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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Vess brings shared vision to 'Earthsea'

Charles Vess poses with the
Charles Vess poses with the "Farthest Shore" in his Abingdon, Virginia, studio. (Photo by David Grace)

By Leslie Grace| A! Magazine for the Arts | December 26, 2018

How do you work with someone whose work you love, but around whom you’ve always been shy? That’s a question that Charles Vess had to answer when he was offered the opportunity to illustrate “Tales from Earthsea” by Ursula K. Le Guin.

“I’d known it was going to happen. A year and a half earlier Joe Monte who was a friend and agent had been offered the job of being executive director of a new imprint where he could get things out in the world that he wanted to get out there. The week he accepted the job, he told me that one of the things he wanted to do was a compendium of Earthsea books, and he wanted me to illustrate it because he thought I would get along with Ursula.

“He called me about a year and a half later. He’d spent that time getting contracts from three publishers who owned the rights to the books. He said, ‘Ursula wants to talk to you, because she only works with people she likes.’ I’d never talked to her before. I’d always been nervous or shy when I was around her. So I made an appointment, called her up, and we had a great conversation.

“I knew just from the tone of her voice that when I talked about collaboration in that first conversation that she didn’t believe a word that came out of my mouth because of everything that had happened with artists before. But after four years we were really enjoying working with each other and before she passed away she sent me a copy of her latest book, a collection of essays, and she’d personalized it to the ‘best collaborator ever.’ That made me feel good,” Vess says.

Le Guin’s experience with other artists had not worked out well. They would say they wanted to collaborate with her and then would simply create their own work without her input. This resulted in an Earthsea that didn’t reflect her vision, the wrong dragons and characters that were represented as white, when they weren’t.

Vess and Le Guin spent a year working on the look of the dragon. Vess’ first dragon was more of a traditional Oriental-style dragon. This was nothing like Le Guin wanted her dragon to look, but it served as a starting point. “I’d do sketches and send them to her, and we’d talk about them,” Vess says.

As the year went on, the dragon evolved. “One of her ideas was that humans and dragons all came from the same creature, but evolved in different directions. Dragons wanted freedom and flight, and humans wanted to make and own things,” Vess says. As the dragon evolved it developed paw-like structures instead of the more traditional fingers because dragons didn’t make things. Its eyes also became a different size and shape, among other factors.

Once the dragon was finalized, Vess began working on other illustrations. While he was working on the cover sketch, Le Guin said that Ged (the main character in the first Earthsea book) was wearing “too many Gandalf clothes.” Vess shortened the clothing and began coloring the drawing. Le Guin enjoyed the drawing and described it as his “Tiepolo” (Italian rococo painter) composition.

Part of this painting became the cover, but as a compromise the entire painting was used as the endpapers of the books.

Dealing with how to represent the characters was another factor that Vess had to solve. They agreed from the first conversation that the characters would be represented as described (with varying shades of darker skin tones). “It took an inner dialogue of how I was going to finish the work. In the color illustrations it was easy. But usually I do interior pages in black and white, pen and ink, crosshatched. I knew I wanted to keep most of these figures fairly small. With my usual technique they would just be black blobs and that wouldn’t work. So after a year and a half, I came up with the idea of using a black Prismacolor pencil. I could make any kind of tone I wanted with that. I felt good, and my shoulders relaxed.”

Le Guin wanted the illustrations to show regular people working, tilling the land and going about their lives. “She said too many epic fantasies are about great marble halls with wizards and lords prancing about. She was always telling me to add more chickens or goats,” he says.

Le Guin died in January 2018 before the book was completed. Vess had finished all the illustrations, and she had approved them. After Vess finished the last illustration, he spent about three weeks decompressing and getting ready to start another project. Then, the publisher called and said “’We found another story in Ursula’s papers and want to include it in the book and need you to illustrate it.’ It’s a beautiful sad story, the last story of Ged. Throughout her works, she uses the imagery of a thistle. It’s hardy, it grows where it shouldn’t, but it’s beautiful. It seemed to represent her, so I added it to the illustration, even though it’s not in the story.”

Vess had read the “Earthsea” books several times before he was approached to illustrate this collection.

He first read “A Wizard of Earthsea” at Virginia Commonwealth University, Lynchburg, Virginia, in a children’s literature class and fell in love with it. “I was 20, and it was adventurous and intriguing. The writing was really, really nice. These books were written for younger readers, but there’s a lot of subtext, so they’re very complex. It was a real shock when I read the second book, ‘The Tombs of Atuan.’ It’s a pretty dark book. It mostly takes place in catacombs, and it’s more from the woman’s viewpoint, and there were no dragons. As I read it now, it’s become a much better book. I did the best drawings of the whole collection for that book,” he says.

Vess says that his feelings for a book definitely affect the quality of his illustrations. “If you hate something, it’s really difficult to dredge up the impetus to do a good drawing.” One example of this is illustrating “Santa and the Elves in the Singer Sewing Machine Workshop” for an in-house brochure.

“There’s any number of those things you have to do when you’re first starting out, and you just have to say ‘yes’ to pay the rent. I remember when I realized I didn’t have to say ‘yes’ to drawing space ships anymore, because I was really bad at spaceships. It was a great day. I had to do lots of spaceships, and my mind doesn’t think that way. I found a friend who loved to draw spaceships and gave him a little money, and he drew them for me. They looked great. He loved rocket ships,” he recalls.

As part of that time when an artist has to say “yes,” he had to collaborate with writers on books he didn’t care for. “That was hard. You start cursing yourself that you said ‘yes.’ Now I can say ‘no’ to writing that doesn’t appeal to me,” he says.

Working with Le Guin wasn’t one of those projects, and it was different from many of his collaborations.

“I really enjoy collaborating. When I work with Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint or Suzanne Clark, they bring their strengths and you bring your strengths, and you’re creating the book at the same time. This was different in that I’d read all the books over and over again. They had been out for years and millions of people had read them. Something in one of my sketches would bring up a memory for Ursula that she hadn’t thought about in 30 or 40 years. She’d tell me how she came up with that idea. It was thrilling and fun to find out the hidden secrets,” he said.

Vess likes to collaborate, because he likes writing. He says, “There are some very good artists who don’t like writing or reading. They just want to do their own work. I enjoy working with writers, because I enjoy writing. It’s just what I do.”

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"Earthsea" artwork on display at William King Museum of Art

Topics: Achievements, Art