Artist Paul Kidby on his work and relationship with author Terry Pratchett
PUBLISHED: 11:14 16 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:14 16 July 2018
Paul Kidby was mesmerised by the work of Bucks author Terry Pratchett and one day a phone call would lead to an extraordinary meeting of minds for the next two decades
When artist Paul Kidby first read one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, his sense of the characters was so clear, he worked his way through the rest of the series then created illustrations which he was determined the author should see. A couple of failed attempts later the two men finally met and Paul handed over his drawings. The result? A meeting of minds which fuelled a 20-year collaboration between one of the nation’s most prolific and much missed writers and an artist who breathed life into his famous quirky characters.
In the Beginning
Terry Pratchett was born on 28 April 1948 at Minellan Nursing Home, Beaconsfield. After attending High Wycombe Technical High School he decided on a career in journalism, joining the Bucks Free Press as a reporter. On 25 April 1969 he wrote (signing his typed letter, ‘Terence Pratchett’) to Roald Dahl requesting an interview. The author agreed, though no further information is recorded. Two years later his first published novel, The Carpet People, preceded his phenomenally successful Discworld fantasy series.
Self taught artist, Paul Kidby, became a freelance illustrator in 1986. A successful oil and acrylic painter as well as sculptor, and with an international following, in 2002 he began designing the Discworld book jackets, a commission which owes much to Paul’s persistence.
“My sister sent me The Colour Magic, Terry’s first Discworld story published a decade previously,” Paul recalls. “I immediately felt I could visualise the characters and started reading through all the Discworld books and drawing the characters. I submitted artwork to his publishers and also gave photographs of artwork of generic characters to an editor I knew was interviewing Terry. Those approaches didn’t work.” Undeterred, Paul heard that the author was doing a book signing near to where he lived and decided this could be his chance.
“At the time I didn’t realise how popular he was; the penny dropped when I queued for three hours. I handed over the envelope of my designs. He said, ‘Is this for me?’ I felt he had everything at that point but persistence is an important lesson for art students to learn. You have to care about your artwork while also developing a protection, a thicker skin. You have to put everything into your art but not take rejection to heart and keep trying.”
Going direct to the source proved to be the best decision. A few weeks later, at the end of his book signing tour, Terry Pratchett rang Paul Kidby: “This wasn’t a phone call I was expecting. He said this was the closest anyone had ever got to how he saw the characters himself. My interpretation fitted with his so we started working on various projects.”
Pencil sketches followed by thumbnails to work out the bones of a composition formed the usual evolution of images before a finished drawing to which acrylics, occasionally oil paints, or coloured pencils were added.
Asked to sum up the iconic Discworld art style, Paul takes a moment to think. “Modern old school,” he muses, “with lots of parody.”
Such was the working relationship between the two men, Paul’s own art took a back seat for a while. “When the opportunity arose to work with Terry everything else was put on hold. I worked exclusively with him; we had a close, creative partnership. For 10 years I visited him at home mapping, designing and discussing ideas while we established the visual feel of Discworld and its characters. Then I was up and running with it and we did not need to work so closely but I remained busy in my studio creating Discworld art. When Terry became ill I did not like to encroach on his time.”
“I enjoyed developing the look for the Nac Mac Feegle clan,” Paul states. “Terry described them as 6” high, blue characters and I felt they were Scottish in nature – a sort of combination between Braveheart and Trainspotting, incredibly strong – who enjoyed fighting and drinking.”
Taking the plunge to come up with a new design, the artist describes his Feegles as, “Street brawlers; they look like they hang around dark alleys rather than the gym. They have missing teeth and broken noses from fighting all the time.”
One of these feisty characters became Rob Anybody in the Tiffany Aching books which yet again revealed the limitless creativity between artist and author.
The Pratchett Style
This ‘artist of choice’ continues to praise the author’s style which appealed across the generations: “Terry’s writing referenced everything: popular character, classical, literature. He had an incredible mind, very visual. He was interested in everything and used it in his writing.”
Paul also appreciated Terry’s generosity with his time which he likes to attribute to mutual respect. “Creatively it was a rare opportunity. I’d go to his house to show him my drawings. As soon as I had his info I knew exactly the look of a character he was trying to achieve.”
Two years before his death the famous author visited Beaconsfield Library where he told fans of the influence it had had on his career as a writer.
Terry Pratchett was awarded a Knighthood for his services to literature in the 2009 New Year’s Honours List.
Facts and figures
The Discworld fantasy novels number 40 volumes. ‘Snuff’ sold 55,000 copies within the first three days of publication. At the time of its release, in 2011, this was the third fastest selling hardback adult audience novel since records began in the UK.
In December 2007 the author was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease. He was open about his condition and Rebecca Wood, Chief Executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust declared, “Terry became a voice for the 850,000 people in the UK who live with dementia but cannot shout so loudly.” The author died in 2015 aged 66.