Natural History Illustrator Out and About: Inspirations: Hannah Firmin March 28th 2014

Story posted: Friday, 28. March 2014 by Lizzie Harper

Natural history illustrators get inspired by other illustrators, as well as by the natural world around them.

I recently went to Booth's Bookshop to see Hannah Firmin discuss her beautiful work, her methods of creating illustrations, and her attitude to her career.  (All photos and illustrations in this blog are copyright Hannah Firmin unless stated otherwise).

Hannah Firmin at work

Hannah at work.

This event was put on by Arts Alive Wales, a local organisation that promotes links between artists across Wales, and in fact there's a fine blog on Hannah's talk at Booths on their site, writted by Emma Benyon.

Hannah began by stressing the importance of drawing, "Good Old Drawing", and kept returning to the theme throughout the morning; if you don't practice your drawing skills, then you are at a disadvantage.  Drawing teaches you to see things differently, to learn the nature of your subject, to understand what you draw.  I wholeheartedly agree with this; many's the time when I've learnt far more about the structure of a plant or animal by drawing it from life than I even could from a text book, or from observing a photo.  She showed us sketchbooks from when she was at Chelsea college of art, and later, we saw some of her current sketchbooks.

Hannah Firmin's sketchbooks photo by Emma Benyon

Some of Hannah's sketchbooks from her college days (photo Emma Benyon)

Next, she showed some of the vast array of work she's produced over the years.  Wine bottle labels to regular illustrations for newspapers, books to food packaging, greetings cards to illustrations for hospital walls, and swathes of other glorious work.

What I love about Hannah's subjects is that they are often based on the natural world.  Be it an artichoke (as below) or a book cover, there's often a beautifully observed and interpreted plant or animal in her work.

Hannah Firmin artichoke

Her technique of producing these images has evolved over the years, and is as fascinating as it is effective.  She started out early, knowing that she loved print making.  Lino-cuts, wood-cuts, and then vinyl cuts all feature heavily.  She uses wood engraver's tools to work the vinyl or lino (she favours vinyl as it has a less grainy texture than lino), and her prints can be monochrome on paper (as with the artichoke above), hand-tinted, composed of two or more blocks inked up with different colours, or collages of prints made onto a wide assortement of papers in a variety of colours.

Hannah Firmin blocks, tools and printing roller.

This photo shows some of Hannah's blocks, her cutting tools, and a roller used to apply ink to her blocks (photo from an interview by Vicky Pearce of illustration

Below is an example of one of her collaged prints, which I find particularly beautiful.  The quality of the print is clear, and the colours don't get muddied by over-printing.  This approach can be fiddly and exacting; the patience required to carefully cut out each individual component of one of these works is admirable, as is the ability to stick them all together correctly to make a cohesive whole.  Only by really examining the original piece up close can you get a true feel of the work that's gone into creating it.

Hannah Firmin tulips and hyacinth

Tulips, hyacinth and forget-me-nots.  Printed collage by Hannah Frimin.

Here's another example of a collage of prints; this was done for the cover of Wild Hares and Hummingbirds by Stephen Moss (paperback).

Hannah Firmin Wild Hares and Hummingbirds book cover

Probably the most instantly recongnizable use of work that Hannah's done is for the covers for the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of books by Alexander McCall Smith These are, I think, both visually arresting and a relevant link between cover and content of the books.  Thus they work as pieces of art in their own right, and as cover illustrations.  Below is the artwork that featured on the cover of the first book of the series.

Hannah Firmin cover of Ladies No 1 Detective Agency

And a cover from a later book, "Tears of the Giraffe".

Hannah Firmin Tears of the Giraffe book cover


In fact, these covers have been so universally appreciated and successful that recently, when Little, Brown and Abacus changed the illustrator of the covers of the whole series, there was a public outcry.  It is unheard of for a publisher to make a public statement about the logic behind changing the "look" of a series of books, but that's exactly what happened in this case!

Hannah often produces a print and then hand-colours each one with watercolour.  This is time consuming, but effective, as the illustration below shows.

Hannah Firmin Spring hand coloured wood cut

Spring by Hannah Firmin

It was a treat to hear Hannah discuss her work, and to get to pore over her illustrations, sketchbooks, blocks, and prints.  It's also heartening to see an illustrator at the very top of her game continuing to innovate and try new approaches, and who continues to wrok flat out.

Because of her ongoing international success as an illustrator, the high quality and beauty of her work, and the fact that she empahises the importance of drawing I count Hannah Firmin as an inspiration, and urge you to visit her website to see more samples of her work and perhaps to buy a print (or two).

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