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Every Picture Tells a Story: Into the Greenwood Deep

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children’s and Young Adult | Interviews

By Vanessa O'Loughlin

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For any reader or writer of fantasy, magic can be created in just a few words, and great story can come from anywhere. Photographer and artist Phil McDarby’s work is all about magic – and story. He has created a truly stunning exhibition, currently showing in Newbridge – an amazing display of photos of faeries and dragons created from photographs of nature – and there’s a mysterious back story that truly bring the photos to life…

Phil McDarby is freelance digital artist, photographer & composer who has been drawing and painting fantasy and sci-fi characters and environments for most of his life. Making the jump from traditional to digital around 1998, at the heart of his work is a desire to capture a sense of magic and wonder – that feeling of child-like excitement and discovery that we can lose touch with as adults. He explained how creativity runs in his family: “I have always drawn, for as long as I can remember. My Dad is a phenomenal painter, and I have vivid memories of him poring over these epic watercolours for weeks on end, huge canvases brimming with minute detail. My older siblings fed me a steady diet of fantasy and science fiction, so those covers and stories were a huge influence on me too.” But for Phil, it isn’t all just about creating pictures, as he revealed, “In terms of my career, I had always wanted to be a writer. Art was just something I did as a hobby. It wasn’t until 1998, when I discovered computers, 3D and the world of Digital Art, that I was finally able to realise all of these mad images I had in my head, and the idea of actually making a living from doing this became a tentative reality. So the writing took a back seat for a few years. It has come full circle now, though – I am enjoying writing more than I ever have.

For the techie amongst you, Phil uses a number of methods to create his imagery, from 2D painting using a Wacom tablet to 3D modelling, digital sculpting and he often uses his own photography as textures in his scenes. Looking at his photographs, you can understand how Phil has won over 50 international awards, including multiple CG Choice Awards from the CGSociety and the Golden Torus Award. His work has featured in many  international magazines, and he has composed music for film and television. He’s currently working for Brown Bag films, but continues to work as  a freelance Concept Artist/Illustrator – in 2009, he was accepted into the Illustrators Guild of Ireland.

Phil McDarby

Writing.ie caught up with Phil at the Riverbank exhibition, currated by Tom Donegan who, with his own strong background in children’s books, is very excited about the show: “This exhibition is one of my favourites at Riverbank so far – we’ve been able to get really creative in devising ways to engage young people in the show. Initially curated for the Copper House Gallery, the core of the  exhibition features thirteen large-format Lambda C-Type prints showcasing Phil’s incredible woodland photography, digitally manipulated to reveal a hidden world of dragons and sprites living amongst the foliage. The fun bit has been developing Phil’s ideas for a back story to give the collection cohesion and to spin just that little bit more magic.”

“When I first met Phil, he explained to me how he’d already created an entire meta-narrative explaining how the wood dragons in his photographs had first been discovered by anthropologist  Henry Welliver, back in the 1940s. Henry then entrusted the secret to his nephew, Peter, who inherited his life’s work. Phil has very generously allowed me to push this fiction one step further – in our story Peter has now contacted the Riverbank to help him stage this exhibition and finally reveal the existence of wood dragons to the world!”

Indeed, in this new configuration, the Riverbank Children’s Gallery becomes home to the photograph’s back story; featuring letters, Henry’s diary entries from 1947, old photos and poems, and even a reconstruction of the study where he studied these creatures – here children can pick-up some of the prints and take a closer look.

As you can see from these illustrations the photographs themselves are quite magical and the whole collection – the story of the dragons’ discovery and the pictures  – would make a wonderful book. We asked Phil his pictures were inspired? Did he create a story in his mind before picture, or did they evolve into a story?

Phil told us, “It varies, to be honest. Sometimes I have a very clear idea in my head – the image will evolve, but I will end up with something pretty close to what I had imagined. Some take on a life of their own, however – and those are the ones I find most exciting. With Wonder, for example, my goal was to create an elaborate citadel. Halfway through the image, I decided it should be floating in the sky. And at the very end, literally as I was about to down tools, I decided to add the little boy, standing on the hilltop. Suddenly the image took on a narrative, a feeling – hence the title ‘Wonder.’ With The Wood Dragon and the Ladybird, my initial goal was to create a forest dragon, a creature who would blend into the trees with its bark-like skin. But it was massive, a huge, lumbering creature. Again, at the last minute, a little voice in my head said ‘What if it was tiny?’ and a whole world opened up in my head, a world just beyond our sight – that single thought has led me to this point. It’s funny how ideas work!”

