In the early ’80s I was an unpublished author (translation: wrote lots, didn’t sell much). I was also an enthusiastic supporter of the small press field, so much so that when my friend Charles Saunders talked about wanting to start up a magazine of his own, I took money from my music gigs and my salary from the record store where I worked and formed Triskell Press to publish it for him. The magazine was called Dragonbane and focused mostly on heroic fantasy. Charles S. found the stories and artists, I did the design and layout.
This was pre-Internet. I typed everything out by hand and the layout was done with the old-fashioned cut-and-paste using scissors and glue. It was a lot of work, but I loved it enough that I decided to do a second magazine focusing mostly on more traditional fantasy. We called it Beyond the Fields We Know, tipping our hat to the work of Lord Dunsany.
I remember a day that Charles S. came over with an envelope of art which he thought was more suited to what I was doing than his own magazine. I shook the samples out of the envelope and was blown away by the pen & ink art spread across my desk. Here was someone doing his own take on the early 20th century illustrated books that I’d always admired and I loved it. Suited for Beyond the Fields We Know? The art seemed to exactly define what I was trying to do with the magazine. Of course I had to use it, and Charles V.’s art graced many a magazine and chapbook produced by Triskell Press. We struck up a friendship that has lasted to this day and over the years we’ve collaborated on any number of projects.
So I come to this review with a huge bias in hand.
But really. All you need to do is flip through the book to realize that when it comes to traditional fairy, folk tale and fantasy art, there are few artists who do it better than Vess.
The production values are high — this is a book that not only looks good, but also it feels good. It has a nice weight to the pages and they’re big enough to show off the art to its best advantage (though it’s still not the same as seeing the originals). Because the material isn’t presented in chronological order, you have to flip around to see Vess’s growth as an artist. I loved his early work with its tight lines, but over the years he’s grown looser, and I particularly fond of the painterly quality of the more recent work.
Something to note: even though the paintings reproduced here appear to be rendered in watercolour, Vess has used coloured inks throughout most of his career. They’re harder to work with than watercolours (which have their own set of challenges), but the end result is a painting that appears to glow with its own inner light–again, especially in the originals.
Mind you, he’s not limited to any one medium. He’s done sculptures, pencil sketches, wall murals, and enormous charcoal drawings — all touched with the distinctive magic that Vess brings to his work.
If the opportunity ever arises, and it does on a regular basis since Vess shows at various conventions throughout the year, including the big comics convention in San Diego, do yourself a favour and take in one of his shows. His work can also be found in galleries through the country. Drop by his Web site for details.
But until then, or as something to tide you over between exhibits, Drawing Down the Moon is the perfect way to appreciate the work of this talented man.
The introduction is by Susanna Clarke (another lucky author to have worked with Vess) and Vess himself has provided anecdotes and details for all the pieces collected here.
Open the book and be prepared to step into magic.
(Dark Horse Books, 2009)