Diana Probst, Cambridge Artist

Series: The Madness of the Bird King

A malformed bird creatures writes nonsense with black in and a red quillOver the past fortnight I have been working on an exciting project, illustrating The Madness of the Bird King for James Knight. This is a post about how the concept grew, and a bit about how I see the subject, hence less technical description and more prose than usual. I have here a few of the sketches that I drew, either as inspiration or as thumbnails for the larger works. The Bird King himself, drawn in a moment of inspiration, when I could clearly see how the effects would work on paper, was the first time I had tried to draw anything in this style. I had been experimenting with watercolours, and used a mix of watercolour and ink with nibs or (for the larger effect) an eye dropper. James liked it enough to ask if I would illustrate a book about the Bird King. I jumped, rather nervously, at the chance, and he gave me carte blanche with the illustrations.

The first sketch set the general tone, which was scratchy and broken, with elements but not an overriding theme of horror. It could just be the work of a mad artist or viewer, watching something that is really quite banal. The Bird King’s looks are fluid, and so I had to be able to abandon what I had thought of him and pick up anew every time I tried to put part of him onto the paper. A few things are constant, but we might not always see them – to birds, he is small. To humans, huge and terrible. Maybe ocelots see him as sane. We know he has black, black blood and red feathers along his spine. When we see him, it has to be unclear whether it is him, or just a thing that could be him, or just a thing.

Brown, rusted cogs in a smoky atmosphere made of grey smudges of watercolourThe cogs and the mechanical parts of him have something biological about him. His heart is probably metal, and it certainly powers his rage, which is magnificent and burning. Or, of course, these could just be cogs. Out in the City of Granite and Glass, there are a lot of things that are mechanical, rusted and broken or newly repaired. From the beginning it was important to me that the individual paintings could stand alone and be anything from mildly disturbing but beautiful to disturbing without redemption. The cogs went on to be a major factor in two paintings and to have bit parts in others. Foreshortened cogs are not the friend of anyone who wishes to stay sane, and next time I may very well try modelling some in a 3D program. The entire learning experience would probably be easier than the calculations I did by hand and then the eyeballing I had to manage to get the last one right.

A beak that looks larger than a city stretches out to engulf it. It is unclear if the beak is just close to the viewpointAnd finally, my favourite sketch. The Bird King is pretending to eat a city. He will soon get bored and walk away to peck at dust motes and dream of romance. Or, just possibly, he will squawk loudly, eat the city, and burp. We think he will get bored, though.

This was a happy experiment with blending watercolours while they were wet, and running over it in ink. It was my first glimpse of the City of Granite and Glass, and its buildings. Some are normal residences. There is an area that looks like Trafalgar Square would if the column were broken down. There are also places so strange and twisted they hardly count as buildings. Houses where the walls and roof are all balanced on each other, one brick thick. Places where the rooms are filled with solid glass, or the walls were built around giant glass cubes.

The Bird King lives in a very strange, nasty, smoky place. I do not want to go there, but for your delight I have imagined it, and painted the best bits. The litterbugs want to meet you.

Book available soon!