Once, not so long ago, a marvellous stag lived in the forest at the foot of our mountain, on the other side of the little bridge you must still cross when you leave our village…
My (very) short story “The Wonderful Stag, or The Courtship of Red Elsie” has just been published on Tor.com — with this gorgeous and luminous illustration by John Jude Palencar.
That lit crescent of its antlers! The strange wise oddity of its face! The texture of its fur! The ears!
A fun fact about this story is that it actually began as an illustration — one of the earliest of the ink-and-gold Inktober fairytale illustrations I did in 2019.
The story I imagined behind this illustration was a little different (although it survived as one of the narrator’s asides about possible origins). It was prompted by a @fairytaletext tweet “Before long, the suitor fell in love with a mischievous stag.”
I couldn’t shake the image of a stag running through the forest, hung with rings with which it had made off. When I sat down to write that, however, the consequences became rather deeper-reaching, and George-the-Wolf emerged to listen to the rumours, and Red Elsie flickered into being, and all the courtship arrangements of the isolated village…
We’re heading into family birthday season for everyone except me. It’s touch and go whether people get handmade cards (I like to keep them guessing), but this time I managed cards for both my mother and my (second) nephew.
Here is a column from my notebook, where I was working out what to do:
I loosely sketched the designs onto thin white photocopy paper, so I could use them as a guideline for the inks using a brush pen.
No calligraphic intent, just loopy handwriting, with some classic ornamental creatures.
And, of course, some hasty (imitation) gold leaf to brighten things up.
I posted, before, about a design I didn’t use for my contribution. I still like it very much, but it didn’t work for what I wanted to experiment with, which was stickers (I used StickerApp, because they print on the backing paper as well).
After cutting out the silhouette skull above, I redrew the concept with a brush pen, with a looser wreath of strawberries, and a coin in the eyesocket.
I coloured it digitally, for the sticker.
And on the back, in keeping with the theme, I put a tiny hint of a story — a little braiding of superstitions for going back to enchantment (and obliquely part of a true story).
A Spell for Returning
I knew the strawberries were enchanted, so I ate them.
I promise —
I threw the last coin into the stream between night and day.
Chain of Iron is out in stores! (These photos were taken in Where The Wild Things Are, because my copies are still somewhere in the international postal system and also it’s a great bookstore.) You can get Chain of Iron through all good & usual bookstores, and see all the illustrations in the Collector’s First Edition.
This edition has 10 silhouette portraits by me. It was a really lovely commission to do, and interesting — trying to work spears into circular compositions and distinguish flowers in silhouette and hint at bottles when working in cut paper… and that was just this image.
To begin with, I had a wish list from Cassandra with all the characters and a selection of moods and elements. I got out a stack of folded drawing paper (I cut A3 paper in half lengthwise then make it into little 4-page accordion-fold A5-sized booklets).
I began with some very preliminary sketches, sorting through some of the possibilities for combining a silhouette portrait and a frame. This stage is just me thinking through the pencil, watching what happens on the page, getting a feel for what is interesting and plausible.
At that point I was pretty sure of the rough dimensions of the frame, so I drew a template on the computer, printed it out, cut it out, and used it to trace little page outlines that I could use for my thumbnail sketches.
Here I was working through several different frame treatments for various characters — flowers growing from a central oval frame, from a rectangular outer frame, various patterns of growth, etc.
Once the appropriate style was decided, I enlarged the chosen thumbnail sketches and developed them into clean pencil drawings. I scanned those in for minor adjustments, and so I could send them for approval. Here they are all stacked on top of each other in Photoshop, before I flipped them for printing.
I printed each sketch larger than my original pencil drawing (I work small!). Then I printed them again because I forgot to flip them! Because I’m working on the back of the black paper, everything has to be reversed. Then I taped each printout to a sheet of 80gsm black paper. I have to be careful to make sure the tape doesn’t go over the area that will be cut! Especially here, where the image runs nearly to the edge of the paper.
As you can see here, the line is a tiny bit fuzzy because the copy paper diffuses the pressure of my pencil. Also I’ve used the graphite paper before, and the white has worn off in some places. All to the good! Everything gets refined further as I cut.
Then I work around each image, section by section, until it’s all cut out, and then I lift the excess paper away (carefully cutting little threads and sections I missed).
