I am a bookish sort; an appreciation for beautiful illustrations and stories means that I almost absentmindedly gather books to my collection and borrow from friends, family and libraries to fill the gaps. There are a few along the way I have found are particularly inspiring and continue to influence the way that I work, these I'd like to share with a few words and a review.
On this occasion I have chosen Explorers' Sketchbooks, The Art of Discovery & Adventure which is a fantastic compendium of great, illustrated journals kept by pioneers through the centuries. This book is everything I love about sketchbooking tied in with the awe of my inner child, who delights in swashbuckling adventures, perilous journeys and new discoveries. Not only is the content incomparable, the overall design and print is a joy to look at, which is always the icing on the cake in my opinion. The landscape format perfectly compliments the many journal pages included and the fonts used are tasteful and beautifully set around the historic images and photographs. Every single aspect of this book draws the eye in the most pleasant way, and that is no mean feat. I'm pleased to see this flawless design trend becoming more popular.
But back to the actual writing. This extract from the foreword, placed on a page overleaf from Galileo's first observational drawings of the moon, following the invention of the telescope in 1610, and next to a breathtaking image of pluto, taken by NASA's New Horizons probe, is a wonderful rendering of the importance of sketchbooks historically and their potential for recording amazing things:
"Travel back another two hundred years, say, long before the invention of photography and film, to a time when all the observations of the field were carried home in journals, charts and artworks; then, crammed within small notebooks, the whole success of an endeavour might lie in the marks made with pencil and ink. In the form of accounts of scientific discoveries, descriptions of distant lands and new species, or experiences that could lead to greater understanding, the lines contained in these little journals had the power to change the world. And despite the dramatic advances in technology and equipment over the centuries, there is one thing that hasn't changed much at all - and that is the journal."
Imagine my smile upon reading this ode to my faithful companion, I am not the first sketchbooker and certainly not the last. This paragraph conveys so much excitement and importance; it really captures the air of the whole book. Social media is the perfect platform to share journal extracts and daily diaries, encouraging a multitude of hashtags and new aspiring artists, but I think these humble books deserve more credit and more discussion. Books like this collection of explorers' diaries are so important to display these hidden scribblings for the world to see and be inspired by.
My favourite spread is that on the works of Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892). A brilliant naturalist praised by Darwin, his jewel-like illustrations of beetles, bugs and butterflies are a stunning contribution to both entomological study and this book. I appreciate the decision of the designers to present them on a black background as this really makes the imagery pop and causes the readers' eyes to linger on this section when flicking through the book. The main thing that stands out to me though, is Bates' accomplished rendering of himself, illustrated in a chilling encounter within the amazon rainforest, surrounded by angry toucans. I must have a deep routed appreciation for illustration, because the story that this single image tells inspires me more than the observational ones. In fact, it is these examples of illustration throughout the book that catch my attention, be it adventurers depicted at the edge of a gaping precipice (page 28) or set up with a drawing board at the edge of a volcanic eruption (page 32).
These two pages show the beauty in the design of this book. Observe the tasteful drop caps, immaculate spacing and intelligent use of fonts to distinguish between main text and captions as well as the perfect balance between the white page and the matt black background of the image overleaf. The eye is drawn to meander through the text, to gaze, absorbed, at the illustration of Bates in the rainforest. Then to halt, catch a breath, and admire the beetles depicted on the second page.
There is another side of this book that captivates me and that is the wonder of what it contains. Many of these explorers were the first of the western world to go to these places, and their artwork was all they could take back to show the marvels that they'd seen. Then, before the age of the photograph, to hear tales of exotic animals in far off lands and see pictures of their bright plumage would be astonishing. Our ease of travel and pictorial evidence means that perhaps we take these for granted. There is still wonder though, from our perspective, because the descriptions and pictures in these pages bring to life a historical world that no longer exists and that we cannot see in photographs. Stories that tell of thousands of miles of ancient rainforests and the flora and fauna that lived there, native americans and inuit hunters, the experience of perilous sea voyages on creaking sailing ships, great storms and pirates; all of this seems fantastical to us, only found in books or films and that's why these records are so amazing; they still convey wonderment to this day. It makes me think, what aspects of our lives will seem extraordinary in the future?
You may know that I am a sketchbook artist; much of my work comes from the pages that accompany me through my life. A journal is what ever I need it to be at the time; purely artistic, or more scientific, perhaps even an agony aunt on occasion or simply a place to scrawl shopping lists and spider diagrams. I keep them constantly and I am slowly accumulating shelves of assorted books that already give me joy to look back through, just a few years into this habit. It's my personal opinion that everyone should keep a visual journal of some kind and that drawing should be taught alongside science, because it is a wonderful skill to have and useful in a surprisingly wide variety of ways. Dare I say that I use it far more than I do mathematics? - even excluding my day job as an artist. But this is a subject for another day.
Above image: Gunwallow Cove: an extract from a sketchbook. The waves were wild, crashing metres above our heads and the clouds were a steel grey. In the cove there is a windswept church and graveyard, containing tales of shipwrecks and valiant efforts to save survivors.
My closing thoughts are that we should all hold on to wonderment in our lives and books, particularly ones like this, are a marvellous way to encourage that.
Explorers' Sketchbooks by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert
First published by Thames and Hudson Ltd, London 2016
Extract on Henry Walter Bates
Pages 40 and 41
Ms Emma Leyfield currently trading as 'Valerian'. The copyright to all images and graphics used within this website are owned by Valerian, or Valerian has sought the appropriate permissions to use them.
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