Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Oleg Lipchenko

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Ten Questions with Oleg Lipchenko

Oleg Lipchenko is the illustrator of a spectacular new edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Tundra Books). He talks to Open Book about art and illustrating the beloved children's classic.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Oleg Lipchenko:

It is a long tale and it deserves a book’s length of an answer. Here is the excerpt from my presentation “Drawing Treacle Well or how to illustrate Alice,” published in “Knight Letter” (2008), the magazine of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.

I started illustrating Alice a long time ago, at the time when my daughter Olga was 8-9 years old (she is a married woman now and grow her own children). I’ve found several drawings, which look like they were made before, maybe during, my first black & white Alice series. Anyways, they are quite early.

But the actual story begins with my first attempt to complete the whole sequence of drawings all in the same style.

My first series was made as black and white drawings. I used pen and black ink back then. I made about forty “big” (15 x 9 cm) drawings in this technique and a lot of small character drawings. But this series remained unfinished. The reason I stopped working on the first series was because my friends kept telling me that my black and white graphics were too dark, noir, and overall unsuitable for a children's book.

After a while, I returned to this theme but I changed my technique to one that I thought would attract a young audience. I started to draw using colored pencils, and applying the airbrush here and there. There were a good many pictures made, mostly portraits of characters. But after a while I stopped working on those as well; the pictures were good in nature, but weren't exactly the kind that I intended. Here my progress on the illustrations halted, even though a good number of sketches and preliminary works had already been made. I still thought of Alice in a less colored scheme.

I have to note that when I began to work on Alice’s illustrations I had in mind Alice as translated into Russian by Nina Demurova. It’s a great translation, intelligent, and very close to Carroll’s spirit. As any other good translation, it related to local folklore, to Russian tradition. For example, Mouse and Caterpillar in Russian by default are female. The pair cats – bats is turned into: кошки – мошки / koshki – moshki (where koshki are cats and moshki are small, annoying, flying bugs), and so on.

Apart from the change in technique and style, another thing that changed was my view of Alice. I reread her story several times, each time finding various perspectives that I hadn't seen before. Eventually I started to read the book in its original English language. It wasn’t that I was not satisfied with the translation, just that I had studied English and was ready to read the original text.

Some of the characters remained the same since the first sketches; others changed in accordance with my understanding of the story or by comparison with the original English text. After that, I put this work aside for several years.

It is time to say some words regarding my final series of drawings, those that are in the book. We will talk not just about the color scheme. The above-mentioned “theatrical” side of the story along with the rich literary context requires a very special graphic manner for the illustrations. There were a lot of sketches and drafts done, and finally the solution was found. Concerning the style of illustration, I'd much rather call it the style of the pages themselves, or the style of the layout. The layout is divided into three parts, each different in color and content.

1. The illustration itself is executed in brown color, filled in with ochre watercolor. This image is the illustration to the scene. The use of watercolor adds to the illustration's character in space, atmosphere, and depth. By using the brown color in my illustrations, I hoped to create the feeling of the sepia tones of old photographs, a sort of Fleur de Epoch.

2. The black and white image that surrounds the brown illustration is, first of all, a kind of curtain, as well as the scene's generic decoration. Therefore, the motif of drapery was often used. It also functions as a frame. Thus, within the context of these black and white drawings, resides everything that occurred in the scene's dialogues, such as cultural and historical references, etc. This drawing is more graphic and flat, and even when it contains some details of volume they are no more than a slight relief. This is to set it apart from the brown illustration, where everything takes place in a yellowish atmosphere. In other words, this black and white drawing acts as a transition between the brown illustration and the plain background with text.

3. The third aspect of the layout is the text with several black and white details. Here the main factors are the choice of font, color, and the texture and density of paper. The shape of the text's body flows with the shape of the borders of the black and white drawing. In a certain sense I don’t draw or paint, I conjure up the canvas or the paper sheet. I like to draw with pencil on paper. I find a lot of freedom in it. The ordinary graphite pencil draws it. I love to draw with pencil; in fact it is a very liberal and flexible technique, almost limitless, except for the lack of color. The presence of color is not so important to me. Color is a desirable attribute for children’s books, but it is not necessary.

I don’t know if there is a recipe to illustrating Alice but the artist has to find the way to express him/herself. I tried to draw illustrations that showed my initial impression or, more accurately, what was left from my first impression combined with a deeper reading of the text. It formed the way I see the settings. It’s possible that I don’t always follow the text exactly, sorry, but at least I’m sincere about it. That is how I see the Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

OBT:

What were the greatest challenges you faced when illustrating such a beloved children's book?

OL:

Challenges are partly what make a job worth doing, and I feel that having to point them out doesn’t bear much meaning when the job is complete. Still, I’ll do it. There were three main challenges I faced while illustrating Alice.

One of the challenges was to establish the visual style I would work in. The resolution to this challenge lies in the answer to the first question.

Another difficult issue was Alice herself. The story is told from her point of view, so while reading the text we couldn’t really tell what she looked like. We are provided with more information of her character than her appearance. That was a difficult task.

