Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Around the Table with...Brian & Wendy Froud. Part 1

Brian Froud was born in Winchester, UK, raised in Kent, and studied at Maidstone College of Art. He began his career as an illustrator, worked in film (designing two children's classics: The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth), and now creates paintings, books, and other projects from his studio in the Devon countryside. His internationally best-selling books include Faeries (with Alan Lee), the “Lady Cottington Pressed Fairies” series, Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, The Runes of Elfland, and Brian Froud's World of Faerie. His paintings have been exhibited around the world, won numerous awards, and have influenced a whole generation of artists and folklorists.

Wendy Froud born in Detroit, Michigan, where she studied art and design at the Center for Creative Studies. She began her career as a sculptor on the set of The Muppet Show, and went on to work on such feature films as The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and The Empire Strikes Back (for which she sculpted and fabricated Yoda). Her doll art and mythic sculptures have been extensively exhibited across the U.S. and Europe, published in three children's books (The "Old Oak Wood" series), and featured in an art book, The Art of Wendy Froud. Her writing has appeared in The Heart of the Faerie Oracle, Troll's Eye View, and other books.

Brian & Wendy live in a 17th century thatched Dartmoor longhouse filled with art, books, trolls, goblins, and faeries. Their new book, Trolls, will be published by Abrams this autumn, and artwork from it will be exhibited at The Animazing Gallery in New York. You can see more of the Frouds' work on their website and their blog, The Realm of Froud.

Howard, Brian, Wendy and Rex.

Editorial note: Prior to the following discussion, Brian recounted a tale in which he once stalked a famous writer. Unfortunately, due to possible legal implications (for both Brian, the Stalker, and the writer, the Stalkee), we are unable to publish this portion of the transcript. The deleted text is currently being kept in a safe in a Swiss bank, and will be opened to public gaze once the statute of limitations has passed. Until such time, here’s the rest of our "Around the Table' chat with Brian and Wendy. 
        H - Hello to you both!

B & W - Hello.

H - We’ve invited you ‘around the table’ primarily to talk about the process of collaboration, as you’ve just created a new book together, haven't you? Rex and I have found that working collaboratively has certain challenges, and certain advantages. So let me begin by asking, is this the first time you two have collaborated on a project?

        W - This is the biggest collaboration we've done.

B - It’s the only one that I can remember...

W - Well, it's not the only time we've worked on a book together, but it's the only time we've done it as an equal collaboration and without anyone else being involved.

Mother Leap by Wendy Froud
        B - You worked on my last Cottington book, for example…

        W - I did, but I wasn’t acknowledged for that!

        B - It was under a nom de plume.

        H - Do you both normally work on your own, then? Wendy, you've obviously worked in collaboration when you've made models for films....

        W - Yes. And I’ve worked for Brian before, but this wasn’t working for him so much as working with.

        H - And what about you, Brian? You've worked in collaboration before, on both books and films. But is there a difference when you're working collaboratively with a writer and artist who is also your wife?

         B - It’s been a peculiar collaboration that way. It's not a traditional one, I suppose. We've just finished our book, which is all about Trolls. We'd been wanting to do a Troll book for years...and then we finally got the ‘go-ahead,’ and now suddenly we were doing it! I started by painting random pictures, trying to find my way into the subject intuitively as an artist...and then Wendy and I had the realisation that what we were actually attempting was: ‘Trolls: The Story!’ Everything! Trolls have been around forever, so that is a huge amount of myth, history, and iconography. So the question then became: “How do we do that?” The collaboration between Wendy and myself wasn’t so much about showing things to each other, or bouncing ideas off each other, but becoming two travellers on a quest to find out about Trolls together. 

 H - So you both got completely involved in the world? 

A page from the forthcoming book, 'Trolls.' 
        W - We did... 

 B & W: ...at first!

