Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Illustrating, with Oleg Lipchenko

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On Illustrating, with Oleg Lipchenko

Oleg Lipchenko tells Open Book the little-known meanings behind some well-known nursery rhymes, how these nursery rhymes became popular the Russian language, and why oil painting is like an orchestral symphony. His newest book, Humpty Dumpty and Friends: Nursery Rhymes for the Young at Heart (Tundra Books) will delight readers of any age.

Open Book:

Tell us about Humpty Dumpty and Friends: Nursery Rhymes for the Young at Heart.

Oleg Lipchenko:

It all comes from my childhood. English nursery rhymes exist in the Russian language thanks to the great translations of Samuil Marshak and Korney Chukovsky. Those translations are so perfect that they have become an organic part of Russian culture, and millions of people in the countries of the former Soviet Union grew up reading them. Later on, while growing up and studying the English language, I became familiar with the original English versions of nursery rhymes. Studying a language is not limited to the learning of grammar and dictionary; you have to be interested in the general culture of the language-speaking people — their history, traditions, literature, customs and myths.

My old devotion to Alice's Adventured in Wonderland and especially the second book, Through The Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There, played a big role in my decision to illustrate nursery rhymes. Through The Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There (which I’m going to illustrate soon) is full of references to the nursery rhymes, like Tweedlee-Dee and Tweedlee-Dum, Lion and Unicorn and Humpty-Dumpty himself. Nursery rhymes were a source of inspiration for Lewis Carroll, and many other artists and writers. Well, those were my personal reasons to work on nursery rhymes. The importance of the nursery rhymes for children's education also needs to be mentioned.

So, I’ve planned the medium format to be a handy (8”x8”) children's book, not a big volume (just 24 pages), but full of visuals. Now that the book is published, I’m pretty sure it was the right decision to complete an abbreviated volume. One of my next moves will be to illustrate several other nursery rhymes for the Humpty Dumpty – Extended Edition or maybe Humpty Dumpty – Second Volume.


How did you select the nursery rhymes to include in Humpty Dumpty?


I like the rhymes very much, some of them very-very much, so the bigger the collection of rhymes, the better. There are more than a thousand rhymes in the most complete collections, so it is nearly impossible to illustrate all of them, or at least it would take too long.

Secondly, I had planned to make a small book, so I didn’t want to dedicate to a single rhyme more than a double-page spreadsheet (one poem — “I saw a Ship a sailing…” occupies two pages by itself). I thought it would be better if there were two verses on one double-page spreadsheet.

Third: some of the rhymes have become “outdated” and don’t fit our society’s democratic rules: some are cruel, and some are not politically correct. And, once again, there are rhymes which I like and the other which I don’t (personally); sorry guys — seats are limited. Also, as I said before, I’ve chosen some rhymes used by Lewis Carroll in his second book about Alice — Through The Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There. Those are the nursery rhymes about Tweedlee-Dum and Tweedlee-Dee, Lion and Unicorn and Humpty-Dumpty. One (not very popular) rhyme, about the Pig who found a banknote, is referenced in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark — the book I’m working on now (in the Fit the Sixth “Barrister’s Dream”). As you can see my books are related to each other.

Some of the rhymes have a history, for instance Tweedlee-Dum and Tweedlee-Dee first appeared in John Byrom’s “Epigram on the Feuds between Handel and Bononcini”:

Some say, compar'd to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel's but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
'Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

It gave me the idea to present the Tweedlee brothers as Barocco musicians. They are still traditionally fat and look alike, like two twin brothers, but the costumes and wigs make their appearance much richer, and more than that — unique.

