Illustration by Owen Freeman for ‘Bonfire’ by David Long from Granta 118: Exit Strategies.
Owen Freeman’s illustrations have appeared in several recent editions of Granta, notably alongside our publication of Robert Bolaño’s stories (Sex, Aliens and Horror) as well as his collaboration on the HTML5 animation of Bolaño’s story from that issue, ‘The Colonel’s Son’: nothingbutamovie.com. Freeman spoke to Granta assistant designer Daniela Silva about his creative process and imagining horror.
DS: Your style – its controlled use of colour, the shifting perspectives – seems suited to comic books and animation. What has been your relationship with these forms?
OF: Both comics and animation played big roles in my love affair with illustration before I really even knew what illustration was. I became particularly omnivorous about comics, starting with the first X-Men issue I saw in elementary school. They were what first influenced me to start drawing for the sheer hope of making more of the artwork I loved.
How was working on a movie or animation different from working on a still illustration?
Working on the animation was an interesting change since each illustration/shot needed to be created using multiple freestanding layers of artwork that could stay flexible, as opposed to still illustrations where the composition edges are firm very early in the process.
When I first saw your work, I was struck by the subtle way you illustrate dark moments. When you’re working do you think about the way your illustrations might be perceived?
On most narrative assignments I feel like I’m perceiving the moments of the scenes I’m illustrating as I’m working through them, so (fortunately or not) the perceptions people may have usually don’t factor in for me until the very end of the process or until after it’s out in the world — and even then, the reactions can be hard to trace.
Your work often focuses on mysteries and murders, delighting in a macabre aesthetic. Was there a point in time when you began focusing on these themes or have they always held a fascination for you?
If I go back through my work over the years, there does seem to be a consistent melancholy and macabre theme, but what might come across as a fascination with horror and murder is probably my interest in the mood and mystery I’ve found really satisfying in animation and cinema. It’s always been more about the ‘dark, stormy night’ than about the culprit, for me.
What’s been the best and worst reaction you’ve had to your work?
Going back to what I mentioned earlier, I think outside of friends and art directors, I’m not privy to much of the reactions my work might elicit. That being said, one of best reactions happened when I was sketching at the British Museum. I was partway through a drawing of a statue, and a young Spanish girl ran to get her family to bring them back for a photo with her mother and me and the drawing. The worst was probably being asked by an art school instructor if he could show my work as an example of exactly what not to do for the assignment.
Could you give an overview of how you approach each new piece of work?
I try to approach each new piece of work with as much non-visual information as possible, which usually includes reading the article or fiction piece or research on the subject if the aforementioned are not available. During this time, I will do as much quick idea sketching as time allows. Once I feel I’ve connected all the roughly drawn ideas to as much of the text as possible, I will start researching additional visual information on the subject, either online or in books. From there, I choose the ideas that hold the most water, which I work up into tighter, more fully realized sketches that are turned into the art director for review. Once a sketch has been approved, I draw and paint full size artwork on paper with ink and washes, and then scan and digitally colour it for the finished illustration.
You’ve illustrated all the recent Roberto Bolaño stories that have appeared in Granta. After having worked on ‘Redhead’ (Sex), ‘Beach’ (Aliens) and ‘The Colonel’s Son’ (Horror), do you have any insight into his style and his writing? What are the particular challenges — and pleasures — of illustrating Bolaño?
The first piece I did for ‘Redhead’ in the Sex issue was right on the heels of reading a lot of William Burroughs for another assignment, so stylistically I was probably coming back from an odd place when I read it. What I enjoyed about that piece, and have enjoyed about Bolaño’s style since, is how he uses shorthand sequencing of detail mixed with open spaces and shifts in time, all the while carrying and maintaining the tone of the story. This style can sometimes be challenging; I recall reading the ‘Beach’ piece and feeling almost entirely adrift in a fascinating narrative, but with only pinholes of visual detail to guide me.
In our increasingly visual word, images and image-makers are becoming more and more important. But there’s also some resistance to the dominance of images – there’s an idea that great literature should stand on its own. What’s your take on this debate?
My feeling is that literature and imagery have always, and really will always be, different animals. In situations like comics or animation, I understand that the imagery can overwhelm the text, but in the printed realm, I am of the Robert Fawcett school of thought that as illustrators, our first and last service is to bring the readers’ eyes to the author’s work. ‘Our job is to arrest the page flipper and start him reading. The minute he starts reading the first paragraph, our job is done.’ (Quote by Robert Fawcett in The Illustrator’s Illustrator, David Apatoff 2010.)