Part 2 – Email correspondence with John Coulthart

Hello, fellow illustrators, here is the second part of the email correspondence between me and John Coulthart. As an illustration student learning different styles and processes, John Coulthart has greatly helped me influence how to apply and consider the ways I could possibly work in. The reason part 2 is included throughout this blog page, is because I was concerned for the word count and thought it would be possibly easier for the reader to continue reading.

John Coulthart’s work has inspired me to look further even into the premise of digital art and even considering graphic novels. Here is some of John Coulthart’s illustrations and comic book art that have greatly influenced my ways of working. I particularly love HP Lovecraft, Graphic explorations of the Cthulhu and the Lord of horror, the nightmare on history. Here are they below.

John Coulthart, HP Lovecraft – Graphic explorations of the Cthulhu Mythos
John Coulthart, Lord Horror – The nightmare of history

Here is the second part of the correspondence below.

6) Me: What do you feel are your greatest strengths and weaknesses in illustration?

John: “Figure drawing has always been my weakest area so it’s the area I tend to labour over more than others. I used to think this was because I hadn’t gone to art school but having worked in comics for several years it’s obvious that many artists have a natural aptitude for figure drawing, just as other artists have a natural aptitude for cartooning or drawing caricatures. My natural aptitude is for architecture and the rendering of solid forms, especially through shading. I love Piranesi’s etchings of Roman ruins, and any kind of engraving and textured rendering. I’m also pretty good at imitating or pastiching a variety of
different art styles; I like the challenge of trying to work in a different style. I also have a good sense of composition which is an important thing for cover design.”

7) Me: how do you see yourself in five years?

John: “In five years I’ll be 64, like in the Beatles song, although I certainly don’t feel that old. When you get to this stage of your life you’re usually happy for things to continue as they have been doing, and to
stay healthy and productive. Things are different when you’re younger, changes happen much more frequently. From the age of 20 to 35 I seemed to be changing direction every five years or so: doing album covers and T-shirts for Hawkwind, then adapting Lovecraft stories into comics, then working for UK and US comics companies, then working for US games companies. Soon after that I got a computer and started migrating my working methods from physical media to digital art. For now I’m enjoying
working on books, inside and out, so I hope this continues. I’d also like to be getting more of my private work into the world. I have some plans in this direction.”

8) Me: How do you get approached by people asking for commissions?

John: “I don’t have an agent for my artwork—I’ve tried them a few times but they never seem interested—so I make a point of being easy to find and to contact. I’ve had my own website for almost 20 years now, and I have an uncommon (Scottish) surname so I’m easy to locate when people are searching for things. Having a durable web presence also means that my work turns up even in searches where people aren’t intentionally looking for my art. Consequently, I get many commissions from people who’ve
found my work by accident after they’ve seen a cover on Pinterest or somewhere.”

9) Me: Do you get repeat commissions from people?

John: “Yes, thankfully. I have a good relationship with a handful of publishers who like what I do and ask for more.”

10) Me: What is your least favourite illustration project? (you don’t have to answer this question)

John: “Many years ago I was asked to illustrate a fantasy book for a small publisher, and was dismayed to find that I didn’t like the book at all. I persevered for a while, and drew a couple of lacklustre pieces but
eventually told the publisher I was abandoning the project. This was bad behaviour on my part, I think now I could have done something with the material. A couple of years later a similar thing happened with a mediocre horror novel which I did illustrate to the satisfaction of author and publisher but I wasn’t very pleased with my work on the book at all.”

11) How do you overcome a creative block ?

John: “I never seem to suffer from a block as such but I can occasionally be stumped for which direction to go in. When this happens I don’t spend too much time worrying about it, what I do instead is start with whatever seems the best option then find out how that goes. This is more of an issue with design work than illustration, since design has different priorities. Illustration is only a problem if, like the
fantasy book that I didn’t like, I don’t feel inspired. Something I often do in either case is think “How would X approach this?”, with “X” being another designer or artist or illustrator whose work I like. This
seems to be effective because the work that you like excites your imagination in a manner that your creative problem may not be doing, so you circle round the problem for a while then come back to it feeling energised by your enthusiasm. It’s not a question of imitating somebody else’s approach in the final work, it’s more to do with stepping into somebody else’s shoes for a moment to see if this makes you see the problem from a different angle.”

12) Me: What inspired you to create the Lovecraft adaptation covers?

First edition Oneiros Books (1999) Introduction by Alan Moore. The Haunter of the Dark. The Call of Cthulhu illustrated by John Coulthart

John: “All the Lovecraft work I’ve done over the past few years has been a result of having adapted two of Lovecraft’s stories as comics in the 1980s. These eventually formed the core of my first book, The Haunter of the Dark, in 1999. In 1985 I’d decided that I’d done enough artwork for Hawkwind’s album covers, and wanted to do something that was completely different. I’d been reading Lovecraft’s stories for many years, and was surprised that there wasn’t much illustration based on his work apart
from the covers of the book themselves. I chose the comics medium because you could essentially illustrate an entire story this way, rather than one or two scenes. I dislike superhero comics but I used to
read Heavy Metal, the US comics magazine, where the strips were much more interesting and art-oriented than the superhero comics. In the late 70s Heavy Metal also published a Lovecraft special which once again made me wish there was more work like this around.”

“Lovecraft is an important writer because he hauled the horror genre into the 20th century by throwing out the Christian background of the supernatural, and blending horror with science fiction, littering his
stories with references to Einsteinian physics, Futurist art and so on. He also had a great enthusiasm for architecture which appealed to me, and which you still don’t see reflected so often in illustrations of his
work. People tend to focus much more on the monstrous elements, especially Cthulhu, which is one of the few Lovecraftian deities with a defined appearance. There’s something very attractive about the phrase “cosmic horror” although it’s a sub-genre which can be difficult to illustrate. This creates challenges you don’t get with other forms of horror. How do you represent para-dimensional gods or alien creatures and the millennial time-spans they inhabit? How do you represent the
truly alien and unhuman? These kinds of questions keep me coming back to Lovecraft’s stories.”

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