I learned the laws of book illustration from the works of Vladimir Favorsky.
Later, in the 1960's, when studying at the Leningrad Higher School of Industrial Design, I became acquainted with the originals of the drawings and engravings of Dmitri Mitrokhin. Exhibitions of Mitrokhin's works were frequently held in the reading-room of the school's library.
From my first year at art school I started working for publishing houses, and ever since book illustration has remained my main occupation. What appeals to me most, is the variety of the book-illustrator's work - epochs, countries, clothes, ways of life, customs, utensils - all are different, there is no danger of monotony here! And our multinational country is vast, and every national group, however small, has its own writers and its own culture. I have had the opportunity to illustrate books by Uzbek, Ukrainian, Tajik, Jewish, Khakass, Avar and Byelorussian authors. I am lucky in being a Leningrader, because there are two wonderful museums in Leningrad - the Ethnographical Museum of the Peoples of the World and the Ethnographical Museum of the Peoples of the USSR.
In these museums I find the necessary ethnographic and historical material for my illustrations. I have lived for long periods on the shore of the White Sea and in the Ukraine, have taken part in archaeological expeditions to Siberia and the Crimea, and have also visited the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Baltic republics. During my trips I drew and made sketches, and I have accumulated a lot of material over the years. I have been trying to interpret that material and to express my observations and thoughts in my drawings.
The artist is revealed in the style of his work; individuality gives life to the specific style of his art. And the two paramount qualities here are wholeness and naturalness. Wholeness doesn't automatically result from a correspondence of subject-matter and form, and, although a book is indeed "materialized subject-matter", the ways of its becoming an object of art, and the results of such a process, are many and varied, for a book has only one author, but may have many illustrators.
On the other hand, for an artist to achieve an affinity of style with various writers implies a constant changing of his own "face". After all, each new book presupposes a new approach and a new atmosphere. There are artists who stick to one definite style, one theme and one manner. But an artist's individuality is not an aim in itself - it is a means to serve art in one's own way.
Dmitri Mitrokhin once said: "I find it necessary to change from time to time, the material and instruments which I am using. It is as necessary as finding a new subject or a new model. I am constantly searching for a new, vivid and clear graphic language."
How then can an artist who takes part in the creating of a collective product called "a book", preserve his individuality and his own view of the world? Book-illustrating is, on the one hand, a profession akin to that of an actor: the artist shares the feelings of the characters, he tries to "live" their parts and to act together with them in various situations, and at the same time he creates, in the form of illustrations, his own dramaturgy, with its own rhythm parallel to that of the development of the plot. With the help of line, color, texture and tonal range, he organizes the space necessary for maintaining and revealing the atmosphere of the book - a performance staged for the benefit of a single "spectator" - the reader of the book.
On the other hand, the artist is a story-teller in his own right. Like the author of the book, he also invents, meditates and philosophizes. He has his own attitude towards the characters, and his own moral stand, but this stand should not clash with the poetic coloring of the literary work.
Some artists feel somewhat humiliated by the awareness of their secondary role in illustrating a book: in their view, the author appears to create a world, whereas they only reflect it. But I am convinced that everything depends on how you approach your task. You are not at all obliged to literally follow the text, and repeat descriptions given by the author. You can give free rein to your own associations engendered by the theme tackled by the writer. My own experience of collaborating with writers in working on book illustrations has convinced me that, as a rule, they don't approve of literalism in illustrations; the author thinks that, if the artist has nothing to add to what has been said by the writer, his illustrations are superfluous. An author is more likely to be interested in an artist capable of expressing, in his own medium, what exactly has affected him personally in the book, and, with the help of his own associations and graphic generalizations, of widening and deepening the reader's understanding of the text. Such an approach on the part of the artist not only reveals his respect for and his attention to the author of the book, but, what is of greater importance, it reveals the ethical stand of the illustrator himself.
Speaking of myself, I try to choose plots which abound in dynamic action and tense situations. When the artist achieves empathy with a character, he shares the latter's thoughts and emotions, not only with his intellect, but with the whole of his being. In illustrations an emotion is always expressed through some action. It is impossible to convey that action or gesture without perceiving it as "materialized time". In his article, About Composition, Vladimir Favorsky writes: "A striving for compositional harmony in art amounts to a striving for seeing, comprehending and depicting things and phenomena belonging to different spatial and temporal planes, as a single whole."
