Carson Ellis, The Decemberists, and Sights and Sounds

Design*sponge, the blog where I get all the cute home decorating ideas I can’t put into effect in my tiny apartment, has started a new feature called Sights and Sounds.  The first post is about the illustrator Carson Ellis. I, like many I suspect, discovered her work from the Decemberist album Castaways and Cutouts. She’s done the cover art for all of their albums, and she’s actually married to Colin Meloy, a pretty perfect artistic collaboration in my humble opinion. Ellis also illustrates children’s books, notable Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, one of my favorite book series. (I read children’s books for pleasure.)

The whole post is a great interview about the collaborative nature of artwork for albums and the difference between such work and book illustration. I do a little work on illustration in the Victorian period, particularly the work of George du Maurier for Punch. Illustration was a popular component of serialization. My students have been reading Oliver Twist, and they’ve been struck by how much Geogre Cruikshanks’s illustrations of Nancy contradict Dickens’s text.  At any rate, Ellis’s points about the differences in her work illuminate the continued disjuncture between writers and illustrator:

They’re mostly just totally different. Working on album art has, in most cases, involved a close collaboration with a musician, whereas I’m rarely in contact with the authors of the books I illustrate. Also, figuring out a good visual counterpart to a record is an abstract process. You start from nothing but your impression of the music and the musician’s idea of what they’re conveying through it. From there you have an infinite number of directions to move in. Illustrating a book, with some exceptions, isn’t such a conceptual thing. It’s pretty literal. You read through a manuscript and typically illustrate the parts that conjure images in your head. It might be as simple as a picture of a monkey climbing a tree on a page that says, “The monkey climbed a tree.” Some books for kids are easier to illustrate than others and even within a very illustratable story there are still a million choices to make — choices about color and mood and style and, of course, which moments to illustrate. So, the statements you make in book illustration tend to be subtler ones. I love both things equally, though — they gratify different creative instincts.

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