Frankly, The Folksy Magazine

An illustrators inspiration….. Lizzie Dixon

by Emily. Average Reading Time: about 8 minutes.

Lizzie Dixon bare necessities

I find so many inspirational things at every twist and turn it can be difficult to filter. Sometimes it comes from the most unexpected of places and I could harp on till kingdom come about all of these and more, so I’m afraid there may be a little waffle amongst the following! However, I have chosen five of the things which I generally look to most; some of which cover a great deal of ground, but I hope that’s not cheating…

1. Nature

I recently moved from the inspirational splendor of the mountains of North Wales over to the bump on the other side of the country; the flatlands of Norfolk, the county in which I grew up. A totally different landscape yet just as full and vibrant with some spectacular sunsets and sunrises. I’m lucky enough to live near to the coast, surrounded by fields, woodlands and wildlife so I only have to look out of the window if I’m having a creative block.

Nature inspires so many ideas in me and my list of things-to-do only gets longer and longer. It is at one and the same time predictable yet unpredictable. The seasons – autumn being my favourite – bring us a wealth of colours, patterns, shapes, textures and life that enrich the senses, refresh the mind and feed the imagination.

As many kids (and adults alike) do, I still love finding shapes in clouds. All kinds of faces and creatures stare down at me from the skies and out from the bark of trees … from anywhere really… in fact at the genesis of our relationship, my soon-to-be-husband passed over his number whilst finding me amidst the vegetation taking photos of tree bark! I’m not saying I’m looking for the face of Elvis in a slice of toast, or Jesus in a Kit-Kat Chunky but even the shape of a leaf or reflections in the water left by an ebbing tide can conjure up a name or an idea for a story or character.

In fact, there is a rather curious pelican hiding in the branches of an old oak tree at the bottom of the garden, he thinks that I haven’t spotted him yet but he loses his camouflage against the late evening sky!

2. The Magic of Puppetry and the Suspension of Disbelief

Warhorse – Handspring Puppet Company

I have always had a love of theatre and its all-encompassing drama. Initially training in Theatre Design I soon realised that what I had always suspected was true, puppetry was the area of theatre that I loved above all else. I blame Jim Henson myself; from the beginning of my life I was being entertained by The Muppets with my older brother. Being born in Germany and living there till just over two years of age, my initial introduction into this unique and charismatic programme was in German, but you didn’t need to know the language to understand the sentiment (not that I would have understood it all in English at that age!). The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth then came around and they are still two of my favourite films today and not just for nostalgia’s sake.

Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company (creators of the incredible War Horse puppets) wrote in his Statement of Practice in 2009 that the puppet in performance, the functioning puppet’s main objective is to strive to live; that “This ‘striving for life’ is it’s basic story…. So ‘story’ and ‘life’ have to be part of the very nature of any puppet”.

Puppetry is a wonderful example of the ability to suspend the audience’s disbelief and fascinate (if done well) with good character and manipulation. A prime example of this at work is the 1978 Michael Parkinson interview with Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog.

The viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief and the puppeteer’s manipulation to make the inanimate animate; breathe life into its lifeless form and carry the viewer away into that realm of fantasy for a little while is what I always have in mind as I’m creating compositions, characters and stories. For me 2D illustration has the same intentions for good storytelling, demonstrating movement and expression – the ‘striving for life’, as with Adrian Kohler’s puppets – in order to generate an emotional response and captivate its viewer.

3. The Bare Necessities

H is Dark Materials – Michael Curry

The minimal also interests me greatly – a Cheshire Cat approach is it were. As Abram Games’ motto declares: ‘Maximum Meaning from Minimum Means’ where just the bare essentials are given; the suggestion of the whole; encouraging viewer’s imaginations to ‘fill in the gaps’. There has been some wonderful examples of this in puppetry, namely with that of Michael Curry’s design for ‘H is Dark Materials’ at the National Theatre, 2004, and again the Handspring Puppet Company’s War Horse.