   B - It's all rather shamantic, as far as I’m concerned. You have to sort of go in deep...and then try to find nuggets of stuff that seem to have some meaning, and bring them back. I do that with pictures, but sometimes I have no idea what the images I've brought back are supposed to be! I try to make images that have some sort of content, but I don’t always understand what the content is. Wendy, though, has this brilliant facility of looking at my stuff and going, “Ah!”

         W - Finding the stories for them. Let me explain what the premise of this book is. It's a book about Trolls, but it's also about the tales that the Trolls tell to themselves. It's the story of a young Troll’s journey from the beginning of the book to the end, and what happens to him along the way. And what happens is that he collects these different Troll tales, and we get to hear the tales as he collects them. I started by writing the main story, which is the young Troll's journey, and then three complete little Troll tales within that. And then I read them all to Brian, who had already done some artwork for the book. Brian doesn’t like to illustrate. He wants to paint what comes out of his own head, not what comes out of a writer's words, but on this occasion he did do some illustration from my stories, which was great! I loved it. So that, Brian, was a real new departure in twenty-five years for you.

 H - Was that a conscious decision for you, Brian, to make that departure? Or did it just happen spontaneously?

W - It was me, making him do it! With the support of Terri (Windling), who said "you’ve got to make him do this," because she was reading the Troll stories all along, and encouraging me so much.

Troll sketch - Brian Froud
        R - And were Brian’s illustration what you had in mind...?

W - Yes. They’re perfect! So he is brilliant at illustrating words when he choses to.

B - To be honest, I did it out of desperation. We thought we'd have a long time to work on the book, but by the time the contract was sorted out with the publisher, what we thought was going to be a year was down to six months. I realised at that point that I had to stop painting, see what we'd got, and turn it into a book.

        H - There seem to be some similarities here to the way that Rex and I work. We've also been drawn into the world of our book, to the point where it has obsessed us. But we haven't got a firm deadline because we’re self-publishing, which has benefits and drawbacks. One drawback is that we have to impose our own deadlines and they can become somewhat ‘elastic.’ On the positive side, that's allowed us plenty of time to really explore the world and mull the underlying meaning of the story. It's also allowed us to develop our partnership, and to discover how each of us likes to work, which I think is important in a collaboration. Obviously you’ve known each other for a while now....

        W - Thirty-one years!

        H - ...so I guess the need to get to know each other better isn’t there so much! Wendy, you know how Brian draws, for example, when it comes to him illustrating your words --

        W - I do. But I also had images in my head of how I thought the paintings were going to be, so it was a wonderful surprise when they turned out to be...not exactly what I was thinking, but better. 

B - The problem for me is that I have no idea what I'm doing. I am not very good at just crafting something, at just shaping it. What I'm really doing is 'searching' for an image when I paint, for what it needs to be.

H - When you say that, do you mean…well, I’ve seen your art, and you are clearly technically capable of crafting it. Do you mean that you're more focused on exploring the inner reality of your art, it’s inner meaning? 

Troll and Red Haired boy - Brian Froud

        B - Yes.        
        H - I can really relate to that.

        B - I instinctively know what image is right when I find it, but it may be that the way I get to that image is through lots of ‘no’s.’ Every project I work on, I have a similar problem: I find it difficult to explain to a publisher what the book I want to create is all about, because I need to start it, and get into it, in order to discover what it's going to be about. You make a start, and then the book begins to tell you what it needs to be finished, and what it’s form will be.

        H - Yes, I see.

        B - So when we started on the Troll book, we had to pull together everything that I'd been drawing and painting with the tales that Wendy had written. Wendy was brilliant at that, putting it all together, and that's when the collaboration between us really started. There were some simple, practical things which helped: Wendy went down to the village hardware store and bought some pin boards [bulletin boards], which we put up in the kitchen.

          W - It was sort of like story-boarding a film.

          B - We pinned fragments of paper to the board...anything that I had in terms of Troll images, we’d put up. That allowed us to work out the flow of the book: should this go here, or there? 