To give a better idea of the kind of problem facing the book illustrator, let us take a concrete example. One of my latest works is illustrations for Mikhail Lermontov's poem, Mtsyri (In English translation, The Novice - Tr.). Before starting my work, I tried first of all to grasp not only the message of the poem, expressed in the following epigraph: "I did but taste a little honey, and, lo, I must die." (Samuel, XIV. 43), but something else, which is not expressed in so many words, but which constitutes, in my opinion, the poetic essence of Lermontov's work.
Both in Demon and A Hero of Our Time and also in many other works by Lermontov, we see that as soon as the main character tries to part with the reality he is accustomed to, or with a definite sphere of life, a fatal conflict arises, which is not infrequently settled by death. The conflict is engendered by the incompatibility of different spheres. I saw my main task in finding a device which would make it possible to picture these two realities, incompatible but existing within the same space bounds. The problem of combining them in one drawing, of constant "vibration of space", of the transition from reality into unreality, from one plane to another, is very interesting and very complex. To this problem any number of solutions could be offered, but I had to choose from among them the one most suitable for Lermontov's poetry. I decided that the best thing would be to try to convey in my drawings spatial shifts, and at the same time the matching of different levels, and to introduce a number of phantasmal planes where some actions and movements would take place.
I also felt that the whole series of illustrations should be united by a movement which I tried to express by scaling up or down the size of human figures against the background of the surrounding landscape and, in particular, of the mountains. Whereas, in the first illustration of the series, the man is almost indiscernible, in the last one, there is nothing but man - no surroundings, no environment. True, these changes in scale appear only in the illustrations accompanying the narration of Mtsyri himself. The opening and concluding illustrations of the series have no relation to the hero's account but, as it were, convey the author's view of the characters during and after Mtsyri's narration. In the first illustration I intended, with the help of converging upward planes, to create an atmosphere of the spiritual unity of two people. This illustration should be of a narrative character, both in its subject-matter and in its form, because it is the beginning of an action, an exposition. And the concluding illustration was meant to convey the feeling of parting, separating, dying - hence a burnt-out candle and diverging, branching-off planes which cross human figures. The message of this particular illustration had to be expressed not through a "narrative" depiction but in a generalized form.
The time-span of the story I tried to show through the size of the candle: whereas in the first picture it is quite big, there is only a candle-end left in the last illustration. Usually, while working on illustrations, I try to limit myself to a small number of objects using them for the construction of some sort of "visual syntax". This seems to be conducive to creating an integral illustration series, in which each object, both individually and in conjunction with others, fully corresponds to the style of the literary work. I may not have entirely succeeded in putting all my ideas into practice, but one thing is clear to me - I have to create a "visual syntax" such as this for each book if what I want to illustrate is the writer's work and not my own notions of it. This is especially important when works by several authors are published in a single volume, or when a narration by one author portrays different historical periods.
When I started work on the collection of verse by the Byelorussian poet, Maxim Tank, I faced the problem of finding one general principle of illustration capable of uniting the seven parts of the book in a single whole. I found the principle I sought in the theme of recollection, of past experience reflected by memory, the theme which permeates the whole of the book. I made a mirror the symbol of that reflection. I decided that a window-pane 'could also serve as a mirror when, beyond it, the interior of a room or the depth of the night is to be seen. Maxim Tank's poetry is rooted in the way of life of the Byelorussian village with its izbas (wooden peasant huts), and, because of that, I introduced in all the illustrations a common "frame" in the form of wooden window shutters or ledges.
Since poetic text calls for a more abstract imagery, I decided to divide my drawings into three spatial layers. The first one is symbolic, and it serves as .an emblem. I place it at the top and at the bottom of the engraving. I have repeated these details in the half-titles, having achieved, by so doing, a connection between the decorative and illustrative elements.
The second spatial layer emerges in an oval mirror executed in a conventional manner. And the third layer is, as it were, a shadowy, symbolic picture appearing in that mirror, which is connected with the second, most important layer by images defying a straightforward and too rigorous interpretation.
The relationship between man and his environment - between a man's figure and the space of the picture plane - is supposed to express the style of the work and to give generalized, imaginative expression to the artist's mood. This mood is representative not only of the specific feelings of the artist in relation to the given literary work, but of many more things characteristic of his personality and even, perhaps, of his biography.
After all, whatever problems - technical or other - may face an artist, what is of primary importance is his creative individuality and the moral problems he is concerned with, his feelings of love for some things and of hatred for others.
Almost anyone can be taught to draw well, given time and provided he wants to learn, but if he is lacking in the desire to develop spiritually, nothing will come of it but playing at art. However entertaining such playing may be, it is only an artist possessing a clear-cut and active moral stand who can make it into real art and impart it with meaning.