Networking: Email Correspondence with John Coulthart

As part of the illustration module, we needed to contact different illustrators for the blog page. British graphic artist, illustrator and author John Coulthart, as created the most phenomenal pieces of illustration and art. Through his imagination, colour and obsession with the unknown. I first contacted John Coulthart in early February, thoroughly concerned that I might not get a response. However he did respond, and answered my questions, for which I can’t thank him enough. Here is his website: { john coulthart }

Hi Jessica,

Here are my answers to your questions. I hope you find them worthwhile.
If you have any follow-up questions then that’s okay. I’m still busy
with things but some of the panics of the past two weeks are now under
control.

Thanks,

John

illustrated by John Coulthart, Lovecraft illustration
  1. Me: Why did you become an illustrator?

John: “It was something I was always gravitating towards in my teen years. I was interested in fine art from an early age thanks to my mother who had been to art school, and still had a few books and art magazines around the house. But the idea of being a fine artist, making art solely for galleries and the people who frequent them, was never very attractive. I was reading adult fiction—mostly horror and science fiction—from the age of 12 on, and the covers of the books stimulated my imagination. Image
plus text: that was always an exciting thing. Chris Foss ruled the science fiction covers at this time, you’d go into W.H. Smiths and see a whole wall of his art on display; book shops were like miniature art
galleries in this respect. I was about 13 or 14 when I drew a couple of pictures of spaceships that were poor imitations of the Foss style. Despite the shortcomings of these drawings my friends at school were
impressed, a reaction that in turn impressed me, and made me want to do more of the same. Soon after this I got my parents to buy me Views, the first book of Roger Dean’s work as an illustrator and designer of record covers. I immediately forgot about Chris Foss and started drawing many poor imitations of Roger Dean’s art. The success of Views had prompted Dean to publish more books of imaginative art under his Dragon’s Dream imprint so I started collecting these when I could afford them. Several were by artists whose work I knew from the covers of books I’d been reading, people like Bruce Pennington and Ian Miller. Around the same time (the late 1970s), New English Library published Visions of the
Future, a book that recycled cover paintings and artist profiles from NEL’s large-format magazine, Science Fiction Monthly. Each profile contained details about the artist’s education and work to date,
together with a few quotes. The most important thing for me about all these publications was that they confirmed that illustration was a viable career, and one connected to the kinds of fiction I enjoyed reading.”

2) Me: What kind of illustration projects are you most interested in?

John: “Anything to do with horror and fantasy on the whole. I still do science fiction work now and then—I’ve just done the cover and interior illustrations for a collection of stories by Bruce Sterling—but my
imagination seems to work better in other areas. I also like subjectsthat are a little offbeat in some way. I’m not one of what I call “the dragon painters”, people who do very typical fantasy art in oils or
acrylics. I can do straightforward genre themes if necessary (and I used to paint with acrylics) but I prefer it if the subject isn’t so typical.”

3) Me: What are the weirdest Briefs you have ever been given?

John “Probably the books edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Jeff has a very quirky sense of humour that often generates unlikely book ideas which he somehow persuades people to publish. In 2003 we collaborated on a big story collection, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric
and Discredited Diseases, for which I had to find (or create) many old and unusual medical illustrations, as well as design the book to imitate many different print styles. Ann and Jeff followed this in 2010 with The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, a book that required more unusual illustrations and graphics. Then there’s their short KosherGuide to Imaginary Animals which tells you which fantastic creatures are okay to eat if you’re Jewish and happen to find any edible fantastic animals. This was a humorous book that wasn’t intended to be insulting. Ann is Jewish, and helps run her local synagogue so she knows her subject.”

4)Me: What interests do you have outside of illustration?

John: “Reading, obviously, but I also listen to music almost all day, every day. I’m something of a music obsessive, I have several thousand CDs, and love to listen to music while I’m working. I’ve also collected films for years, first on tape, then DVD, now on blu-ray. I have rather eclectic and often obscure tastes when it comes to cinema so even though many films are available today via streaming a larger proportion of them aren’t at all. I don’t watch much new Hollywood fare, I’m usually watching old or new foreign films, or older films in general, going back to the silent era. Blu-rays for me are a dream come true, giving you the ability to see previously scarce films in high definition any time you want.”

“I also chip away at private projects when I have the time. I’ve written two novels which publishers have found “uncommercial” so they’re still unseen. These are part of a larger project based around an invented city which I created to be a setting for work in different media.”

5) Me: What is the work you are most proud of? why?

John: “I don’t know if I feel proud of anything as such since I can often point to flaws in almost anything I’ve done, minor things I wish I might have done better which I’m sure most viewers wouldn’t really bother about or even notice. But if you’re creating art of any kind then you’re usually
aiming at a goal of some sort, even if the goal isn’t very well-defined or is only recognised as such after you’ve reached a certain point. I’m pleased to have two books of my work out in the world, and I’m pleased that some of my covers led to my being given a World Fantasy Award for best artist. I’ve often been dismissive of awards in general, but I changed my tune about the World Fantasy Award when I saw that some of the previous winners included artists who inspired me when I was younger.”

Overall, from this interview, I have learnt about the premise of being a freelance illustrator and how to overcome different challenges within the illustration agency. The interests outside illustration was also an important feature throughout the conversation. As we can spend too long focusing all energy on illustration itself, when in reality taking breaks is quite important. The questions I asked was quite simple, but overall I am interested on how the illustrator has developed a sense of style, and discuss later the application within my own work.

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