Last weekend I had the pleasure of presenting my latest work at the inaugural Kilkenny Animated festival in Kilkenny, Ireland. Below is my presentation in a nearly-trasncript form. Tomm Moore of Cartoon Saloon, illustrator and comic artist Alé Mercado, and myself presented our work in an event called Drawing History.
Ten years ago I read a story called Culhwch And Olwen. It’s an old Welsh story in the Arthurian tradition, and it was something of a revelation for me. It triggered in my mind what I can only refer to as a vision, and this image is the first finished piece of a project in which I’m trying to put that vision to paper and share it.
The Arthurian tradition, in which all the various stories of King Arthur and the web of related characters over the last 1200 years or more can be considered a part, is dominated by a Medieval portrayal of Arthur. A knight in armour, a King with a crown. A figure of Medieval Romance.
But underneath all that is another set of stories, a fragmentary layer of literature with an altogether different character. That is the world I was shown when I read the story, that’s the Arthur I met. That’s what inspired me. What I am trying to do with this project is peel back the familiar Medieval character and reveal the one I saw when I read Culhwch And Olwen.
To set the stage, the very basic groundwork of the winding narrative is; Culhwch, the main character, wants to marry Olwen;
Olwen’s father Ysbaddaden Penkawr is a giant, who will die should his daughter ever be married;
Ysbaddaden sets a pre-condition to his daughter’s marriage that any suitor must first give him a haircut and a shave.
Only a particular set of silver shears can cut his hair, and these can only be obtained through a seemingly impossible series of Herculean feats;
Culhwch enlists his uncle Arthur and his band of warriors and mythical figures to help him retrieve the shears and marry Olwen. The tale proceeds through one fantastical feat to another, and Arthur and his band come through as characters more mystical, wilder, and altogether weirder than anything I expected.
I thought I knew who King Arthur was.
I was wrong.
So I'm presented with a problem; how do I re-design Arthur to communicate this new vision I’ve been given of the character? What does ‘my’ Arthur look like?
In order to know what he should look like, I needed to figure out who he is and where (and when) he was to be located. The first step to answering the question was to frame it with a better knowledge of the rest of Arthurian literature and the history of Britain.
To summarise for our purposes a body of literature which it would take a lifetime to explore, Arthur appears essentially in two main forms. By far the most dominant, appearing in the vast majority of the literature, is the Courtly Arthur: a king, a knight, an icon of chivalry, as in the famous statue in Innsbruck designed by Dürer (Left).
But there is also another Arthur in his shadow: a folk hero, a protector of Britain who fights monsters and witches, and travels to the Welsh Otherworld to steal magical items and rescue prisoners. The Arthur on the Otranto Mosaic (Right) is shown riding a goat, and it’s probably the sea-cat Cath Paluc on the left of the pane. This is the weird Arthur of Culhwch And Olwen, this is the guy I was looking for.
Now that I’ve placed him in the literature, where do I place him in history? Understanding of course that I’m setting out to visualise fantasy and not to accurately illustrate history, I nevertheless need to choose my historical elements and visual cues carefully if I want to show a different world of Arthur than the Medieval one we know.
Two things became clear in my reading on early British history: First, Arthur belongs to the Britain before the Anglo-Saxon era began. This meant no castles, no suits of armor or cross-like broadswords, and no kings.
Second, the First Millenium saw Britain’s identity defined by the overlapping of cultures one on top of the other, from Britons to Romans to Saxons to Vikings to Normans. More importantly, Arthur was along for the ride, his story told and re-told from at least the post-Roman age until today. From Celtic bards to Charlie Hunnam movies. Arthur has absorbed something of all these eras, and I imagine his story reaching back past even the Romans to the Celtic Britons and their cousins in Ireland.
So now I could start to define who my Arthur is, and from there how communicate this in his design. Each answer to the question sets a framing restriction or guideline to the design decisions that follow.
I usually design single standalone images, or at most a small series of them. So I’m not practiced in designing a face to be rotated in 3 dimensions. In designing the head I was able very early on to conclude that my Arthur had to be a redhead, but was unable to find his face.
I moved from paper to a 3-dimensional medium, sculpting a maquette in polymer clay. This helped me by restricting my options (given my very limited sculptural talents) and also provided a single reference object for all my images. I left off the beard and hair to allow for images of a younger Arthur at some stage.
The costume design was where I combined visuals from various layers of history, inserting Celtic key-patterns into a late Roman tunic style, and designing a brooch based on the Golden Lozenge found near Stonehenge. Arthur also wears a bone wrist guard like the one found with the Stonehenge Archer. His belted sash is included to call to mind Scotland, and this was important for me since some of the old stories take place there and I wanted to say that the character belongs to all of Britain, not only England and Wales.
This is where History and Fantasy meet head to head. Historical accuracy was never the goal, but I find it important to diverge from it in a deliberate and focused way.
I look at this time period as a transitional one between an older world of many gods to a new world of Christian monotheism. I used the shield design to imagine a kind of mid-point between these two worlds, combining an ancient Greek shield with an illustration of the Virgin Mary from the Book Of Kells.
With the character design done I could start on the final piece, but given that I usually color digitally and wanted to make this one in traditional media I stepped back and made a test piece first, another more manageable scene from Culhwch And Olwen with just the two characters and background, to try out the process of drawing inks, colored pencils and acrylic ink.
I ended up scrapping my first composition, because I realised that in order to convey the weirdness and dizziness I feel in these old stories I needed a restless and less-formally organised composition. The test piece also helped to illustrate this point.
The new arrangement is more spontaneous, based on a few intuitive strokes across the image plane. It also lead to a distortion in the anatomy of Ysbaddaden’s head, which increased the weirdness again.
This is a brief look over the development of the pencils, the layering of blacks on the hair and the first steps of colored pencil and acrylic ink wash.
In the end, the image is quite true to my vision, and it needed these steps to get there.