John Vernon Lord on Illustrating Texts

The artist on annotating, choosing ‘frozen’ moments, fumbling and stumbling and imposing restraints.


  • John Vernon Lord
  • Exhibitions

The time allowed to carry out work when I first set out as an illustrator in the 1960s was often absurd, especially in advertising and magazines. The pace was hectic and the pressure tremendous. Everything seemed to be wanted by tomorrow. Many clients seemed to think that coming up with idea and drawing them simply dripped out of your fingers. The distinguishing feature of my recent work, however – illustrating texts by Lewis Carroll and James Joyce – is that I was given plenty of time. My publishers, Artists’ Choice Editions and The Folio Society, gave me more freedom than is customary. I was trusted and this was a privilege.

One always hopes that illustrations may enhance the experience of reading by illuminating and complementing the narrative. An illustration can also be a helpful mnemonic – a big reminder – of a certain moment in a story. I think, however, that an illustrator should do more than provide the reader with predictable images that merely echo the text. The illustrator must try to extend what the text may have to say by providing an extra dimension to what has been written. I think we have to offer a kind of surprise, to stir the reader’s imagination without the infringing upon the text’s suggested meaning.

The process of illustrating can be a complex one to describe. For me, the first involvement is a careful reading of the book. I have to get a feeling and an understanding of the whole book in my head before illustrating. This gradually helps me to focus on what I believe should be illustrated and what I’d like to illustrate.

I always write my own synopsis of each chapter and annotate a paperback copy of the book, highlighting important moments. This might be a description of a person or a place or a section of the text that particularly appeals to me. During an initial narrowing down process I usually produce very rough drawings in my notebooks or on pieces of scrap paper to establish what I eventually hope to illustrate.

Choosing the ‘frozen’ moments in the text is the main decision. The balance of one picture against another is another consideration. Content, composition, atmosphere and characterisation are the first things that occur to me. Colour and tone obviously come into it too.

For me, illustrating books is about trying to visualise ideas that emerge from the text, based on a range of interpretations that lurk like misty visions inside my head. This involves: composing and much fumbling and stumbling; the sorting out of marks; correcting and rubbing out; hesitating and adjusting; making quick decisions to overcome any weakness in the drawing; hoping and anticipating; taking advantage of the unexpected developments that surprisingly arise during the drawing process; getting the desired expression and mood and inventing new worlds. I try to take risks and do something I haven’t done before.

Ultimately you have to impose constraints on yourself to achieve anything at all. Here I am mindful of something that Leonardo da Vinci apparently wrote: ‘Art breathes from containment and suffocates from freedom.’ If there was no such thing as a time constraint I do not think I would ever stop. (I am often teased, by the way, for timing my work. As a full-time teacher I had to work out ways of maintaining my practice as an illustrator. I thus decided to embark upon the habit of timing my work when illustrating so that I felt comfortable committing to a publisher’s exacting deadlines.)

Another constraint (and a humbling one) is coming to terms with the limitations of you own abilities, both imaginative and technical. Perhaps our limitations, as folk who draw, can also be our strengths. Any deficiencies we may have in drawing and the way we overcome these inadequacies brings about a unique character to our images. Sound draughtsmanship can be extremely dull if conventionally wrought. Awkwardness in illustrations may be an interesting as fluency.

John Vernon Lord: Illustrating Carroll and Joyce ends 4 November 2018. Book exhibition tickets

This text is an extract from the exhibition catalogue, available to buy from our online shop