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Stone Giant

The Giant has awoke!

Cover, US edition

Cover, Japanese edition

Stone Giant – Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be, written by Jane Sutcliffe, has been my biggest illustration project of the last year. Although the book was commissioned from the US, the first version to hit the shops is in Japanese – in order to tie in with a major exhibition of Michelangelo’s work at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, Komine Shoten have fast released their edition of the book in advance, it’s now on sale throughout Japan. The originally commissioned English language edition from Charlesbridge in the US will be out next spring (ISBN: 978-1-58089-295-7), but is already available for pre-order from your local independent bookshop, or Random House, Amazon, Foyles, Barnes and Noble and other online sites.

Anyway, I thought it was about time I started yelling about it! The images here are scans of artwork spreads before print, in the final book several have seperately drawn text boxes dropped over.

First spread, initial sketch. I originally envisaged the stoneyard close to the river, with a glimpse of the bridges behind.

Completed image. My editor pointed out that the yard was probably close to the cathedral rather than the river, so the background was changed.

As the title indicates, Stone Giant is a non-fiction picture book telling the story of how the statue of David was first commissioned and an enormous block of marble cut, but after some limited attempts by obscure artists the project was abandoned and the flawed stone left forgotten and abandoned in a stonemason’s yard for over 40 years. Finally the young Michelangelo came along to carve the statue and create one of his greatest masterpieces.

The stone is worked on by inferior artists then abandoned, even Leonardo turns down the commission.

This was a really wonderful project to work on, the history, the subject, and the location all connected with me very much. It was a joy to research. I closely examined as many contemporary paintings and other references as I could and spent a long time accumulating material for costume and setting, involving many hours in the library and online. The more I delved into the era, the more I connected, the more I was compelled to instill the illustrations with a flavour of the period.

There were many sketches, numerous revisions, but slowly the book began to emerge, just like David himself emerging from the rough rock. I became completely absorbed in the world of Renaissance Italy and of Michelangelo. This is what I really love about illustrating books, you mentally inhabit the worlds you create.

One of two panels inspired by Renaissance designs

I incorporated a number of motifs and decorative devices inspired by Renaissance works. The aim was to make the book a fun, contemporary read for children, whilst connecting with the art of the period.

I wasn’t afraid to use the ultimate device: line-for-line facsimiles of Michelangelo’s sketches. Oh, the impertinence! I wanted to show his work of course, but it had to be in the same pen and watercolour as the rest of the spreads, so I tried my hand at reproducing his work with my own materials. These were drawn in homage to the master, I hope the ghost of the great man will rest easy!

Michelangelo? Erm, well ….

Another challenge was the depiction of Michelangelo at work on the statue. I based my stone cutters yard loosely on a painting by Canaletto, with a good dose of conjecture. It’s known that Michelangelo built a wooden shed around the stone to protect it while he worked and keep out prying eyes, however experts don’t entirely agree how the statue was carved – was it laid out at an angle or carved upright, or flat? I used my imagination to fill in the gaps and settled for the most striking visual appeal, this is how he may have worked, we’ll probably never know the actual truth.

Not everything is exactly as reality, some things were designed purely for visual effect, for instance the wall of the Palazzo Vecchio isn’t really blue!

the statue is revealed!

Then there is the town. I’m quite familiar with modern Florence, but one of the biggest challenges was depicting the city as it appeared at the beginning of the 16th Century.  This climatic spread was a particular conundrum, as I wanted to show a specific scene as Michelangelo would have known it, but virtually all of these buildings were demolished after Michelangelo’s era, and there are very few references.

The statue in this illustration is elevated much higher than it actually stood – that’s a deliberate compositional device I make no apologies for! But the rest of the image is an attempt to show the Piazza della Signoria as it was, facing away from the Palazzo Vecchio, with the cathedral in view. However virtually all contemporary depictions of the square are facing the opposite direction towards the Palazzo Vecchio and Loggia dei Lanzi, away from the more run-down west side. 

My main sources were later images by Giuseppe Zocchi showing an oblique view of the old Loggia dei Pisani, the wall of the merchants (demolished in the 19th Century), and another by Bernardo Bellotto showing a glimpse of the church of San Romolo, also long vanished, pulled down in 1769. Using these references and a few others I was able to plan out, turn around and draw in a series of sketches of the buildings from a completely different angle. This felt like real historical research, I hope the experts are satisfied!

preparatory sketch of the Loggia dei Pisani and buildings sourced from Zocchi’s works and turned around.

Therein lies the problem of research using old paintings – they can never quite tell the whole story, only glimpses through the eyes and materials of the original artist. So when you’re looking for authenticity, often the more you find, the deeper you have to look in order to “nail it”, to reassure yourself that you’ve got it right. It’s easy to spend entire days chasing references for some minor detail, at some point you have to stop searching and start drawing, so unless you’re literally copying an image (not recommended, the facsimiles above are an exception!) then there will always be need to cross-reference, invent, re-interpret and imagine parts of a scene. The resulting illustration is therefore a matching of your imagination with that of the artists’ you source.

I aimed for a believably authentic feel, inputting accurate research for those spreads that required it. How did I do?

The Japanese edition, 石の巨人 (Ishi no Kyojin) is available now from Komine Shoten publishers. English language US Edition of Stone Giant with Jane Sutcliffe’s wonderful text is published on 8th April 2014 from Charlesbridge/Random House, available for pre-order now, ISBN: 978-1-58089-295-7.

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