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Artist and graphic novelist Una tells us about her new book EVE, her creative process and the artists that inspired her.

Little, Brown Book Group were kind enough to send me an advance copy before its 3rd June 2021 release. EVE’s gripping narrative and poetic, haunting imagery of a world sliding into dystopia has stayed with me.

Una generously fielded my art themed questions on how it all came together…

Eve by Una

Eve – Una

A book of mothers, daughters, trust and community, human weakness, conflict, hopeful futures and painful pasts.

How did the idea for EVE first arise and what was it like completing the book during the pandemic?

The idea for Eve first arose when I was admiring my children one day, as parents do, thinking about how beautiful and (relatively) new they are as teenagers. How they are setting out into the world with all their hopes and dreams, with their wrinkle-free skin and shiny hair, and I want them to thrive and have adventures. I’ve a generally sunny disposition but I’m worried for them and feel quite anxious about the future, as many of us do. Some of the problems humanity faces have ancient roots – war and violence, the urge to ‘other’ people so you can behave badly towards them. Some of our problems have emerged from the modern era – capitalism, industrialisation and the post industrial era, globalisation, imminent environmental disaster and lately, new technologies.

I wanted to make a book where I could muse about some of this stuff in the same way I do with my partner on Sunday mornings, over a cup of tea, trying to put the world to rights, and much of the dialogue is adapted or developed from real conversations in our house. The main young characters, Eve, Si and Ruby, are loosely based on the physical characteristics of my own children and their friends. The adult characters were imagined to reflect the diversity of the north of England, but Darius’s back-story is based on a real person I met when he was a teen. I’m also a very outdoor sort of person so the book features lots of landscapes based on Yorkshire, my favourite place.

Completing the book during the pandemic was in some ways quite easy, because there was nothing else to do during lockdown but work. I was working on the book full-time thanks to an ACE grant so I just locked myself away in my garden shed and drew and wrote. I was working on the book for a few years and at one point there actually was a deadly communicable disease in the story, which I took out because I thought it was too far-fetched. Shows how wrong you can be! Actually though, a lot of the events in the book, I’d write them one week and then spot them in the news the next, which was pretty freakish and made me wonder if I was somehow making them happen. This has been a weird and terrible time for everyone, but writing a book like Eve during it left me feeling quite discombobulated from time to time.

Eve by Una illustration

Artwork from EVE by Una.

Did you plan the whole book out with thumbnails first or did it evolve and change direction as you went along?

I started off really organised and slowly reverted to my normal, disorganised self. I did a lot of planning, thumbnails, storyboards, sketches, character drawings, taking photos while out walking – I was delighted the other day when walking in the Yorkshire dales to see I’ve got the colours in Eve just right. While I’m doing this research I’m putting the book together loosely and making some finished drawings so I know what they will look like. Because the story is quite complex it took a lot of work so the characters and aesthetic remained constant throughout, but only some of the original ideas for story stuck. When I’m writing I go back and forth a lot; I constantly revise and delete my writing. With drawing I find the process is more contemplative. I delete less but still make a lot of changes. For me the writing and drawing process aren’t separate. Things are sketched out in image and word then fleshed out and finished in a constant process of editing till I’m happy things are resolved.

What materials and graphics equipment/software did you use to create the artwork for EVE?

The pencil drawings are done in Prismacolour Col-erase coloured pencils. I find them hard enough to get a good line but soft enough to block in colour, and I like that they are erasable though I don’t erase much, I tend to draw lightly in grey first and then draw more firmly in black and colours over the top. I started working on a very smooth paper but switched to one with a tiny bit of a bite early in the process.

The digital paintings are made on an ipad Pro but I put the images together in Photoshop on my Macbook Pro afterwards. I draw on the ipad as if I’m painting with paint, I don’t use special effects or even many labour saving tools. The main advantage of digital methods for me is that I can paint as if I’m using oils or watercolours but there is no mess, no tidying up, things are easily reversible, because I can’t be bothered with the messy reality of actual paint. I’m full of admiration for actual painters.

