Mia Nutick Interviews Brian Froud, April 29th, 2008

Hi Brian! As you know I spoke with Wendy and Toby a couple of days ago. One of the questions I asked Wendy and I'd like to get your take on it, and it especially came to me as I was reading World of Faerie -- you both generally tend to present the world of Faerie as less dark and more mischievous. She said that's more deliberate because you don't want to draw up the really dark parts of Faerie. I was noticing in your work, you do tend to go a bit darker than she does…nothing really scary, but definitely darker.

The subject matter I'm dealing with as an artist, I personally take responsibility for the images that I'm creating. So it's interesting -- people accuse me of 'painting evil', of 'painting evil faces' and I say excuse me, I don't paint evil, I deliberately don't paint evil. When I did Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, the publisher wanted me to paint some even darker things I had some problems with, I think the Soul Stealer was the darkest and the worst it was getting. So I don't want to introduce into the world terrible things, because there are enough terrible things in the world as it is. So my dark side characters tend to have a bit of a twinkle in their eye; they do have some kind of redeeming features. At the same time I do think it's important to have some dark aspects, especially in Faerie. They've always traditionally been connected to death and disease and problems in general. It's only been the end of the 20th century and still continues now where people make the mistake of thinking faeries are just pretty and light and pink.


(laughing) Yes.

In the opening of the book you talk about how faeries have been relegated to trivial and cute and entertaining, which brings to my mind the Cicely Mary Barker flower fairies, which are certainly cute, but they also certainly have relatively little power to them. So…you are connecting more with the powerful side of Faerie.

Yes, I think it's precisely that. Giving the faeries their power back is what I'm attempting to do. Not that they need my help! (laughing) They can do it on their own. But being as I am, an 'ambassador' of Faerie, I bring images or emotions of Faerie to the world; it is my job to show them in a good light but also in a true light.

I think you've definitely achieved that! You know, I go to Faerieworlds every year and the amazing diversity of the kind of faeries that people want to represent and the images they want to pull up -- I don't think we'd have seen that 30 years ago.

No. Looking at a lot of faerie artifacts and art, faerie paintings and things, in the world, a lot of it is truly awful as art. But with Faerie it doesn't matter so much how it looks as how it feels. So often the art can feel wonderful and be truly expressive of Faerie…(Faerieworlds and FaerieCon) are very unusual, it's very unusual to go into any kind of space where there's art and it's not the surface , it's what's underneath. You know it's a very unusual thing.

Because art is supposed to evoke emotion, and yet emotion is subjective. You manage to evoke a lot of different emotions but all along the same theme…

Yes. What's interesting about it is I don't put emotion in my paintings. My personal struggle is to make the painting make some sense, or make the forms make sense, or the shapes…make it a good painting, whatever that means. Does it really represent something of Faerie? Those are my concerns. So I don't put the emotion in it, as an artist. But they are emotional. The faeries sort of do that themselves (laughing). They sort of come through, and it's only a little bit afterwards when you look at it, you see what they're saying. That's what I think people really respond to…I don't impose anything on (the painting), it just becomes a doorway to somewhere else.

Charles de Lint writes about numena and the artist creating the image of the being on the 'other side of the doorway', and the image then becomes a gateway for the being to come through. That sounds like what you're talking about here.

Yes, precisely, because…well, what I paint is a problematical thing, because faeries, being elusive, and amorphous, and shapeshifters and changers, whatever I paint is an illusion. It's not it. I can't pin faeries down, they have to be free. So my faerie characters have to be in transition. They have to be away to somewhere else. And also, they don't look precisely like that. They look similar. But they feel like that. I'm hoping I get what they feel like. Because I have to make this accessible. Otherwise, a couple of things can happen. One is that I can commune with the faeries, I can be away with the faeries, and that's me lost to the world. But I don't choose to do just that, I choose to come back and paint images, which is a communication of what I've felt about the faerie world.

When you're painting them do you ever find them telling you 'no, I don't want to look like that today'?

