Brian Wildsmith interrogates himself about his latest pop-up
Q: Your first pop-up was Noah’s Ark, and now you follow it with The Creation. Is there very much difference in creating a picture book (a ‘flat’ as the trade calls it) to creating a pop-up?
A: Yes there is. Of course, the essential difference is that a pop-up has to be conceived in volume; any volumetric shapes have to be made to fold flat when the book is closed. Many pop-ups merely have a flat surface, which rises upright when opening the book. This is a simplistic approach and doesn’t utilise the full potential of what can be achieved.
Q: How do you begin the process?
A: Well, as a child once said, ‘I think and then I put a line around it.’ Once the image is firmly in my mind I make a rough model. This is then sent to Intervisual Books in Santa Monica, California. They have wonderful talented paper engineers there who work out how to make the image fold. Each shape is dissected into its separate pieces and then sent to me to paint.
Q: A picture book has so many more pages to it than a pop-up, which is usually about five or six spreads. Why?
A: Simple economics always rule a product. In comparison to a pop-up, a picture book is an uncomplicated manufacturing operation. ALL the pictures are printed on one or two large format sheets of paper, folded and then bound. ALL operations are carried out by machine. A pop-up is printed on thin card (again two sheets normally) but then all the pieces that are effectively to pop-up have to be cut out, assembled and glued into place (‘glue points’ as they’re called) by hand.
Q: How many glue points are there to The Creation?
A: There are 175 glue points in the final assembly, with over 100 different cut-outs to be glued into place. When you think of it, for the amount of intensive manual labour involved, pop-ups are amazingly cheap to buy and they can soon become collector’s items.
Q: Creatively, what is it that attracts you to pop-ups?
A: It’s the combination of flat art and a kind of sculpture, which is painted sculpture. The ancient Greeks painted their sculptures. Pheidias carved a 36ft high wonder, Pallas Athena, which stood in the centre of the Parthenon. It was then painted in various colours and adorned with gold jewels. Sadly, as with so many great masterpieces, it’s been destroyed but it must have been inspiring – sorry, I’m digressing.
Q: How do you begin? What was the starting point?
A: In a subject like Creation you have to decide just where you stand on the issue, i.e. Genesis or the Big Bang theory. I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a great deal between the two concepts, the main difference being Time (the concept of Time). Genesis: God created the world in six days, i.e. 6 x 24 hours. If you remove the time element from Genesis and make a day = millions of years, where’s the difference? God = what? – a super power that made or caused the Big Bang, sending matter to swirl and form into the infinite that with time became the universe.
Of that same super power, or God as we conceive of Him, the Bible says God made man in his own image, and our imagery of God is as we are. We need images we can relate to. It does help us to come to terms with an infinite so vast that it’s quite beyond our comprehension.
Q: So you walked through the Gates of Genesis towards the Garden of Eden?
A: Yes, I decided to make my image of God = Male-Female-Black-White-Coloured-Oriental, making a cruciform shape standing upright on a panorama of flat art representing the universe.
Q: I see that your cruciform God is holding up high in glory our lovely planet earth, whilst supporting stars and moons with the other hands.
A: Yes, this was all necessary in order to give stability, and bind the structure to the base page, ensuring that the whole structure pops up correctly and doesn’t collapse.
Q: Spread Two has a very complex base painting of many different shapes and colours.
A: In this painting I wanted to convey the mystery and wonder of the first growth of plants, trees and foliage emerging from the deep blue of the third day.
Q: The pop-up flowers and revolving wheel on this spread – do they have a significance other than being beautiful flowers?
A: The simple delicate pop-up flower is an expression of the purity of the world as it was then. But if you turn the wheel, you’ll expose the Datura flower, lovely, seductive but deadly if it is misused, a perfect symbol of temptation to come into our world. The Datura flowers I drew from my wife’s garden. I love the Revolving Wheel effect. It was first used at the end of the nineteenth century by Ernest Nister of London in his enchanting Victorian revolving picture books.
Q: There are lots of fish swimming around on the third spread. Are they accurate?
A: Yes, the shapes and forms are all accurate but I’ve allowed myself a little artistic licence in the colouring. They were great fun to paint and really gave me very little trouble. However, the sky was a different matter. I wanted a very special sky. A sky as it would have been at the dawn of creation. How would it look? One day looking over the mountains behind my house there appeared such a sky. God had sent us the best he had. It was so beautiful. On Spread Three, I share it with you.
Q: I think you like birds?
A: Indeed, I do. Birds symbolise man’s eternal search for freedom. They sing and soar and bless our earth with their plumed beauty. They’re lovely to draw and a joy to paint.
Q: Did this spread pose any particular problems?
A: Originally I placed the pop-up tree trunk in the centre of the double-spread but the paper engineers couldn’t make it fold satisfactorily in that position and so they moved it out to centre right hand page. Also I’d have liked the woodpecker to be able to tap the tree trunk, but for mechanics to do this it would have involved more cost. All you need is brass, as my father used to say.
Q: The Garden of Eden – I looked closely but can’t find the serpent.
A: Darned right you can’t. Whilst working on this spread I went into the garden to water my tomatoes and was bitten on the ankle by an adder. Right, I thought, Adder you have had it. There and then I decided I wasn’t having a serpent in my Garden of Eden. The apple tree is there, though.
Q: What happened to your ankle?
A: My foot and ankle swelled up to twice the normal size. The local barman told me not to worry as after eight days they’d shrink back to normal.
Q: Did they?
A: Yes, thank heavens, if it hadn’t been for the barman I’d have gone to the hospital and they would have pumped me full of anti-snake serum. Ughh!!!!
Q: Tell me about the final spread.
A: In the final spread, I placed animals and man and woman in a stage setting ready to act out the opera of life in which we are all cast in supporting roles. We’ve all lost our wonderful fertile Garden of Eden but out souls are forever searching to find it once more.
Q: Any problems with this page?
A: The base page has a border of flowers, insects and small animals which surround a large area of flat green. Just before I was ready to pack up all the work ready for delivery to OUP, I noticed I’d forgotten to colour the spider.
A: I dipped my brush into the water pot and …
A: Sod’s Law came into instant operation. Two tiny blobs of water fell on the bare green, discolouring where they fell. I simply couldn’t get the green back to its earlier pristine state. I just couldn’t match the colour.
Q: So you had to repaint the whole area again?
A: I was going to but my little grandaughter looked at it and said, ‘Brian, why don’t you paint two little beetles on the spoilt part’, and so, that is why two little creatures are crawling across the page. Glory, love and admiration to ALL CHILDREN – our hope and our future.
Both books mentioned in this piece are published by Oxford University Press:
Noah’s Ark, 0 19 279979 7, £12.99
The Creation, 0 19 279990 8, £12.99