Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Around the table with...Didier Graffet.

Born near Lyon in 1970, Didier Graffet studied at the Cohl School in Lyon and began his illustration career in 1994; he is now considered one of the top painters of imaginary art in France. He has illustrated many classic texts (including Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues, The Knights of the Round Table, and The Ring of the Nibelung), won numerous awards (including the 2010 Ravenheart Award and the Grand Prix de l’imaginaire), and a book of his art, Mondes & Voyages, was published in 2007. 

Didier, Howard, Rex and some Croissant.

H: First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Didier. We have croissant on the way, and coffee brewing. So, let’s begin. We were talking in the pub last night about creativity... 
D: Yes.
H: ...and about how the artistic process is cross-disciplined. You mentioned that when a musician, for example, describes their creative process to you, it sounds very similar to your process as an illustrator. How would you describe your artistic process? I know it's a very broad question.
D: Something magic happens. It is very strange, very mysterious, this place where creative ideas come from. Sometimes you get a glimpse of an idea and as you sketch it out, little by little it becomes more concrete...and once it emerges fully, then it is only a matter of craft and technique to bring the image to completion. I don't have the words to explain properly, because it is very sensitive. It's a kind of magic. The process is slightly different, however, if I'm working on a book cover rather than inside-the-book illustrations or a painting of my own, as there is a frame for book covers and I have to make my design and vision within this frame. 

The Black Company.

