Fantastic fantasy artwork: Night Watch (Discworld) by Paul Kidby

Chosen by Joshua S Hill

Last month we kicked off our series of special features, entitled Fantastic Fantasy Artwork, with Martin Springett’s The Fionavar Tapestry. This month it is Joshua S Hill’s turn to choose his favourite fantasy artwork and he unhesitatingly opted for Paul Kidby’s work on book 29 of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Night Watch.

Paul Kidby's illustration that adorns the front cover of Terry Pratchett's Night Watch.

Paul very graciously agreed to talk about the creative process behind the Night Watch illustrations and so I began by asking him if Night Watch was the very first Discworld work that he had undertaken and what was it like to take over the reins from an artist as respected as Josh Kirby, to which he replied:

“The late great Josh Kirby was a kind and generous man who I had the good fortune to meet at various Discworld Conventions before his untimely death in 2001. He encouraged me in my work and we both felt that because our interpretations of the Discworld were so different that there was room enough for us both to explore and visually ‘mine’ its rich seams with our sketchbooks. I had already been working exclusively with Terry since 1995 and had established my own ‘look’ for Discworld and its characters, many of whom had made public appearances in ‘The Pratchett Portfolio’, ‘Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook’ the fully illustrated ‘The Last Hero’, various diaries, maps and the 2000 Discworld calendar.

“To then be asked to produce the cover artwork in 2002 for ‘Night Watch’ was indeed an honour and a challenge for me because I knew I was stepping into some very big shoes.  The fans knew and loved Josh’s distinctive style, which had become synonymous with Discworld book jackets all over the world.”

I was also interested in whether Paul had been asked to keep closely to Josh Kirby’s previous work.

“I think Terry and the publishers knew that it would be best to accept a new approach with a new artist rather than to attempt to re-create the work of Josh for the cover art.  Every artist develops their own unique style which is as individual as a fingerprint and the differences between my work and Josh’s are marked; I work most often in a muted earth colour palette and try to capture a historical feel whilst Josh used a bright palette and filled his page with a myriad of fantastical figures in his own unique and distinctive fantasy genre. My Discworld illustrations were already known by the readership and although my interpretation was very different to Josh’s, it remained true to the spirit of Discworld.”

I then asked whose decision it had been to use Rembrandt’s Night Watch on the front cover and if permission had needed to be obtained before work could begin.

“The idea to paint a Discworld parody of Rembrandt’s own group portrait of the civic guard, ‘The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’  c. 1642, otherwise known as ‘The Night Watch’ had been in the back of my mind since reading ‘Guards Guards!’ and it was something I had been hoping for an opportunity to create.  The ‘Night Watch’ book jacket seemed to me to be the ideal occasion and Terry was happy for me to proceed with it.  My depiction is not a direct copy and the characters and costumes are all of my own design therefore permission was not needed to produce the painting, however the original version is also printed on the back cover with full credit given to the main man, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, himself and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where it hangs.”

An image of ‘The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’ c. 1642, otherwise known as ‘The Night Watch’

Fans of the Discworld series will be aware that Paul drew Josh Kirby into the Night Watch cover as a tribute to the late illustrator, in exactly the same place as Rembrandt had drawn himself in the original.

Here Paul describes exactly where the two men appear: “The position of both Josh and Rembrandt is at the very back of the crowd just left of centre.  In my version he appears just visible behind the shoulders of Reg Shoe and Waddy; in Rembrandt’s original he is peering from behind the nattily dressed flag bearer and the soldier in armour.”

And so we come to the creative process itself and the moments that Paul remembers best.

“I rendered my parody in oils and the original is not large at approx. 51×51 cm (not as big as Rembrandt’s which is a huge 363×437 cm and was originally even larger before sections were cut from the sides to fit it onto the wall of the Town Hall on Dam Square where it ended up for a while).

“There had been a charity auction at a Discworld event whilst the book was being written and three fans had paid to be written into the ‘Night Watch’ story.  I was aware that the key characters in Rembrandt’s painting were local well to do society members who had all paid to be included in his painting.  It therefore seemed creatively fitting that the Discworld auction winners should also have their portraits painted into the cover. The original artwork is now owned by one of those featured on the cover.

“I also enjoyed including a young Nobby (in an over-large coat and battered top hat) who stands behind the young and old Vimes.

“I remember I was criticised at the time for producing a cover that was ‘too brown’ and not bright or eye catching enough – it is interesting therefore to note that it has become one of the most popular Discworld covers that I have produced.

“This painting was produced at a time when I was working in close partnership with Terry.  I initially put forward the idea, and we enjoyed discussing it and deciding which characters to include.  I produced a rough for him to see which showed a member of the city watch in the foreground. Terry suggested that figure should be changed to Lu-Tze, which was perfect.

“When I had finished the painting I took it back to him to approve and I was pleased that he liked it.

“I worked on this piece for four weeks.  Following the rough sketch I made a detailed tonal drawing which I then under-painted with Raw Umber to give form and strengthen the tonal contrasts, finally I added highlights and colour which I built up in thin layers of oil paint. As a commercial artist looming deadlines are an unavoidable part of the job and I do my best not to blot my copybook with the publishers by missing them, it would have been easy for me to spend another four weeks on this painting but that would have fallen into the realms of self-indulgence rather than professionalism!”

So when Paul looks back at his work on Night Watch does he see anything that he might want to change?

“I don’t generally enjoy returning to work on my paintings, my aim is to do the very best I can with the time available to me because otherwise I will be haunted by it from the bookshop shelves in years to come.  However in this case, with the luxury of time, I would finish this painting off by giving the soldier behind the dragon (who is in the position of Rembrandt’s dog) a body as at the moment he appears to be just a floating head!”

And then it was time for the final question – did Paul need to read the Discworld books he was asked to illustrate from cover to cover, or was it unnecessary?

“In an ideal world I do like to read the books because an in-depth knowledge helps me to gain valuable insight into the characters and enables me to avoid errors and include details, which I would otherwise miss.  More often than not however, the publishers need the cover art to start promoting the book before the transcript itself is complete.  In those cases I receive a detailed brief from Terry via the publishers, and perhaps a section of the text.  When I worked on the ‘Night Watch’ I was in the fortunate position of being able to read almost the whole novel, minus the final section, which is another reason why the job was such a pleasure for me to work on.”

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the creative process behind this fantastic fantasy artwork and I cannot thank Paul Kidby enough for his time and effort in producing such insightful answers.

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3 Replies to “Fantastic fantasy artwork: Night Watch (Discworld) by Paul Kidby”

  1. Hi Lee did you get anywhere in sourcing a print or poster of the Night’s Watch ? I see there is a callendar coming out – but I was looking for something a bit bigger, cheers
    Su

  2. My son adores this illustration of the Nights Watch and I am desperately trying to source a print of it as a 30th Birthday present for him – as yet unsuccesfully –
    Can you help?

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