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The collage illustrations of Dave McKean

August 12th, 2010 by karenmartin

Last week I began to draft a post about digital artist Dave McKean’s illustrations. I was planning to return to the half-written post when I got an email from Giles saying did I know that Dave McKean illustrated a piece of writing for COIL (the Journal of the Moving Image which Giles founded and edited) in the late 1990’s? Well, no, I didn’t. But now I do, this makes a perfect focus for writing about his work. All images below are from The Entrapment from COIL 7 | 1998. Thanks for the tip Giles!

Since 1994 Dave McKean’s been producing extensively layered images using computers and digital manipulation. In his collaborations with writers, illustrations and text appear to be intertwined so that the paper becomes part of the content and I was interested to find out how he achieves this effect.  In an interview on Apple’s website he describes how his approach has changed with the increasing sophistication of digital technologies.

“The major things that have changed … are the tools and materials I’ve been able to use. When I started on ‘The Sandman,’ I was aiming toward a translucent collage, a layered look, an insubstantial feeling where you’ve just got an atmosphere. I tried to do that with things like double exposures and different printing techniques. To a degree, this approach is always pretty limited by the fact that the illustration has to be a physical object and, if I have to photograph it, limited by gravity.”


The illustrations for COIL were made in 1998 (COIL 7) for a supposedly ‘anonymous’ piece actually written by legendary indie producer Keith Griffiths (of Koninck fame) about a film he produced by Iain Sinclair & Chris Petit called the Falconer – itself about another ‘legendary’ 60s filmmaker called Peter Whitehead. Its a many-layered piece about becoming trapped in the layers of legend and hype spun around Whitehead and the narrator’s (“Darke”) attempt to unravel the story. Darke is a thinly veiled characterisation of the Falconer’s script writer (and 90s film critic) Chris Darke. The techniques of double exposure and layering that Dave McKean mentions in the interview with Apple are clearly visible in the collages of text and images he produced for this.

The process of creating these illustration begins with “endless drawings.” Out of these, one is chosen and painted onto a backboard of colour photographs and paper collages, a basic canvas already with a life to it, containing interesting textures, colours and shapes. Illustration comes next where McKean paints the characters onto the canvas. From here, the process moves onto the computer. “Sometimes I finish it [the painting] quite well and sometimes I leave it open and rough, scan it and make sense of it in the computer. The compositing is the fun bit, really, and dragging all these elements together all happens very quickly.” As McKean writes, it’s an explorative way of working, “I like the fact that I don’t really know what I’m aiming toward completely. I have an idea, but it’s also the shapes shifted and composited in the computer that allow me to find a nice blend.”


In fact, it seems that his process and approach has remained surprisingly constant as tools and materials have evolved. In this article, he suggests this goes back to his college days at Berkshire College of Art and Design, “Before drawing anything we had to have a clear idea of what we were trying to achieve. So to this day, I still write personal briefs for myself. I still need to be clear in my own mind what I’m doing.”

For me, what is so inspiring about this description of the process is that having a clear plan from the outset in no way constrains the experimental, organic nature of the final illustrations. As he writes, “Techniques may change and go in and out of fashion, but ideas are always worth exploring and re-interpreting.” I wonder if we could get him to design an eBook…

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  • […] the length and flow of the text writers are shaping books as much as any designer. For example, these images by Dave McKean would probably look quite different with more or less text on the page. It’s […]

  • This is fascinatling stuff. I like the way that having had a clear idea at the outset he described seeing where it will go. So the orginal idea gets dessolved or transformed by the process. His sensitivity to this is what makes the images so brilliant. I discovered Dave McKeen though his children’s book collboration with Neil Gainman in Lisbon in Portugese when I was trying to lean Portugese. ‘The Wolves in the Wall’ and ‘The day I sold my father for a Goldfish’ . Fantastic. Must get a copy of coil 7