Gone fishin' by Wendy Froud
         W - At that point, I’d written the book's main story, and most of the shorter 'Troll tales,' but I still had to write some 'factual' pieces about the Trolls themselves: about what they do, what tools they use, and how they live their lives. And I couldn’t do that until I'd seen the art Brian had been working on. Which he hadn't yet shown me!!! Oh, I should point out that there’s photography in the book too, photos of some of my models and also of Troll 'artifacts' that I'd made, or that Brian had made, and other strange objects that we found. The pages are a collage of all of those parts, which Brian has put together. We couldn’t have done it if we hadn’t had these pin boards; it would have been too complicated.

        R - This is really exciting to hear, because it's very close to the way Howard and I worked on John Barleycorn, including the pin boards to keep track of different elements of the book. The way you've described how you draw, Brian, is like a writer describing how they write a book. You’re describing how you 'write' a drawing! What I found, working in collaboration with Howard, is that it's all about constantly asking questions: about the story, the characters, about what’s happening, and why sometimes it can happen in that way and why sometimes it can’t.

       H - How do you write, Wendy? Do you do it in a way that's similar to Brian's painting method, where the story just 'comes' to you intuitively, or do you have a clear idea of the story beforehand, mapped out?

         W - I really don’t start with a clear idea. I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, but I've been focused for many years on sculpting instead of writing. Though I've written for Brian's art before, this was the first time I had to write something that was quite so long and sustained...and I found that, basically, I can sit down and do it intuitively as long as I have an idea to start with, or some art to look at. As well the complete Troll tales in the book there are also 'fragments' of Troll tales -- so if Brian had a painting that couldn’t fit into the overall story, but we wanted to include it in the book, I would just look at it and know its tale. Then I would write a fragment of the story -- but at the same time, I would kind of know what the rest of the story was, even if I didn't get the chance to tell it. Which was fascinating. 

         H - In your collaboration, did you have separate areas of the book that each of you handled, or were you both involved in everything? For example, Brian, did you have a hand in the writing, or did you leave that up to Wendy?  

 B - I just let Wendy do it! She would read her writing to me, and then I'd maybe ask her, "Is this what you meant to say...?"

Hare by Brian Froud
       W - And sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn't.

         B - And if it wasn't what she meant, then she'd change it; but if she did mean it, then that was fine. 

         W - And if it wasn’t what I'd meant, Brian would suggest other ways that I could express it.

         H - That's one thing I like about collaboration! It's like having your own editor with you. When I direct theatre shows, for example, I much prefer working with Geoff Beale, my old Ophaboom partner, as it means there is someone there to say, “That looks good,” or conversely, “That’s really not working.” In some ways, I feel that having a collaborator to act as a sounding board almost works along the lines of magical principles: as long as one other person thinks the work is looking good, then despite the fact that I'm often lacking in confidence, I think, "Well, it must be alright then!" and carry on. What I mean is, it’s as if you are practicing sleight-of-hand magic: someone else has been ‘fooled’ into thinking that the work is good, and therefore we can ‘fool’ other people into that same perception. I guess that’s a weird way of looking at art-making....

         R - I had no idea that was what you were using me for!

         B - Wendy doesn’t always agree with my ideas, and sometimes when she doesn’t, I think, “No, I am right.” I'll re-examine whatever it is, but if the inner still voice says, “I'm right,” I’ll stick with it, even if I'm not able to fully express the reasons why, I know that my way will work. 

         W - On the Troll book, Brian always showed me the pages that he was putting together at the end of the day. Sometimes I’d say, “That doesn’t work for me,” and he’d say, “It is going to work.” 

 H - Yes, a good collaboration isn’t about someone telling you something is good even if it isn’t...but also you're right that you have to be able to trust your own judgement and not rely entirely on your partner's feedback. Sometimes, like you’ve just said, Brian, you just know that something is going to work, but you can’t quite explain it. And even if your partner says, "It's not working,” you say, “No, but it will!” 

