This summer, I had the great pleasure to do an online interview with Charlotte Bunney, the artist for the Issue 41 story “Pillow Practice.” We discussed the subtler design choices in Charlotte’s piece, the possibilities for art and poetry intertwined, and the Classical influences in Charlotte’s art.
The following interview took place via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
Charlotte Bunney is pursuing an MA in Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. She earned a degree in Classics from University College, Oxford. She enjoys creating all kinds of art in her “free” time and is inspired particularly by nature and the Classical world; she also enjoys blending text into her work. A full list of her publications can be found on her website at charlottebunneyart.squarespace.com
Berkeley Fiction Review: What was your artistic process for drawing this piece? What alternatives did you experiment with, and how did you settle on the end result?
Charlotte Bunney: So, like most pieces, I went through the text and I highlighted themes and any images that popped up, so I could think about things that I’d want to brainstorm about and to try to pick up the tone of the piece, because sometimes that can kind of help to inform the art style that I choose to do because I have a couple. Then I just did general brainstorming. I often go on Pinterest just to look at images to give me an idea. You should never just copy someone else’s image, but it’s good to get different perspectives of what you might be able to do.
When I settled on the idea of having the hand grasping the bedsheets, I set up a really awkward photoshoot of me trying to take a picture of my own hand lying down. The only fabric I had that I thought would make the nice ripples was like a red dress, so I used that and then I worked out how to change the color later. Then I did some sketching, trying to work out the proportions of where things would go, which I think will come up later when we talk about whether it should have been a two page spread or not.
But for this one I had quite a few ideas, because throughout the piece she (the narrator) has these vignettes of herself in situations with different men. And then, obviously, in the end she ends up with a woman, and I thought it might be quite cool to do loose line drawings, almost in an embroidery style and put them on to the bedsheet that I was going to paint. But I think that’s where it changes from artistic reference to just practical considerations because they looked quite messy, some of the sketches I was doing. And because I was quite keen to have that two page spread with the text added on onto the side of the image, within the image, it would have been too messy. I wanted the focus to be on the hand as well. So I just had to get rid of that idea.
I think I was partially wanting to put a focus on the hand because of that moment being an intense realization, and also just not wanting it to be too messy.
BFR: Yeah, that’s so cool to hear that you had a more complicated version and that you cut it down.
Charlotte Bunney: It can be quite painful sometimes, like when you’re writing a long essay and you realize that you have to get rid of 2000 words.
BFR: Yeah, there’s a saying in writing that you have to “kill your babies”. It’s interesting to know that it applies to other disciplines, but that makes sense.
So, you’ve already talked about this quite a bit, but what was the general process? What was it like to draw art to accompany a fiction story and how is that different from your normal artistic process?
Charlotte Bunney: I think in some ways it’s easier and in some ways it’s harder because often (and I am in one at the moment) I get into a creative rut and I don’t know what I want to draw. I spend ages scrolling through old pictures and going through Pinterest trying to find something that I actually want to paint or draw. So it’s quite nice to have a prompt in that way.
You look through, you just get these images, and you get a different perspective from someone else about something. Sometimes it can be difficult though because it’s hard to condense down someone’s whole narrative, especially with longer work like this. I’ve normally done illustrations with poems before, which tend to be shorter. And when you’re illustrating for someone else, I feel like there’s also quite a lot of pressure to make sure it’s what the author intended or envisioned, or at least partially. So, I think in that way it’s a little bit harder but it’s nice, it’s good, it gives you a stimulus.
BFR: That’s a cool way of thinking about it. You said that you’ve done drawings for poems, how is that different? That seems like such a cool process.
Charlotte Bunney: I think it’s the same process really, it’s just they tend to be shorter. So there are less things to consider. Although obviously poems tend to be quite loaded up with lots of different kinds of imagery. In that case it can be quite hard, if only a single image is required, to pick the one that you’re drawn to but also the one that you think is the most important to the author. So, it can be quite nice to be able to talk to someone about that work.
