Charlotte Ager – “Self-doubt can completely freeze you up” - Hindustan Times

Charlotte Ager – “Self-doubt can completely freeze you up”

Mar 29, 2024 07:16 PM IST

The illustrator on writing, reading and being commissioned to remake several of Orhan Pamuk’s book covers

You were recently commissioned by Penguin to make new covers for seven of Orhan Pamuk’s novels. The covers are spectacular. Could you walk us through your process? How did you make these covers?

Illustrator Charlotte Ager (Courtesy the subject)
Illustrator Charlotte Ager (Courtesy the subject)

Thank you, they were a really lovely series to work on. Ahlawat Gunjan, Art Director at Penguin India, reached out to me asking if I would illustrate a re-jacketing of several of Pamuk’s titles and I instantly wanted to be involved because I love opportunities to work across a series of images. It began with prompts from him about the idea of what they would like for each title and then I did lots of visual research on each book to get a sense of place/ atmosphere. I created a few rough ideas for each cover and then when they were decided upon, did another round of roughs to consider colour. Before starting on the final designs, I did lots of colour and material testing to work out how each image would come together. The finals are hand rendered in lots of layers so I had to spend a while figuring out how these would overlap. For some of the covers there were multiple attempts at getting this right. They are made with gouache paints and watercolour pencil which I hope gives them a feeling of intimacy and immediacy. It was special to be able to make the covers in this way as often digital methods are chosen over a hand rendered approach because of time and ease.

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You also work as an illustrator. How does your reading of a book change when you have to illustrate? What are you looking for when you have to illustrate?

I think I am more conscious of looking and figuring out the details of a place. I try and pay more attention to the language around describing rather than getting carried away with the story, which I tend to do. I am looking for more specific visual details that are mentioned and that could feature in a design.

One of the Pamuk covers designed by Charlotte Ager
One of the Pamuk covers designed by Charlotte Ager

Can the writing or the writer often determine the style of your works or is there a style that you like to follow for your drawings? I am asking because you have made covers for writers as different as Pamuk and Sylvia Plath.

I think the visual voice I use is definitely affected by the writer and tone of whatever media I’m illustrating. I believe Ahlawat selected my hand-rendered/ softer work as it suited the style of Pamuk’s writing. I think it’s something that I like about illustrating – that your visual voice has to shift to suit different commissions. It presents new challenges and considerations; it makes things exciting.

You are also a visiting lecturer at several institutions where you teach illustration. What do you teach in these classes? And are there any must have qualities for an illustrator?

I teach a range of classes and they are mostly more about testing/ playing to get students to feel more at ease with their work. From my own experience as an illustrator, self-doubt can completely freeze you up, making it impossible to make any work at all because you worry about what/how/why to make. So, I think developing skills to just start doing can be really important for students. I also have tutorials with students where I get to hear about their projects and mostly, I think it’s just important to try and listen and understand where a student is coming from so you can ask the right questions and offer advice. Making work can be extremely personal and make you feel very vulnerable, so I think it’s really important for illustration tutors to be considered listeners. I think creative resilience is probably one of the most important qualities for an illustrator to develop, and I had relatively none of this when I first began. The process of illustrating can be really lonely, confusing and frustrating so you have to find ways to deal with this.

I am also wondering about the economy of illustrated books. Are they easy to publish or difficult to find a publisher? You have self-published your books, Cake Tales – Around the World in 20 Cakes and Small Pleasures for Big Hearts. Any specific reason for that?

I think I see a difficulty in making illustrated books aimed at adults, I don’t think there’s that many avenues to get these kind of books published which seems absurd sometimes considering the enormity of the children’s book industry. As if we just become adults and stop enjoying pictures in books! I think I wanted to self publish these titles because I didn’t think they’d be successful with publishers; I wanted to make them like I did without having to making lots of changes to suit an idea of what people might want.

You also write alongside making illustrations. How do you balance the two or do you think these are corollary activities?

I don’t write that much. Occasionally, with some projects, writing gets to feature. I want to do it more within illustration and work with books/comics where this features. I do think the two forms are magic together. Again, take the success of picture books! I’m excited by what they can offer each other. I think I’ve learnt more on illustration because it’s what I trained in and I often find my own words falling short. It feels more natural to express ideas in images. I’m a very enthusiastic reader though, and I think books increasingly encourage my brain to start writing in my head. I hope they’ll be more space to allow this onto the page in the future.

An illustration that Charlotte Ager did for the New York Times
An illustration that Charlotte Ager did for the New York Times

How do you choose what you want to illustrate? Is there something that you will never illustrate?

I think I’m very influenced by my everyday surroundings and the change of seasons here in the UK. I enjoy pulling from the world around me a lot simply because it’s always changing and presenting new scenes and ideas. I keep a lot of sketchbooks and when I’m not working on commissions and can’t decide what to draw, I look back through these and there’s often kernels of starting points to be found. I don’t think I have much of a limit of what I wouldn’t illustrate, mostly that I wouldn’t want to make anything that upsets or offends anyone, or goes against my personal values.

Have you read any Indian writers or follow the work of Indian artists?

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is my favourite book, It’s the first novel I remember really blowing my mind. I’ve reread it several times and am always stunned by the possibilities of language it reveals. I’ve never been to India but it gave me such a vivid image of Kerala, it will always be a place I want to visit and dream of drawing. I try and read quite widely so I’ve read a few other Indian titles and am always open to suggestions!

I also love the output of Tara Books; I have one of these books, The Night Life of Trees, which features artwork from The Gond tribe in Central India and is about the mythology of beautiful trees. Lastly, I love the illustrations of Tara Anand whose work is wonderfully poetic and moving; I love her editorial work which is very empathetic.

Kunal Ray writes about art and culture. He teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.

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