Chapter 1: “A queer, ramshackle shack in the south of England.”
For the next series I will be designing elements from Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the Giant Peach’ – one chapter a day. I liked the idea that the house once was a part of a vibrant community, but a spiteful sinkhole collapsed under the entire village. The aunts were pleased, and it is a source of pride that they survived. Like a sign from Heaven that they are devinely beautiful.
Chapter 2: “Here is Henry James Trotter after he had been living with his aunts three full years.”
Design for James. I am setting this series in the early 1970s. Here we see the negligence and strictness of his aunts reflected in his wardobe. His hair was cut with a pair of sheep sheers they keep in the shed (and only because he was banging into things and couldn’t hear their commands). His clothes are a sloppy, uncaring blend for every season in one. He has a grungy, itchy appearance – like a vermin.
“That miserable tree never has any peaches on it!” The third illustration in this series is the peach tree. Nothing grows in the aunts’ garden, especially this tree. I wanted to be sure that the tree, an important figure in this tale, was represented as a character in its own right. It needed to fit within that world and act as a centre piece in the garden. It is a visual representation of the upbringing James has been subjected to. Physically, it is located at the very top of the hill, representing the last source of hope – yet it is very decidedly dead. I wanted it to feel like a miracle when it bore fruit. At the same time, the aunts still expect this taxed, unloved tree to bear fruit. They cut its lowest branches ( or rather, James is made to cut them) to enhance the growing potential. They have no qualms being cruel to get their results. It also makes it all the more unreasonable for them to demand he climb to the top to get the peach, because there is nothing left to climb on.
“Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short. She had small piggy eyes and one of those flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled. ‘I look and smell,’ Aunt Sponge declared, ‘as lovely as a rose! Just feast your eyes upon my face, observe my shapely nose!”
The first of James’ two spiteful aunts. As seven-year old James is forced to chop wood, his aunts sit in deck chairs sipping lemonade. While they are both terrifying, they both believe that they are stunningly beautiful. The contrast of 1960s starlet beauty painted onto the face of someone who looks like a “great overboiled cabbage” creates a grotesque impression. They are both wearing something that was designed for a slim model or Hollywood star. Imagine James being forced to do the clasps on her bursting dress…
Also note: a little preview of the spider under the table.
Chapter 2: Aunt Spiker
“Aunt Spiker, on the other hand, was lean, tall, and bony, and she wore steel rimmed spectacles that fixed to the end of her nose with a clip. “My Sweet, you cannot win. Behold MY gorgeous curvy shape, my teeth, my charming grin!”
The second of the two aunts. With this aunt I wanted to emphasize every sharp angle – there should really be nothing loving or kind looking about these two ladies. Her smile, which she thinks shines, is really a terrifying, toothy grin. She almost looks like she eats children, except she is clearly to starved for that to be true… Again pushing the tension between her perception of self versus reality to grotesque and comedic effect.
“For suddenly, just behind him, James heard a rustling in the leaves, and he turned and saw an old man in a crazy green suit emerging from the bushes. He was a very small old man, but he had a huge bald head and a face covered all over with bristly black whiskers.”
Carrying a white paper bag filled with more magic than exists in all the rest of the world combined, he pops out of the bushes and gives it to an orphan boy. There is a sense of urgency. Why is he giving this away in such a hurry? His suit is an old Victorian cut which, to a child, would look “crazy” but, to an adult, signals that there is something amiss. This man is magical and old beyond telling. He is also frightening. When he first sees him, James is reluctant to approach. The scarier the old man is, the clearer it becomes that James is desperate to escape his situation (He even agrees to drink a glass of frothing magic worms). The green suit suggests that he could be a leprechaun, although it is not expressly mentioned. It makes sense that a magical being in the modern (1970’s) world would be running out of time, and in a hurry to bestow one last miracle. His suit is oversized, because he is physically wasting away, and will soon vanish – hence his urgent attitude in giving this bag to James before disappearing.
I could have skipped to the insect characters, which is the reason I chose this story to design, but I am designing everything chronologically, and I had this big crowd scene… I decided to tackle it and see how I would handle it. I only had the same amount of time as I would have to design one character, so I needed to find a quick way to create a throng of people quickly. As tertiary characters, I simplified them a lot more than the primary ones. For simplicity, I also divided the crowd into three groups: children, reporters, and villagers.
The Old, Green Grasshopper
Now for the fun stuff! For the next six days I will be designing James’ insect companions. They offer a new set of challenges. How do you represent insects? How human do you make them? There is a certain amount of anthropomorphizing that happens after their transformation. They become the same size as a young boy. Some of the insects are shown wearing clothes. The biggest change is their behaviours. They are civilized, polite, and kind. There is a strong contrast between the terrifying quality of inhabiting a small home with enlarged insects, and they maintain a pride in their personal heritages as ‘vermin,’ compared to the civility with which they welcome James amongst them.
In designing the insects I chose to forgo using human qualities as much as possible. Their manners, posture, and movement are the only things that express their human mentality. I chose to maintain their natural anatomy. For the old grasshopper, that proved difficult. I imagined him hunched and upright, like an elderly, regal violinist – but the backward bend of his rear legs made it difficult to find a pose where he could believably balance while standing upright. I thought about rotating his rear leg to bend like a human, but that felt like cheating…
Another challenge of creating insect characters naturally was the lack of facial expression. I pushed some of the human features in the face, but chose to avoid creating a mouth or eyebrows that could move. Instead, if I were pursuing this project further, I would treat their faces like a mask. Each creature has a distinct personality that could live in an immutable set of features – then I would rely on gesture to express the scene in each illustration, as in pantomime.
