Andy, thanks so much for agreeing to talk. First of all, can you just tell us something about your background and how you became so interested in fairy art?
Hi, thanks for asking me to talk. I have had an interest in strange and mysterious subjects and have also compulsively drawn since I was a child, so it was probably inevitable that I would someday end up drawing fairies. As a very young child I think I saw stuff, that I never really thought anything of at the time – faces in the trees and one time I remember playing on the fields at the back of my house with an unfamiliar child who was very pale with white hair and I think white clothing. Nobody else seems to have seen him or knew who he was, which was odd as it was a small village where most people knew each other. I think he said his name was Samuel. I never thought he was a ghost, angel, faerie (though some theories identify faeries as either being ghosts or fallen angels) – just a kid. He wasn’t an imaginary playmate either as I only ever saw him the once. As I got older I became more and more interested in supernatural subjects but paid little attention to faeries as still then I had the Tinkerbell impression of them.
So what changed things?
Well, in my reading I came across Passport to Magonia by Jacques Vallee and then the books of Hilary Evans and that brought me around to a new way of thinking about faeries, which inherently felt righter to me. On the art side as well as Froud and Lee’s
seminal Faeries, via the Pre Raphaelites and Aesthetic artists I became aware of the Victorian genre of Fairy painting and I became enamored especially with the works of Richard Dadd and John Anster Fitzgerald. There was a dark, mysterious underbelly to their work which really resonated with me.
Jeremy Harte has a very nice comment somewhere: he says that Brian Froud basically took Katharine Briggs’ Fairy Dictionary and drew it.
How does folklore writing inform what you draw, Andy? It is very influential and inspiring. How I came to write and illustrate my own folklore books, however, is a bit of a strange journey. At one point in my life an opportunity arose for me to work on a travelling carnival, so I literally ran away with the show folk for a few years, starting off in Wales and then travelling to the Far and Middle East. There was a girl who worked on the fair with us in the Philippines, who had a sort of a Goth look and one night I heard some Filipinos refer to her as a WokWok. And I asked them what that meant and they said Witch of the Night. I broached the subject with other locals and they informed me that the WokWok was a type of Aswang, a breed of differing vampiric or sinister entities and that piqued my curiosity. Then in Oman on one of the carnival games, the prizes were big Tasmanian Devils – Taz cartoon character stuffed toys and a local pointed at the toys and told me that people like that lived in the interior of the country, so I grew more and more interested in creatures and beings from different world folklore and mythology. Upon leaving the carnival life and returning to Britain I worked for a brief stint temping at Bizarre magazine in London. Whilst there a small filler feature was needed so I wrote a short ‘Ten alternatives to the Bogeyman’ which featured I think WokWok as well as Black Annis, possibly Tonton Macoute (Uncle Hears Me) and I cannot remember who else now but I went on to write about and illustrate far more than ten. I decided to illustrate a series of portraits of strange creatures from British and Celtic folklore. For research I had a massive pile of books scattered around me – Reverend Robert Kirk, W.Y Evans-Wentz, Katherine Briggs, Wirt Sikes, W.B. Yeats and many more and I thought it would be handy to have all this reference in a single book. So not finding one at a time, my proposed series of portraits became that book – Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld containing over 170 illustrations and further descriptions of all manner of mystical beast and beings, many from the Faerie domain. Whilst I was still working on it John And Caitlin Matthew’s Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures came out, which is a bumper reference book. I would have possibly pulled my hair out in despair at the work I’d done, had Harper Collins not contacted and commissioned me to provide interior illustrations in the Encyclopedia. In the end the books have a different feel to them but actually complement each other pretty well.
And your latest published work?
Well, last year I published Black Earth: A Field Guide to the Slavic Otherworld, a book I had finished writing years ago but which span over time getting the illustrations done amongst other work I had on. Again, there are a number of Faerie type entities to be found. Slavic folklore is one of the most under-represented in English language or translated books, which is a shame as there is some rich interesting material to be found in those lands. I am pleased I tackled that as a subject and hopefully there will be further material published by other authors relating to that lore. I am tempted to do further Otherworld Field Guides; have a series of them – Japanese, Native American, Oceanic … etc. There is a wealth of possibilities but it is also a lot of work involved.
