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Of a hare and a fox

September 20, 2017


With summer holidays over I looked to  deeper into illustration. A workshop with Illustration Department honcho and Pengiun Random house art director Giuseppe Castellano was the result. The workshop was real fun and really interesting, but what excites me most is the new piece I've finished.


As part of the workshop I received an assignment. I was to either create a new illustration or redo an old one and improve it. If I picked a new one, it needed to be something native. As I had already been pondering on doing one or more images of Reynaert the Fox, I jumped on the occasion.


For those of you who don't know the story, it's an old Flemish medieval piece of literature that has influenced many other works (amongst others Shakespear's Tybalt is based on one of the characters in the poem (Tybeert)). It is a story about the misdeeds of a fox called Reynaert and the harm he causes. Eventhough Reynaert really is the villain, at the same time he's the hero as he is always cunning and brave enough to trick the other animals through their vices into their own misfortunes.


Being both a villain and a hero isn't the only ambiguity in the poem. The whole poem is full of allusions and ambiguous lyrics. In fact it is the reason why this work is really considered a literature classic for the Dutch/Flemish.


Anyway, on to the scene. One of the  best known medieval illustrations on the story is Reynaert's Credo (See image below). At King Noble's court (Noble is a lion) Tybeert the tomcat describes how one day he came upon Reynaert and Cuwaert while the fox was learning Cuwaert to sing so he could become chaplain at his church. Without Tybeert's intervention, Reynaert would have bitten the hare's neck off. The allusion is that actually the fox and the hare were having (forced) homosexual intercourse when Tybeert happened and intervened on the scene.


So I decided to do my own version of that old image. The ambiguity of the Reynaert character was important to me, so I wanted to emphasize that, so that is where the reflaction came from. Within the story it's also clear that the animals aren't welcome between the humans, and certainly not in the church. I had to find an alternative to his "church", so in comes a chapel of which there are tons of splattered around the flemish countryside. Research into old flemish paintings found me this below landscape. I had to include a tree.Last but not least it had to be clear this was the flemish countryside (read flat as a pancake).



With everything identified, I went shooting landscape reference photographs. These formed the basis for including the reeds, fields of crops, poppies, butterrcups, but also the hedges, treelined demarkation of canals, the knotted willows at the edges of the fields, and even that distant church spire.


So back to the story, how did Reynaert trick the hare? The fox convinced the hare he had a church now, so in come the monk/priest robes. The Pelgrim staff is also very commonly attributed to Reynaert (later in the story he departs on a pelgrimage). I believed the hare to be some sort of gullible peasant, so I gave him some peasant clothes as seen in some medieval paintings.


Puzzling with the elements I came to the image at the top of the article, with a reflection of Reynaert as some sort of devil grabbing the hare by the neck, showing he is subjugating him. In the "real" image you see the sunrays protruding from behind the fox's head, like he's a saint that wouldn't harm a fly.


I am quite satisfied with how the villain/saint personae of Reynaert is depicted. I am also happy to see how the allusion to the homosexuality is and isn't in the picture (I've already had a couple of  remarks on the "Lap Dance" Cuwaert is performing). Especially as I want illustrate children books. The clouds and the texture were a challenge but I believed I pulled them off. And last but not least I was really happy with my overal improvement.


Is the image perfect? No, there are things that could be better, but I see them now because I learned doing the picture. I don't believe perfection is attainable, but at the moment this is the best I could come up with. Next time I'll know more, so I'm moving on with the lessons learned. Anyway, I have another piece to put in the portfolio now and I am planning on doing some more Reynaert scene's in the future.


Until next time.






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