So hear is the first of the company – alarming and approachable in one.
Most of the challenges with this character were the same as with the grasshopper, plus two more legs. I wanted to capture an appearance of elegance and lightness in her body, so I studied acrobats and ballerinas to find a sense of grace. She is the seamstress of the group, and prides herself on the delicacy of her weaving. On her side, she has clipped a Victorian chatelaine – a chain with sewing scissors, thimbles, needles, and other accessories attached by a chain – to aid with her sewing. For these designs I’ve limited each insect/arachnid to one human accessory.
Unlike the grasshopper, spiders only have two body segments, which made it difficult to pose her as upright as he was. I extended the body to create a more elegant form, and tilted the forehead forward slightly, but ultimately the spiderly posture remains.
“He simply cannot stop telling lies about his legs! the Earthworm cried, ” He doesn’t have anything like a hundred of them! He’s only got forty-two! The trouble is that most people don’t bother to count them. They just take his word.”
Having drawn all of them, I can say the Earthworm was wrong. There are a hundred. Lucky I draw the worm tomorrow! 😛
One of the most challenging drawings to do for this series due to all of the legs and all of the boots, the Centipede character offered a lot of fun elements too. For one, his body doesn’t lend itself to anthropomorphizing in any way. This meant I was able to leave it ‘all natural’ with only a little tweaking on the face to create the ‘saucy rascal’ smirk. As the main comedic relief in the group, I employed elements of silent film slapstick in posing his legs. I posed him in the middle of trying to undo his boots – and a jumble of legs is exactly what would happen. Some of his legs are kicking, bracing, or even standing on his head, while the ones at the far end are kicked back, relaxing, or asleep. In development there were infinite contortions, but I chose this one to show off his face, framing it in the tangle of his own feet.
What a relief it was to draw the worm after the 42 centipede legs yesterday. For The Worm, since there weren’t many design elements to play with, I worked on creating the impression of a worm the size of a large dog. How would an 100 lb worm look resting on the ground, for example. The fleshy parts of its body would press against the ground differently than a regular worm.
To convey it’s stuffy and anxious demeanour, it has a tight, starched neck tie around it’s neck… And maybe the neck tie is on the right end…
For such a familiar creature, the ladybug was actually one of the more challenging critters to design. Part of it was that they are so familiar that we forget to look at them closely – I had no clue what the underside of a ladybug looked like. I was surprised, seeing the underside, that the forms leant itself to caricaturization, almost like a little old lady. In the story the ladybug is known for its kindness and softness. Combine that with the hunched shape and almost shawl-like dome of its carapace, it made sense to cast the ladybug as a roly-poly old lady – almost a grandmother figure.
The Glow Worm and the Silk Worm
Two often-forgotten characters from this story, these two ‘worms’ are present primarily as utilities to the story.
The Glow Worm, who is technically a wingless larviform insect, is there solely to answer the problem of how to see inside a peach. The Silk Worm, actually a worm, spends most of the story asleep until required to spin a large amount of thread with the Spider to create strings for catching seagulls.
While the silk worm doesn’t have much personality, the glow worm is an understated presence. She is shy, and based on the shape of a glow worm’s carapace, highly reclusive – almost like someone wearing a large hat, sun glasses, and a high collared coat. At a point she even falls asleep with her light on – a result of being completely sheltered under a tent of shell. There’s a sweet tension in her character between being the most under-spoken member of the group contrasted against her brightness being the main feature of the room.
Since Inktober is wrapping up soon, and I only have Mr. Worm to draw today, I thought I would share some of the James and the Giant Peach development sketches. Each day there is an hour or more worth of research, experimentation, and exploration that happens before I draw that character. How will will they pose, what do they look like, how will I match the styles… I tried to avoid copying what others had done, so aside from my memory of seeing the Henry Selick film when I was a kid, I avoided looking at other interpretations and tried to stay true to my response reading the story through for the first time. It was difficult at first because my copy is illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, whose images are lovely and evocative, so I had to figure out what I personally could bring to the story that hadn’t been done before. I chose to emphasize the tension between horror and beauty, kindness and ugliness, and to capture the twisted titillation of Roald Dahl’s world.
In the beginning I used a red erasable pencil crayon to start off my sketches, but as I went I wanted to be more confident with my marks and more decisive/selective about what I was drawing so I switched to sketching straight with a pen. It freed me up to be a lot bolder with my line work, and also saved a lot of time.
“”In the distance and directly ahead of them, they now saw the most extraordinary sight. The travellers were close enough now to see that this was what the cloud men were doing.They picked up enormous shovels and rushed over to the pile of marbles and began shovelling them as fast as they could over the side of the cloud, into space.
“It’s hailstones!” whispered James.
“Hailstones?” the centipede said. “That’s ridiculous! This is summertime.”
“They are practicing for winter,” James told him.”
While I thought I was done with James and the Giant Peach, I read further and discovered that nearly a quarter of the book is about cloud men! I wanted to try something a little more atmospheric with this piece, as opposed to the precise line work of the character sketches. The change of style also supports their slow ascent into a magical realm, departing for a moment the limitations of reality before dropping unceremoniously into New York City.