How do you illustrate a famous classic? What are the first steps you take in this exciting process? We talked to Simone Manfrini, the illustrator of our new classic reader, The Age of Innocence written by Edith Wharton. This novel – a story about love, sacrifice, family and appearances – is set in New York in the 1870s. This era, often called the Gilded Age, has a special atmosphere filled with fading glamour and nostalgia. Although this is Simone’s first illustrated classic, his illustrations have great depth and convey the emotional suspension of the characters. We talked to him about how he approached this well-known story.
Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How did you become an illustrator? When did you start drawing?
Simone: I’ll start with the second question. I started drawing on the wall of my balcony as a little boy. My mother never told me off for doing this, indeed she encouraged me to keep on drawing. I think this experience influenced my attitude towards drawing. I only became an illustrator relatively recently.
HRB: How do you start illustrating a novel, especially a famous one like The Age of Innocence?
Simone: To start, I watched the Scorsese film adaptation of the novel, which I loved. But as is often the case at the beginning of a project, I take inspiration from my own imagination, which is made up of images and emotions dear to me. If you look carefully at the drawings in The Age of Innocence, despite all the background research into the context and period, you may notice that there is a distinctly Italian aura about the warmth of the characters’ gestures and glances.
HRB: How do you visualise your characters? How do you imagine what they might look like?
Simone: I am often inspired by actors or ordinary people I meet in the street. I really like observing the faces I see every day. All of them have beautiful traits, you just have to look carefully, and you will see that they can add depth and features to certain characters.
HRB: What aspect of the characters and setting did you most want to bring out?
Simone: Without any doubt I was most struck by Archer and the intensity of his inner drama, and I wanted to convey the nature of his sacrifice in the drawings.
HRB: What technical steps do you follow when you’re illustrating a story?
Simone: I started off with sketches for the first time ever in The Age of Innocence. I usually work straight on the final drawing as I have a clear vision in my head.
HRB: What is the most difficult thing about illustrating a novel?
Simone: Doing it well is difficult. Let me explain. The drawings may be beautiful, but the role of illustration is to complement the story, so the illustrations should be more functional than beautiful. At least that’s my opinion.
HRB: What is your favourite medium?
Simone: I don’t have a favourite style, I like experimenting. I’ve gone from using my fingers to illustration software, but watercolour is undoubtedly is a great discovery, as it is quick and clear.
HRB: Who and what inspires you?
Simone: I have always liked Beuys, his figure of the responsible artist is close to my understanding of the role of the illustrator. This regards the ethical part of my work. Stylistically, Schiele is much more sensitive and significant than Klimt, and he is also much less understood.
HRB: What artistic plans do you have for the future?
Simone: I’d like to continue doing what I’m doing now. Drawing for projects but above all for myself. Being able to do this is a great privilege for me, and I promise that I will never set it aside.
HRB: Is there a story you would really like to illustrate?
Simone: I have already published the story of my own neighbourhood, about myself and my friends. For me, it’s the best story there is, and I am happy to have lived it.
HRB: Thank you for the interview!