Third big one was – how to properly present the illogical settings in the given space. Logically – it is somewhere underground, but then why is there a garden, trees and houses? Also, most of Alice’s encounters happened in almost completely unrelated settings. Lewis Carroll was an artist, but his task didn’t require him to make the story follow the logical reason of the real world. However, it remains a task for illustrator.

OBT:

Which books made a great impression on you when you were a child?

OL:

For as long as I can remember, I have been surrounded by books, so I’ll pick just a couple of the titles I love, but there were many more books in my childhood to isolate a select few and call them the most influential.

Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton in Russian translation. This old treasure still stands on my bookshelf. Wild life is a very catching theme for children; stories about animals are usually listened to with great interest and reread several times.

The Wizard Of The Emerald City the entire series of 5 books – ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ retold by Russian children writer Alexander Volkov. The story was retold in a quite different way from Frank Baum’s one, that’s why I mention the Russian version in first turn. Later on, when I began to study English, I read the original OZ as well.

OBT:

What was the first book you illustrated?

OL:

It was the Katia, Kotia And The Handmade Sun by Viacheslav Burlaka, Ukrainian writer, published by the ‘Esslinger Verlag in Germany in 1993. It is the story about little girl Katia who lived in the area of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant at the time of the Accident. Story told by the girl, it is her own vision of how everything happened. Pretty sad story, even though no one got killed in it.

OBT:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as an artist?

OL:

I have a long life behind me, and it’s a life of very consistent art practice. I studied Art for many years, learned something new every day, read and listened to many teachers that are still alive and some that passed away long ago -- contemporary and classic masters. I study Art and I teach Art, so the question of the best advice I’ve received is the same as asking what the best drop of water is in the ocean. I’d rather name some masters who left us some very precious thoughts and advice in their diaries and essays. They influenced me a lot.

Emile Bourdelle – a great sculptor, student of August Rodin, he wrote about Art so clearly and wisely, that anyone studying Art can find nearly all the answers in his texts to almost any question.

Pavel Filonov – the greatest artist of the XX century, left us his diaries and the theory of Analytical Art. Read it.

Salvador Dali – The surrealist superstar. He wrote a lot of texts, mostly controversial, but if you read them carefully, you’ll find some brilliant thoughts on Art. For example: “Drawing is the honesty of the art. There is no possibility of cheating. It is either good or bad.”

I don’t mention their nationalities consciously, because they are far above such categories, they are Great World Masters. There is no such thing as French or English or Indian mathematic, and the same goes with true Art.

OBT:

Describe your ideal work environment.

OL:

I work alone.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

OL:

Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton, great Canadian writer, naturalist, scientist and wildlife artist, founder of the Woodcraft Indians and founding pioneer of the Boy Scouts of America, etc. etc.

Anne of Green Gables is a very Canadian children’s book, which stands on the Classics bookshelf, I’d choose it without a second thought.

I’d choose a good album of the Group of Seven artworks. I think that it would say: “Welcome to Canada” better than anything else.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

OL:

Stanislav Lem Fiasco.

OBT:

What advice do you have for illustrators who are trying to get published?

OL:

“How to get published” is not my field of expertise. This is a question that should be directed towards those who make decisions about working with illustrators – editors, art directors. I never thought about “how to draw to get published;” my main concern has always been “how to draw better.”

OBT:

What is your next project?

OL:

I’m currently working on Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting Of The Snark. It’ll be a book of 50 pages, fully illustrated in a manner similar to the illustrations I made for Alice, but it will still be very different in the style.

The second book about Alice - Through The Looking Glass And What Alice Found There will be the following project, and I already have a lot of drafts and sketches for it. There are also several more projects in a very preliminary stage, but I’d better not mention them now.

Oleg Lipchenko is a member of the Ukrainian Union of Artists. Now based in Toronto, he paints primarily in oils. His superb technique and strong sense of design reflect his background in architecture. Oleg Lipchenko’s has had thirty exhibitions in Canada and Europe. A member of the Lewis Carroll Society, his fresh view of Alice has the group’s approval.


For more information about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland please visit the Tundra Books website at www.tundrabooks.com

For information about Oleg Lipchenko, visit his website at www.lipchenko.com


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

1 comment

From the article:

"I started illustrating Alice a long time ago, at the time when my daughter Olga was 8-9 years old (she is a married woman now and grow her own children). I’ve found several drawings, which look like they were made before, maybe during, my first black & white Alice series. Anyways, they are quite early.
But the actual story begins with my first attempt to complete the whole sequence of drawings all in the same style.

"My first series was made as black and white drawings. I used pen and black ink back then. I made about forty “big” (15 x 9 cm) drawings in this technique and a lot of small character drawings. But this series remained unfinished. The reason I stopped working on the first series was because my friends kept telling me that my black and white graphics were too dark, noir, and overall unsuitable for a children's book."

That's really inspiring and I also enjoyed the rest of the article!

Thanks,

Samuel.

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