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Global Perspectives

The illustration process behind The Earth and I

Ever wondered what it’s like to illustrate a TASCHEN book? After working on one of our most expansive commissions in recent years, British artist Jack Hudson has quite some backstage insight. Sharing highlights from his portfolio, he recalls some of the delights and challenges of a truly cosmic project: The Earth and I.

Three years in the making, The Earth and I was conceived by independent scientist James Lovelock, hailed as the fifth greatest green campaigner of all time, and best known for his revolutionary Gaia theory, now a bedrock of environmental thinking, and the first theory to consider the Earth as an integrated, self-regulating entity, in which living organisms and their inorganic surroundings interact to help maintain and perpetuate life. True to his Gaia principle, Lovelock believes ardently in a holistic approach to science. He sees progress in exchange and discussion between different scientific fields, rather than in ever more specialized study. The Earth and I brings Lovelock’s thinking to book form with 12 expert chapters from across the scientific spectrum, including astronomy, geology, neuroscience, climate science, and quantum physics.

Hudson’s task was to illustrate each of the book’s 12 chapters, as well as to create an overall artistic scheme in which the chapters, like the science they reveal, can resonate with each other. After an initial round of meetings, in which Hudson and the book’s editorial team identified key concepts for illustration, Hudson got down to his scientific and artistic research. He found visual inspiration in a rich variety of illustration work, including Charlie Harper’s playful biology graphics and the pioneering infographics of Fritz Kahn. The scientific research, meanwhile, required a crash course in cutting-edge physics, chemistry, biology, and beyond. “The subjects were so diverse and expansive, I had to tackle everything from supernovas and cells to economics and population growth,” reflects Hudson, “My first challenge was to prove that I could draw pretty much everything on the planet and beyond…no biggie!”

Hudson’s first step was to develop an overarching zoom narrative to unify the book’s macro and micro scales, drawing on Charles and Ray Eames Power of Ten film. A magnifying glass motif and individual icons for each chapter would lead the reader from our cosmic beginnings to our microscopic cells, zooming in from far-flung star nurseries in outer space to the innermost workings of our unconscious mind. Opening and closing spot illustrations played with our human perspective, juxtaposing our insignificance in an infinite universe with our huge influence on our fragile planet, as well as the interaction of massive and minute structures: “I was incredibly inspired by the parallels between the vast universe and the tiny humans which inhabit it,” comments Hudson, “Humans themselves made up of trillions of tiny cells that in turn make up another biological universe of a microscopic scale.”

Once the broader artistic framework was in place, it was time to explore different color concepts for the book. Hudson tried out various schemes for the different chapters, before settling on a vivid palette of 12 evocative chapter colors, and a suitably cosmic blue for the cover and front and end papers.

Hudson then embarked on the epic task of refining all the individual chapter illustrations, transforming his earliest sketches and scribbles on post-it notes into fully fledged, detailed illustrations. “I’d start my process with a linear sketch, and then I’d build it up over time with texture and color in Photoshop, all the while exchanging with the team at TASCHEN and with the book’s scientist writers. I’d get some amazing stuff back from them...some of my favorite emails of all time!”

Each chapter was developed with at least five individual artworks, as well as a full-page opening spread, in which Hudson worked to distill the chapter’s key ideas in one succinct, engaging way “These opening illustrations allowed me to be a little more ambiguous and experimental…the scientists had some beautiful visual metaphors and analogies to play with.” Aside from getting his head round such a vast depth and breadth of scientific thinking, Hudson’s biggest challenge was finding fresh approaches to essential scientific subjects, like the water cycle, without falling back on a traditional textbook aesthetic. “I really wanted to get away from the textbook-approach. We worked up new ways into the classic material, so the cycles are like little self-contained snow-globes, and the cell is its own micro-laboratory, each part performing its own essential function.”

All images courtesy Jack Hudson.
All images courtesy Jack Hudson.

Some 100 illustrations later, Hudson signed off on the book, got married, and went off to Japan on his honeymoon for a mighty-deserved break. “It really was an epic task,” he concludes. “By the end of the project, I was completely exhausted, but it has been such an incredible journey, hugely fulfilling, collaborative, and allowed me to take on so many intricate new subjects and develop so many new ideas.”