Illustrating for Aliyyah

“I’m very excited about this one!” was publisher Allan Cameron’s mantra throughout this project.


Unusual for me in that it was not just a cover job, this was a commission for ten (nine, as it turned out) full-page illustrations. Aliyyah is Chris Dolan’s follow-up to Potter’s Field, his Glasgow-based contemporary crime novel, and it marked a characteristic change of tone and direction for him. Basing his story loosely upon one by Robert Louis Stevenson, Chris described Aliyyah to me as a fable of sorts, or a modern addition to Tales from the Thousand and One Nights in scope and setting, with touches of Eastern mystery, Western technology and Shakespeare’s Queen Mab making an appearance. Something simultaneously timeless and contemporary was what he was aiming for, with an unspecified setting, in an undefined time period, peopled by characters with clouded backgrounds.


If that sounds a little vague, it was fitting. My understanding of the story was to be built up only gradually as the text was fed to me in sections practically as they were ripped from the typewriter. I designed the cover without having read the full manuscript, but I had enough knowledge of the story to complete that first important stage. Allan needed the front for advance publicity and thankfully my approach of a very linear, almost Art Nouveau style was met with approval. The author had a notion that this little book would be a one-off “special”, perhaps designed to look like an old, found object, without even a author’s name on the cover. Although that didn’t quite come to fruition, I had the idea that the title — this unfamiliar word, “Aliyyah” — should become part of the pattern, an element of the overall design. Because it was not a particularly recognisable word anyway, I felt I could afford to make it almost suggestive of Arabic script, and more decorative than legible.


I decided I had to wait until the text was completed before I could make an informed decision on which were the key scenes I should illustrate. During our correspondence Chris supplied me with a list of suggestions which happily tallied almost exactly with my own choices. Publisher and author waited patiently for my first batch of pencils, which I had promised several times but which proved, ah, reluctant to make their appearance. When they finally did, they were met with great enthusiasm, much to my relief. The guidance I had received was that these should be reminiscent of the Victorian style of book illustration: full page, bound in a simple hand-drawn line frame, and with a legend beneath drawn from the body of the text. While it is one thing to draw inspiration from the greats such as Rackham, Goble and Beardsley, it was quite another to get down on paper the images I saw in my head, and to produce work of any kind of quality. I wanted to create something stylised and elegant, using negative space and line pattern to create balance. And I had to do justice to the quality author’s jewel-like tale.

Happily, both Chris and Allan are generous in their advice and appreciative of the artist’s role. In fact, they trusted me to do pretty much whatever I thought worked — which is music to the ears of the illustrator, but perhaps risky unless you are familiar with his or her body of work.


Having read the text I began to sketch thumbnails in my diary at a very small scale — an inch or two — to see what might work. Moving up in scale for the final pieces I tried to bring them all along concurrently to maintain consistency; however, my memory was letting me down at this stage — For example, when I drew the scene in which Haldane experiences what he takes to be a vision of Aliyyah floating in the dark evening sky. I had the notion that he was walking through the orchard, and so drew the brightly lit young woman partially obscured by a lattice of branches. In fact there were no trees in this scene, and I had concocted them entirely. I quite liked the way they looked, and was disappointed to discover they would have to be chopped down. Chris, however, didn’t object even after I pointed this out, and so the trees remain in the final illustration.


The balance of tone throughout the batch veers between clean, white empty spaces — whitewashed interiors, sunlit fountains — and dark, dense texture and movement: night woods, library shelves creaking with leather-bound volumes, swirling smoke and curling drapery. Throughout cover, illustrations and text drop caps I threaded a recurrent motif in the form of the damaged radio from the crashed helicopter that has been salvaged and becomes the soldier Haldane’s only chance to bridge the gap between his enforced, enclosed recuperation and the army life and colleagues which remain elusive in his memory and throughout the tale itself. Its form of a dark, square box, with circular detail and tentacle-like cables was a counterpoint to the more natural forms of the fig trees, flowers and rippling water of the gardens surrounding his rescuer Duban’s house in the idyllic enclosure.

I can admit to a minor lack of satisfaction in my final submissions, in that despite trying to work them up to a finish simultaneously, my style wavered from drawing to drawing just a little too much. The earlier illustrations show a more regimented, laboured line style (such as the white bedroom) as opposed to the looser, more free line evident in the latter drawings such as the homecoming. On a more technical note, I drew these on my favoured tissue-like layout paper which develops a pleasing, crinkly quality as it is worked upon. However, in retrospect a more stable surface might have given me a cleaner line. Furthermore I should probably have worked on a slightly larger scale to allow more control in my line work. These drawing are reduced only to 90 or 80 per cent on the page. Lesson learned for the next time, perhaps…


Maybe these are quibbles only the illustrator could raise; on the whole I’m satisfied with the result. More importantly, Chris Dolan is enthusiastic in his appreciation — and happy to have them alongside his story.

This blog first appeared on Vagabond

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