“Inklings and Arthur: An Artist’s Perspective” by Emily Austin

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 Challenge

The Inklings famous pub, the Eagle and Child (the Bird and Baby) in 2014, photo by the author

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.

Fine-Tuning

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!

Artistic Influences

Aubrey Beardsley, “How Four Queens Found Launcelot Sleeping”

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.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Trolls”

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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25 Responses to “Inklings and Arthur: An Artist’s Perspective” by Emily Austin

  1. Earthoak says:

    What an enjoyable read. Well done, Emily, on such a unique, apt, and visually beautiful design; and thanks to Brenton for hosting this post. It was good to get an insight into your creative process – and I’m impressed with the speed of your work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emily Austin says:

      Your words as a fellow visual artist mean a lot, thank you! And I’m lucky to have had good direction, as well as time to refine the intial design after the breakneck pace required to start. It was an enjoyable project all round.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I am a big fan of the artwork that you create on your blog as Emily is and so your praise is praise indeed. As soon as my copy of the “The Inklings and King Arthur” arrived at my door and I opened the package Emily’s artwork gave me a growing sense that this book is an event of real significance. I loved the way in which the pipe smoke wove together the major themes of the story, the story of The Matter of Britain according to these great writers.
      And on a personal note to end, I really miss my pipe 🙁 but I made a promise to my daughter years ago and I think that I had better keep it.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. L.A. Smith says:

    Very interesting indeed. I always find it fascinating to get a glimpse into the mind of the creator of any artistic work. Thanks for giving us this peek! The finished image is a very fitting cover to the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    ” Drawing in moving cars is a challenge in itself, but I had a rough draft in pencil by the time we reached Richmond”. This amazed me – I usually have trouble scribbling the simplest mundane note about something in car, bus, or train. I know Charles Williams did various bits of his writing on public transportation, though (and sometimes wonder whether a sudden squiggly part of a manuscript reflects this, or something else, as, for example, his hands apparently just trembled sometimes…) But drawing – wow!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, I have no drawing ability. And, to top it off, here in my area people call it “drawring.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Emily Austin says:

      I usually forget how hard it is to do any sort of sketching in cars until I’m actually trying it! But I don’t think I would attempt anything past sketches and experiments—definitely not a final piece! 😉 So I was lucky in this instance, to happen to be at the stage of work which was possible.

      Like

  4. Reblogged this on The Oddest Inkling and commented:
    Here is a luscious little post (over on Pilgrim in Narnia) by artist Emily Austin about the process of creating the winning cover design for The Inklings and King Arthur. Do read it; I think you will love it!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. David Orth says:

    The pipe is on its side – like someone just stepped out for a moment. An appropriate minor-key note in my thinking – with a question of return.

    Like

    • Emily Austin says:

      David, you describe accurately what I was trying to communicate, though I don’t think I ever put it into so many words during the process. Thank you!

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Yes! The pipe hasn’t gone out, so it’s probably drawing well (not all puns equally intended!), and it never occurred to me for a second to think, ‘uh oh, fire hazard’ – nothing spilling out, here, in this moment in between…

        Liked by 2 people

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It’s worth noting explicitly that at this moment (though we may be tinkering a bit, down the road) the image by my introductory note is the cover design at the stage at which it was presented to the public among the finalists at Sørina’s blog in her post of 21 August 2017 (and often reused after that). The two already rather refined drawings next to each other precede this ‘first public’ stage, while the third drawing (if I’m not mistaken) follows it, with, notably, the step from the a simpler form of the grail to one with “a higher degree of ornamentation”, leading to the full final form seen in the photo of a copy of the book lower down the page. (I love the way modern graphic technology allows the use of the smoke subtly in the background, linking front cover and spine, here!)

    Like

  7. Reblogged this on Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings and commented:
    I recently co-authored a piece published in a magazine and was enormously impressed by the artwork created by the house artist. I respond to what other people write by writing. He responded by creating artwork and did two things. He displayed his understanding of our work and he communicated it to others so as to deepen their understanding too. I was deeply impressed. As I say in my response to Earthoak’s comment on Emily Austin’s piece I think she uncovers real depth through her choice of images and the masterstroke of using pipesmoke to weave them together.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Emily, thanks so much for this fascinating account of how you created this image. I can only agree with the other comments praising your work.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Gabriel says:

    Thanks for this — a fascinating insight into the creative (artistic) process. I love Aubrey Beardsley’s Morte Darthur illustrations… got the big fat Beardsley edition for Christmas a few years ago. Never made the visual connection betwen Beardsley and Tolkien though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emily Austin says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I would love a copy of that edition for my own coffee table… perhaps one day soon. 🙂 I’ve been doing a lot of research and thinking about Tolkien’s visual influences; one of my favorite subjects!

      Like

  10. Pingback: Inklings & Arthur on Pilgrim in Narnia | The Oddest Inkling

  11. Pingback: “The Grail: Cup, Stone – Santo Caliz? – and the Inklings?” by David Llewellyn Dodds | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  12. Pingback: The Inklings and Arthur Series Index | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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