The value of my education is, above all, that I am motivated to challenge myself to do things that are difficult, and that I am surrounded by the inspiration and support that I need to embark on these challenges. In the context of an editorial design assignment — to design an entire book, cover to cover — pushing myself meant going beyond just learning how to typeset and format a book. I decided that I would illustrate the book, as well, which seemed like it could be a solid first attempt at something I have always wanted to do. In short, it seemed like a great idea at the time.
The process was frustrating, challenging, and ultimately rewarding.
Long ago, before I began my career path in design, I was a literature major. I’ve immersed myself in books for as long as I can remember, and was preparing to somehow devote my life to studying them. Life has taken me in a new direction in the eight years since I finished my Bachelor’s Degree; I haven’t stopped reading, but I am now in a career path that has me obsessing over more than just the words on the page. I am thrilled by book design, I linger on design details, and now dream of designing books as beautiful as the words they contain. My literature background is how I chose my topic: a poetry book I have loved since high school that just happened to be in the public domain in Canada, and is perhaps also why a design and illustration project felt so incredibly personal.
The brief for the project was quite open. There were design milestones that we had to hit, stages of type trials and learning the fundamentals of InDesign, as well as learning and practicing immaculate folder structure. The instructor gave us the freedom to choose the type of book we wanted to make, and was open to my plan to illustrate my chosen topic. I knew right away how I wanted to approach it.
I wanted to illustrate The Colossus playfully and beautifully. It is the only book of Sylvia Plath’s poems that was published in her lifetime, and the poems are not as well-known as those contained in Ariel, which was released posthumously and contains poems written during the writer’s final days. The poems of Ariel are haunting, dark and tragic, and these keywords have informed the persona of Plath herself. Her name is tangled up with sadness, with suicide, with the name of her former husband Ted Hughes, and her words have been adopted, repeated, and kept alive by the many who identify with her experience of mental illness. This is her legacy, her tragedy, and proof of her genius, but her life’s story has sometimes eclipsed her writing, and it is impossible to read her work without looking for signs of the darkness that would finally overcome her. The Colossus is prelude to all of this, but it also stands on its own: it is filled with wordplay, rhythm, and rich imagery. There is death overhanging, consistently in the death of nature, but the final poem is a rebirth. These are poems for the end of summer — still alive, but darkening slowly; they live in a world of seascapes, expansive landscapes, barnyards and old paintings. There is still hope of spring and of renewal, even if it is cracked by the past. It does not end on a sad note. The Colossus offers a different side of Plath.
Because of this, it was important for me to not make the images too dark. There is something sinister lurking in many of the illustrations, as their source poems dictate, but there is also colour, some lighthearted depictions, and a deliberate absence of certain visuals. This book is not a tragedy; it is a celebration of poetic language and the rich world that Plath created through her words.
Before I could truly begin the process of illustrating, I needed a solid layout and framework for the book. I created a flatplan (which was modified again and again throughout the process), set the number of illustrations that I would need and where I would place them, worked to develop a grid structure, and went through many (many) fonts before choosing the one that would work best (Spectral for headings, and Average 9/12). My final flatplan looked like this:
I realized that typesetting poetry had unique challenges. For this project, I had to set very wide margins that would visually centre the poems on the page, but had to make sure the space within the margins was not so small that I would be breaking lines. I was constantly checking my line breaks and making sure I did not split up stanzas. The space I had planned for illustrations often shifted as I did the more necessary work of making sure that the poem’s text was properly set and that it flowed logically from one page to the next. This is what one of my working spreads looks like, to demonstrate how I structured the book:
And, of course, the challenge of all book designs: making sure that my page numbers were divisible by four. Some of my best laid plans for illustrations were axed to make space. And some (many) were eliminated because I wasn’t happy with how they looked. The time I thought illustrating the book would take was a mere fraction of the time I actually spent (which was the majority of time spent in my life at this point, as my deadline was tight and I was a little bit obsessed).
