Cliff Wright is an illustrator who is most famous for his work on two of the Harry Potter book covers: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But there is also a lifetime of work on children’s books, a love of drawing animals and wildlife, commissions for Greenpeace and, more importantly, a passion of sharing his belief in the magic of drawing. I caught up with him recently at The Ark, A Cultural Centre for Children, in Dublin.
What is happening at The Ark with your workshop for teachers today and the two groups of children tomorrow? My teaching is very much drawing based, but based on the premise that we draw what we think we see. Every one of us does that to some extent, and if that’s the case we must be seeing what we think we see, so we’re not really seeing the world around us very well. Drawing is a demonstration of that being the case. This is an interesting thing to explore because drawing then becomes about how you look at things rather than a drawing skill. It releases the pressure you have to be a good drawer, and actually your answers are really all about seeing.
So when you are drawing about seeing, is it about what you bring to it? Bringing your inner self out, as it were? Yes, exactly that. If you are faced with an object and it doesn’t appear on the page in the way that you thought it might, although your expectations hoped that it would, really what’s happened there, what I’ve seen over and over again, is not a lack of drawing ability but a lack of seeing ability. So it’s about how you’ve looked at that object, and if you look at it you start to see it, then you start to see yourself in it, on quite a deep level. Because you are seeing your limitations, if you like. If I encourage you to see, yes, you are seeing the object more accurately, but you are also seeing yourself more accurately.
Do you think of all the visual tools of communication that drawing is the best discipline to bring out this art of seeing? Drawing is fundamental to any creative process. It’s such a simple thing; it’s a piece of paper and a pencil. You can show so much through that. Most other creative endeavours are more complex, and their basis is in really good drawing, or as I would say really good seeing.
Would you see drawing as a discipline? Definitely. We have a connotation of the word discipline that sounds prohibitive and tied to rigid ideas, but discipline doesn’t have to be rigid. It can still be a set series of exercises that one goes through, really to give oneself the best chance of meeting the moment in an object. It doesn’t have to be rigid, i.e. you have to do this in order to achieve that. I read a definition of discipline many years ago along the lines of ‘the meaning of discipline is: touch nothing and flow freely’, which is rather beautiful, and not the connotation we usually put on the word.
Do you think the natural world is very important to achieve this art of seeing? Totally. Because it has a myriad, never-ending world of forms and shapes, which are repeated endlessly. One can learn all one needs to learn from the natural world. Life drawing is fundamental and in observing the human body you learn so much about landscape shapes. I’ve a real love of country places, wild places, I love space. I teach a course now in the mountains of Scotland for that very reason, because your imagery is so different when it’s softened to a landscape, rather than a fast urban environment. You start to see things when you’ve been there for a while.
With these workshops, seeing what people produce is as rewarding as my own artwork. I’m learning a lot from them. When I teach the course in Scotland I work with a healer, who has all kinds of simple but deep techniques to bring you from the logical response of a landscape or an object to the intuitive. And that’s as much a part of my work as creating artwork, if not more so. Seeing that shift in someone who really sees what’s in front of them is incredible. It can be life changing. Our course this year was only with six students but each one of them has gone back and changed their life. The workshop is akin to looking through the eyes of a child. A young child’s innocence is usually very accurate because it’s all intuition, but then when they get to 7 or 8 they begin to lose that, and then ideas come along, and as adults we find it more difficult to return to that wonder of seeing the world.
Can you tell me about your own upbringing and background – has it influenced you and your work? I grew up in the countryside, I’m a country boy. I went to college in Brighton, and then went out trying to sell my artwork and very slowly got a stronger reaction from publishers of children’s books. I had an idea in the portfolio for a children’s book, which eventually got published as When the World Sleeps (Hutchinson 1989). It was runner-up for the Mother Goose Award. On the back of that, I was commissioned immediately to create another book, and from there the ball started rolling. It got to the stage that I was working on a dozen children’s books all in one summer, each with about 30 or 40 illustrations.
In terms of your professional illustration work, you have many children’s books with animals. For instance, you illustrated Good Day, Bad Day by Kathryn White, which I thought was close to nature and anthropomorphic without being twee or sentimental, and that’s a hard thing to do. That’s a comment I appreciate very much. That was one of the best projects I worked on. I was given very free rein. It was a difficult subject because it was about adults fighting and the reaction of a child, but by changing it into an animal story it can just be about badgers, and that worked immediately.
You’ve worked with Gerald Durrell – how was that experience? Yes, many years ago. It was a bizarre project because it was an advertising company that had decided to put together stories for the Andrex Puppy, and you could collect tokens at petrol stations to get your book. They had four different stories which they asked Gerald to write, and I got the job of illustrating them. A very different job to normal publishing. Usually in advertising, the jobs are worth a lot of money, but the deadlines and the restrictions of the terms are really hard to deal with. I had to create four books with 14 spreads each in two weeks. Madness. Interesting but not the best work I’ve ever done.
Is illustration linked in any way to what you are doing with your workshops? It relates. I’m teaching basic seeing so I’m not teaching about the more sophisticated work that I’ve made my career from. But I would argue that the link is in the fact that the workshops have seeing as a focus. If the seeing is good enough you are building up a library of imagery in your mind that’s different to someone who isn’t an artist, so you can call it back when you’re trying to draw from your imagination. Very often I might need reference, but not as often as one would think, because I’ve done a lot of seeing through the art of drawing. I have an image bank to call on.
How did the Harry Potter commissions come about? Bloomsbury phoned me up to say we have a seven-book series, one of the books has been done, but we’re not pleased with the style of that, and we want something else.
With the Prisoner of Azkabancover, I think it’s an interesting composition. All the action occurs top right, almost off the page, increasing the dramatic tension. It’s good you’ve noticed that. In fact, the book cover was cropped in from the original; the original composition was even further off to the right. And I fully intended that that drama should be there. If you have the space underneath the figures, you’re forming the detail of where they are, and the fact that they are moving so dramatically, it ideally wants to make you turn the page.
Did Harry Potter change your life in any way, like many others involved with the phenomena? Yes, it has. We had a dispute with the publishers that is now common knowledge; there were all sorts of silly things, but the last straw was when the artwork from Azkaban went missing. That was a big issue at the time, because it was known as the biggest children’s book EVER, and adding two and two together … you would wonder. It happened to the next illustrator on the series too. It soured the relationship, but aside from that, it changed my life and my career. It means that the biggest plus for me is that when I go into schools teaching, they will be listening because I did those covers, and that means I can get them doing some real drawing. EB