Illustrator Rohan Daniel Eason – well, not just illustrator, but also painter, dabbler in the fashion world and guitarist for his own Velvet Underground and Rolling Stones-inspired rock ‘n’ roll band the Cyclones – has had an unconventional career path.
Art was his first passion. ‘I loved the romance of being a painter, drinking red wine and throwing paint on to a canvas,’ he recalls. But he got into art by the back door – literally. ‘I was studying printmaking in Croydon, but I hated Croydon so I’d sneak into Kingston University and paint in the corridors. The tutors didn’t know I wasn’t officially studying there,’ he says.
At the time, Eason painted uniformly charcoal-black canvases that were about ‘voids’, an obsession which runs in his arty, Nottingham-based family. His artist mother creates Lucio Fontana-like gashed canvases, for example.
His formative – and lasting – influences are Arthur Rackham (whom his father, a sculptor, admires) and Aubrey Beardsley, the latter all too evident in his elegant, meticulously drawn, black-and-white, pen-and-ink illustrations for a new, unorthodox, limited-edition children’s book by Geoff Cox called Anna & The Witch’s Bottle. He first encountered Beardsley as a child visiting his racy auntie’s house. ‘She had a Beardsley poster of people with huge phalluses in her bathroom,’ he says.
On leaving college in 2000, Eason managed bars in London, began writing songs and worked as an assistant to artist Gavin Turk, spraypainting the latter’s faux-bronze bin-bag series.
He was also lured by fashion/ he created hand-screen-printed images on leather for milliner Victoria Grant, feather-pattern and tattoo prints for fashion designer Annette Olivieri (who gave one tattoo-print jacket to Vogue editor Anna Wintour) and collaborated with shoe brand Newkid, producing patterns derived from human hair and snakeskin which were laser-cut into the shoes. A pair of gauntlets, which he decorated with an intricate feather pattern, stocked by the (now closed) London shop Sera, was snapped up by Yoko Ono. He has also illustrated record sleeves for the Cyclones and a map for visitors to London’s Shoreditch.
The thread uniting all these projects – including the Anna & The Witch’s Bottle illustrations – is a fine, spidery, mainly black-and-white Rotring pen-drawn aesthetic. Although this monochrome spareness gives Eason’s work a stylised, fin-de-siecle elegance redolent also of Art Nouveau (another passion), he aims at all times for naturalism. ‘When I created feather patterns, I drew real feathers. I wanted to observe all their complexity. I wanted them to be as realistic as possible,’ he says.
But in Anna & The Witch’s Bottle – the launch title of new book publisher and record label Black Maps, founded by Stuart Souter – the dreamlike, scraperboard-like illustrations go beyond naturalism. Rather than common-or-garden children’s book fare, this tale, which comes complete with a music CD created by Martin Rebelski of band the Doves, swaps friendly bears and sugar-plum fairies for bleak winds, menacing catfish and a cormorant which swallows its heroine Anna.
Author Cox’s eponymous daughter inspired the book and Eason’s drawings of her have an Alice in Wonderland-quality. ‘Geoff wanted to avoid the mundane, inane cliches of children’s literature,’ says Eason. Indeed, Cox’s macabre characters recall such sinister children’s classics as Grimms’ Fairy Tales and Struwwelpeter.
Eason began work on his labour-intensive illustrations at his Stoke Newington home in London last November, finishing them in February. ‘It took me two days to draw one page, four to do a double-page spread,’ he says. They’re reminiscent of Beardsley, he explains, because they juxtapose expanses of plain black or white with areas of dense detail. ‘I love the way Beardsley drew straight on to paper without doing preliminary sketches, yet managed to be so precise,’ he says. There is a studied Romanticism to Eason’s drawings which contrasts, he says, ‘with the cold look of computer-aided illustration we’re all used to now’.
He is currently working on his own book, based on the myth of the old man and the sea, and has exchanged pen and ink for oil painting, tight drawing for a splashier expressionism. Eason may have flirted with fashion and be passionate about music, but art is the field he now feels most at home in. ‘I’ve had so many creative outlets, but art is the one I want to focus on,’ he concludes.
Anna & The Witch’s Bottle will be published by Black Maps in late September, priced £30