Richard Wilkinson breaks bad news for Intelligent Life

Richard Wilkinson has created three pathos-laden illustrations to accompany a feature in Intelligent Life magazine called 'Breaking bad news'.

The article covers how medical and police personnel deliver information that someone close to the recipient has died, or that the recipient has a life-threatening or terminal condition -- and the artworks represent the moment when the news is registered by them. They are powerful pieces, placing the viewer in the position of the person delivering the news. This person is seen reflected in the eyes of the recipient, where a the outline of a third figure can be seen too.

We got in touch with Richard to find out more about the pieces.

DA: How did you get the commission?

RW: "I was contacted by Graham Black, the art director from Intelligent Life. He said he'd liked my work for some time but was waiting for the right article. He lives in Brighton too, so we met up over a coffee and discussed the magazine and the article."

"Intelligent Life is a beautiful publication. It gives me hope, as an illustrator, that people still produce and buy magazines like it. It's content is incredible and the design and production is second to none."

DA: What was the brief?

RW: "The article was about how much better the relevant people are becoming at breaking terrible news -- like the death of a loved one or a terminal illness -- something that was still done without much consideration of its effects only a couple of decades ago. Graham and I talked about how the [pieces should show] that moment when the news registers, and their world falls apart. We played around with some more symbolic ideas but decided on trying to illustrate the moment with realism, as the subject was so powerful."

DA: How did you decide on the execution to bring out such a complex set of emotions?

RW: "As the emotions of that terrible moment are so complex and extreme, and the absolute crux of the article. I thought we needed to focus on them in as simple a way as possible. The style of my illustration is often quite clean and the line-work fairly minimal, but as it was very important to capture the emotion as realistically as possible. I spent a lot of time with the roughs and 'digital-underpainting' to make sure I had captured the emotion before rendering the final illustration.

DA: Why did you decide to position the viewer as the one delivering the bad news?

RW: "The article itself concentrates on the work and experience of those delivering the news, so it seemed right to show their point of view. It hopefully lets the reader feel some empathy for both parties. I also thought this viewpoint presented the most [visually] exciting images -- bold simple portraits of great grief. I hoped Graham would agree that they would be all the more powerful if all three commissioned illustrations followed the same format.  It was a bit of a tricky sell to the editor, but Graham did a great job in fighting my corner."

DA: In each, there is the outline of a third figure in the left of each pupil. Who does this represent?

RW: "The two images (above and top) illustrate the moment that news of the death of a loved-one is delivered, so I liked the idea that the extra figure could be that lost son or husband.

"The image below is intended to illustrate the moment a patient receives the news that an illness is terminal, [but] I thought I'd keep the third figure for continuity. It also mentions in the article that one professional now delivers the news, and a second stays with the receiver to counsel them and help with all relevant arrangements, so this outline could be that second person."

DA: For the image above, how did you arrange and build the composition?

RW: "I started with a number of sketches and compiled them to produce character and emotion. I often cut and paste elements like this as I think I'm a better editor than creator, so if I have a few sketches I can compile various elements of these sketches -- a forehead from one, a nose from another and so on -- until I have a finished portrait I am completely happy with.

"Photoshop is invaluable for this part of the process. Using the sketch as a guide, I painted using a fairly traditional process of building layers of 'paint'. For me this helped me find the image I wanted, as it seemed to emerge from the process itself.

"Once I was happy with this digitally-painted colour-rough, I faded its intensity and used it as a guide and as an underpainting, to give some depth and texture to the finished piece. I then picked out what I thought were the important details in cleaner colours and lines, and added the figure reflected in the glasses."

DA: What are you working now?

RW: "I'm doing a set of illustrations for a Swiss Magazine called Beobachter. The article is about the imagery of dreams."

The illustrations can be seen in the current issue of Intelligent Life, which is on newsstands now. The article can also be read online here.

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