children growing up in covens. All of the amazing creatures I’ve just described are familiar enough to young witches. I’ve always loved the idea of a story within a story, yet I never found the right place for it in Raven’s Wand. Instead, we’re afforded just hints and glimpses of the rich world that lies behind a coven like Wildwood. I wanted to include these traditional witches’ stories, but the pacing of the novel never really allowed it. Richard Adam’s included two or three of the rabbits’ folktales in Watership Down. (I’ve written a full blog on this, one of my favourite books, here on this website, entitled ‘Black Rabbits and Terrible Generals’). What I will say again, is how effective these small inclusions are at expanding any fictional world. It’s like peeping at the cogs that drive the hands on the clock.

For those who’ve read Raven’s Wand, or are reading it, keep an eye out for the following; Wildwood’s chief witch Valonia, on rare occasions calls her bright young student Kolfinnia, ‘Little Wolf Mother’. This isn’t just a throwaway remark. There’s a whole story behind it entitled ‘Wolves in the Stars’, which tells how in the distant past, a cosmic monster tried to devour the Earth, and was stopped by one particularly brave witch named Luna, and a vast pack of wolves led by wolf-mother Fen. It’s a real story, in the sense that it exists complete and ready to read, and it directly integrates with everything about The Dark Raven Chronicles, and explains why Kolfinnia earned the nickname Little Wolf Mother. Interesting, isn’t it?
There is another, perhaps even more potent example of a hidden story with Raven’s Wand. I think it crops up just twice, and always in a sombre context, but look carefully and you’ll hear Skald, Valonia’s thunder-sprite quote the phrase, ‘If need of witches be so great’. He’s not being melodramatic – he’s quoting a pact made by his own Lord long ago, and which directly relates to his partnership with Valonia. ‘If need of witches be so great’. What does it really mean? Again, the story to explain this vague but ultimately critical pact, entitled ‘A Witch’s Best Friend’, exists and is ready to read, and in doing so we also learn something very special about Skald.
I hope that eventually all of these short stories will become available, but like fractals, the deeper we look the more detail we see, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a story within a story within a story . . .

Soul sign

Sunday soul II

Fairies don’t see the world as we do, at least not those fairies that dwell in The Dark Raven Chronicles. When frost-fairy Neet, meets witch Sunday Flowers for the first time, he’s entranced by her soul sign. This mystical representation of the soul takes the form of a tree, and floats above the crown of the head. Some of the branches might be bare, while others are in bud, or laden with fruit or flowers, and these branches might sit right beside others that are twisted and diseased. The branches represent all that’s good and bad about a person. Neet can see this, but Sunday, for all her skills as a witch, can’t.

Neet’s seen many soul-signs down the years, and although he understands little of the symbolism he instantly recognises that Sunday’s soul is unique – terrifyingly so. All other trees he’s seen are complete, yet Sunday’s tree has been cut clean through the trunk. Somehow she has defied the first and oldest universal law – she has died, and returned to life.

Flowers of Fate is the second novel in The Dark Raven Chronicles, and aside from being what I hope is an exciting story, it explores deep issues such as freewill versus fate, atonement and self-sacrifice. I look forward to sharing Flowers of Fate with readers later this year.

Dark Raven

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The most intriguing character of all the Wildwood novels never speaks and isn’t really alive, at least not in the way we’d understand, yet it’s always there in the background, guiding our way like a compass needle. We might even come to take it for granted in the same way we seldom question the ground beneath our feet, but that’s only proof of its reliability.
During the trilogy of books the spotlight shifts from character to character. Kolfinnia might take centre stage in book 1, but then the focus moves onto other characters (can’t say without giving the plot away!) and back to the familiar faces we began with. If asked, I’d struggle to name one character that’s a key player in all three books other than this mysterious and often mute ‘compass needle’. I speak of course of Valonia’s wand – hrafn-dimmu, or Dark Raven if you prefer its English name. The wand is passed from keeper to keeper through the books like a baton and you can be sure that wherever it is the action’s not far behind. Dark Raven is a constant, much like its flesh and blood counterparts.

Raven’s have featured in folklore and mythology for as long as people have walked the Earth. We’re fascinated by their keen intelligence, and often resent it. We heap macabre reputations upon them for their love of carrion, forgetting who it was that littered the battlefields with bodies in the first place. Their indigo-black plumage reminds us of the dark, and how we still fear it. But Valonia’s wand isn’t named for any of these qualities. My lasting memory of ravens – real ravens that is – if of their always being there. Just like Valonia’s wand, they’re a constant.
Hiking through the Arctic you begin to feel like the last person on Earth. You begin to wonder at the sheer brutality of the landscape, and how could anything scrape a living here. And then you hear a raven’s call ring out. You look up and see not one but two, gliding and tumbling without a care, as if this desolation was Eden itself, and suddenly there’s another heartbeat in this rocky nothingness and you smile to yourself, knowing that you’re not alone. Raven’s pair for life and live many years. Their acrobatics and vocal range are incredible. Stay put long enough and they’ll come to investigate, and you know you’re being scanned with eyes that are almost unearthly. Call out to them as their soar overhead, and if you’re lucky they’ll reply with a sound not unlike a tuneful ‘gulp’, and a dip of their wings.
But I’m under no romantic delusions.
Years ago I saw a raven carry off a black-back gull’s chick with the parent in hot pursuit. Life is harsh. You might be snatched from the nest and devoured at just a day old. It’s tempting to see animals as symbols of wisdom, indeed many people who accept that they have a spirit guide name the raven as their protector. The same goes for wolves, bears and eagles (I’ve yet to meet someone who’s spirit guide is a rabbit or a goldfish). I also know that if I died in those frozen wastes, those ravens would be on my carcass in a shot, probably bickering over who gets the tastiest eyeball. It’s that honesty that I admire. Nature is often hard but it’s always honest. Unlike people, you always know where you stand with animals, and when it came to picking a name for Valonia’s wand I had this honesty and reliability in mind.
Ravens I salute you! And if I keel over in those barren wastes one day and go to that great tent in the sky, I can’t think of a better use for my bedraggled body than to raise the next generation of dark ravens.