Sunday, March 10, 2013

Artist of the Month; Arthur Rackham


Arthur Rackham was one of the great Victorian children's book illustrators. He began his career as a journalist and had no artistic education as far as I know. His images are often dark and full of twisted organic forms and there is often an originality at work that has been copied a great many times since, and by a great many commercial artists. I came to know of Rackham's work when I chanced across some of his images and noticed how much they resembled the art of Rodney Matthews except in that I found Rackham's images were much better than Matthews. Unfortunately, perhaps because of post-Victorian prejudice, Rackham's work doesn't get the credit I believe it deserves, not even by those who copy it.

There is real mystery for me in Rackham's work, because I can't figure out how he did them. When I look at Matthews work, I can see how they were done, using an airbrush to paint the back grounds with strong pigment inks, like Magic Color, and then hand painting the foregrounds with inks and guache. With Rackham however, working in an age before fast drying acrylic inks, the only options I can think of would have been water colours and guache. The ink line drawings were probably done with a quill tipped pen but its any one's guess what kind of ink they had in those days. In Britain you can get several types of really old inks, my favourite being quink which dries nice and matt, but has a kind of metallic purple tint/rainbow effect (and it is bleach-soluble, turning brown/yellow).


Its not easy figure out how Rackham did his backgrounds. Common sense dictates he used washes on water-stretched paper, but the subtleties on display are impressively obtuse and defy easy deduction (for an example of what I mean, consider the moon in the first image and the transition between its pale disk and the gradient blues of the sky behind it). I think he sketched out his image in pencil first, then wet the paper, stretched it and painted the background with several faint washes. I've tried this many times and I've found it very difficult to retain the pencil sketch. Too many washes will also destroy most papers. It takes real skill to get it right. You stretch the paper using gum arabic strips and these can also come loose if they are subjected to too many washes.

Once the paper has dried out, and you've got the background wash done, you can start ink line drawing and painting the foreground, but you have to take care not to saturate the paper because it will have been weakened by the wash. Rackham was obviously a skilled artist however, and he spent most of his adult life working wth the same media. Some of his pictures show where colours have bled into the paper creating a tell-tale feathery effect. I could be wrong however, as I've never seen any one take the time to analyse Rackham's work, nor any WIP images. It is also possible that the backgrounds, and even all the line art, were printed using lithography or aquatint etching.


Cyan said...

As a non-illustrator, I love when you write about illustration techniques. Arthur Rackham has always been a favorite of mine, because I like the way his drawings make me feel. They have a certain organic ambiance that speaks to me. I've never, however, taken the time to analyze how they might have been created. Your posts always add an extra dimension and allow me to look at the images in a different way.

moif said...

Well I ordered the book (as you saw on FB) and it looks like it may answer a few of my questions. I'll write a blog post about it at some point.

I've been doing a lot of thinking recently. My life is undergoing quite a few changes at the moment, some good, some bad and some that defy easy description. We're moving to a new house soon, outside of the city (at last) and since Oleg is gone, I'm at something of a threshold and not sure where my interests will take me now.

I'd very much like to get back to spending most of my time doing illustration, rather than role playing games and wargaming. Without Oleg, and all our in-jokes and shared interests, the games which have held my attention for the last decade have lost a lot of their appeal.