Yeah, I don’t know, there are pros and cons, definitely. I feel a lot more comfortable illustrating my own poems because I’ve only got myself to blame then.
BFR: Yeah that’s a good point. But also, I know all of our authors were really happy to have custom art and they were super excited about everything that came out of this.
Charlotte Bunney: That’s good to hear.
BFR: Yeah just to put it out there.
So, just to make sure that we as admirers of the art haven’t been missing anything, could you walk us through a little bit? What motifs and aspects of “Pillow Practice” did you include in your art? Anything that the average viewer might not consciously notice?
Charlotte Bunney: I think the difficult thing with illustrating is trying to find an image that complements the piece without giving it away. So what I thought about was: having the image of the hand, grasping the sheets, it’s not explicitly clear like who that refers to. I think when you first start reading through these vignettes about relationships with men you might—if you see the image before you start reading—think it refers to them, but then obviously there’s that twist at the end. So then you might look back and think: “Oh, okay, this isn’t actually about the men, this is about the women.”
BFR: Yeah, that’s a really good point. Anything else you want to talk about on that topic before I move on?
Charlotte Bunney: I did attempt to try and mute the background to put focus on the hand and the successful relationship at the end. It was quite hard to try and keep some details without going too abstract. I tried to do that by muting colors. There were warmer yellowish tones in the skin, and the opposite color of that is blues so the background ended up being blue. It came out a little bit too bright when I was painting it, so I tried to mute it and desaturate it in post-production and Photoshop. But yeah, that was the intention, not entirely sure how successful it was.
BFR: No, that’s a really cool process that I don’t think people know about as non-artists. That’s a really cool thing to bring up.
So, moving on. Did anything outside of “Pillow Practice” inspire this piece, stylistically or otherwise?
Charlotte Bunney: I think a lot of that just comes down to a lot of practice. Just finding styles that you’re comfortable with and styles that you think go well with different things. I wrote a poem four years ago for some creative journal, and I also painted a hand for it. I think in some ways I was, sort of, sticking with what I knew but I think it worked out. There’s something intimate about hands and the idea of touch, which obviously comes up quite a lot in this piece. All your past works sort of sit in your mind and then hopefully you can pick something out.
BFR: That’s a very cool image of the sort of cauldron of past works that you just pick stuff out of.
Okay, so now we get to talk about the two page spread. This piece is actually one of only two two-page spreads in Issue 41, and our editorial team had quite a debate about whether we could keep its original formatting and allow it to go over two pages. Why did you choose this larger, landscape design for the piece?
Charlotte Bunney: I think part of it was—I edited my college arts magazine, and one of the things I liked just in terms of personal preference was having the text incorporated with the images. Not in the way where you put an image underneath the text and try and… When you make it less opaque and then you just have the words on top, because sometimes I feel like that can be quite messy. So I personally like to have some more bland spaces where you can fit the words in and the whole thing kind of comes together. I think that’s just a stylistic preference for me. But also, because I wanted the focus to be so much on the hand grasping the sheets, I tried to have a section to the right that was a bit looser and less detailed. The marks of the pencils fade out and then you just have the wash of watercolor, so in that way I think it helped draw attention to the hand by contrast. But equally, I did crop it as an option, and I think it was okay.
It mostly came down to just personal preference on incorporating text and image which is something I like to do in my own work, so maybe that’s just me being awkward for you guys.
BFR: No I think, in the end, since we were very lucky to get another two page spread for our Sudden Fiction art, at that point it was a no-brainer. We were like: “Oh we can have two two-page spreads, we can have the beautiful two-page spread for ‘Pillow Practice’”. So we were very excited to have it at that point. It was just at first it was like: “Oh no, what if this is the one story with the two page spread? Are we making it too special?”
Charlotte Bunney: Yeah, I think it’s a little harder being an editor and not wanting to offend anyone.
BFR: Yeah, it’s funny, because I edited “Pillow Practice”, so I love it. I was a big proponent for the story. I was so biased, I was like: “Of course it should have a two-page spread.” But you know, fortunately there were many calmer minds on the editorial team and we had reasonable discussion about it.
