A little while ago, I illustrated a chapter title page for Jane Yolen’s verse novella Finding Baba Yaga, from Tor.com (art direction by Irene Gallo).
I had drawn chapter headers before — illustrations that ornamented and promised and hinted and summed up individual chapters. Along with endpapers, they were one of my earliest wishlist illustration jobs (largely because of Charles Vess’ work in that field — I’m particularly fond of his headers for The Faery Reel: Tales From the Twilight Realm and The Green Man: Tales From the Mythic Forest anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling).
Chapter header illustrations are, I think, a little like epigraphs in some regards (in Flyaway, I think of my little silhouettes as functioning a tiny bit that way).
An single, repeated chapter opener is a different proposition. In this case, I had a whole page to play with, rather than a narrow horizontal band, which meant I could at least fantasise about treading merrily into Kelmscott Press territory.
Here are the early thumbnail sketches (and a test cut-paper silhouette).
A single, repeated chapter opener is necessarily both more ornamental and less illustrative than either individual headers or incidental illustrations or a book cover. It is not the first feature that advertises a book. If it sums up the book, it can’t be too obvious about it. It’s not a cue for a pivot-point or a change; it doesn’t point to a particular moment or character. If the book has tonal and emotional variations, it must suit (or at least not detract from) them all. It’s more decorative and less action-filled, and one of its primary functions is to add to the overall impression of a book — what its through-line is, the fact that people thought it deserved ornamentation.
These are slightly more nebulous goals, but they aren’t by any means negligible. It’s like those almost subconscious cues of paper weight, or dignified margin widths, or font choices, that say this book mattered to people.
In the end, we chose D — a fairly simple design, but it suits the slim volume. A denser pattern might have weighed it down too much, although it would suit a heavier hardback. I could have introduced more movement into the hut, but then the trees are in motion and because this is a verse novella, the text contains quite a bit of forward motion, which balances this more ornamental composition — a full-page point of stillness before the search goes on. There’s that little tension, too, of the characters looking away from each other, and the forward-winding of the grass, and the hint of modernity in trousers + ponytail.
And here is the final version, printed in grey to push the chapter titles forward.
It was a fascinating project — not just the evergreen challenge of representing a book, but of working out what role this sort of illustration could play.
I’ve had the chance to do a few more since then, but not in this full-page format. It’s a mode I’m keen to revisit.
In the meantime, chicken-legged huts still make occasional appearances, like the little free library in the February calendar., and I very much recommend reading Finding Baba Yaga.