Monday, July 9, 2012

Arthurian Alphabooks: H is for Hallewes

With this week's Arthurian Alphabooks drawing, you may be forgiven for thinking that H is for Headdress—
Believe it or not, the headdress is closely patterned on an illustration from a genuine medieval manuscript!
—but in fact H is for the lady Hallewes, a minor character in Malory's "Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake" from Le Morte Darthur. Minor—but unforgettable, because she is One Creepy Dame. Hallewes is a sorceress who has employed her magic(ks) to create an enchanted trap for either Gawain or Lancelot, whichever, though really she has her heart set on Lancelot. And just what does she want with him? Why, to love him, naturally. And if he won't love her back, that's hardly an obstacle. Let her speak for herself:
     "And Sir Lancelot, now I tell thee, I have loved thee these seven year, but there may no woman have thy love but Queen Guenevere; and since I might not rejoice thee nother thy body on live [=alive], I had kept no more joy in this world but to have thy body dead. Then would I have [em]balmed it and cered it [=wrapped it in waxed cloths], and so to have kept it my live days—and daily I should have clipped thee [=embraced thee] and kissed thee, despite of Queen Guenevere."
     "Ye say well," said Sir Lancelot. "Jesu preserve me from your subtle crafts!"
While the whole episode takes up just a few paragraphs in a massive tome, I find that the specter of the lady's necrophiliac canoodling with a mummified Lancelot produces an outsized horror. Brrr!

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And now, a process note or two (mostly for Isaac's benefit, as he has expressed interest or at least tolerance for these in the past). As the caption below the above picture indicates, I actually did a little visual research for this drawing, consulting a few books of medieval images to find a headdress that I thought was suitably wacky and some clothing that seemed appropriately wanton for a dangerous woman driven crazy by desire. (I borrowed the headdress and the rest of the clothing from two different illustrations, but in both cases the women pictured seemed more assertive in their desires than is often the case in illustrations from this period; if anything, the neckline of the dress in the original manuscript image plunged even further than in my drawing above.)

For the second week in a row, I tried to see what it was like to ink a vellum sheet laid over my original sketch. Oddly enough, my brush seemed to behave like a nib pen when I began (as I often do) by inking in the eyes. I remembered that Gary Martin, author of two books on comic-book inking, suggests an exercise where the inker should try to achieve brush effects with nibs and nib effects with brushes. I'd been trying to get a brushy calligraphic line out of a nib pen ever since I was a kid: my first cartooning efforts were full-on imitations of Walt Kelly, and I simply didn't know at first that he used a brush rather than a pen. (In my defense, I was seven at the time.) But making a brush line look like pen work seemed like a weird (and difficult) exercise to me. Now that I've accidentally achieved something of that effect, in at least parts of this drawing, I can see the virtue in making the single tool more versatile, and given my recent problems with ink blots from nib pens it might even be more practical to use a brush for my "pen" lines, thereby to reduce the risk of blots and smears. Still, I suspect that the pen-like qualities might be owing more to the unfamiliar tooth of the vellum surface and/or the viscosity of my ink.

I also had a more practical reason for using vellum, which is that my preliminary sketch this week was drawn not in pencil but in ballpoint pen, which is a lot harder to erase than pencil. That did mean, however, that the rough sketch survived the ink job, so for the sake of comparison here it is below (slightly blurry and rendered in grey rather than the original blue):

It's a commonplace of cartooning to lament that finished drawings lack some of the energy or spontaneity of the rough art. Well, sure, and there are ways in which this rough drawing probably does a better job of making Hallewes look crazy; but to my eye, at least, this rough version of Hallewes also looks less like a highborn lady or a credible amorous threat to Lancelot. She also looks a little too robust, so I made sure to gaunt her up a bit in the finished drawing, which accounts for her thinner lips in the inks. (As for the heavy shading around the eye sockets in the final version, it occurred to me while inking that I might want to suggest "the skull beneath the skin" in this person who, if not herself "possessed by death," wanted to possess Lancelot in death).

I kind of like the face in the rough drawing—it looks like a usable study for some other character—but, despite the label scrawled at the lower right of the picture, I don't find the rough drawing very convincing as Hallewes. So score one for the finished drawings, for a change.


Isaac said...

There's a lot of sophisticated brush technique in this piece, Mike. The contrast between the fine feathering / hatching in the headdress and the blotty, textural dry-brush work on the outer gown ... that's some nice work.

I may have more to say after a while. I think there's an interesting conversation to be had about "sketch energy" vs. "inked stiffness" in general (I wanted to raise the same issue again in my Humbug post). And, with so many letters left to explore, I'm sure it will come up again...

Mike said...

Thanks for the kind words, Kaiser. I'll tell you, more than anything what pushed me to vary the inking technique in this drawing was my amazement at the paint job in the manuscript illos I was consulting. While the compositions are often stiff and the figure construction mannered, I gotta give major props to those painters for conveying an astonishing sense of stuff, in the textile sense, within a single tiny work of art. I saw a painting of velvet where the velvetiness was nigh palpable, even as lacework was lacy and linen linsey [not actually the adjective form of 'linen', but let's go with that]. If nothing else, this Hallewes drawing forced me to look more closely at the medieval artworks that informed it.

As ever, I'd love to hear more of what you have to say about "sketch energy" vs. "inked stiffness" and related topics (such as the contrary effect I've sometime seen where a pencil drawing really only comes to life when it gets good dark black ink applied to it, particularly in rich spot blacks).