Illustrating A Little History of Art: Q+A with Mat Pringle

How do you cover 100,00 years of art history in one book? Moreover, how does an illustrator tackle the unique task of creating historically accurate, yet strikingly beautiful illustrations for that same book?

This was the task faced by illustrator and printmaker Mat Pringle, when commissioned to create the jacket and chapter illustrations for A Little History of Art, the latest addition to the bestselling Little Histories series.

We asked Mat to tell us more about his inspiration for the project, his creative processes, and what advice he has for those interested in developing their skills in book illustration.

Representing 100,000 years of art history in illustration form is a challenging brief! Talk us through your creative process as you embarked upon this project

It certainly is, although in a sense a lot of the heavy lifting was already done by the author, Charlotte Mullins, who sifted through the many years of art history to present a more concise representation of it. It’s certainly been very informative for me, filling in varying-sized gaps in my own art history knowledge. 

In terms of my process for creating the linocut illustrations, I tend to work up some initial rough sketches, taking my cues from each chapter – in particular the scene-setting first paragraphs which are great for bringing the various time periods, artists and processes to life – and then it’s case of honing the sketches ready to commit to lino.

There’s a lot of back and forth with the editorial team to make sure the illustrations are going in the right direction; given the finality of lino (which isn’t an overly sympathetic medium for making last minute changes) the composition of the illustrations must be more-or-less fully developed by the time I transfer them to lino for carving. 

How did you select which artworks to represent, with so many to choose from?

For some artists there are very iconic artworks that lend themselves to a chapter illustration – for Michelangelo it’s difficult to not include either ‘David’ or the ‘Last Judgement’. But we were keen in the development of these linocut prints to prioritise the artist’s processes and not just their artworks. And, as with any good book illustration, it needs to compliment the text it’s accompanying, so where Charlotte has focused on a particular piece of art, I’ve made sketches accordingly. 

Another consideration is a lot of iconic artworks are already ingrained into our mind’s eye; I’m not sure attempting to recreate the Sistine Chapel in linocut form is really accentuating our collective appreciation or understanding of it. It’s more interesting – at least to me (and with my Arts Educator head on) – to gain a better understanding of the creative process behind it. 

And, of course, linocut has its limitations as a medium. Some artworks just don’t lend themselves to printmaking adaptations. So there have been many considerations in the selection process. 

Which illustration has been your favourite to create?

I really enjoyed creating the Hokusai print; it felt very meta carving and committing a master printmaker at work, to lino.

Illustration from Chapter 25, ‘Romanticism or Orientalism’

And Michelangelo chiselling away at ‘David’ is another favourite – although in truth it wasn’t necessarily my favourite to create as it took a lot of attempts to capture David’s face in a successful way that I was happy with. I think the final illustration in the book is attempt number five or six. I’m sure Michelangelo could relate…

Illustration from Chapter 14, ‘The Return of Rome’

Which artist or art movement has inspired you the most in your professional career as an illustrator?

Oh gosh that’s a tricky question as there are so many! From a printmaking perspective I’m inspired by Albrecht Durer and his fantastically detailed woodcuts and engravings from the 16th Century. I tend to be drawn to making quite detailed prints although clearly not nearly as detailed as the woodcuts from that period.

At the same time, I’m not very interested in following the traditional inspirational routes many printmakers are drawn to (flora and fauna etc); I like the idea of taking a very old and traditional medium (and dare I say occasionally stuffy) and applying it to more contemporary themes. So, creating a print of Beyoncé and Jay-Z in the Louvre (or rather OWNING the Louvre) and Keith Haring leaving his art in the subways of New York City, really appealed. 

Illustration from Chapter 38, ‘A Postmodern World’

What advice would you give to illustrators who are interested in developing their skills in book illustration?

The same as I tend to give for illustrators in general; focus on creating work that brings you joy or is inspired by the things that bring you joy. Avoid falling in with trends and being swayed by social media platforms and fads. Try and have fun with your creative process and be open to new directions and mediums. And keep yourself busy creating art.

At the end of it all you may not have got where you set out to go, but you’ll have created art along the way which is nearly always fulfilling (except when it’s not…!), and it’ll be inspired by things you love, bringing you joy to do so. 

I love music and records so a few years ago I set about creating a linocut alphabet print series of my favourite musicians, singers, producers, and rappers. It took a year to create, and I learned a lot about printmaking and creating portraits along the way. At the end of the year, I made a book of the series and had an exhibition. That work indirectly helped me to get the A Little Histories commission which, throughout the series, has included linocut illustrations and often a lot of portraits too. 

Can you tell us about any other current or upcoming projects you are excited about?

Well, this book has been fairly all-encompassing the last few months, so I’ve not been able to squeeze many other projects in. But I am about to start teaching Illustration and Printmaking again after a short time away.

I’ll be teaching at BRIT Kids in Canterbury which is a Saturday school for kids aged 8-18; it’s always inspiring working with that age range because their approach to art, and specifically printmaking, is often very fast and haphazard. So, aside from the stabby dangers of linocut tools, they help me to be a little freer and less stuffy about my own printmaking. It’s really refreshing to step into a print studio and watch them make a monumental but beautiful mess. I’m not sure many other printmakers will agree with this sentiment!

Discover more of Mat’s beautiful illustrations and explore 100,000 years of art history in A Little History of Art by Charlotte Mullins.

Curious to know more about Little Histories?

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