Artwork from 'Eve' by Una.

Artwork from EVE by Una.

EVE has some stunning full page panels and spreads, several nature scenes in particular. Which parts of the book did you most enjoy working on?

Thank you! I just love drawing so there’s no part I enjoyed more than others. I love drawing people and I love drawing landscapes, and that’s mostly what there is in the book. One thing I’d never drawn before was explosions, that was fun! Because I’m artist and writer I can set things up for myself so there’s nothing that’s too gruelling, though that’s not to say I don’t get bored or frustrated with things that take a long time. I once met a comics artist who’d gone self-employed as a children’s author because he was so tired of getting instructions from writers like ‘Thousands of soldiers come over the hill’ that take 2 seconds to write but a week to draw. I honestly don’t think I could work as an artist with a writer; we’d end up coming to blows.

Peace On Earth & Ophelia Prints by Una

Peace On Earth & Ophelia Prints – Una

A3 Riso print poster bundle, two for the price of one. Price includes postage of £3.70.

Eve’s mum praises her drawing of a Red Kite yet Eve’s response is “Don’t like it. ’s all wrong”. Have you experienced similar creative self doubts and if so how have you pushed through them?

Oh yes. So many self doubts and for so many decades. I loved drawing at school and loved books but I was not encouraged to think of this as anything more than a hobby. I didn’t do well in year 11 at school because of complicated life issues (see my other work) though I’d been academically gifted at first. My art teacher told me I should apply to art school at 16 to do A levels and a BTEC. He took me for a look round and helped me fill out the application form. They gave me a place on the strength of my portfolio as I only had one ‘O’ level and it wasn’t even in Art. (English Language). I’m so grateful to that teacher. However, no one else thought studying art was a sensible option. My dad was an engineer, both my sisters studied law, my mum was a successful business-woman before she was ill (see also my other work) and my family has working-class roots so were keen for me to do something that would guarantee an income. I didn’t know a single professional artist or writer and the only other thing I was good at was music, which is an equally unstable profession.

Becoming Unbecoming

Becoming Unbecoming – Una

A devastating personal account of gender violence told in graphic-novel form.

This early exposure to doubt in the validity of art as a profession undermined my confidence for a long time, so it wasn’t just about whether I was good enough, but whether it was worth doing at all. I’m a good enough artist to make it this far but I do like to experiment and push myself out of my comfort zone, so I have to live with a certain amount of uncertainty in how I feel about the work I make. I often don’t like my own drawings, even the ones that are out there in the world loved by other people, but I push through the doubt because I like what I do and I want to keep doing it. I think a certain level of creative self doubt is probably helpful, because it can help you keep pushing to make your art better.

Eve confronts us with some uncomfortable questions about the kind of society we’re building. What do you see as the artist’s role in these times?

Artists of all kind make the world a better place. Life would be too small and mean without the arts; it’s an expression of the condition of being human. We need art to live healthy, fulfilled lives. I’m only half joking when I say in the book they should bring back national service but make people learn art and design instead of how to fight. People who know how to draw and paint, make or construct things, dance or sing or play music are especially important in the darkest times, when we need comfort, escape and stories to help us make sense of the world. I don’t think all artists need to make political work, but it’s what I like to do, and there’s a long tradition of political cartooning in European culture and a broader visual storytelling culture worldwide. It’s important work.

Eve by Una artwork

Artwork from EVE by Una.

What advice would you give someone looking to create their first graphic novel?

Ask yourself first, what have you got to say, and how are you going to say it? Look at what others have made and how they’ve made it and consider what you’d do differently and what you’d do the same. Have a lot of patience, because it takes ages, especially if you are going to write and draw; it’s not for the faint of heart. Have courage, and good luck.

Which artists have inspired you throughout your career?