Below you can see the world of the wood dragons in this captivating picture An Encounter at Greenspindle

An Encounter at Greenspindle

It is the stunning detail in the photographs that makes them truly magical – here are just three images taken from the picture above:

In addition to the Into The Green Wood Deep exhibition, Phil worked with US author Patrick Rothfuss to develop a collection of limited edition prints for his book The Name of the Wind. Phil explained, “In early 2009, my sister handed me a book – The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. She told me she had read it in one sitting, and was about to read it again. I was sold before I’d turned a page.

‘I was in Edinburgh for a few days, and took the book with me. As I nursed cups of coffee in cobbled corners, sat in leafy parks and wandered in the shadow of majestic, ancient buildings, I read compulsively.  I felt an incredible connection between where I was in reality, and where Pat took me in my imagination. It was a pretty magical experience. I’ve been a fairly voracious reader for my entire life, and for a book to affect me this deeply was truly something special.

When I got home, I looked Pat up on the Internet – he was about to embark on a European trip, taking in Edinburgh on his travels. It was the nudge I needed to get in touch. I went to great lengths not to come across like a gushing, over-zealous fan, but that’s pretty much what I was, so some of it may have crept through! I cheekily included a link to my site, telling Pat that I earned my crust creating Fantasy and Sci-Fi imagery.

A little while later, Pat replied – gracious soul that he is. He had lovely things to say about my work, which was humbling in the extreme. As he signed off, he threw in this seemingly innocuous comment. “Have you ever given any thought as to what the Draccus might look like?”

I let that thought rattle around my head for a couple of days, and decided I’d give it a whirl. It was a great challenge to set myself, because I had never attempted something so ‘exact’ before. My work always evolves as it goes, often becoming something that only vaguely resembles the initial idea, but with this, I tried to stick to Pat’s wonderful words. About two weeks of my spare time later, I had something I felt I could send to him.

His positive reaction was just fantastic, and I was over the moon. We talked about getting it printed and sent over to him etc, and that got us both thinking. I had recently met with Dominic Turner of Exhibit A Studios in Dublin, about creating Limited Edition prints of some of my imagery.  They are the only Print Company in Ireland with accreditation from the UK Fine Art Guild, and the quality of their work is just sublime. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to do something special with ‘Luring the Draccus’. Through a lot of back-and-forth with Pat, we decided it would be cool to do a signed A1-sized Limited Edition of the image, to the highest, Museum-Quality Standard. Pat came up with the wonderful idea to hand-write a different line from the book on each of the 50 prints, making them totally unique.

Luring the Draccus

The first 25 prints have winged their way through stormy skies from Dublin to Wisconsin and, signed and numbered by Pat and myself, and have sold out. They come with a Certificate of Authenticity from Exhibit A Studios, and feature a handwritten line from The Name of The Wind – the next 25 are being printed at the moment.”

Phil’s limited edition prints, including those from the Into  The Greenwood exhibition are stocked by the Copper House Gallery, you can see them and order here: http://www.thecopperhousegallery.com/artists/28/works/ (the exhibition has certainly solved a few Christmas present issues for us!)

So what is next for Phil?  He told us, “At the moment I’m working in Brown Bag Films as a Matte Painter on Peter Rabbit, [you can see the trailer here  http://tinyurl.com/cq3o5cr]  which has been a total joy and a privilege to be honest. Amazing place to work, full of ridiculously talented people. I’m still working away on The World of the Wood Dragon, building up a portfolio of species, creating the mythology, weaving real world flora and fauna into this fantastical realm. My dream is to get the book out there, and beyond that, to see these creatures come alive.  I try to capture a sense of photorealism in these images, and the idea that I could see one of these creatures move, scurry up a branch, magic shimmering in their tiny hands – it’s a hugely exciting thought.”

Indeed, we’re very excited to know if Phil’s next project will bring his dragons to a bookstore near you…and whether he’s really telling the truth that they are all created with the trickery of cameras and computers, or if a little bit of magic actually exists in secret location in County Wicklow…





About the author

Find out more about Phil McDarby and his work here: http://www.philmcdarby.com/index.php

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