Dinosaurium is the best museum you’ve ever been to minus the queue, stale air and cultural imperialism. It offers the opportunity to service the needs that museums exist to sate: the desire to transcend the everyday, to witness that which is greater than ourselves, and to understand our humanity in the context of a neverending chronological continuum. And you can do all that in your undies — because the mighty Dinosaurium is a book and a museum in one. It never closes and always welcomes. Dinosaurium is a glorious ode to Earth’s past masters — and you probably won’t be surprised to hear me say, its poetry is in its illustrations.
The award-winning author/illustrator of Dinosaurium, Chris Wormell’s work is instantly recognisable. Strong and elegantly detailed, his prints are often described as timeless. He is a master of wood engraving and linocut — painstaking, time-consuming artforms. These are traditional methods in a world of digital, well, everything, really. So, I couldn’t help asking him when given the chance, why he opted to work in a medium more at home with the dinosaurs than modern illustration techniques.
CW: Basically, I’m old fashioned – I love old things, and old books especially!
As a child, I loved the wood engravings of Thomas Bewick – one of the first great geniuses of English book illustration. So when I decided to have a go at illustration it seemed natural for me to look at Bewick’s pictures, as well as the prints of other, later, engravers. I decided that was the way I wanted to illustrate books, so I began making engravings and sending prints off to publishers. At first I didn’t have much luck; I was told my work was a bit old-fashioned (it was of course, but I didn’t care!) then, after about six months or so, I was commissioned by Faber and Faber to make a print for a book cover (a play by Brian Friel). That was my first job and I’ve been making wood engravings ever since.
I’ve been making linocut ever since I was a young child. I was taught by my father, along with all my brothers and sisters. We used to make linocut Christmas cards every year. When I wanted to make bolder, more colourful illustrations (specifically for a children’s book) I naturally turned to making linocuts.
TiaT: Can you tell us a little bit about your process?
CW: The process of wood engraving involves transferring a sketch, usually by tracing it, onto a prepared boxwood block, then cutting away the parts of the image that are to be white, inking the block using a roller, and printing the image onto paper.
Some people start by blackening the block – that way they can see each cut they make into the wood very clearly and so, as the image develops, have a very clear idea of what it will look like when printed. The drawback with this method is that one can’t make a detailed drawing on the block, just a rough outline. A fine drawing would be pretty much invisible. I prefer to prepare the block with grey paint. That way, I can then make a clearly visible drawing on the block and also see the bright cut marks when I start to engrave. I don’t have such a clear idea how the block will look when printed, but that’s half the fun – never knowing quite what the print will look like.
To engrave all the dinosaurs in Dinosaurium on boxwood blocks would have been wonderful. Boxwood, however, is very expensive and most of the images in the book are very large. The blocks would have cost a fortune. And the engraving process would have taken about five years (at least). My deadline was only six months away! The solution was to make digital engravings – not prints at all but drawings made on a computer. The way I did this was to scan my sketch into photoshop, add a black layer on top of it and make the layer semi-opaque. Now what I had was a grey layer through which the detailed drawing was clearly visible – much as I’d have if I’d drawn on a grey boxwood block. I then used the eraser tool, choosing a mark similar to the chiselled mark my wood engraving tool would make on a boxwood block, to ‘cut’ away from the grey layer those areas I wanted to appear as white – exactly as I’d do when engraving a block. When I’d more or less finished I took away the sketch layer and made the semi-opaque layer black again – in effect, ‘printing’ the image, as I’d do if it were a block. Usually, some adjustment of tones would be needed at this point, as with a wood engraving, then I’d add coloured layers below the black line image. These would be sheets with a printed texture I’d made with my printing press and scanned into photoshop.
The end result was not too far from the image I would have created using a boxwood block – just quicker.
TiaT: What do you think your particular style brought to the illustrations of Dinosaurium?
CW: An old-fashioned, wood engraved, look. The whole Welcome to the Museum series sets out to have an old book feel, with plates of old engraving style images. My wood engravings would suit this perfectly. Almost all books – and most other printed matter – were illustrated by means of wood engraving in the nineteenth century – thanks of course to Thomas Bewick, who lead the way with his first great book, A History of British Birds, in the 1790s.
TiaT: What sort of research did you do to figure out how best to bring to life textures and colours belonging to creatures which no longer exist? For example — did you go to the Natural History Museum?
CW: To be honest I didn’t go to the Natural History Museum while working on this book (I have been many, many times before of course!) because there is so much material in books (I have a number) and on the internet. Also, one has to queue a long time to see dinosaurs at the NHM! As well as dinosaurs, I looked at lots of lizards and birds. And all my sketches were checked for accuracy by a dinosaur expert – sometimes I’d got a few things wrong and had to make corrections.
TiaT: Please can you give us a peek at your sketches for the making of Dinosaurium?
Here they are in all their glory, care of CW:
TiaT: Why do you think children are so fascinated by dinosaurs? Do you have a personal interest in the subject?
CW: I think they are fascinated because dinosaurs are sometimes very big, sometimes very strange and sometimes very scary! And also, not around anymore and thus, slightly mythical, like dragons – only real! For as long as I can remember I’ve always loved dinosaurs. They are brilliant to draw! If you had a full day to wander the halls of any museum which would it be and why? I think I’d have to go back in time to the Natural History Museum of the early 1960s. There weren’t any moving dinosaur models then, but it was still a magical place. I’d spend whole days there, with my brothers and sisters, wandering halls full of birds, or fish, or whales, or dinosaur bones…