An eclectic mix because I studied fine art, not illustration. I love a lot of sculpture: Mona Hatoum, Rachel Whiteread, James Turrell, Yinka Shonibare, Yayoi Kusama. I love the performance work of Marina Abramović and was tucked into bed by her at the Serpentine gallery once. I find Frida Khalo’s autobiographical work mesmerising and I have a copy of her diary 1944-55 that was published in 1995. I’ve spent a lot of time in Florence looking at Renaissance art, and got quite overwhelmed the first time I went to the Uffizi. I’ll go quite far out of my way to look at a good fresco or a little Donatello figure.

If you were to ask why I wanted to draw comics, I would have to say the main influence was the Glen Baxter cartoons that used to hang in the main staircase at Leeds College of Art when I was a student. (He studied there.) His work is so full of pathos and the drawings are sweet and beautiful.

Glen Baxter Uncle Frank cartoon

Cartoon by Leeds based artist Glen Baxter.

People weren’t really drawing at the time, and I couldn’t see a way into it while I was studying. By the time I got back into comics, we were in the midst of a graphic novel boom that started after works like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Maus came out (1986). It was the early 00s and I was looking at creators like Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Carol Swain and Daniel Clowes. Then I discovered Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and I was hooked and wanted to make my own autobiographical work. I drew my first sequential strip in my lunch break at work in 2006 – it became the seed that grew my book On Sanity: One day in two lives.

On Sanity: One Day In Two Lives - Una

On Sanity: One Day In Two Lives – Una

A short graphic novel about psychosis, caring and mothers and daughters. Available from Una’s Etsy shop.

What are three graphic art books you’d recommend?

I think everyone should read Maus I, Maus II and then MetaMaus, because it’s an important work and demonstrates the breadth and capacity the comics medium has for serious, profound stories. MetaMaus is a brilliant insight into the process of making the work.

Maus and Metamaus

Maus and Metamaus

Maus I & II Paperback Box Set and MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman.

Extremely difficult to narrow this down to two more, what a question!

I don’t think you can go far wrong with Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware. Brilliant art work, I love all the tiny incremental details and the map like structure of some of the panels, and I love how he draws people and body language with such simplicity. It’s also a lovely, sad, touching story. One of the best novels in the English language, I’d say.

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

Graphic novel by Chris Ware. Released in June 2021.

Finally, I’m going to recommend the graphic novel I read last week, by a relatively new artist. Coma, by Zara Slattery, is a real artistic achievement, drawing together images from strange coma/dream fragments and images from the everyday life of a family, just about coping, into a life story comic about Zara’s devastating illness.

Coma - Zara Slattery

Coma – Zara Slattery

“An astonishing record of one woman’s will to survive against the overwhelming pull of the deep”.

Can you talk a little more about the courses, portfolio reviews and personal tutorials you offer through your website?

I’d love to! I missed teaching and interacting with other people since I gave up work to draw in a shed in my garden, but I didn’t want to go back to working in a university, so I decided to design my own online courses. There are two: Pencil Post, a drawing course and Writing With Pictures, a writing graphic novels course. The courses are based on workshops I’ve done in the past in my many different education jobs, with community groups, undergraduates, access courses, etc. Everything is online in the form of videos, photos and articles so you can do the course at your own pace and I can keep the price down. Support is either by email (free) or video tutorial (an upgrade). I’ve been doing personal tutorials and portfolio reviews for a while and you can book a tutorial separate from or with a course, by Skype or Teams. There’s a booking option for this on my website.

Thanks again to Una for being so generous with her time and to Emily at Little, Brown for setting it up. Buy EVE at Virago Books, Amazon & Bookshop.

Get 15% off EVE at Virago Store with discount code: MOMAEVE

See more of Una’s books, writing and art courses at thingsbyuna.com and follow her work on Instagram, Twitter & Youtube. Buy prints at Una’s Etsy Shop.

If you enjoyed this then check out our other Artist Interviews.