Yes! It's very interesting because I have lots of doodles and I'm always looking for an expected face, something that says or is of Faerie, so there are lots of scribbles in my sketchbooks, and they're very very loose. But when I come to paint the picture and I think 'OK, it needs to be about this, this particular character needs to be in it' it's shocking how long it takes me to draw it on the board, to redraw, constantly redraw, trying to get that elusive quality. So many lines I rub out. And that's the mystery -- why is this line not right, why is that line not right, and then suddenly a line seems to work. And then a few more, and then something seems to emerge, a character emerges. And then it's the struggle, the battle to deal with bits of paint and pencil and all the nonsense, the nightmare of painting. (laughing) Then there comes a moment where I stop, where I declare it's finished, and then I look at it and I go 'was that it, was that what was trying to come through? Is that it?' And I'm usually then in despair, but then a few weeks later when I look at it, there it is and I go 'oh yeah, that's it, look at that!' (laughing)

(laughing) Did you have more trouble on the Goblins book because you were focusing on the mischievous beings?

(pauses) Yes, yes, I guess so. Because I like the mischievous beings, but when you invite them in all Hell can break loose. (laughing)

Yes,Wendy told me a bit about what happened with Gargle (a goblin originally created for the Goblins book-- Ed.) when you were first dealing with him...all sorts of crazy problems, floods, light bulbs going out...

(laughing) Yes. But he's a good companion for me now. He stands by my drawing board and occasionally tumbles off and ends up hiding somewhere and I have to rescue him. But he does keep an eye on me and I really, really like him. We're great friends.

As far as diversity of images, there are a lot of faerie artists out there now, and I think that's greatly thanks to you, but there are a lot of images you can look at and immediately know who drew them because they all look pretty much the same.  Especially because representations of Faerie tend toward the feminine and they're mostly all little skinny girls. As a NOT little skinny girl I particularly appreciate that your representations of the feminine are so diverse. I was looking at the Red Queen, who is very voluptuous, and then turning around and looking at the Magician, who is very lithe and athletic and slender. How does that work for you, because you seem to have a really excellent connection with the feminine...

(laughing) Well thank you! Actually lots of women say very similar things, they say 'thank you for putting me in your pictures' because they can see themselves, they can recognize themselves. And it isn't just thin pretty young girls in Faerie. I'm very influence by…there was a book called The Nude by Sir Kenneth Clark, in which he described the Southern nudes which 'float across the sky' with no clothes on, whereas the Northern nudes, in Northern painting, are like little root vegetables sort of plucked out of the earth. And I've always loved Northern painting. And when you look at those paintings, sort of late medieval or beginning of the Renaissance, the nudes they painted, they have sort of small tops and then big thighs, sort of like a carrot or a parsnip or something like that. So to me, the female figures of Faerie are aspects of Nature. So they not only refer to vegetables (laughing) they refer to Nature in all its forms. And they're connected to fertility. And so I love, I love the different shapes. Shapes and forms and distortions are expressive, not only as an artist, but in Faerie where all forms have meaning because they change their shapes, it's even more important. So there is no norm, there is nothing normal, there is no one set of 'what is beautiful.' I think everything has it's inherent, it's own beauty. And I try to express that in those shapes. And also I like women! (laughing) I think women are fantastic creatures, wonderful things! So it's an absolute joy to put them in the pictures.

Well I am one who certainly appreciates it! Now with Muse, and I saw the short film at the Faerie Ball on New Year's Eve, and in the book, you talk about symbols of the alchemical process and transformation.  Is the alchemy something you're really conscious of when you're painting?

No…no, I really know nothing about alchemy. I'm just intrigued by the very idea, and by the images. It is indeed like turning dross and rubbish into gold, which is what you try to do as an artist all the time. In a sense my paint, the very paint itself, which is often brown, is made of pigments from the ground, it's made of earth.  Painting with dirt, in a sense. But out of the dirt, comes Light. A magic, and faerie gold.

You can see that with your colors, in paintings. They all seem to start with the earth base, with the browns and the greens, and then some of them morph into other colors and some of them stay within that earthy palette.  How does that process work for you?

Well if it's brown, the browns really refer to the Earth itself, they're very 'nature'. And also refer back, I suppose…well, I'm painting spirit and I'm painting in a way that I hope is truly me, but it does refer back to other paintings. It refers to classical art, it will refer to the great illustrators of the past, like Rackham…so there's lots of references going. So the browns…well, they sort of hold it there for a while so it allows the spirit to leap out. The figure who will be brighter in the middle of all the earth tones, that's the spirit that's going to leap out of the painting. Now the other ones, heading toward the blues and the violets, those are much more internal, like an internal world, in the head and the heart. That's why they're blue, they've moved on out of the earth, if that makes sense.

So from earth more to air?