Here is the back and front of an image before I cut it out. (I actually cut this design twice — there were some composition issues that only really showed up once it was actually in silhouette, in spite of all the pencils and emails and tracing — possibly I could have corrected it in Photoshop but it was in fact easier this way, and good to have another go at some of the more complicated sections of e.g. necklace chains.)
They are quite fragile once freed from the backing! I put them in plastic letter sleeves for scanning. Then I clean up minor corrections and run it through a vector program — this preserves almost all of the little wobbles and angles and personality of the hand-cut line, but it gives a really strong, clear, neatly resizeable silhouette that the publisher can wrangle into position.
Most of the individual silhouettes were separate from their frame, for this ghostly one we reversed the centre, to give a ghostly/negative effect (and funnily enough, keeping the centre of the flame solid seemed to effectively change a regular silhouette candle into a silhouette of a black candle).
You might have noticed something missing! That’s because I hand-lettered the names. I printed the pencilled names all out on one piece of paper, put that on a lightbox with clean paper of the top, and lettered it with a dip pen and ink (Hunt Crowquill 102 nib and Winsor & Newton black ink).
I usually have to do some names several times, to get them to work the way I want.
Then I scanned those in too and cleaned them up, and sent all the art off to the art director (the excellent Nicholas Sciacca).
I really enjoyed this project. It was an intensive process, because the paper cutting is fairly physically wearing. But there were so many beautiful and intriguing images to play with, and technical challenges and new approaches — how to put a spear into an oval frame? How to convey fictional personalities through only head-and-shoulders silhouettes? — so it was both pleasing for the sake of this project and as part of being an illustrator trying variations and solving puzzles.
(The originals for these have been claimed by the appropriate people, but there might still be a few City of Bones and Clockwork Angel drawings available at Book Moon Books in Massachusetts.)
Also, if you’re into supporting artists and art and posts about it: Supporters on Patreon got some sneak-peeks of this and other projects (and process posts) — I’m at www.patreon.com/tanaudel, with levels of support starting from US$1/month. Or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and when cutting out this many silhouettes, I get through quite a bit of coffee).
This is the 21st-birthday card I made for my oldest nephew (and godson), who is… somehow 21, and delightful, and very very tall.
I always have a crisis about presentation for these little silhouettes: are they part of the card or a separate gift? do I glue them down, or attach them loosely to the card, or…
Lately I’ve taken to doing the following:
Cut a separate piece of heavy paper down to be smaller than the folded card but (barely) larger than the art.
Put the art onto the paper but do not attach it.
Put the art and backing paper into a cellophane art bag.
Tape the bag tightly back, trapping the art against its backing paper.
Use two strips of double-sided tape to attach that little parcel to the folded card.
This sort-of frames the picture, while protecting it, and also leaving it unglued, in case someone wants to mount it properly on a backing (or frame it, or put it in a folder, etc).
There are probably simpler ways to do this.
Below is a work-in-progress shot. I sketched the dragon directly onto the back of the paper, and refined it as I cut it out. I did check the keys spelled out his name correctly by holding it up to a mirror first, though!
Utz Books have just announced their translations of Frances Hardinge’s wonderful A Skinful of Shadows (here’s an English link, too, although with the original and wonderful cover art: A Skinful of Shadows)! But for this translation, the art is by me, with cover design by Dor Cohen Studio.
It’s a cut-paper design, to match my previous covers for The Lie Tree and Cuckoo Song — and I will put up a process post soon.
Cassandra Clare’s latest Shadowhunters novel Chain of Iron comes out very soon. The cover art is by Cliff Nielsen, but I had the enormous fun of cutting out 10 silhouette character portraits, to be printed in the first edition.
They will be printed in black on white, but for one online event they are also being printed on these rather resplendent dust jackets!
I will post more process pictures in due course, but here are a few to begin with!
A new bindup of Holly Black’s magical con-artist trilogy The Curse Workers is coming out in November — and I designed a new silhouette chapter header for each book. It’s available to pre-order now.
They are great books, gritty and with a cynical enchantment. Much as I love Holly Black’s Elfhame and fae enchantments, I’m always so surprised and drawn in by the patina of her (almost) real-world settings — it adds such a salt-and-acid note to the sweetness (however decadent and cruel) of the more fantastic settings. And The Curse Workers is all that side of the story. It’s also a story of embedded rather than discovered magic, where it’s a (disreputable) part of the structure of technology and fashion, politics and society and organised crime.