In­ter­view: Paul Kidby

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This English artist’s work is syn­ony­mous with the books of Terry Pratch­ett.

Mak­ing false teeth, fir­ing flam­ing ar­rows and paint­ing magic woss­name: the Bri­tish artist tells Gary Evans about his long and event­ful ca­reer

Paul Kidby grew up in sub­ur­ban Lon­don in the 1960s and 70s. As a boy, there was a house on his street that he found fas­ci­nat­ing. In the win­dow was a skele­ton. And when he heard what this lady did for a liv­ing, he found her house all the more fas­ci­nat­ing. But he was well into his teens be­fore he dared knock on the door of Miss Ock­ing­don’s.

At that time, he’d just dropped out of sixth form and worked on a Youth Op­por­tu­nity Pro­gram mak­ing false teeth. He’d been in­ter­ested in art from a young age. He’d make plas­ticine mod­els of the orcs and elves from the books his big sis­ter would read to him.

He was al­ways draw­ing, too. He had plenty of sup­plies, since his dad was a sta­tion­ary sales­man. As a teenager, he drew imag­i­na­tive pieces in­flu­enced by his two in­ter­ests: fan­tasy lit­er­a­ture and punk rock – The Lord of the Rings and The Jam, War of the Worlds and The Clash. Aged 17, Paul “plucked up the courage” to in­tro­duce him­self to Miss Ock­ing­don.

“Miss Ock­ing­don,” he says, “had been an anatom­i­cal artist work­ing in op­er­at­ing the­atres, and was an adept draughtswoman and cal­lig­ra­pher. She had taught art at Eal­ing Art Col­lege. Her stu­dents in­cluded Pete Townsend, Fred­die Mer­cury and Ron­nie Wood.

“She told me, in no un­cer­tain terms, that if I was se­ri­ous about be­com­ing an artist, I had to learn the nuts and bolts of my craft, start­ing with

per­spec­tive, anatomy and com­po­si­tion. I had to ditch my imag­i­na­tive il­lus­tra­tions and start draw­ing from life.”

Paul vis­ited Miss Ock­ing­don ev­ery week. She cri­tiqued his work and set him chal­lenges. Tech­ni­cally, he learned a lot from her. But above all else he learned that to be a suc­cess­ful artist you need dis­ci­pline. “It was the start,” the il­lus­tra­tor and sculp­tor says, “of a life-chang­ing process in my artis­tic de­vel­op­ment.”

In the early 1980s, Paul de­signed and painted roller blinds in a fac­tory. He was work­ing, but not hard. He and a friend would clock in and then go jog­ging. If they weren’t do­ing that, they were do­ing some­thing far worse. “We made bows and ar­rows to fire across our depart­ment into the rolls of card­board. This stopped after we got car­ried away and fired flam­ing ar­rows, as we re­alised things might be get­ting a tad out of hand.”

By the mid-80s, he was work­ing as a com­mer­cial il­lus­tra­tor, first as a free­lancer in Lon­don, where he cre­ated greet­ings cards and pack­ag­ing, and later at Fu­ture Pub­lish­ing in Bath, where he drew cov­ers for mag­a­zines like Sega Power, GamesMaster, and Com­modore For­mat. “I had the op­ti­mism of youth,” he says, “but it did mean work­ing a lot harder, in­clud­ing week­ends. The days of fir­ing ar­rows, flam­ing or oth­er­wise, were well and truly over.”

de­pict­ing dis­c­world

Paul is best known as the artist of choice for Sir Terry Pratch­ett. Since 2002, he’s de­signed book jack­ets for the au­thor’s cel­e­brated Dis­c­world series and its var­i­ous tie-ins. Paul used to have di­rect con­tact with Sir Terry un­til the au­thor’s death in 2015. They’d flesh out de­signs to­gether. Now Dis­c­world com­mis­sions come from pub­lish­ers or the Pratch­ett es­tate.

For book jack­ets, Paul re­ceives a brief, then he works with an art ed­i­tor un­til their ideas aline. “My job is to vi­su­alise the brief,” he says, “so it’s not a mat­ter of com­pro­mise for me, rather a case of giv­ing the client what they

Even if the sub­ject is fan­tas­ti­cal, such as a dragon, I’ll ap­ply my knowl­edge of anatomy to make it be­liev­able

want to see. Some­times I in­put ad­di­tional ideas when I sub­mit my de­signs, but it’s a col­lab­o­ra­tive process over­all and one that I en­joy.”

Paul be­gins by draw­ing a very rough sketch. Only he’ll ever see this. He doesn’t de­velop it into a series of work­ing sketches. In­stead, once he has the idea straight, he starts work on what will even­tu­ally be the fin­ished piece, adding lines, tak­ing them out, work­ing with the pen­cil and the eraser un­til he’s en­tirely happy with the com­po­si­tion. He shades for form and tone. If he’s go­ing to colour the work, he’ll cre­ate a de­tailed un­der­paint­ing in sepia tones, which “pro­vides the bones for the draw­ing by strength­en­ing the lines and form.” He adds thin washes of colour.

In the fi­nal stages, Paul uses colour pen­cils for de­tails and high­lights. He de­scribes him­self as “mod­ern old school.” He strives for ac­cu­racy, in per­spec­tive, in pro­por­tion, in the things that al­ways un­der­pin his paint­ings. He makes fi­nal tweaks in Pho­to­shop. By his own ad­mis­sion, he’s not a fast worker.

