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TNC Interview 2021

Neil Packer
Dante's The Divine Comedy
From 17th -23rd October, 2021 The Coningsby Gallery in London will have an exhibition 'One Of A Kind' celebrating Neil's work.
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The Folio Society recently released their latest Limited Edition of Dante's masterpiece The Divine Comedy which features 100 illustrations from award-winning illustrator Neil Packer. The New Current spoke with Neil about this project and his work in illustration.


Hi Neil, it's great to talk with you, have these strange provided you with any new creative opportunities?

Illustrators tend to be in a perpetual state of lockdown, at least during periods of the drawing process. The inspiration bit sometimes requires a little more interaction with the world but that doesn't necessarily mean needing to physically go anywhere. The 18 months of lockdown more or less coincided with my work on The Divine Comedy and apart from one or two logistical difficulties as a result of not being able to meet up with the production team as we would have liked, what lockdown most gave me was time, time to study, and time to properly absorb Dante's masterpiece. Something that was both essential and a rare privilege.

Congratulations on your recent Bologna Ragazzi Award, What does it mean to get this type of recognition for your work?

It meant a great deal to win the Bologna Ragazzi, One of a Kind was the first children's book that I wrote as well as illustrated, I was unsure of my skills as a writer and this was a kind of validation. I wanted this book to be above all else a good classroom resource. I was married to a teacher for 20 years and spent a lot of that time helping her put together visual material that would engage her pupils and I guess a lot of that stuff must have stuck. I made this book for my 8-year-old self as well as my 58-year-old self, but you always hope that it will have a wider appeal and it is very special when you discover that it has chimed with other people too.

You have worked extensively with the folio society, what was the first book you illustrated for them?

The first book I illustrated for The Folio Society was I Claudius published in 1994. I have had a career-long relationship with them and I am extremely proud of the body of work we have produced together. In 1993 I walked into their office with a folder under my arm unannounced and a month later they commission I Claudius. You never know where a break is going to come from in this business, I probably walked into 10 other publishers touting for work that same week and nothing came of it. It just goes to show that it's really important not to get disheartened by rejections.

Do nerves ever set in when you’re releasing a new book?

I am not particularly nervous about releasing a book, by the time a book is published I am normally well into the next book and that has become the all-absorbing obsession of the moment. I used to get nervous starting a project but I am pretty experienced now and although I still don't really know where the ideas come from I know that at the very least something will happen and I will manage to produce half-decent work.

What is it about The Divine Comedy that interests you so much?

It examines in forensic detail all of the human condition, it is exquisitely written, it is both shocking and transcendently beautiful. It moves seamlessly from academic thought experiment to farce and then effortlessly juggles political scandal, religion and science. There is a reason that it has been regarded as one of the cornerstones of literature for the last 700 years.  It is a visual treat for any artist and offers opportunities to stretch your imagination over an extraordinary range of subjects.


© 2021 Neil Packer / The Folio Society 

When working on a book what are the first steps you take?

Firstly you have to have a good understanding of the overview of the book, what is it saying and how best would my illustrations serve this book. In the case of The Divine Comedy it became apparent very early on that it would definitely require an illustration for each canto (100) in total. Not complex pictures but to try and distil the theme of each canto down to a simple image. In the case of a book like this it is important to let Dante do most of the speaking, no amount of visual spectacle can compete with his writing, so it's better to focus down on some of the detail or highlight poignant moments within the essence, always try to serve the text.

How much did reading the Divine Comedy influence how you approached your illustrations.

I try to reinvent a style of illustration for every book I do, or more accurately perhaps at least try to push my style in a direction that best suits the book I am currently working on. In the case of The Divine Comedy I took medieval woodblock prints as a starting point. Medieval woodblocks can be very unsettling, disturbingly graphic and also quite funny in equal measure. They are not usually over embellished and can sit beautifully as a graphic device within a page of text without distracting from it too much, I felt that this was probably the right approach for this version at least. 

The two enormous elephants in the room when it comes to illustrating The Divine Comedy of course are Blake and Gustav Dore, both their versions are sublime and both have very different approaches, by choosing a simpler medieval style I tried to distance our version from theirs, perhaps referencing earlier printed versions as well as making it a more manageable proposition within an 18 month timeframe.

With 100 illustrations what are some of the challenges you faced working on this project?