Charlotte Bunney: My apologies.
BFR: No, it’s not your fault at all and it turned out so well.
So now we’re just going to talk about art in general, because I think we’ve mostly exhausted all we can say about the “Pillow Practice” piece. What genres and/or art styles would you say that you work in? Do you have a favorite?
Charlotte Bunney: I work in a lot of styles and media. I started with realism because that’s kind of what you do at school. Now, I sort of toe the line between realism and illustration but I think more towards illustration these days. I have lots of different illustrative styles within that. I’m experimenting a lot with a blockier style at the moment.
It’s quite hard to describe in words. It’s sometimes subject-dependent. I do a lot of nature-based stuff and that tends to be looser, and to have more natural marks that I don’t really think about as much versus when I do a blocky style, I think a lot about the 3D structure of something. I often do portraits and that kind of idea so you’re thinking about bone structure and things like that.
So, yeah, I think it does depend on what I’m doing, but at the moment I think my favorite is probably an illustrative style where I use a mix of gouache paint and colored pencil. I like the look of the different marks that the pencils make but also the ability to kind of blend colors when necessary with the gouache.
BFR: That’s really cool. Okay, this is a good segue.
This is a very cliche question but when did you first begin drawing? What has your journey as an artist been like so far and who or what has inspired you along the way?
Charlotte Bunney: Well, I have a cliche answer. I was always doodling as a kid, but I think it took root more in secondary school when I started doing art there. And I was pretty good, without sounding like I’m blowing my own horn. It kind of took root there and then I had the classic teen emo phase and I was obsessed with manga. I was always drawing manga.
Then, when I went to university, I started doing work for lots of student publications so I kind of started increasing output, experimenting with different styles and being put in a situation where it’s not always about what you want to paint or draw, you’ve got to take into consideration the context of the piece and what other people want as well. I think that it’s really helpful and has improved the way I think about things and how I want to portray them, and maybe even what’s the best way of portraying them rather than what I just want to do.
And then I discovered the lit magazine community on Twitter, which is where I found you guys, and that’s been amazing. It’s just so exciting to see your work in different publications all around the world. That was really exciting, that boosted my morale again and made me want to do more.
In terms of inspiration, like artists, I’m obsessed with this British artist called Maggi Hambling because she paints the sea a lot and that’s something I like to do. It’s kind of a personal bias, just because of the subject, but also Gustav Klimt. As soon as I saw his work I was enamored. It was just so exciting because I’m a classicist, and there’s a lot of classical allusions in his work, but also his style is something. He’s an amazing realist, his technical ability is just incredible, but also he has this kind of illustrative flair and this wonderful use of gold leafing. It’s just so extravagant and beautiful and almost romantic, it has this kind of art deco feel as well. He does lots of different kinds of things, his early work is more like the Art Deco posters you’d see but in black and white. I just think his whole range is amazing. By the end of his career, there’s some Van Gogh-looking stuff and I love Van Gogh as well, so I just think he is incredible. He is what I aspire to.
BFR: That’s so cool. It’s always great to have heroes.
We already talked about how you’re a classicist—by day you are a classic student based in Oxford, England. How do your studies inform or inspire your art?
Charlotte Bunney: So my preference within Classics is ancient history and classical archaeology. So you can imagine there are so many beautiful artifacts in all these different books. You can just flip through a book on archaeology and find something that you want to draw, if I just want to copy something that looks pretty there’s that. But also, within the literature there’s wonderful narratives and stories and great images that you can then translate into a visual media, so I get inspiration from those stories as well. Also on aesthetic value, I picked up Greek two years ago and I just think the Ancient Greek alphabet just looks so cool. I like putting text in my work, so it’s nice to play around with the Ancient Greek alphabet within my work. In that way Classics is everywhere.
BFR: That is just such a cool detail to be able to put Ancient Greek in art.