Yes. But of course the thing I think that gives me my strength as a faerie painter is that I am earthed whereas a lot of other people who paint faeries are in the air. And they are not connected. You know, they want to be connected to Faerie, and 'oh isn't this lovely, and isn't this beautiful', but they don't know how to ground their energy. It dissipates into airy nonsense. Whereas mine is well-grounded nonsense! (laughing) And it's the grounding that gives the faeries their power back.

I like nonsense! But it's good when the frivolity is connected to something deeper, as you say.


Now, in the book you talk about starting out with painting for advertising, which is painting to someone else's specifications, and then you worked on The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and more collaborative things, and I know you still do collaborations, especially with Wendy. But you've probably got a lot more freedom now to do your own thing. Do you feel like you're growing away from collaboration or do you still enjoy that?

Actually I'm about to embark on another collaboration, with John Matthews. We've been wanting to work together for years. I've just started now, painting pictures for it -- he hasn't seen anything yet. It's about faeries, of course.

Something happens, I think, when you collaborate…it gives you another perspective, or it gives you something you didn't think of, and so you move into a stronger place than on your own. It's problematical, though, nowadays, with the publishing being as it is, about what to do. It's been a weirdly tough time for the past year and a bit, and so sometimes you lose a bit of faith. Am I completely mad, painting faeries? But you know as I always say, once you step on the faerie path, there's no way off. You have to continue. You have to have faith in what you do, and it may not be making any sense yet, but it will eventually.

All my projects are like that…it starts somewhere, but it's a journey. And I never quite know what the book is. The publishers don't like that. They want to know exactly what the book is and I can't tell them exactly so they think it doesn't exist! (laughing) But it always turns out alright, because once you start the book itself tells you what it wants. And it starts to create it's own shape and form and it's own language. And that's when it becomes quite exciting.

Do you feel you're still more in control of the power of the book that way, by letting it do what it's going to do?


The World of Froud is so amazing, I'm just sitting here flipping through it as we talk. Now, retrospectives are hard for people who aren't dead

Yes! When I finished I thought it was a bit depressing, I thought, 'oh dear, am I dead?' But no, I'm not. I haven't given up yet! And in fact it's not a retrospective, it seems like it might be, but very early on…well, we could have gone two routes. One was a retrospective, and it was like a museum catalog, and I decided that was very distancing. I decided what I wanted to do was make it very intimate.I wanted to come in closer on the paintings, or allow people to feel what the paintings were like, and that's why we approached it, graphically, in a different way. You know, the paintings are literally static, they're on a bit of cardboard, they're oblong shape and flat, the colors are flat, there's no perspective, it's flat, and yet emotionally the images leap off the page. The paintings do the same thing, emotionally they always want to turn into something else. They want to be something else, or turn up in another form somewhere. So we were trying to get that feeling going in the book, you know, that's why we've got the other little books that open up, or the bits and fragments of painting, or show a bit of landscape -- so you can see that all the images are moving somewhere. Not only is there movement through my life, my connection to faeries, the years of that, but it's the emotional movement of every single painting.

Now with most of your books you've had collaborators as far as the text…Alan Lee, Ari Berk…

Yeah, I stopped illustrating about 1975, illustrating somebody else's text, and then started painting pictures. Then I would invite somebody to put the words to the pictures. And so I've done that quite often, and then on Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, I wrote that myself. I realized that only I could sort of explain what I was doing there. Then I worked on the Cottington book with Wendy. Wendy wrote that. So that was a great collaboration. And of course I wrote this one, The World of Faerie. But I find words difficult. As an artist I'm thinking in images. So that's my way of communicating. I struggle towards words that can do something similar. It's problematical with words, because I don't want words to pin down or curtail or diminish the image; it has to enhance it or give another aspect or help it move somewhere else, not define it. That's what my images do, and to find the words to do a similar thing, it's hard. But hopefully I'll achieve it.

Your language in this book is very poetic, and traditionally the people whom the faeries interact with are the musicians, the poets and the mad -- so when you've written the text of this you've definitely done it more as a poet…

I've given up a long time ago worrying if anybody thinks I'm mad! There was a stage, you know, 15 years ago, when I thought 'oh, well, you know I can't really mention what I do…' (laughing) But you know you've just got to forget about that, because it's all about truth in it's own way, so who cares if I'm mad? I've had problems for two weeks trying to deal with my broadband connection, trying to deal with people on the phone, and you know, they're the mad ones! It's a Wonderland world out there, but in here, dealing with the strangeness of painting peculiar images of winged creatures, that seems perfectly normal compared with the technological world! (laughing)

(laughing) I know what you mean…Bedlam is out there now, not in one place! So now that you have so many fans, and you've inspired so many other people to make art and poetry and writing…do you enjoy that?

