When illustrating for text, I try not to analyze the piece on the first read through. This wasn’t hard with “Naples,” a painful, beautiful story by Allegra Hyde. It swept me up in a whirlwind of imagery, a vivid and multi-sensory experience. I felt myself in that squalid Italian hostel, heard the screech of the metro train, felt the rumble of its passing, smelled citrus blossoms.
Then the second read, sober and critical. I underline specific imagery and take note of narrative motifs. Sometimes I try to summarize the text in a single, concise sentence. It gives me a compass bearing when I’ve wandered into the weeds of over thought sketches and over stretched concepts. For this story, I boiled down a phrase to scrawl in the margin, “A young woman’s traumatic past keeps her at an emotional remove from the world.”
Next, I begin to sketch. Usually they start as crazy little scribbles that don’t mean anything to anyone but me. Eventually, I’m drawn to a particular image or compositional layout and begin to develop these into something that looks like an actual drawing.
For “Naples,” I wanted to illustrate the character’s isolation, an interesting juxtaposition against such a sensory-rich story. One line in particular caught my imagination, “She stepped off the trains a cosmonaut, inhaling the sealed air of private impressions.” I really, really wanted to draw a woman in a retro sci-fi style space helmet. The perfect sphere of glass, a youthful tumble of hair contained inside, and a speeding metro train — with strong visual elements like that, a drawing basically composes itself.
But after a night’s sleep, I returned to the sketch and to the true north of that summarizing sentence. And I had to admit to myself that the cosmonaut image was just one of many that the author used to denote detachment. To focus on it would be confusing. So I reluctantly took off the girl’s space helmet and focused on using the train itself as the barrier blocking her from life. The wind and the rush of the metro took over the image. When the lemon blossoms blew into the picture, I could finally loosen my grip on the cosmonaut’s helmet. I’d returned to Earth.
Catherine Byun is a freelance illustrator based in San Francisco. She spends her time drawing, watching movies, and hiking around California. Her work appears in North American Review’s Winter 2014 issue.