This project started in my sketchbook. I started drawing this bear with a cone on his head. The decision to make it into a wordless picture book came much later. In the beginning there was no storyline, just a collection of images of this bear and the hare that tried to help him. Once the storyline started to emerge it didn’t feel right to start using words. Words was never an option really. It would have changed the idea too much. Given it a different flavour.
Etching is old school. It takes time, but it has this vintage look. And it’s hard. Lines that are etched into the copper plate. Black lines. Black scars in the etching plate. Foulbite. This is when the acid eats into places on the plate that wasn’t intended to be etched. I have a lot of foulbites in my etchings. I like them. I like them so much that I use the back of old plates the I find in the printmaking studio, so that the starting point is already messy and full of scars from the previous owner.
I was introduced to printmaking at my first art-school in my hometown of Lund in Sweden. It was a part time course, but there was a little group of us who turned it into a full time course by staying late and just continuing working. The week when we were taught printmaking on a small etching press, this little group went crazy and super productive. Later, at Edinburgh College of Art, the Visual Communications department had its own printmaking studio, so most of the illustration student were heavily influenced by the different printmaking techniques.
Did you pre-plan each spread before you began etching?
It was very late on in the process that I started thinking about the layout of the book. Most of the etchings were already completed. But when I laid them out in the correct order there were a few holes in the story. As a result, some images that had to brutally cut to fit the book. There are also images that I really like that didn’t make it. Like the image of the two of them on a see-saw.
The inspiration came from a dark place. I used this project to deal with some heavy aspects in my life at that time. At the time I was struggling to understand and help someone very close to me who was dealing with depression and alcoholism. In the beginning there was no thought of a book or publication. It was just me drawing to get things off my chest or out of my head.
I think it’s about 160 or thereabouts. But I can’t remember which sketchbook that I wrote it down in...
What made you decide on a bear and hare for your main characters?
The bear was not a choice. He just appeared. I thought the bear should get some help from somewhere. For a short period of time, small rabbits were helping him, an army of rabbits; a bit like the minions in Despicable Me. But they soon developed into a lone lanky hare.
I've been doing collages and drawings for this project alongside all the printmaking. Not only in my sketchbooks
but also on larger sheets of paper. Sometimes they developed into a print, but most of the time they are left as drawings. There was one image I didn't want to make into an etching: The hare has been holding on while being dragged along after the bear. Then the bear turns around and shouts at him. This image is just the drawing because I didn't want to have more than one copy of this part of the story.
Actually, the cover was the only image that went back and forth with the publishers...you can see some versions below.
Why did you decide to keep the drawings in black and white, without adding colour?
There is a directness to a solid black-and-white image. It's like it has been scraped back to its bare minimum. I think that directness and harshness was important in dealing with this specific subject matter. Then again there are 4 images in the book that have colour. Four drawings on top of a collage backgrounds. The idea was that because you have been looking at a world in black and white, they pop out. They become significant, highlighted in a way.
At Artichoke printworkshop, where I do my etchings, the standard of artwork created there is pretty high. There are two artists who's work I really admire and respect. One is Jake Garfield, who creates massive woodcuts, full of details, patterns and humour. The other artist is Marcelle Hanselaar who's work is pretty nitty gritty and not for the fainthearted.
This upcoming exhibition at Printroom Studios is a great chance to see the substantial body of work that went into bear. The setting is spectacular: a contemporary gallery space set in a converted cattle-barn in Suffolk. The artwork has been hung in the order of the story, so you can experience the book in a different dimension. There are also some etchings that were not published in bear that are on display.
This show, which is the first time Printroom Studios has shown work from a graphic novel, will complement the one day literary Flip Side Festival on the 23rd September:
16th September - 1st October
11 am - 5 pm on Saturdays and Sundays
To hear more about Staffan's work, check out his website where there is also a video showing you Staffan's studio and creating a print while he talks about his book.