Charlotte Bunney: Yeah, I also just think—I don’t know what it’s like in America, but at least in Britain—Classics is a very class divided subject. So, it tends to be for private schools rather than state school kids. I was a state school kid, so I went to uni without the languages and picked up Latin and then Ancient Greek. I think there’s something about visual media that is a bit more accessible to people. You can just look at it, rather than having to put in long hours of reading long texts or trying to decipher some ancient poem or whatever. I like to think that maybe I could, in some way, open up the accessibility to Classics with some of the classically inspired stuff. That’s a hope, not sure if it’s going to happen but it would be nice.
BFR: That’s really cool. I think it’s very similar in the US, there are definitely public schools without Latin. I don’t think any of our public schools have Ancient Greek. My school didn’t have Latin, there was a school nearby that had it but I would have had to travel farther. It’s definitely more a thing that you do in college.
So moving on, you’ve mentioned that your art is often inspired by nature. Do you have any favorite outdoor haunts that you use for inspiration?
Charlotte Bunney: Well, I live in the countryside, so just going for a walk there’s normally something to look at. I found a bee resting on this beautiful baby breath flower the other day and I had to take a picture, and then I painted a version of it when I got home. There’s a painting that I did that I turned into a print of … I think it was during the first lockdown I went for a walk in this wooded area near where I live and the light was just falling through the trees really nicely, so I took a picture and painted it. I also live near a river so there’s the water element, although I do prefer painting the sea so whenever I’m out near the sea, or see images of the sea, I paint that. I don’t necessarily always go out for inspiration but I’m lucky to live somewhere so surrounded by nature.
BFR: Yeah, that’s always super nice. Are you the kind of artist that paints outside or do you always take pictures and then go back inside?
Charlotte Bunney: I do both, I think. I paint inside more. With paint, it can be quite messy to bring out, but also, I think sometimes it’s quite stressful if people pass by and they want to see your art. I think every artist is always very guarded and thinks their work is terrible and is worried that someone’s going to see it mid-process where it’s in that really ugly stage. Equally, I live in Britain so most of the time it is raining, which isn’t ideal.
BFR: True, I didn’t quite think of that important factor.
So, we’re just finishing up here now. Are there any new pieces or projects you’re working on that you’d like to share or talk about?
Charlotte Bunney: Yeah. So, now I’m exam-free, I guess there’s the daily sketchbook work or at least trying to—I haven’t been able to do it today, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Also, I think at the moment, finishing a degree, because I was there for four years and all your friends go off to do their own thing, there’s kind of a weird limbo time. I’m not entirely sure how to feel all the time. One of the things I like to do with poetry is cut-and-stick poetry. I’ll go through all of the student newspapers or whatever and, with an exacto knife, cut out phrases or words that I am attracted to and lay them all out.
I think I find that generally easier to do when wanting to write a poem because it’s the idea of prompts for poems and prose—there’s kind of like a limiting factor that kind of forces you to do something. But also, when I’m not sure how I feel at the moment, you’ll see things pop out to you. You’ll string a sentence together, and sometimes it can be a bit of a revelation, what comes out. You’re like: “Oh, okay, I’m feeling like that. Cool.” That’s quite a nice process. And then I get to illustrate it so that’s fun.
One other thing is kind of a project I’ve been thinking about since last summer, but I think I may be biting off a bit more than I can chew. I was on Twitter last summer and I saw someone make a joke tweet about more academic books being pop up books. And I had this great idea of doing a pop-up Greek Acropolis, like all the different buildings on different pages, but at the moment I’m still working out the mechanics of pop up books so that may take a while to come to fruition. If it does, they’ll be cool because I really like the idea of having physical works that you can interact with. So, yeah, if that happens, I’ll let you know, but it might take a few years.
BFR: Yeah, that’s a really fun long-term project. I hope it works out. That would be such a satisfying book to flip through.
Okay, last question. Where can our readers find you online?
Charlotte Bunney: My website which has my portfolio on it is charlottebunneyart.squarespace.com, but also my Instagram is @artssoliloquies.