         B - To do what Wendy and I just did with this book is literally, for me, a nightmare. A painting, for me, is also a nightmare, because it's full of unresolved problems. The hope is that when the painting's finished those problems will be resolved and the picture will be in balance. Now, to do a book of this nature, every single double-page spread has hundreds of elements in it: bits of pictures, bits of text, my art, Wendy's art, photographs, design elements, other bits and pieces, and they’re all floating around. Because I think in abstracts, not in solid thoughts, when I put all the elements into a double-page layout, I play around with proportions. Everything to me is about proportion, which is where the 'magical thinking' comes in. The meaning is in the proportions -- not just how the different elements look, but how they relate to each other. There is a different emphasis if I make one element bigger, or another smaller, and then it is about relationship: where do these elements go? As they start to create relationships to each other, now there is a some sort of a story emerging. While I was working with all these visual elements, in desperation to get a book with some sort of shape, Wendy was working on the words. 

Art from forthcoming book 'Trolls' by Brian Froud
        W - And sometimes I’d find that Brian was working with the wrong words for the page! It’s because he would refuse to read them.

         R - Brian! How was that helpful?

        W - It wasn’t! I’d read everything out loud to him, but he wouldn’t read it when it was printed on the page. He had a mental block about that, so I’d come in at the end of the day, and his page designs would be beautiful, but I’d say, “Brian, this isn’t the text that goes on this page!!!” 

         B - Normally when I'm designing a book I go up to London, and I sit with a computer operator. I give them instructions, and then I walk away. I go back a few days later, and they’ve done stuff under my direction, and so I’ve got something to respond to. That's a different form of collaboration. This time I was doing it all myself, and I had to be sure it was working. I was dreaming about it at night, and nothing was resolving. Then, as we got the book firmed up, and I was feeling happier about it, I would say to Wendy, “Don’t write too many words here, because I've got the page in balance, and when you put your words in you’re going to mess up my art!”

         H - So, how do you resolve that?

         W - I’d give him the text, and he’d go, “No!!!” But then I’d read it aloud to him, and he’d say, “Oh, alright....”

          B - Yes, because once I heard the words, I’d 'see' them on the page. A book like this is not traditional in terms of ‘picture’ and ‘words’ -- that would make life so easy! Here, it's the whole page that's telling the story, image and words in collaboration. There are other messages going on in the arrangement of word and picture. It’s subtle, but essential.

          H - We come up against this all the time in our comic, trying to find the correct placement for the words on the page. One of the things that I love about Rex’s art is that his portrayal of the characters, and the way that he positions the 'camera angle' of each panel, really tells a story; you're not dependent on the words. I find in some graphic novels that the art doesn’t have a sense of story to it, a sense of narrative movement -- whereas I'm used to working with image in theatre, where image and movement is just as important as words. That's how I have always approached my theatre: it is, primarily, moving image, on which words are an added extra. The moving image ought to be fascinating in and of itself. Commedell'Arte is a little like a dance, the story is told through posture and movement. Words and image are very different mediums for telling story, but when they gel properly, you get a “wow!” moment. That's when the words and the image are working together, backing each other up...or, sometimes, telling slightly different things, which adds depth to the overall story.

         R - If you have an image, it speaks a thousand words straight away, so the dialogue in the word balloons should be something else, something more. It shouldn’t simply be telling you what is going on in the picture, because the picture is already telling you that. The writing should compliment the picture, put the icing on the cake of the picture, in a sense.

Troll witch with owl 2 - Brian Froud
 B - That’s why I always say I'm not an illustrator! I gave up illustration in 1975. I did a book, years ago, called The Wind between the Stars, and that was fascinating to me because I thought, well, how do you draw the wind? You’ve got to find a metaphor for wind. And the metaphor was what interested me. It was precisely at that point that I got fed up. I couldn’t understand most illustration. You had a text that said the boat bobbed on the blue briny sea, and an illustrator would draw a boat bobbing on the blue briny sea, and I’d think, “Why?” The words have said it, and I have a picture of it in my head, and now you're just duplicating it for me. I feel that what you should illustrate is the space between the words. It's the betweenness, the otherness, that gives depth and dimension. Pictures and words compliment each other, they tell more than…

H - ...the sum of their parts? A sort of synergy. So that you get more from them in combination than you would from each of them individually.

