Research Exercise

After reading “What We See When We Read”, by Peter Mendelsund, I was inspired by the idea that everyone creates a different image of the same novel/character/setting. The images we see when reading are definitely not the same as the ones the author pictured when writing; and because we fill in the gaps with references from our own personal experiences, everyone’s Anna Karenina, for example, will be different, perhaps inspired by someone they’ve met.

“We colonize books  with our familiars; and we exile, re-patriate the characters to lands we are more acquainted with.” 

After discussing this idea with my tutor Ellen, she suggested I would conduct an experiment based on it. It would be a research exercise which would consist of reading one same excerpt of a text to some people, or ask them all to think of one same book, and draw their visual image(s) of it.

I asked some of my friends to think of one book I knew we had all read – “Os Maias”, by Eça de Queirós (this is one of the books I’m including in my author collection). I then asked them to draw the most significant element or moment in the novel. This was meant to show how each person takes something different from the same story, and how everyone remembers the same images in a very personal and customised manner.

The results were somewhat surprising. Even though this is a story about incest, that didn’t seem to be anyone’s most significant aspect of the novel.

Instead, most people felt the ending scene of the story prevailed over all other moments. One person referred to the moment the main character sees his sister (not knowing her as his sister, of course) for the first time; I myself remember being mostly upset with the deaths in the Maia’s family.

Chris Orr’s Illustrations

In one of the group tutorials that we had, someone mentioned Chris Orr, a London based illustrator. I had never heard of this artist before, and when shown some examples of his work for the first time, I immediately fell in love.

Orr’s illustrations are extremely detailed and informative. I compare them to visual narratives, for in each piece of work we can see a thousand images, that are put together in a way that communicates something to us.

I find this illustration absolutely incredible. In only one image, we find all about what is going on inside the ship. This is not just an illustration – in the sense that it illustrates something –, this is a story in itself.

This image in particular caught my attention. While still holding a lot of detail and information, it doesn’t tell us a story, like the previous exmples. Instead, it gives us a sense of what it is like being in that position, standing in that place.
This reminded me of an exercise we did referring to a technique used by Bonnard.

Again, it is astonishing the amount of information present in each work. For someone who usually prefers to do line drawing and creates imagery that is, in fact, minimal, this is something that I should perhaps try. Specifically in the context of this project, it could be interesting to have such detailed illustrations, with not one but several scenes from the narratives, as book covers.

Old Illustrated Book Covers

Even though the books I’ve chosen for my current project are not children’s, I’ve found the book “Children’s book covers : great book jacket and cover design” by Alan Powers quite useful for my research.

The concept of illustrated book covers in adults’ books is a somewhat recent thing. Before, only children’s books would have illustrated covers. For this reason, when researching illustrated book covers from the past, I had to look into the children’s category as well.

“At first glance this looks like a coffee table book, but the author, a writer, curator, and lecturer on architecture and design, has created a knowledgeable historical survey of British and American book boards and jackets beginning with 17th century chapbooks. (…) The arrangement of the books is chronological, within that, the groupings are interesting.”

In this book I found some really nice examples, specially from the 30’s and 40’s onwards, which have inspired my own designs.

Books by Eça de Queirós

After deciding on a book publisher as a ‘fictional’ client for my current project (although I wasn’t asked by the publisher to do these covers, I still intend to contact them after I finish the project and offer my designs as a proposal for a book collection), I needed to choose an author – when Bertrand asks an illustrator to design several covers for them, very often that means they want an author collection, that is, all books to be illustrated belong to the same author.

I found this a bit of a challenge, as to design book covers I need to have read the books. I always try to read as many different authors as I can, which means that I haven’t read that many books by the same author.

I decided to settle on the Portuguese author Eça de Queirós. I have already read a few of his books and, because his works have a significant value in Portuguese literature, I know it will be easy to find reviews and analysis of many of his books (so if I haven’t got the time to read them, I can still get a sense of what the book is about and what significant key elements I should include in the cover).

His most famous works are the first four books that we see in the image below: Os Maias, O Primo Basílio, O Crime do Padre Amaro and A Cidade e as Serras.

As you can see, the book covers that already exist are quite dull, which is another reason that lead me to choose this author (they really do need, in my opinion, to be replaced by something more exciting).

The following are examples sold by Bertrand Bookshop only.

What We See When We Read

“What do we see when we read? Did Tolstoy really describe Anna Karenina? Did Melville ever really tell us what, exactly, Ishmael looked like? The collection of fragmented images on a page — a graceful ear there, a stray curl, a hat positioned just so — and other clues and signifiers helps us to create an image of a character. But in fact our sense that we know a character intimately has little to do with our ability to concretely picture our beloved — or reviled — literary figures.”

During my research, I came across Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read, which seemed to be quite relevant for my project. And it was.
This is a very interesting book, particularly for avid readers, which was truly useful for the development of my book cover designs. While reading it, I’d often take notes of key points I wanted to remind myself of.

When explaining this point, Mendelsund was referring to writers. Nevertheless, I do think this is something illustrators too should have in mind.

Leave enough room for freedom of imagination. Readers don’t like to be told how exaclty something is; the pleasure in reading comes from using our own imagination – otherwise we would watch a film instead. “We desire the fluidity and vagary that books grant us when we imagine their content. Some things we do not wish to be shown.”

We picture feelings, not places. Mendelsund believes that, when we are being described a place, we don’t picture that place. Instead, we resort to our memory and find something that feels like it.

No need to show everything. Places, characters, etc. can be defined merely by a set of points that lie on its perimeter – nothing more is needed. The way a certain character acts can tell the reader a lot more than a description.