Fairy Tales - The story of making a collaborative print series

I’m always on the hunt for new ideas. Little things that might spark an idea for my next illustration subject or maybe even a whole series of illustrations. It actually makes the world a more exciting place, when you are actively looking around to try and find inspiration in the ordinary. It forces you to slow down and take notice of your surroundings.

For me inspiration struck while I was teaching a college course on Typography. I had given my students the assignment of designing a series of book covers. While I was imagining the possibilities of how the students would complete their project, I started getting excited and almost a little jealous of their assignment. I wanted to work on it too! Which led me to the conclusion that I could do it, and it would make a great art print series, similar to Monster Friends. I immediately emailed a couple illustrators I had worked with before to gauge interest. They were both interested in the idea, but were a little too busy at the time to start right away. Which ended up being a good thing. I believe if we had proceeded when I proposed it at first, we would have rushed through the process. Not to mention for me my initial ideas always evolve over time. I think that time passing is a good thing, because it helps me to purify a concept. And this project went through a few evolutions along the way. 

My initial concept was to create a series of art prints that truly felt like book covers of classic tales you could hang on the wall. I had settled on fairy tales as the subject matter, but realized that most of these stories are very short, and we often don’t know who the authors are. To me if they were going to be book covers then they needed all the elements of a book cover. I also realized that a good book cover series often is designed in a very patterned way with only small key elements changing from one cover to the next. Accomplishing that with a different artist working on each cover was going to be a challenge. 

So I made the decision to change directions. Fairy Tales would still be the subject matter, but instead of making the art look like book covers we would go in a different stylistic direction. I felt good about Fairy Tales having a lot of visual inspiration to pull from, but I also wanted to put a twist on these stories we all know so well. That concept had worked really well with my Monster Friends series and I thought it might translate well here too. So I invited 3 artists to join me on the project, Lydia Nichols, Julian Baker, and Shelby Rodeffer. They all liked the concept and agreed to join the project.

What I pitched to them was this. Let’s reimagine these classic Fairy Tales, reinterpret them, and tell the story in a whole new way, by adding humor, changing the setting, etc. The idea that first popped into my head was Sleeping Beauty, but with Prince charming as a robot with chainsaw hands... ridiculous I know, but it made me laugh. 

So I asked each illustrator to come up with at least 5 conceptual ideas of how to reinterpret a fairy tale of their choosing. We would review, and pick the concepts that seemed like they would work as an illustration. Everyone came up with some awesome ideas. Here’s a few samples:

Snow White - Shelby Rodeffer
Girl Gang vs. Girl Gang. Snow white and the witch are seated with their backs showing. The witch is wearing a denim/leather jacked with a back patch that says "BAD APPLE," Snow White is wearing a silk jacket that says "DA FAIREST"

Tortoise and the Hare - Julian Baker
Bicycle Race. The tortoise and the hair are racing on bicycles and we see the turtle casually crossing the finish line as the Hare is rushing up behind him. This could be great to play up the different bikes for their personalities. The Hare could be on a super sleek, extremely angular, racing bike wearing an aerodynamic helmet with his ears shot straight back and the Turtle could be on a totally laid back, upright, cruiser-style bike with a banana seat!

Jack and the Beanstalk - Lydia Nichols
Jack is playing the Beanstalk video game in which he must plant beans, climb the stalk, and try to surreptitiously steal from the evil Giant before losing his three lives. The golden harp is the coveted prize.

Aladdin 3000 - Alex Pearson
His “magic carpet” is replaced by a futuristic flying machine, and the genie in the lamp is replaced by some sort of futuristic device with a talking hologram that comes out of it. I imagine a cool mashup in the background of futuristic looking middle eastern skyscraper palaces (samurai jack-ish looking).


I’m really glad that we had a concept review process instead of jumping into drawing, which is how I normally start my collaborative projects. Although all the concepts were really quite good, and unique, I felt like they would be very hard to turn into art prints that people would understand as soon as they saw them. These concepts had stories to them. Which is evidenced by how we had to explain them just to each other. And it’s quite hard to tell an entire story in a single image. I think these concepts would make great cartoons, books, or another medium where the entire story could be told in its new form. But as an art print, it felt like they would feel more like a single frame from an animation. An animation of a story our audience wasn’t familiar with. I still think these original ideas are a lot of fun, but I decided they were too conceptual, and complicated to translate into an image that could be digested instantaneously by the viewer. And unfortunately in our scroll and swipe digital world, you need to be able to get your point across really quickly. 

The concept that I thought would be following the format of Monster Friends, of taking a familiar thing and putting a unique twist on it, ended up being too complicated. So I decided to ask all the illustrators to pause their work, and take it back to basics. Instead of changing the stories themselves, we would interpret them in our own way through the use of our illustration style. We would keep the familiarity intact, but drawn in our own respective and unique styles. This I feel worked beautifully. There was still conceptual work to be done. How would you represent a familiar story in a way we haven’t seen it a million times already? Here are our early sketches. 

As you can see I stuck with Sleeping Beauty, and tried a couple ways of representing the challenge the Prince had to overcome. I really like cutaways where you can see through an object. So I had the idea of seeing through the castle walls to the prince running up the stairs. But ultimately the other illustrators pointed out during our process (and I agreed) that my first sketch had a stronger composition. And communicated the ominous challenge of getting through the thorns better. 

And here are the finished illustrations.

I’m really happy with how all of our illustrations turned out. Working with so many other talented artists is such a treat. It makes me work harder, and results in a better product. It’s great to see into your peers working process, and have them available to give you valuable feedback as well. 

I’ve had a number of people ask me recently why I do collaborative series. They point out that I’m fully capable of creating a series myself, and that it would be faster and cheaper. Sometimes I’m not totally sure what answer to give them, except that it’s just more fun. I just prefer to work with other people. I’m an extrovert, but I work at home, by myself. To me working alone isn’t as motivating, and sometimes it’s just plain boring. People energize me, and these collaborations really energize me. I recently realized about myself that my creative drive is not fueled from within. I don’t have a urge to let creativity out as a form of expression like some artists do. My urge to create is fueled by others, and my ability is enhanced by their feedback and input. 

So I hope you as a viewer, a visitor to this site, and maybe even a customer of my prints get something out of what I’m making. And if you do, please let me know! Shoot me an email, ask me a question, leave a comment on this blog or social media. Because you are my fuel.

Posted on July 16, 2015 .