As guest editor I can freely say, one of the many delights of this blog is Brenton’s brilliance in finding and selecting examples of book covers of works under discussion, post after post. But today we have the exceptional delight of reading the inside story of how a contemporary artist and designer, Emily Austin, went to work and became the maker of the cover of The Inklings & King Arthur. However discerning your enjoyment of it is already, I warrant it will be deepened and increased, as mine was, by reading this.
David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor
I had about 36 hours to come up with a cover proposal for The Inklings and King Arthur.
When I found out about the contest (via editor Sørina Higgin’s posts on Twitter), my husband Ryan and I were away from our Indiana home, en route to watch the total solar eclipse in Kentucky. At this point, the contest deadline was two days away, and I wondered whether I’d have time to make anything good. Nevertheless, it was too perfect an opportunity to pass up. That evening, I set to work with sketchbook and pencil, knowing I’d need to come up with a feasible idea soon—or there wouldn’t be time to execute it.
The puzzle of this design lay in combining Inklings and Arthuriana into one seamless and easily-understood image—this is what Sørina’s excellent design brief asked for. I had taken a look at the other entries, and while some were beautiful examples of design, in my view none were quite achieving this sort of integration. I decided that to set my proposal apart, I’d certainly have to draw something, rather than just combine text and stock images.
The evening passed in feverish sketching. Figuring a collage or amalgam of some sort would be necessary, I listed all the words I could think of regarding either the Inklings or Arthurian tales, then started trying out various combinations in quick thumbnail drawings. After a few hours, nothing seemed to be working just right. I put paper and pencil down and crawled, bleary-eyed, into bed.
Then the pipe-smoke idea hit me.
I’m still not precisely sure where the notion came from; at the time my tired brain could only hope to remember the inspiration stroke when I woke the next day. But it was clearly there: the well-known objects of Arthurian lore, emerging from smoke as it rose out of a pipe.
Of course, pipes had appeared in my Inklings word list, and perhaps the smoke-rings of Gandalf and Thorin were lurking in the back of my mind. I could almost picture myself in a corner of the Bird and Baby, or Lewis’s Magdalen rooms, listening as bits of conversation and stories floated through hazy air. Smoke itself is mesmerizing, with its undulating forms and ephemeral nature. I felt it not only represented the Inklings well, but would prove an excellent visual counterpart to the ever-adapting Arthurian stories.
The next challenge was developing all this visually. Our road trip continued, as we departed early the next morning on another several-hour drive. Ryan kindly took the wheel, allowing me to sketch the whole way. Drawing in moving cars is a challenge in itself, but I had a rough draft in pencil by the time we reached Richmond, Kentucky, which was that day’s destination.
As it happened, we were in Richmond to visit fellow Inklings enthusiasts Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait. They knew about the forthcoming book and were excited to hear I was taking a crack at the project. My thanks go out to Jennifer and Edwin and their entire delightful, hospitable family for their encouragement as I worked, and for the use of their kitchen table as a drawing board!
That evening I finished a pen-and-ink version of the drawing, converted it to digital format via photograph, and quickly mocked up a few different versions of the cover. I finished and submitted my initial proposals late that night—wishing I had time to make more adjustments, but hoping that the potential would shine through.
Once my ideas were submitted (and I received a positive initial response from Sørina!), the next step was revising, which meant more editing sessions in the car on the way to our eclipse-viewing location the next day.
Side note: the total solar eclipse was amazing. I can’t help but think now about A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which makes the convergence of this project with the eclipse event feel quite appropriate.
Once Ryan and I returned from our weekend adventure, I was able to make further improvements to my design. It went through several iterations, with helpful suggestions from Sørina and others spurring many updates. I added color to the grayscale art, tried out different fonts, created sample inside layouts, and adjusted many, many details. It was a lot of work, and the rush at the beginning meant that I now had to recreate certain elements in order to perfect them. Nevertheless, when I think of the countless hours of research, writing, and editing spent by so many others to produce the book itself, my own investment pales in comparison.
One of the most significant changes involved the pipe itself. When I was making the original drawing, I wanted to show a pipe on its side, so that the image would be subtly grounded in the visual space of the book’s cover. Finding a reference photo at the proper angle proved surprisingly difficult. The image I initially settled on was slightly off from what I wanted, and I wasn’t fully satisfied by the drawing I produced from it. As it turned out, that was the wrong type of pipe for the Inklings anyway. After learning this detail, I searched specifically for pipes smoked by the Inklings, and found images of one C.S. Lewis owned. Now I knew exactly what the pipe should look like. And, since this revision stage happened after we got home, I also had Ryan’s stash of pipes to use as models! The second pipe drawing was much more accurate, both visually and historically.
I based the sword on medieval pieces that I have seen and photographed in museums. It most closely corresponds to examples from the 14th and 15th centuries. As for the grail, that started out very simple, but per Sørina’s request gained a higher degree of ornamentation. I consulted several medieval examples, then made my own version.
Most of this refinement process happened while the voting was ongoing, so I had no idea if my cover would be chosen in the end. Even if it wasn’t, I would have the satisfaction of creating something that I was proud of, for a very worthwhile project. I can’t deny though, that it felt good to have things work out as they did!
Influence is tricky, even when discussing one’s own work. With that qualifier in mind, I will conclude with a few brief comments on what I see in this particular piece.
Parallels to Tolkien’s own artwork might be drawn, especially with his illustration for The Hobbit entitled “The Trolls” (see below). The lines of the smoke form fascinating curls, suggesting circular movement that contrasts well with the strong upward sense that one gets from the surrounding trees. This is a piece I’ve studied many times, and I find it a wonderful companion to the scene it portrays.
There is also, perhaps, some heritage in the famous illustrations Aubrey Beardsley created for an edition of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Beardsley’s quintessential Art Nouveau lines have always been some of my favorites, and his balance and composition in monochrome is impeccable. I have admired and returned to his work over and over for years.
These are the potential influences I see now; I don’t remember if I thought about them during the creation process. Whether I did or not, I think they represent an appropriate heritage for a design belonging to this particular book.
Emily Austin is a freelance painter, graphic designer, and photographer, as well as a student at Signum University. Among her favorite things are walks in the woods and art commissions from fellow fantasy enthusiasts. More of her work can be seen on emilyaustindesign.com, or on Twitter and Instagram under the username @emmekamalei. Emily lives in northern Indiana with her husband Ryan and several mischievous houseplants.