We comprehend many of the rhymes differently than people did in earlier days. This is because either the meanings of the words were transformed or we just don’t know the cultural and historical details that those rhymes refer to. I drew 24 different tailors for the first rhyme, because… because you could say that “four and twenty tailors” is 24. No, I drew only 24 characters because I’m too lazy to draw 420, which is the original meaning of the expression “four and twenty”. Or let’s look at the “I saw the ship-a-sailing…” All we see here is a sailing ship, gifts, little furry animals, Captain Duck — some sort of alternative Santa Claus, bringing Christmas gifts not in sleigh but on a ship. At the time that this rhyme was born English people understood it clearly, that this is the picture of the arrival of the ship from colonies, bringing exotic goods and chained slaves ("four and twenty white mice with bells around their necks"). These are just a few examples of many, but let us leave such transcriptions for the explorers of literature. Rhymes have lost the ties which connected them to their origins and now exist as independent and beautiful pieces of poetry for us.


What inspires you to paint?


Anything could be a source of inspiration, sometimes something insignificant (but always very specific), like a sand crumb inspires the shell to produce a pearl. I understand that the question is about inspiring occasions, but there are also inspiring reasons and they are mostly philosophical and abstract. It’s a way of living — to sing songs, to play music, to paint paintings, to draw illustrations.

Well, these are very generic thoughts, but let me give you a detailed example. My painting Blue Cat was inspired by a real cat we had a while ago (to be more precise, we were friends and roommates with it — her). She was an intelligent and mysterious person — I’m pretty sure she was the reincarnation of a Nubian Queen or an ancient poetess. I was in my “Egyptian” stage at the time, so the song wrote itself. All the rest was playing with visualization and imagination, and therefore it is hard to describe it in words.


You paint predominantly in oils. What do you like most about this medium?


Yes, as a painter I prefer to work with oil on canvas. It is the most flexible and resourceful medium, and it has endless possibilities to express any artist’s intentions. Well, nowadays we have painting on the computer using graphic tablet, which is much more flexible than any of the existing traditional painting techniques. I know what I’m saying — I used to work in animation as a background painter. But still I prefer the “physical” medium to virtual. Oil painting has only one disadvantage that I know of, which is the long drying time of the paint, but even this feature often is useful if you know how to work it. If compared to music, graphic art is the process of playing a single instrument, but painting, oil painting, is an orchestral symphony.


How does your background in architecture affect your illustrating?


I wouldn’t say "affect", rather it gives me more freedom in my graphic exercises. Let’s not forget to mention the strong feeling of form and structure, which is obtained over years of studying architecture. You probably mean to say: there are some artists who are so obsessed with the architecture that they would try to forcefully bring anything “architectural” into their illustrations. I guess in a way it’s wrong. Just like being obsessed with a national, religious, environmental, or any other specific experience and trying to push it into illustrations, and disregarding what those illustrations are about. I’m only able to draw buildings or structures where the text requires, and I don’t draw architecture where it doesn’t need to be drawn, but since I am a graduate architect, I do it well.


What is your next project?


The next project I’m currently working on is The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll. This is a fully illustrated picture book of 48 pages. This Lewis Carroll poem is a surreal epic about seeking something highly desirable, and what it could turn into if one finds it. It is an unusual and mind-twisting tale and one of the most original works in English literature. I don’t wish to retell the whole story in this interview; I just recommend everybody to read it, or better, to wait for a book with my illustrations and then read it!

The Hunting of the Snark may remind you of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett in a way. The poem is not too plain and clear to understand, so discussions around it could be collected in a big volume. I see my task as an illustrator is to help readers to understand (and feel) Lewis Carroll’s work. Originally Lewis Carroll dedicated the poem to children, and even though many observers do not agree with the author in that dedication, my intention is to force a child’s perspective of the illustrations, to make the book picturesque and attractive.

I have more book projects in line, but I’d rather not open my cards just yet — let me complete Snark first.

Oleg Lipchenko is a member of the Ukrainian Union of Artists. Now based in Toronto, his superb technique and strong sense of design reflect his background in architecture. He has exhibited his art extensively in Canada and across Europe. Lipchenko's first book for Tundra, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, presented a fresh view of the beloved story and was endorsed by the Lewis Carroll Society. Visit him at his website,

For more information about Humpty Dumpty and Friends, please visit the Tundra Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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