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Light Amid the Risen Dark: an interview with artist Michael Heslop

LIGHT AMID THE RISEN DARK

An interview with artist Michael Heslop 

by Andrew Wallace 
 
Michael Heslop was one of the most prolific book cover artists working in the heyday of the industry from the 1970s to 1990s. His reliability with deadlines, total involvement in every project and ability to create powerful, evocative imagery meant he worked for all the major publishers, including Corgi, Futura, Pan and Mayflower. His work is characterised by precision and innovative use of strong graphic elements, particularly the ability to blend images and create a unique collage effect within a single frame.

He trained at Somerset College of Art, in Brighton & University College, and earned his living during the mid-1960s by teaching art in Devon. His artistic breakthrough came in 1967, when his illustrations of the history of postal services for the GPO led to work with publishers who wanted new talent for the burgeoning book cover market. Michael created over sixty covers during this time, and when the industry changed with the advent of computer graphics, achieved further success with sporting portraiture, focusing on golf and horse racing.

His versatility enabled him to create book covers in all genres, from spy and science fiction to books on history. Among his many enduring images are those created for Susan Cooper’s 1970s young adult fantasy novel sequence, The Dark is Rising. I wrote a piece for The Shadow Booth about the second novel in the sequence, and referenced Michael’s extraordinary cover art. I was honoured when he contacted me, and kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the creation of that iconic cover.

AW: Some illustrators have a broad brief for book cover illustration, others read the entire novel. What is your experience in capturing the visual essence of a book?

 MH: It is essential to read the book from cover to cover, and preferably more than once, as the atmosphere and essence of the story seep into one’s consciousness very slowly. I found it useful to shut myself away for a couple of days to concentrate solely on the project in hand, almost like an actor preparing for a role. I would even have objects relating to the cover idea there, as stimuli.

AW: Which objects did you have around you when creating the famous Herne the Hunter cover for the 1970s Puffin edition of The Dark is Rising?

MH: The inspiration for the Herne mask came from Susan's description alone, although I did have various images available to me in my own library, which all illustrators kept at that time. I recall that I used Elvis Presley's full lips for the human mouth, would you believe!

AW: That’s a priceless detail! Certainly, your image of Herne seeming to ride out of the book straight at the reader affected many kids who had the book at the time.

MH: I always had a strong sense of how I would have responded to my own artwork as a boy.

AW: What would the young Michael have made of the Herne picture?

MH: I think I may have been scared of the image, but intrigued also. Kids like to be frightened, but only in a mild way. It would definitely have drawn me to wonder what the story was about, and I would have liked the active ingredient of the galloping horse coming toward the reader at speed.

AW: The Herne picture is a perfect example of the kind of disturbingly familiar, yet uncanny left-field image that expresses what has come to be known as ‘the weird’.

MH: The idea of the weird relates to specific stories that require that unusual feel, and the artist searches for a mysteriousness that will attract the reader to the image. I was so lucky to be chosen to design and paint The Dark is Rising. How could one fail? The stories were so unusual: simultaneously dark and disturbing, yet uplifting, and made for visual interpretation.

AW: What attracted you to create the covers for The Dark is Rising?

MH: Painting book cover artwork was a job, and at times arduous and frantic because of deadlines and the necessity to earn enough money. At the time, I was living in comparative poverty in a shared house, in a small bedroom with just an easel on legs jammed in the corner. There were absolutely no surfaces for layout work or designing. All the Susan Cooper covers were produced in this environment. However, for all the journeyman aspects of the process, the stories were so mysterious and fantastical that producing the cover art was almost easy. The tales are very imaginative and sometimes frightening, and I wanted to create that atmosphere visually. Of course, as an artist you don’t do such clever writing justice, but Susan liked them; she got in touch from the States to say that my covers to the books were her very favourites.

AW: What was the process of creating that iconic cover for The Dark is Rising?

MH: It was the first cover art I produced in the series. At the time, I was experimenting with photography, and had the idea that an ultra-realistic background depicted in a bleached-out photograph could be a foil to the otherworldly illustration painted directly onto it. It was also very important to depict the mask exactly as Susan had described, with the antlers, eyes of an owl, etc.

AW: What techniques did you use?

MH: As well as the photograph, I employed a unique gum and ink technique I had devised. I also used circles as ‘holding’ elements. The circle is a good geometric shape to contain an image, or indeed break out from. Its hard edge is a foil to looser painting, and provides a visual connection to the typography – there was that link with the hard edges of lettering, and so on. Circles became a sort of trademark, my ‘look’ so to speak, and were extremely useful when producing artwork for a series of books like Susan Cooper’s, where there needed to be a unifying element across the set.

AW: Your work often explores the endless dramatic potential of the human face. What do you look for when creating different facial designs?

MH: Again, I think it is in the writing, and therefore becomes a question of how the artist responds to the written word, then attempts to devise an image that will draw readers in so they want to read the first page. In cover design an expression of anxiety, fear, elation, etc. in a portrait is paramount to the success of creating an attractive cover image. It’s not always easy to accomplish, but so satisfying when it works.

AW: Both you and Susan Cooper create multiple meanings through sympathetic depiction of landscape. Do places affect you creatively?

MH: Place is of enormous importance to me. I am eternally amazed at the beauty of our landscape. Twice I thought I could live permanently in a foreign land, in Sweden and Canada, and twice it was the English landscape that brought me home. For me, there is nothing that compares. I would love to have been a landscape painter, but I am foremost an illustrator and figure artist, and that is how I make my living. Many artists struggle to paint the figure, so I still take a degree of pride in that.

For more information on Michael and his work, visit www.michaelheslop.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Wallace is a novelist based in Kent. He writes for the British Science Fiction Association and magazines including Vector and We Are The Mutants, as well as blogging about SFF and the creative process at www.andrewwallace.me. The first two novels of his far-future Diamond Roads series (Sons of the Crystal Mind & The Outer Spheres) are out now, and his novella Celebrity Werewolf will be published by NewCon Press later this year.

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