Illustrating A Little History of Music: Q+A with The Diggingest Girl

Each book in our Little Histories series is illustrated by a different contemporary artist-illustrator, whose specially commissioned work is designed to enliven and enhance the text. The dynamic illustrations for A Little History of Music were created by Emily Louise Howard, the artist behind The Diggingest Girl, a printmaking + illustration + crafts studio based in Atlanta, Georgia. We asked Emily to tell us more about her creative process for the project, and what advice she has for those interested in developing their skills in book illustration.

Creating illustrations that represent the entirety of music history is an exciting but expansive challenge! Can you tell us about your creative process as you started on the project?

I was a little daunted at the outset of this project, not being much of a musician myself (14th chair out of 15 flutes in the middle school band was as good as I ever got) but I was eager to dig into it, as music is very much a part of my art-making. Playing just the right song is sometimes exactly what I need to get over a creative hump or push through the very physical process of printmaking. Sometimes I get caught in a trance, playing the same song over and over because it’s just the right mood for the work. Although this project involved a lot of visual research, the very first step was to create a playlist, starting with The King Oliver Creole Jazz Band’s Riverside Blues. The playlist became gloriously diverse as I worked my
way around the globe and through the piles and piles of linoleum. This became the backbone of my process: I would collect the source music, then I’d set about researching & collecting source imagery for my sketches.

Little Histories is quite a big series now! What was it like working on a book that’s part of a wider series and has a distinct brand and illustration style?

It was a tall order but an honor to join an established series, and illustrating history makes me feel part of history in a small but concrete way. Part of what makes printmaking itself so special to me is that it connects me to tradition, across time and cultures. The project was a big challenge, but I knew I’d be a stronger artist by the end of it.

Is music a big part of your life? If so, is there a particular musician or genre that inspires you?

Though I’m not a musician, music is a big part of my everyday life. It’s not unusual to share a cup of coffee with my husband on the porch in the morning while he plays his guitar. It sets a nice tone for the day. The copious alone time in the studio and the miles spent traveling to art markets across the US means that I clock some serious listening hours. As a Kentuckian, bluegrass music has always been a favorite genre – the sound of a mandolin or a dulcimer can immediately transport me home no matter where I am. Nickel Creek might be my favorite. But I like to have all sorts of music on rotation in the studio these days: Glass Animals, Electric Guest, Local Natives, EARTHGANG, Kacy Hill, Lizzo, Alison Krauss, Tears for Fears, Bjork, you name it!

As you moved through the creative process, did you learn anything interesting about music history that you didn’t know before?

I came into the project with a knowledge of music like swiss cheese – riddled with holes. So I had a lot to learn! But I really enjoyed researching for Chapter 32 which features dancers from Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. It was such a radical performance that it nearly caused a riot at its opening in Paris in 1913. Nijinsky’s choreography was shocking and the music was… unexpected to say the least. The crowd booed and hissed, Nijinsky shouted at the dancers, Stravinsky fumed! I love a good scandal.

From Chapter 32, ‘Into the Darkness’

Which illustration was your favourite to create and why?

It’s hard to say! It might be a tie between Chapter 6’s gamelan ensemble and Chapter 11’s notations. I love the way the composition for the ensemble turned out, recalling a panel of relief sculptures from the Borobudur Temple in Indonesia. I had never seen anything like it before. And having long been a lover of illuminated manuscripts and all things related, Chapter 11’s notations definitely appealed to me.

From Chapter 6, 'The Eternal Sound of Gongs'
From Chapter 6, ‘The Eternal Sound of Gongs’

What was the most difficult aspect of the creation process and why?

I think what challenged me the most throughout was making sure that I was getting all the little but important details just right, like placing the musician’s hands correctly or using the right iteration of the instrument in history as reflected in the book text. I was unfamiliar with a lot of the subject matter at first, but luckily I had a team to help catch my numerous mistakes in drafting the illustrations. Suffice it to say I learned A LOT.

How did you develop your illustration skills and pursue a career as a professional illustrator?

I have been drawing my whole life and was adamant that I’d grow up to be an artist. I studied fine art at the University of Kentucky and then pursued my masters in studio art with a dual degree in education at the University of Cincinnati where my thesis ended up taking the form of installation sculpture. It was in graduate school that I learned the value of an interdisciplinary approach to my work, that my drawing informed my sculpture which taught me things about my paintings which gave me ideas for my prints…you get the idea. I’ve pretty much designed my life around maximizing my time in the art studio so I can do my favorite thing – practice. I carry at least one sketchbook with me at all times.

Do you have any role models that have helped you define your own artistic style?

Definitely! My first printmaking instructor was Derrick Riley at the University of Kentucky, a member of Outlaw Printmakers, the famed American printmaking collective. He had a big impact on me as a teacher, and was constantly pulling in the work of a wide variety of artists for us to look at and inviting established artists from around the country to speak to our class. But beyond that, studying the work & life of Frida Kahlo taught me the power of vulnerability & drawing from your own experience and she’s easily one of my biggest artistic role models. I’m also influenced and inspired by the work of printmaker & sculptor Kiki Smith, printmaker & sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, and painter Remedios Varo. Contemporary illustration influences include Carson Ellis, Rebecca Green & Becca Stadtlander.

What advice do you have for aspiring book illustrators?

Firstly, dare to dream – A Little History of Music is my first major published illustration job! Be committed to your craft – prioritize making your art and fiercely pursue the things you’re curious about. Eat with your eyes, greedily and hungrily because EVERYTHING is inspiration and the world is yours to create. Put yourself out there – in real life and online – no one will know what you can do if you don’t show them! I treat social media like a digital portfolio and it has resulted in many opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Further, selling my art in person at markets has helped me meet people who hook me up with custom/commissioned work – so many emails I receive start with “I met you last year at such-and-such market and I wonder if you’d be interested….” That has led me to some great collaborations and projects. It’s also helpful to get involved in a community of artists, be it a local collective or a group online, to share opportunities to exhibit/publish and to encourage and teach one another. Making friends with another artist on Instagram is actually what opened the door to A Little History of Music for me!

Discover more of The Diggingest Girl’s wonderful illustrations and explore how music has changed over millenia in A Little History of Music by Robert Philip.

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