“Even if the sub­ject mat­ter is fan­tas­ti­cal,” he says, “such as a dragon, I’ll ap­ply my knowl­edge of anatomy to make it be­liev­able. My work has a his­tor­i­cal feel and my colours tend

to be muted. I’ll of­ten give an il­lus­tra­tion a hu­mor­ous slant, and some­times I par­ody an ex­ist­ing paint­ing, but only if it’s ap­pro­pri­ate. I think the un­der­ly­ing thread that ties all my work to­gether is ‘mag­i­cal woss­name’ – a use­ful Pratch­ett term.”

Paul works ev­ery day, of­ten in­clud­ing week­ends. He wakes up a 6.30am and runs on the tread­mill. He gets crack­ing no later than 9am, after break­fast and a strong pot of cof­fee. He stops for lunch, walks his dog in the af­ter­noons, and does Pi­lates to “coun­ter­act the hours I spend hunched over my draw­ing ta­ble.” He’s usu­ally done by 6pm and rarely works at night.

Paul likes oils, acrylics or coloured pen­cils, and a smooth Bris­tol board on which to ap­ply them. He doesn’t have a ded­i­cated stu­dio. He works at the din­ing ta­ble or in the con­ser­va­tory. He uses an iPad, but for ref­er­ence more than for mak­ing art. Other than that, he has no “fancy art equip­ment.”

in­ter­act­ing with view­ers

“As an il­lus­tra­tor,” Paul says, “it’s my job to al­ways con­sider my viewer and to con­vey in­for­ma­tion from the text into vis­ual form.” He finds ex­hibit­ing in gal­leries the most re­ward­ing part of his job. It en­ables him to show work as he in­tended it to be seen, free of text, ti­tles or changes made dig­i­tally by clients. It’s when he can in­ter­act di­rectly with the viewer, the most in­ti­mate kind of artist-viewer com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Paul is work­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Sir Terry Pratch­ett’s es­tate and the Sal­is­bury Mu­seum on a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled His­world. It starts in Septem­ber and runs un­til Jan­uary 2018, and fea­tures over 40 orig­i­nal Dis­c­world paint­ings, in­clud­ing Paul’s

Terry’s on­go­ing legacy is ex­tra­or­di­nary, and there’s still a won­der­fully rich body of work for me to il­lus­trate

con­cept de­sign for a large-scale bronze statue of Sir Terry for the city of Sal­is­bury, where the au­thor lived. He has some new col­lab­o­ra­tions lined up too: “Although Terry has sadly passed away,” Paul says, “his on­go­ing legacy is ex­tra­or­di­nary, and there’s still a won­der­fully rich body of work for me to il­lus­trate, so there are plenty of ex­it­ing new projects on the hori­zon.”

After two decades of these col­lab­o­ra­tions, Paul’s art is al­most in­sep­a­ra­ble from Terry Pra­chett’s writ­ing, and vice versa. But be­ing the go-to artist for one of the world’s most suc­cess­ful au­thors hasn’t changed the way he works. He some­times spends years de­vel­op­ing a piece be­fore he puts pen­cil to pa­per. One sin­gle colour il­lus­tra­tion can take six weeks to com­plete. And it all goes back to the dis­ci­pline that he learned from his time with Miss Ock­ing­don.

“I pre­fer to plough my own fur­row,” he says, “and this doesn’t in­volve at­tend­ing pub­lish­ing par­ties, con­ven­tions, en­ter­ing con­tests or be­ing the fo­cus of at­ten­tion. So I guess court­ing praise is not im­por­tant to me. In fact, the most im­por­tant thing to me is to be left to get on with my work undis­turbed.”

Dis­c­world “I painted this in 2014. It’s a large-scale piece, acrylic on can­vas, and fea­tures over 70 Dis­c­world char­ac­ters. It’ll be on show at the Terry Pratch­ett His­world ex­hi­bi­tion, on at the Sal­is­bury Mu­seum.”

“The art ed­i­tor won an award for this cover, my Bat­man il­lus­tra­tion for GamesMaster mag­a­zine.” bat­man

“I started this piece in 2002 and fin­ished it in 2013. It was for an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Rus­sell Coates Mu­seum in Bournemouth. Granny Weather­wax looks like my mum.” Wryd Sis­ters

Rincewind “This is one of my favourite Dis­c­world char­ac­ters be­ing chased by some crea­tures from the Dun­geon Di­men­sions, in­spired by HP Love­craft.” Last Hero “This is Co­hen the Bar­bar­ian, with his sword and walk­ing stick, which Terry es­pe­cially re­quested a rub­ber bung on the end of.” Death with Kit­ten II ”This was a com­mis­sion. The buyer thought that Death looked too kind and the kit­ten too happy, which I took as a com­pli­ment, be­cause that’s what I was try­ing to achieve. It fits with Death’s char­ac­ter in the nov­els.”

Check Mort “This was done for a French book jacket in 2011. It be­came an iconic work be­cause it was re­leased dur­ing the time that Terry was bat­tling Alzheimer’s. I painted it so that Terry’s chess pieces are po­si­tioned to win.” Great A’Tuin II “This large-scale paint­ing de­picts the Dis­c­world, on the backs of four ele­phants, who are stand­ing on a gi­ant tur­tle, trav­el­ling through space. Pratch­ett ge­nius at work.”

Night Watch “This is a par­ody of Rem­brandt’s The Night Watch. It was the first book jacket I painted for a Dis­c­world novel fol­low­ing the death of former Dis­c­world il­lus­tra­tor Josh Kirby. So I painted him into the crowd as a trib­ute.

Com­pan­ion “This has a se­cret mes­sage for some­one very spe­cial to me… who has since be­came my wife! It fea­tures the Dis­c­world li­brar­ian sur­rounded by mag­i­cal books.”

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