Recently I was asked about my early artistic inspirations and influences, so I thought I’d try to re-trace my personal path, as an obsession with one artist or style led to another. Immediately I thought of the surrealists I had studied and so admired when I was in high school and college. But one day it suddenly occurred to me that surrealism was not my first influence at all. In fact, my artistic sensibilities had also been informed by images I encountered much earlier in my life, a time that was buried deeper in my memory.
‘Then he took her home’ by Kay Nielsen
Being a child of ample imagination, I loved to read fairy tales. My fascination with these stories went beyond listening to an adult read “Red Riding Hood” or even watching Disney’s iconic “Snow White” or “Sleeping Beauty”. I went to the library and checked out every book of fairy tales I could find, and devoured them. I was captivated as much by the pictures as the stories; the stunning illustrations in many of these books sparked an aspiration to draw like that myself. I populated my own imaginary world with knights, princesses, horses, and dragons that I drew and cut out. I would make up fantastic tales, and act them out with these ‘paper doll’ characters.
Snowshoes by Kay Nielsen
How Morgan Le Fay Gave a Shield to Sir Tristram by Aubrey Beardsley
Some of the most inspiring illustrations, to me, were done by Danish artist Kay Nielsen, who worked during the Golden Age of Book Illustration in London around the turn of the century. Interestingly, some of his artistic influences are also mine. According to Terri Windling (From Fairy Tales to Fantasia: The Art of Kay Nielsen), “Kay left Copenhagen for Paris to study art in Montparnasse. It was there that he, like so many art students, discovered Aubrey Beardsley’s work, with its fine use of line and ornamentation and its aura of dark romance. Beardsley’s drawings made a considerable impression on him, containing as it did two of the things he loved best: imagery from myth and folklore, and the strong influence of Japanese art.”
Under the Wave off Kangawa by Hokusai
The Traveler’s Tale: Once Upon a Time by Sharmon Davidson
The Traveler’s Tale: Once Upon a Time is my acknowledgement of my close relationship with fairy tales. The woman steps into an imaginary realm, leaving the everyday world behind. Glancing back at someone or something, she is connected to both worlds at once. It’s a narrative, in a way, about living inside these stories as a child, and an affirmation that fairy tales and their illustrations will always be a part of who I am.
“The Golden Age of Illustration was a period of unprecedented excellence in book and magazine illustration. It developed from advances in technology permitting accurate and inexpensive reproduction of art, combined with a voracious public demand for new graphic art.”
I loved the drama, romance, and emotion these pictures evoked, the lush colors, the stylized figures. For me, they were an integral part of the stories, as important as the words. The strong sense of composition and use of flowing line are aspects of Nielsen’s and Beardsley’s work that I unconsciously incorporated, over time, into my own work.
There are many other fairy tale illustrators from the “Golden Age of Book Illustration” whose work influenced me as a child. Though Kay Nielsen was probably my favorite, I also greatly admired the work of Edmund Dulac and Aurthur Rackham. These illustratiors used mainly watercolor or gouache, which, now that I think about it, may be why I prefer watercolor to other painting media. I love the clarity and transparency of the colors; to me they seem infused with light.
Undine Lost in the Danube by Arthur Rackham
The Mermaids Had Sea-green Hair by Aurthur Rackham
The Queen of Sheba by Edmund Dulac
The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac
Why did this “Golden Age” produce such a proliferation of great illustrators? Dulac, Nielsen, and Rackham are only three of the great number of fine illustrators whose work graced the pages of fairy tales, story books, and magazines around the turn of the century. It all had to do with technology. “Until the mid-1890s, there had been no economical method of reproducing color plates. Printing methods in those days varied from printer to printer and were most often patented – and were always being improved. The invention of the process we now call “color separation” made it possible to mass-produce color images and by 1905 they improved the process to create images that were very faithful to the originals.”(http://www.bpib.com/illustrat/dulac.htm)
Earth, Sea, and Sky by Sharmon Davidson
After seeing Rackham’s mermaids with sea-green hair, I couldn’t help including my own mermaid, whose hair is also, coincidentally, green!
Below, I share a few images of my work that I believe reflect the influence of these artists. I wasn’t consciously thinking of them when I created these pieces, but they’re in there, for sure. I owe them a great debt, both for the many hours of pleasure their work gave me, and for their part in molding who I am as an artist.
Maintaining the Balance by Sharmon Davidson
Against the Tide by Sharmon Davidson
So now I’d love know about your artistic inspirations and influences. Who or what was your first inspiration? How did they help to shape your current artwork, or did they? Do your early influences still have any effect at all, or have they been left far behind? Please share your thoughts in the comment section; I’m really curious!