ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Book Cover for The Society for Storytelling

Storyteller and artist Paul Jackson tells us about the Society of Storytelling, and his cover illustration for a new book celebrating the oral tradition. 

The Project: To celebrate the Storytelling revival.

Book title: An Introduction to Storytelling

The Society for Storytelling (SfS) was set up in 1993 as a response to a revival in the oral tradition. It is the umbrella organisation for storytelling in Britain.

The History Press was established ten years ago and has become known as the premier contemporary resource for British folk tales. Over the past decade, both organisations have worked together to inform the public about this ancient art form and help re-establish storytelling in Britain.

However, the SfS began to suffer from the social media revolution, so much so that by January 2017 there were only nineteen storytellers left on our directory. I joined the board and began a campaign to rebuild the society from the top down. I commissioned a new website to be built and for our approach to be much more open. We are a charity, so our work must be transparent.

I became the chair of the SfS in May 2017 and continue to redevelop the society. Now we have 196 storytellers in our online directory with a very positive feel of a revival. January 2017 saw just 300 people visit the site but by January 2018 that number had hugely risen to 12,000.

The History Press saw that we were making sweeping changes and commissioned the book. The SfS and the leading Storytelling festival Beyond the Border are both celebrating their 25th anniversary so it seemed fitting that An Introduction to Storytelling should be launched at their festival on 9 and 10 June 2018.

The Welsh storyteller Christine Willison was commissioned to collate and edit the book. Fourteen storytellers wrote articles about different uses of the story craft, from health to education, from how to tell stories as to why it works in such areas as dementia, community, and business.

For the book cover, my idea was to reflect the power and metaphor of story with a montage of images. I wanted to capture the essence of story – the wisdom, immortality, love, and hope. With a tight timetable, I decided to use digital, where painting issues are easier to remedy.


I measured up my paper and drew outlines with an HB pencil for the design.

Starting with immortality in story, I decided that this should balance with creation. In the top right, I drew the World Tree – Yagdrasil – from Viking mythology. Hanging upside down would be Woden, the Norse god. In story he seeks wisdom by hanging in the tree whose roots reach into the nine worlds and whose branches touch the stars. In the tree is a phoenix which represents rebirth and in the bottom right corner, I drew a series of events that also would depict gaining wisdom.

A sixth-century poet and bard called Taliesin shape-shifts from a hare to salmon to a dove to escape the evil clutches of the monstrous Cerridwen. Each time she is outwitted till he turns into a grain of wheat and she into a black hen. She swallows him and nine months later gives birth to Taliesin. At the centre of the illustration lie six gold eggs and one iron egg in the sea. The Finnish epic the Kalavala begins with these eggs being laid on the knee of the goddess of water.

Initial pencil drawings of the cover art for An Introduction to Storytelling

Pencil drawing

It was really important to try and balance the journey aspect of the illustration. The golden ball symbolises everyone's personal journey and rolls from the central pivot of the design to where the Holy Grail is passing with the wounded king. The green world acts as a separation between two worlds.

I drew the next part much closer to the viewer. East of the Sun and West of the Moon is a Norwegian folktale where a peasant girl sacrifices herself to save her family from poverty and is taken away by a huge polar bear to a magical mountain. I wanted the viewer to sense that they were viewing this whole picture from that mountain. I then drew up an image of the Russian witch Baba Yaga, flying around in her cauldron with children’s skulls tied to it. Baba Yaga is often out searching for children unwise enough to wander into her forest. Once the sketch was finished I photographed and loaded it up into Adobe to be developed further on a larger digital canvas.

The digital stage

Once copied into Photoshop, I added a further figure from an earlier finished digital painting. Old mother Babushka was the opposite of the Russian witch and is seen as the bringer of love and kindness. I digitally cut her out in Photoshop, flipped her around so she was facing the other way, cut off her head and repositioned it so she was looking where I wanted her to!

The whole ‘feel’ of the illustration was to celebrate the heroes and heroines of Story and acknowledge their dark counterparts. It was also to recognise the narratives and metaphors that fill our lives and are mirrored in old faerie tales from around the world.

Directly above Baba Yaga sits Raven. Raven features in many northern mythologies, here he is drawn capturing the sun from inside a rock.

Digital version of the cover art for An Introduction to Storytelling

Lastly, with all the sketch work completed, I decided to add Icarus passing Raven and the sun, I was using both translucent effects that replicate watercolour as well as dense blocked colour with minute finishes overlaid.

I changed a few things very late on, for instance, the Lovers – Niamh of the golden hair is now facing outward towards the land of the ever young and her catch, Oisen, Son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill leader of the warriors of Ireland is letting her lead the way. I wanted there to be a sense of hope for their future.

Just as in the storytelling revival there is now a sense of hope too.

Norfolk based Paul Jackson is a storyteller, artist, illustrator, and chair of the Society for Storytelling. He's a regular performer and speaker at events across the country, and has exhibited his artwork in this country and overseas.

John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures.

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