Being able to create a simple composition that has just the right dynamics is a surprisingly difficult thing to do. Lisbeth Zwerger, one of my most favourite illustrators is a master of being able to effortlessly create such images, accentuating empathy with character through use of blank space. The ink drawings of Japan, which I love, also display this focus on particular detail against blank space.

Susanne Koppe writes in The Art of Lisbeth Zwerger on the concept of free space and detail:

The contrast between free space and detail creates tension and is the essence of composition…. without proper details, a picture cannot be lifelike – but without skillful use of free space, a picture cannot come alive.

This idea of ‘eliminating the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak’ (Hans Hofmann) and use of different perspectives in compositions in order to enhance the experience of the viewer is what I am exploring in my work.

Where My Gumboots Take Me – Lizzie Dixon

4. Darkness and Shadow

I think my interest in shadowplay probably stems from my love and involvement with theatre, puppetry and a stint in the film industry – or may be it comes from the enjoyment of sitting around a fire at night watching it cast a frenetic shadowy dance all around.

The mood and atmosphere that shadows can create heighten the sense of the dramatic; becoming distorted, threatening, fierce or frightening, yet they can also be equally so innocuous and benign. They give altered perspectives and make way for a far more interesting visual.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m always spotting various shapes and characters in all kinds of things and the effect that the play of light and shadow has on its environment is no exception.

Darkness has such an instinctive effect on a person, and the word itself can conjure all kinds of imagery and set the imagination racing. It is a visceral and unforgiving thing. But darkness itself is not just to be ‘without light’ in our surroundings, it describes a psychological state of being, or situations in which we find ourselves. I find myself more engrossed in a story (or work of art) with a dark element to it, be it a threat, a challenge or a sense of foreboding. It gives way to something far more interesting than having fluffy bunnies having constantly happy times and living happily ever after without anything of significance happening. If nothing actually happens to face up to or overcome life could get pretty boring, and intrinsic to the human race is the wont to meet challenges and hurdles and conquer them… or sate our sometimes bloodthirsty cravings. (Through non-violent means of course!)

When I was in primary school, I remember creating a ‘ghost club’ with a couple of my friends. We would bring a book in, invariably borrowed from our parents’ book shelves, or if they were too big or heavy, memorise stories (i.e. fabricate and elaborate on more gruesomely) of anything that showed ghosts, good or bad, at work and in ‘existence’… I had to be told to stop by my parents as it was giving me nightmares after our ‘meetings’; but I looked forward to the storytelling immensely as we would gather together in a tight, secretive bundle at playtimes and try and scare the wits out of each other. I have fond memories of it!

5. Language and Literature

This has always been an important and inspirational area for me throughout my life – particularly my working one, be it through theatre, film or illustration – as it is the foundation on which the visuals are created in such cases.

Even within everyday conversational speech I may pick up on a phrase or couple of words which gives way to a great character name and/or story idea (or so I think!) which I write down and hope that one day it will develop and come to light.

Language that is rich with imagery draws me in most of all, of course, and I love the bizarreness of many an old wive’s tale. The Opies (Peter and Iona) have undertaken much research and written many wonderful books on folklore, fairytales and the language of the playground, all of which are filled with evocative examples.

One of my all-time favourite writers is Dylan Thomas who writes with such poetic grace; every sentence a juicy treat, steeped in and dripping with such visual delights. To read his works is to hear music.

Another is Angela Carter who also has a poetic cadence in her writings, and who also wrote her own ‘fairytales’ or narratives which are full of symbolism and dealing expressly with the imagery of the subconscious. As she herself said, by extracting the ‘latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories’. Again, they conjure up a wealth of imagery and emotion, and also encourage an active imagination.

Ultimately it is with characters and stories that my final interests and passions lie, but inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere.

You can see more of Lizzie’s work on Arts Thread. Or browse more beautiful illustrations on Folksy.