I'm very glad about that! In my day, those people who inspired me were all dead! If anybody thanks me in person I say 'well aren't you glad I'm alive?' and they look at me in shock, and what I mean is 'I gratefully thank you, because I'm still here (to thank)'. Sometimes you get a bit peeved when people steal from you in terms of images, but as artists we are all inspired by other artists. I always say if you want to learn anything copy the best, but very soon you've got to find your own voice. And a lot of people are still maturing as artists and they haven't quite found their own voice yet, but they will. I was heavily inspired by many artists and 'stole' in my day, but hopefully I've transformed it into my vision and my voice. But that is what we're here for, is to move art, move it on. You know, when I started, there weren't really any faerie books. They were very much out of favor, when I first started. In fact when I started to paint children's books anything that had any sort of representation in it was frowned upon. It had to be very broad, abstract images. And now it's completely changed. Things just move on. So I, from my own private passion about painting faeries, I'm very gratified that it's had some effect in the world, that people suddenly are…serious is not the right word…suddenly are passionate about it, and want to paint pictures and write magazines about faeries, and this is quite wonderful.

It can be!

(laughing) I know. But (representation of) Faerie is fraught with, the glamour of Faerie, is all tinselly and sparkly and lovely and childish and that's not it. I mean, that is the surface of some of it, but people just get trapped in that. If they can get down beneath it, they'll find that it's childlike, which is completely different, when you're open and beautiful and indeed poetic and sad and lonely and it's about love and it's about all those things that all the major poets of the world have been connected with. And that's what the true nature of Faerie is, it seems to be part of the creative soul of the world.

Do you think that Faerie holds back and doesn't ever really tell us it's true nature entirely, so that we're always off base a little bit?

Well it's up to us to find out, isn't it? We always want to know, we want to know the secret, or we want to know the whole thing. We have to find out. There are no books of rules when it comes to dealing with faeries, and that's what people want. People want The 7 Rules for Seeing Faeries (laughing). But when you're dealing with faeries, as they say, at every single moment you have to do the 'right' thing. Now, with no book of rules, how do you do the right thing? Well, you have to figure it out. Because faeries, as their shapes and forms shift, as energy shifts, as everything is shifting and moving, you have to do the right thing at the right time. And that's difficult. But it means that you do become truly connected to the world. So it's not a fantasy. It's not a retreat from the world, it's a re-engagement with the world.

I wanted to ask about one more thing before I let you go… I've been going to Faerieworlds since the first event and I know we haven't seen a lot from you and Wendy about Faerieworlds. I know you've talked about how you've been able to create the environment of faeries that is sort of in your head, at that festival. With Faerieworlds and now FaerieCon, is that something you've always wanted to do?

No, really, it happened almost spontaneously. You know, Robert (Gould) noticed that some groups, particularly like Woodland, were using my images, you know, behind them when they were playing. And we thought, well this is so natural; as I said before, my images want to burst out of their flatness into the world, and to actually project them with music was like 'Wow. Yes, of course!' So we just encouraged them shamelessly to do more, and then we developed things. We like the idea of it moving outwards, forever outwards into the world. So song and music and dance and everything like that is very expressive of the world of Faerie. And so for several years now that's been a joy, to see everybody totally connected, and connected to each other when they're there. I mean it's like a big family. It's extraordinary. It's very connective, this idea of Faerie. But something else was needed. That's why we did FaerieCon. Because that has the ability to have something a bit more cerebral, something where you can impart to people the thinking behind some of this and talk about it. A few years ago we did something at the Omega Center in New York, we held something like a small conference about faeries. The actual Center was very dismissive of it but we knew it was OK because we were doing our panels and talks and we'd look up in the back and there'd be all the staff, peering around the doors and listening, charmed by what was being articulated by those writers. And so we knew it was working and we wanted to try to get back to that. And that's why we're doing FaerieCon. It has a bit more of that to it.

I look forward to making it out to FaerieCon in the next year or two, but I'll definitely see you at Faerieworlds. Thank you so much for talking to me today!

Thank you. See you there!


[Mia Nutick]