As to your drawings I just want to start, if I may, with the phooka, a favourite Irish supernatural creature. How do you go about drawing that?
With Strange Lands, there was a lot of almost automatic-style drawing involved. After reading a text I would just draw with the being vaguely in mind. What was on the page quite often was initially little more than a scribble, but from that I would trace over and the pictures which were in the book. Whilst numerous entities virtually drew themselves, others had a little bit more conscious input from me. I knew I wanted a goat in the book and the Welsh Gwyllion could have also offered that opportunity but of all the shape-shifting forms the Phooka takes, the goat seemed to push itself forward. Brambles feature within the illustration in reference to the superstition that it is unwise to eat over-ripe blackberries as either the Phooka or the Devil himself had either spat or urinated on them. I am pleased I went with the goat aspect of the Phooka as a film of recent years I enjoyed was the Witch with its unlikely superstar of Black Philip the goat. I also prefer the sinister entities and illustrating them so shapeshifting bogies appeal to me.
There are so many fairy artists out there now and you’ve already mentioned a few. But who do you rate as being among the best? Who are your living inspirations? Who should we go and look for?
Alan Lee, Brian Froud, Charles Vess, all deservedly earned their position of being the successors of a tradition that followed Arthur Rackham, Dorothy Lathrop, Edmund Dulac and the other Golden Age illustrators and before them the great Victorian illustrators and fairie painters, but it is great to see that this tradition is continuing. Amongst those who regularly or frequently illustrate themes associated to Faerie, it is the darker earthier works that appeal to me as they maintain that capricious undercurrent and strange nature of the subjects, so apologies to those I have surely forgot but among the contemporary Faerie artists I admire are Karen Hild, Virginia Lee, Marc Potts, Cobweb Mehers of Eolith Designs, and especially Julia Jeffrey. Julia’s most recent body of work relating to the confessed Scottish Witch Isobel Gowdie is my favourite of her work, very sinister and evocative.
I’ve recently finished editing the Fairy Census 2014-2017. When people are describing fairy sightings frequently – I’d guess five or six times – people say, ‘it looked like a Brian Froud drawing’. What is happening here is modern artwork influencing sightings or is modern artwork taking from reality?
In talking with people about fairy artists, we think those who are ‘seers’ are very apparent. Among those whom I mentioned in the previous question are some whom I know or would expect to be Seers. There is an authentic feel to their work; it is not necessarily from literally seeing with the eyes but frequently just sensing and allowing those sensations to take form. With those who do that, sometimes it is as if the entities are rendering themselves through the conduit of the artist. The reasons for them being seers can vary. With Richard Dadd it could be his madness – he would simply smear paint on a canvas to begin and then paint the faces he saw peering out at him in the
pigment. For John Anster Fitzgerald there is a suggestion that his visions may have come from laudanum or opium half dreams. Some may simply be more sensitive to such things.
Location could also be a factor, Froud lives on Dartmoor which is notoriously ‘thin’, but the reasons why people may report Froud-like creatures is because they are seeing the types of creature Froud also sees. His earthier creatures are completely like those half-seen peering faces that can be found amongst foliage, tangled roots, tree bark and burrs, dry stone walls and such places. There is a stylistic difference amongst individual artists, but it may be that Brian’s work most closely captures the forms that numerous other people have seen. There is also the consideration of archetypes. If a collective unconscious exists, then art and reality will constantly influence each other I think
Let’s finish with a boring but fundamental question. If anyone is interested in commissioning you for art work or just buying one of your books, how do we get in touch?
My solo books are available mail-order only from
but books I have illustrated for Harper Collins and other publishers are generally possible to buy from bookshops, Amazon etc. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Andy, thanks so much!
This Interview first appeared in Fairy Investigation Society; Newsletter 7. New Series. January 2018
Founded in Britain in 1927. The Fairy Investigation Society has members from many different walks of life with different views about fairies and fairy existence: what ties us together, in mutual respect, is an interest in fairy-lore and folklore.
Read the Fairy Census 2014 -2017 here – fairy census 2014 -2017
Alongside Darren Charles, Andy Paciorek will be discussing witches, faeries and folk horror at the The Pagan Federation Scottish Conference on Saturday April 21st 2018