At one point, I had planned to hand letter all of the titles. These doodles demonstrate a dream that was abandoned in favour of time and legibility. But maybe they are also the seeds for a future project, and the inevitable revision of this one.
Making the illustrations was, of course, the most challenging aspect of this project. I knew in my mind what I wanted the illustrations to look like, and this was turning out to look quite different than what I was producing. I was using Copic markers to achieve a watercolour look with more vibrancy than actual watercolours, and this also allowed me to have more control in colouring. I wanted the drawings to seem like sketchbook illustrations, slightly naïve, but realized that I was possibly hitting the point of being actually naïve, and missing the mark completely. Whether or not I did is completely subjective, but I ended up going with a style that felt familiar. Someone reviewing my work asked me if the marker lines were intentional, and it made me think that maybe they shouldn’t have been. I had to divorce myself from self-doubt if I wanted to stay on track.
These are how my illustrations looked upon scanning them. Messy, yes, so there were also hours spent in Photoshop cleaning up my mistakes. I learned that I should do my outlines first, scan them, and then apply colour in stages. If I were making this for a client with very particular revisions, I would have been in trouble:
In the end, I had more drawings than I could use, and a very sharp awareness of the pitfalls in the approach that I took. But I learned so much from this.
Designing a cover to house this labour of love was a separate challenge. In the end, I had narrowed down my choices to the following two designs:
The first of the two covers was designed to showcase an illustration I had planned to use as a spread with the poem “Full Fathom Five.” The poem is filled with underwater imagery and describes something sinister under the surface of the sea. This sinister tone is conveyed through the seaweed wrapping itself around limbs and by the hand reaching out from a fishing net, possibly drowning or calling for help, clutching at weak tendrils of seaweed to escape. This anguish isn’t immediately apparent in the illustration, however; the colours are rich and there are floating starfish and corals to draw the eye, making the darker elements clear only if you take the time to look. I limited type to the most essential information about the book and a short quote from one of the book’s poems, rather than distracting from the imagery with a long synopsis. The script font is meant to echo the simple calligraphy in some of the book’s illustrations. Overall, the effect of the cover is reminiscent of vintage children’s books, which suits the era in which the poems were first published (the very early 60s) and connects to the playful/sinister intent.
The second cover is more obvious in its execution, but is also a more sophisticated and elegant alternative to the first. The inspiration is, of course, handwriting, referencing the act of composing poetry by hand. A well-educated woman in the 1950s, Sylvia Plath likely would have had fairly elegant writing, but she also had an unconventional and dark life. The crooked, overlapping text on the cover, nearly obscuring her face, symbolizes these aspects of her personality, and how her writing has become her persona. The portrait of her has been greyed out, allowing the vibrant handwriting to overpower it. As the front of the cover is not easily legible, the back cover clearly lays out the content of the book for those who are interested enough to pick it up after seeing the front. The handwriting in the background is to give texture, and contains lines from one of the poems in the book. It looks more “grown up” than the other one does at first glance.
In the end, I went for the second option. This was my original illustration that I designed around:
Because the imagery is so rich in the poems, I did not want to overwhelm the viewer with chaotic images. My illustrations are vignettes, pieces of the whole. They are what I see when I read the poem.
Illustrations are, of course, as subjective as any response to a literary work. By illustrating Plath’s poems in the way that I have, I invite other readers engage both with the text and my contributions to it, to agree or disagree, and to see for themselves how they would make the poems come to life. This is a greater measure of success than merely creating a pretty picture. This was not an easy book to illustrate. The complexity of the poems demanded that I dive deep into them, that I analyze what’s beneath the surface, and that I imagine the world as Plath might have seen it. From my limited vantage point, I cannot begin to see through the eyes of the poet, so the act of illustration becomes a sort of poetic rewriting and an assertion of artistic license. My own thoughts are what I return to, coloured by Plath’s words; I now present these thoughts to the world.