H: That's a bit like creating storyboard art for film, then, isn't it Rex? Working within the limits of a frame, I mean.
R: That’s true. You know, until this last year I've always worked commercially for other people, mostly in the film and advertising industries. I'd be given a brief and then draw what I was asked to draw and there would be no personal expression involved -- so the creative process of expressing myself within my work is entirely new to me.
D: It's perhaps a bit different in book illustration. Even in a commercial process like making a book cover, there is room to find your own vision, to say what you want to say, although you have to find a way, also, to answer to the commercial needs of the publisher.
H: You told me at the pub last night, Didier, that you are trying to do more painting than illustrating now, because it is freer, it is more expressive of your own ideas. Is your internal process very different, then, when you paint rather than illustrate?
D: Not yet, but I think in a few years it will be, as my painting develops. I am too near the illustrative works now.
H: So despite all your experience and success as an illustrator, you still feel that you need time to develop as a painter? I think that many of the younger artists who look up to you might find that surprising!
D: Yes, I do, and right now I do not have the time. I hope that in two or three years I will be much more free to create my own universe...but it's difficult now, you know, because it's a difficult mental switch to make a book cover and then make a picture of my own, entirely out of my own imagination.
H: Are the two kinds of paintings very different then?
D: Yes, yes, because when you are free to paint what you want, you don't have outside judgement about your work; but when you are creating a painting for a book cover, it has to sell a book, so it must be ‘energic’, immediate. It is a one-shot picture. 
R: Yes. That's true in film and advertising art too.
D: But when I do inside-the-book illustrations, it is a little bit different. There is room for me to be more expressive.
H: So you were saying that you feel you need time to develop your painting style as something different than your illustration style?
Poster: Abracadagascarf.
D: Yes. I am always working to develop my own universe, and I would like to have more time for this. I try to do this in my book covers too: to put in what I like, such as nature and trees, but it's in my own paintings that I am free to express myself and travel fully to my imagination. It takes time to develop as an artist...time, experience, and patience. When I was younger and learning to paint, I was inspired by other artists work, but now I avoid looking too much at the websites of other illustrators, even though they are good, everything is good, but I want to develop my own imagination. I look instead at nature, and that's where I find my inspiration.
H: You've come to Dartmoor this week with a group of French artists, and you've been meeting with the artists who live here in our village, and the thing that you all have in common is a love of myth and mythic landscapes. Alan Lee, for example, one of the artists here, is very influenced by the landscape of Dartmoor – you can see it clearly in his drawings and paintings. So I wonder: You live in Normandy. Is that the landscape that feeds your imagination? 
D: Yes. I remember when I was a kid, I went to a retreat in the country...and you know, that landscape looked very much like the countryside here in Devon.
H: Did you grow up in the city then?
D: I grew up in the Pays d’Auge, Normandy, where my family has lived since four generations. It’s a special area, with very little mounds...you know, little mountains?
H: Er, hillocks?
  D: Yes, hillocks. We had a house in Brittany too, and that is also a landscape I love, the coast of the sea. But I'm not often a traveler. I like the idea of traveling within the imagination. I think it is much more important than physical travel. The power of imagination is without limits. I am sure this is the primary influence of my youngness.
H: Your youth.
D: Yes.
R: For years I worked in a studio in Soho, in London, and I didn’t get out into the countryside at all! I worked just from briefs, in advertising and film, always under pressure to work very, very fast...so when I first came to Dartmoor, about six years ago, and saw this imposing landscape, I was really thrown by it. It really knocked me out. Then I started to paint the landscape and I found myself painting really, really fast, just hammering it out... and then I stood back from the canvas and I remember thinking: I have all the time in the world to paint this, why am I working so quickly? I still haven’t been able to shake that commercial conditioning. All those years of practice at working really fast. I can’t stop! 
D: You were a storyboard artist for films?
R: In L.A. and London, yes. So speed is natural for me.
H: But speed is an important skill too. If you worked as slowly as some artists do, the films would never get done!
Cover: Children of Hurin.
R: And I wouldn’t be in a job.
D: It’s the same for me, I think. It is, as I said before, a different process creating an illustration than doing free painting, and with illustration, deadlines are always part of the process. That is one of the big differences, I think. With free painting, personal painting, it takes more time, and you must be able to give yourself that time. 
R: Yes, it takes time. That's something I'm learning now, after all those years making art in a more commercial way. As you said earlier, it takes time to find your own style, distinct from the work of other artists.
D: It takes time and it takes experience to realise the pictures that are in your own mind.
H: Do you have a clear picture in your mind when you begin a new painting, or do you just start drawing and allow the work to develop?
D: I have a picture, but it is not a very precise picture. I try to see with my sketch if I'm going the right way. The sketch is the first step in turning the picture in my mind into a painting, but the image might change as I work through the process. It's a process of technique, but also of exploration, discovery.
H: When I'm directing theatre, I have to start with something visual, I have to see something before my ideas will start to flow. I'll start with something simple, a movement or an image, and then I'll go from there. It's a continual feedback process for me: I'll see something in an actor's movement, or the introduction of a mask or a prop, and that will spark ideas, and then I'll try something else, and that in turn will spark more ideas. Perhaps that's the theatre equivalent of an artist's first sketches...? Like you, Didier, I have an idea in mind but it's not precise, and it changes as the work develops. What about you, Rex? Do you have a clear idea in mind when you start a picture?
R: Yes, actually, I do. Unlike you and Didier, I start with a very precise idea. When I'm drawing storyboards, I try to see the whole film scene in motion, from different camera angles; I try to see the whole thing, but moving, and then I ask myself: What is the most important frame? What’s the bit here that I need to make still? Then I imagine that moment in its completeness, in its entirety, and I draw it. That's my process.
  D: I also have to make a decision on point of view before I begin a picture. If I have a character to represent, I have to decide what is the best point of view in favour of... How do I explain? For example, if I've got a guy in a situation who is in danger, my point of view would be from the top, so that there is a menace. You say 'menace'?
La Dernière Flèche.
R: Yes, menace.
D: If the character is in a more powerful situation, I mentally turn the scene around in order to see him from a stronger perspective. But, I am limited by the dimensions of the book cover, and I have to think about where to put the text.
R: The point of view in storyboards is trickier, because I might have a terrific looking image on the page but it's useless if the cameraman can’t achieve the shot. The cameraman may say: I can’t take that shot, it’s too big, or broad. I can’t get high enough. When drawing a book cover, you may be limited by the size and shape of the book, but you will always be able to get the shot you want.
D: For book covers, I have to find a kind of rhythm in the picture so that I can realise the vision that I want...and if I can do that, then I am not so much limited by the text that will be on the painting.
H: Another thing that I wanted to ask you, Didier, is whether book illustration in France has changed over the years like it has in this country. We have a friend here in the village, Dave Wyatt, who illustrates books for English publishers, and for him the primary change is that the amount of time he has for each assignment has gotten less. He does a lot of his work on computer now, which is one way of keeping up with the faster deadlines. He'll do an initial sketch, scan it into the computer, and then complete the painting digitally. It's a method that has a lot of benefits, such as the ease with which he can make any changes the publisher wants. But you were saying, when we discussed this earlier, that there are drawbacks to this method too....
D: When I started illustrating, it was with real paintings, always. Over time I have had to evolve to the new, and all my latest covers have been digital. I, too, always start with a sketch on paper and then scan it into the computer. You have time for reflection when you draw by hand, but working digitally is like a performance, you have to go quickly. One advantage to the digital method is that it is easier to send files to a publisher. In the old days, I would send my original sketches and paintings by post, with the risk of damaging or losing the pictures.
H: The picture on the cover of your 2011 calendar, Les Mondes Fantastiques which you have very kindly given to us, was originally a digital picture, you said -- and you then made it into a painting.

