Let me tell you about Arthur Rackham, one of my absolute favorite illustrators of all time. You may not know who he is, but you may know the people influenced by him. In my opinion, his whimsical style and fantastic subject matter of fairies and goblins is the granddaddy of more contemporary illustrators such as Alan Lee (quintessential illustrator of The Lord of the Rings books and movie), Brian Froud, and (most importantly) ME. His influence extends beyond illustration, as the Spanish filmmaker Guillermo del Torro cites Arthur Rackham as a major influence in the design of the creatures in his movie Pan’s Labyrinth.
I won’t bore you with all the details of Rackham’s life, but basically he was born in London, started his career as a visual journalist for various newspapers and magazines, eventually developed a unique style, and found his niche in book illustration. He became one of the most popular and successful book illustrators of the Edwardian period, and his style inspired hosts of what I call “Rackham Rip-offs,” younger contemporaries who borrowed from or just downright copied Rackham’s style (look up Hugh Thomson; he is one of the more talented and better-known of the Rip-offs).
Rackham’s style is characterized by delicate and sinuous line work in pen, which was then filled with soft watercolor washes in muted, low-contrast colors. His color palette was always limited and added to the delicacy that gives his pieces such an otherworldly feel. He became known for his beautiful whimsical fairies and his grotesquely adorable goblins. Outside of illustration, Rackham was an esteemed watercolor landscape artist, and his illustration is often filled with beautiful landscape backgrounds. These backgrounds are often filled with hidden information, such as little grotesque creatures that have little relevance to the story being illustrated. When presented with a Rackham picture, study the trees in the background – they will most likely be making impudent faces at you. Rackham is particularly famous for these human-like trees.
During his long career, Rackham illustrated a host of famous children’s books, including Alice in Wonderland, Aesop’s Fables, The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Mother Goose, Hans Christian Anderson’s Tales, Tales of the Brother’s Grimm, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Rip Van Winkle. Rackham was a firm believer in high-quality, lavishly illustrated, and consequently more expensive books. If you ever get a chance, I would suggest picking up a Rackham-illustrated reprint of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, which is considered one of Rackham’s masterpieces. Firstly, it is Shakespeare and will make you appear smart even if you never read it. Secondly, it is absolutely chock-full of gorgeous and whimsical pictures, both color and black & white, that will convince everybody of your excellent visual taste. – Calla Bilhorn
Image and Information Sources:
Hudson, Derek. Arthur Rackham: His Life and Work. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975. Print.
Irving, Washington. Rip Van Winkle. New York: Dial Books, 1992. Print.
Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. New York: Derrydale, 1998. Print.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2003. Print.