        W - Yes!

        H - This sense of ‘otherness’ is something that I wanted to talk to you both about, as our graphic novel is very much concerned with the ‘otherness’ that magical thinking brings. I know you're interested in magic, Brian, because I’ve talked with you about it a couple of times before; but I'm not sure about you, Wendy. I know you have a deep spirituality….

        W - If you mean magic as in alchemy and the Golden Mean, I’m not particularly interested, no. Not like Brian is. He’s more of an alchemist. I like natural magic.

        H - That’s what I was getting at. Both of those aspects of magic interest me: esoteric philosophy, and also natural magic. The two seem to link in some areas, but in others are far apart. I wonder how much it influences your work, individually; and how much your work comes out of these different strands of magical ideas? Or, more philosophically, how do the ways that you work come out of these ideas? Those are huge questions, aren't they? Sorry!

        W - They are! Brian's work has alchemical aspects, and he uses esoteric ideas, like sacred geometry, in the construction of his paintings...but it's not so simple as to say his work comes from one strand of magic and my work comes from the other. We're both very interested in natural magic, which involves healing and energy. We both believe very strongly that whatever work we do, we put healing energy into it -- especially if it goes out into the world for other people to experience. There is enough out there that has bad energy going out with it, and I don’t want to contribute to that, I don’t want to be part of that. People seem to sense that our art has a kind of energy, a healing energy, so we tend to be very conscious of it as we work. This doesn't apply quite so much to my writing, however!  I’m working on something about two serial killers now, so…

        R - But if they’re Trolls, it’s okay!

        W - They’re not Trolls.

        R - Oh, dear....

Don't miss Part 2, where the conversation turns to Renaissance Man, the Dartmoor landscape and the liberating arrogance of youth!


  1. It's so good to see these "Around the Table With" chats back!!!!

    I'm particularly interested in the process of collaboration and so found this discussion very interesting indeed. I highly recommend Twyla Tharpe's book on the subject, "The Collaborative Habit."

  2. A wonderful journey through the woods and ways of collaboration. I appreciate the process and the conversation is a meal to savor.


  3. Thanks for this! It's helping me putting words to what has been bothering me for years. I always wondered how to put the images I have in mind when I read, onto paper.

    I always thought it was a lack of technical skills, but now I begin to see there is more to it.

  4. Fantastic interview. I always love hearing more about the Frouds and their perspectives on things. Thanks for hosting!

  5. this is b....y brilliant, thanks guys! I am working on our 3rd collaborative book and have been thinking a lot about how to integrate the rhythm & scan of of Old Man Crow's verses visually, the pinboard idea really helps!

  6. I'm so happy to see that the Frouds are making a book about Trolls! What strange, wily and wild creatures... It looks completely amazing, and this is a great conversation. I'm working right now on writing a puppet show rendition of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, that takes place in gold rush California. I'm having so much fun with the troll character, Long-Nose, with the wisdom and the earthen grace of trolls. Wish this book were around already to explore. I just love that you guys are depicting trolls with such depth and intelligence. Thanks for the interview!

  7. This was so fantastic Howard, Rex, Brian and Wendy-thank you all! I have been a devout fan of Brian and Wendy's work since I was about 3 years old and my uncle artist gave my grandmother Faeries-I promptly took it over and then of course I was raised on Dark Crystal. I love the distinction made between illustration and art-and the value Brian places on composition-proportion-I had never thought about either subject quite that way before. Wendy's understanding of magic and how to work with energy when infusing your creative projects seems dead on to me--splendid! And how I am off to part two...

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