We chose to do an illustration for each canto because of the depth and richness of the writing, I could have chosen from 5 or 6 different themes from some of the canto's. It is important to bear in mind the overall arc of the poem and try to play off what has gone before and what is coming up. I try to make each illustration as different from the previous one both visually and as an idea in order to create a bit of light and shade, but most importantly to let the text talk and then to follow and compliment.

The most challenging book of the three is Paradiso. Here in places Dante confesses that even his language is not sufficient to describe what he is seeing, it would be utterly pointless if not outrageous for me to attempt to show it myself. The point being that it is left to the readers imagination to try to imagine the unimaginable. However, Dante does allude to some contemporary albeit slightly wrong science in the form of astronomy to partly explain at least the architecture of heaven. These observations appear in my illustrations for Paradiso in the form of beautiful planetary epicycles, like glorious medieval Spirograph drawings which were an early attempt to explain the seemingly glitchy trajectory of the planets across the night sky.


What is the first thing that goes through your head when you se the completed work for he first time?

As I write this I have not yet seen a copy of The Divine Comedy although my copy is due to arrive next week. The Folio Society's production standards are extraordinary high even with their regular books. Their Limited Editions are works of art in themselves, genuinely something that will last generations so I have absolutely no doubt that I will be thrilled when I see it.

There is an excitement about seeing work for the first time but I also see things I would have done differently. This is common among illustrators and authors and musicians in fact anyone who makes something at a certain point becomes hyper critical of their own work and sometimes it takes years before you can truly see it with fresh eyes. 

I still get a shock when I see one of my books in a bookshop, as if I am surprised that the thing I spent ages noodling about with on my desk has now somehow found it's way into a public space through no fault of my own, and it looks oddly out of place.

© 2021 Neil Packer / The Folio Society 

"I think in a way my work is visually simpler now and works better for it, it's only taken 36 years to realise that less can be more."

Have you always had a passion for illustration?

Yes I knew as soon as I realised that someone must have made all the picture books I was enjoying at the age of 5, and that this must be a job that actually exists. 

My background in graphic design is hugely influential and extremely useful. I learnt how to use typography and how to set an illustration, how to layout a spread as well as technical aspects of what was possible in printing. It is invaluable to be able to speak the same language and understand the job of a production designer or a printer when illustrating a book. 

How much would you say your style and approach to your illustrations has changed since your first book?

My first book was a children's book for Methuen in 1985 it was actually my first job as an illustrator and I was working in pencil crayons back then, still obsessively detailed but very different from what I do now. I then went through a very long period of private commissions and then commercial illustration using gouache largely in advertising in the US and that meant constantly being asked to re inventing my style, something I have done ever since. I don't know if the need to always try and change has had a positive or a negative effect on my career. I think that I have managed to avoid being "type cast" at least, which is a blessing as it keeps everything fresh and I do get invited to work on a broad variety of projects. I think in a way my work is visually simpler now and works better for it, it's only taken 36 years to realise that less can be more.

Do you have any tips?

I would say that far more than talent the thing most required to make it in this profession is an obsession. I don't think I was particularly talented when I was starting out but I did have an obsession bordering on compulsion. 

There is probably no single defined route into illustration, there is a lot of emphasis put on good degree courses and it is undoubtedly useful as a head start in terms of the contacts through peers and lectures as well as some useful technical knowledge, but will it make you a better illustrator? I took a vocational course in graphic design and was far from a good student at that. But it gave me a really good understanding of print and I would probably have been quite happy doing it for the rest of my life but the old desire to try and make it as an illustrator eventually got the better of me.

Like anything in the arts if you want to do it enough you will find your own route, you will put up with the knocks and the disappointment and you will feed on the sheer hard slog, there are as many self taught people within this profession as those that have studied at degree levels, the level of attrition is huge but if you spend long enough doing anything you will get good at it. You just have to want to do this an awful lot as the rewards aren't that great other than the work itself which can be enormously rewarding.

Finally, what do you hope people will take away from your work?

I think it depends on the role of illustration within a given project, I don't really like drawing comparisons between different art forms but in some cases, and particularly in publishing, perhaps the role of the illustrator can be similar to that of a film composer. The best film scores are the ones that you don't even notice at the time but they prompt certain emotions and if you took them away the film would have a very different flavour.

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