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Storytelling: Painting the tales


Katherine Soutar has provided the cover illustrations for the vast majority of books in The History Press’ popular Folk Tales collection since the series began in 2009. In this exclusive article for National Storytelling Week, Katherine discusses how she finds inspiration for each new design and how creating her fascinating artwork is very much a family affair.

When asked to write about illustrating I always tend to dither a little, it is far easier for me to talk and point to pictures than put it into writing.

It always starts with the text, the entire text. The Folk Tales series is unusual in that I am usually given a completely free hand when it comes to decisions about choice of story and theme for the cover work. It's a wonderful freedom and a terrifying prospect at the same time. To explain a little, an illustrator usually receives a brief which will contain quite specific instructions as to what is expected of them...I just get an email in my inbox with the text attached and a deadline.

So with the choice of an entire book full of tales in front of me I sometimes feel like a child in an old-fashioned sweet shop, so very many colourful and tasty options. I start by reading and re-reading, trying to get a sense of the feel and texture of the book, this series is written by many different authors, who all have their own voices and their own approach to stories.

It will take me a day or two and a certain amount of wandering back and forth amongst the chapters and paragraphs to make the notes that take me on to the next stage. I will note page numbers, scribble down quotes and place names. At the end of this process I will have a list of page numbers and notes about the stories I think will work best.

Next thing is research. Now if I could take off with my camera and photograph every location I'm interested in it would be brilliant, but time pressures mean I often do most of my research on the net. I will trawl for locations mentioned, for background to stories that have an historical element and for source photographs for particular landscapes and objects in all the stories I'm interested in, this is especially important if the cover idea includes elements that need to have visual accuracy in relation to the story, the birlinn (traditional boat) on the cover of the Western Isles for instance.

For the people who feature I like to use real life models if at all possible and my family tend to be the (mostly) willing subjects for many of the human characters in the work. My husband Bill has stood in for a Dublin werepig and a Wexford saint amongst others; my son Tam has appeared as Tam Lin in Northumberland and the smarter younger brother and hare charmer in the Scottish Borders; I even roped my lovely niece, Mary, in to model for Rashiecoats and her fairy godmother. She graces the cover of the Dumfries and Galloway book.

I have been known to base a few characters on myself too, see if you can find them.

I usually find I have several ideas about the cover vying for my attention like bouncy puppies and there is a period of squinty eyed head scratching while I try to figure out a way to put every shiny brown eyed one of them into one picture...

Sometimes this can work, but more often I find that after spending several days trying to shoehorn themes together without success I have to admit that one strong central image is what is called for. It is also important to bear in mind that the image when printed on the cover itself will be pretty small so needs to be relatively easy for the eye to travel around.

There have been a few occasions that, on my first read through of a text, something will jump out at me immediately and with such force that I know it will be the cover even though I have yet to read the rest and I have not even started to make notes. Ceredigion was one of these, as were Armagh, Fife and Galway.

Of course that is part of the magic of storytelling, whether spoken or written it can sometimes conjure an image so strong, so complete in my mind that I can't wait to commit it to paper, even though making it work and look the way it did in my head can be a long and frustrating process on occasion. My most recent experience of this being the cover for Derry Folk Tales, which went through several incarnations before what came from my hand pleased me as much as what floated about in my head.

I am a pretty old-fashioned illustrator and all of my work is done on watercolour paper with pencils, watercolours and inks. Sometimes I may do a little post-scanning enhancement in Photoshop but what you see on the cover is pretty much exactly what I have committed to paper at my little desk under the window.

People often ask me, ‘which folk tales have stayed with you? Do you have favourites?’

This is such a difficult question as there are so many. I found myself crying reading the one I used as the cover for the Cumbria book by Taffy Thomas, and cried again when I heard him tell it live at my exhibition in Scotland the following year. The Kilkenny book contains an unusual variation on the werewolf story that I found fascinating. Northumberland’s cover features my son Tam as Tam Lin and I have a real affection for both the cover and the ballad. South Yorkshire’s cover features an emotional and visceral tale of a battle between man and beast that leaves you with a breathless respect for them both. The Sutton Hoo helmet which features on the cover of Suffolk is something I return to gaze at often at the British Museum. I could go on...

I became so attached to the cover of Galway Bay I wouldn't even sell it to the author; it hangs at the top of my stairs where I pass it numerous times daily (sorry, Rab).

I would have to say that every story, every book leaves me with something that enriches me and feeds into what I do next. One thing that I am also incredibly grateful for is the chance to work with so many unique voices; so many tales told with an understanding of their legacy and local value combined with the flair of an exponent of the oral tradition that makes this series so special.

I think it may have been Quentin Blake who said that you should tell people just enough on a book cover to make them want to look inside – I hope I do that. I also hope that people will see something new every time they look again at one of my pieces and that they are open for the creation of people’s own stories if they don’t know the one concerned. It has been interesting listening to people comment on the work at my exhibitions recently and how often they see things that even I didn’t know were there. I love that element of discovery and it makes me very happy to be part of an ongoing tradition of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our shared experience and the world we inhabit.

There are still a few titles left in the Folk Tales series and I am also now working on The History Press’ Ghost Tales series too. I also now have a waiting list for privately commissioned work, which is a new thing for me! This past year I have also had four exhibitions of the Folk Tales cover work, entitled Painting the Tales which have included storytelling and musical performances as well as a talk on my process of working and my inspirations. This has been such an enjoyable experience and some have also involved delivering art workshops based on stories. I am so pleased to have the chance to work with people, helping them find ways to express stories visually. It feels like a wonderful way to share my passion for storytelling and art and the ways they can both enrich each other and our life and culture.

By Katherine Soutar

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