Aéropolitain Quay No.3.

D: Yes!
H: One of the problems with digital images, Dave Wyatt has told me, is that you don’t actually have a finished object. It’s all just in the machine and you don’t have something physical at the end of the creative process.
D: Yes, that is so. I was asked to create the calendar by a publisher, and I had the freedom to chose the images I liked, so the cover picture is my own universe, my own vision and imagination; it is the real me. But I was frustrated when I finished the picture because I should have made this image much bigger. In my imagination it was meant to be big and impressive, not small and digital! So I re-created the picture in paint. And it changed a bit, it has different details, because the medium was different, the scale was different, and  because I re-painted it three or four months ago and I could see it with new eyes. 
R: And that was more fun? Going back to paint? 
D: Yes, more fun. More satisfying. The technique I used was different, too. When I work digitally I have a kind of pencil and brush -- but it is not my pencil, you know, not my hand on the brush. 
H: Do you use a pad when you're working on computer?
D: Yes, but I always want to be closer than the tablets allow -- so I bought a big tablet, where you draw directly on the screen. I wanted to see if I could reduce the space between my pen and the picture.
H: Is there a difference in that, if you are drawing live, you can put different weight on your pencil lines, but on a tablet...
D: ...you don’t have the same sensibility, yes. It’s plastic, even if you can push your pencil by digital means. When you are on paper, you can feel the frame of the page...not the frame...
H: The texture?
D: The texture, yes. And this I miss when I work on the tablet, the texture of the paper beneath my hand.
H: Sadly, Didier, we have run out of time! You need to go to meet the rest of the group for your ‘open studios’ tour that artists here are hosting for the French artists. Thank you very much for your time, and Rex and I will see you later at our ‘open studio.’

The Black Company, Dream of Steel.


  1. Great interview -- thanks for sharing your table talk. Now if only the croissants could slide across into my computer...

  2. I can smell the coffee. Wonderful chat. Love, Stu

  3. I'm really enjoying this blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and process, and sharing people like Didier too! The contrast between actual, physical work and digital is an interesting one, and has been an ongoing topic of discussion among illustrators. I cut my teeth on more traditional print illustration, but have been working for video game companies for many years now, and speed is king in this environment. I don't know what I would do without my wacom Cintiq monitor. Outside of some life drawing sessions and my sketchbook, I don't think I've done an actual, physical finished piece in years. Digital is such a forgiving medium too, and doesn't require the deliberation that real physical mediums do. I'm still trying to decide if that's good or bad; each approach has its own strengths.

  4. Another fascinating insight into an amazing artist's imagination and working methods. I've worked as a Graphic Designer for a long time, just stuff like brochures and magazines, and I have to say that I much prefer having a real pencil or paintbrush in my hand. Digital art is fun, but I couldn't ever give up the 'real' thing! I was having a conversation with a writer the other day, discussing the novel she's working on, and though I've never attempted anything like that myself, it was fascinating how similar our creative processes are. It's all magic!

  5. Even as a writer, when I'm dealing with a difficult scene sometimes I need to feel "the texture of the paper beneath my hand" (to quote Didier) by writing by hand into a notebook rather than pecking away on plastic computer keys. My mind works differently when I do so -- it's so much slower and more tactile -- and this almost always gets a difficult passage flowing again.

  6. Fabulous interview. I'm so enjoying your blog, you two - many thanks.

    I was struck by Didier's comment, as Terri addressed above, about how important it is for an artist - or writer - to have that tactile connection to their materials. When I'm beginning a writing project, or when I'm in a bit of a bind with my writing, or when I just want to meander and let the ideas flow organically, I need to leave the computer and get out one of my notebooks and my pen (of course it must be a...well...a specific notebook and a...pretty...specific pen or else I get nervous) but then, and only then, do things get rolling once more.

  7. Thanks for all the comments. We are getting really interesting feedback, both about our blog, and some of the themes raised. We are looking into the possibility of opening up forums, so that some of these discussions could have threads of their own.