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Illustration “Bright hunters”

The fabulous magazine The Future Fire – magazine of social-political speculative fiction – is ten years old. In addition to Djibril al-Ayad who has been editor-in-chief of the magazine since 2005, there are many talented people who have contributed to the magazine over the years. One of them is Switzerland-based artist Cécile Matthey, who has been an in-house illustrator at the magazine since 2006, and assistant editor since 2014. Cécile has been so kind to answer a few questions about her work for The Future Fire and how she works as an illustrator.

What is The Future Fire to you?
Stories in The Future Fire cover such a wide variety of themes and styles. I remember being a little puzzled by it in the beginning, because I was expecting a more rigid, science-fiction centered editorial line. This diversity makes it a wonderful “playground” for me as an illustrator (and keen reader too).

You have been an illustrator for The Future Fire for several years. Could you tell a little about the first art you made for the magazine and how the first connection was?
In 2006, a friend who worked with Djibril told me he was looking for illustrators for his webzine. Working as a scientific illustrator, I wanted to try my hand at narrative illustration as well, so this seemed like a very good opportunity. I got in touch with Djibril, who sent me a first story to illustrate: “Half-light house” by J.W. Bennett (TFF 2006.06). I enjoyed this very much, and my work was well received, so the collaboration has continued since then.

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Illustration “Half-light house”

Of all the illustrations you have made for TFF, which one is your favourite?
The illustration for “Bright hunters” (see top picture) by Belinda Draper (TFF 2015.33) is my favourite so far, because it is both minimalist and expressive. The technique was interesting too: I essentially used an eraser to draw the creature, removing the black paint from the background to make it appear.

How would you best describe your style of illustration?
Resolutely realist, which probably comes from my background as a scientific illustrator. My lines are clear, my compositions very structured, and I’m always keen on accuracy and details (sometimes so small nobody except me actually notices them, I guess). I’m also inspired by some favourite illustrators of mine, like John Howe, James Gurney or N.C. Wyeth, who all have a realist style.

Could you tell a little about how you work with an illustration or a cover picture? Where do you start?
I start by reading the story many times, until it feels familiar to me. I highlight passages or take notes in the margin to select key moments or elements that could be interesting to illustrate. Then, I leave it aside for a while so that ideas can take shape in my head. Illustrations are like small windows opened to the world of the story: they show only some of it, but should also suggest the whole. After that, I make a few sketches to test my ideas, and choose the ones I think are the more adequate. TFF usually asks for two illustrations per story. Usually, I draw a main one, quite complex and detailed, and a secondary, simpler one: a landscape, a detail or the close-up of an object, for instance. I never know beforehand if an illustration will be the cover picture: it is solely the editor in chief’s choice.

Do you prefer some given ideas/assignments or do you prefer to have the artistic process as freely and undisturbed as possible?
Working for TFF, I’m usually given “carte blanche,” and no illustration of mine has been refused so far. I must say I enjoy this freedom and open-mindedness, because it really allows me to develop and express my own style in the way I like. However, given ideas and assignments can have some advantages as well. Shortening the time you would spend looking for ideas, for instance, which can be useful in case of a tight deadline. And sometimes, being under some sort of constraint pushes your creativity and makes you explore ways maybe you wouldn’t had explored otherwise. Which can be stimulating too.

You are also an assistant editor for The Future Fire. What kind of work do you do for the magazine?
I’m still quite new on this, and my role is still modest. I sometimes read stories for a second opinion before they are considered for publication in TFF. It’s fun to discover the ideas and creativity of authors from all around the world. Speculative fiction seems more lively than ever. Besides, as a French speaker, it’s good exercise for my English.

What is your relationship to the speculative genres?
I’ve always had a taste for imaginary tales, with a preference for fantasy, steampunk, gothic or simply strange or unusual stories. It seems I’m never satisfied with reality as it is. I might have inherited this from my father, who was a keen SF and fantasy reader. It’s in his rich library that I discovered a lot of exciting authors: Michael Moorcock, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, etc.

Tell a little about yourself. How did you get into illustration?
Drawing has been my favourite hobby since childhood. During my archaeology studies at university, I got interested in scientific illustration. Looking for proper training in this field, I visited an art school in Strasbourg (France) and discovered they also had a section dedicated to children books illustration. I found this fascinating. I didn’t enter the art school in the end, but this visit made me eager to make narrative illustrations too. It still took me some time before I really got down to it, however. I guess I didn’t feel confident enough, because illustration is a complex and demanding task. The illustrations I made for TFF were among the first serious assignments.

Do you have a favourite project?
My favourite project so far is an exhibition organised in 2007 with a photographer friend. We made “hybrid” works, composed of a photo by her and an illustration by me. For instance, the photo of an exotic flower, that developed into a chameleon’s illustration on the frame all around it. It was a good success: we sold nearly all the works! And I’m still quite proud of what we achieved.

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“The botanical chameleon”, in collaboration with photographer Rachel Rumo

As a part of the ten years celebration, The Future Fire is currently having a fundraiser for the magazine. One of the rewards is a custom illustration for a short story, made by you. Could you tell us a little bit about what the lucky receiver of this can expect?
I’ll proceed as I usually do when illustrating a story for TFF. It will take a little time, since my illustrations are all “handmade”: I’m not doing computer art, but I’m using classical techniques, mostly watercolour and pencil. The receiver will get the original illustration, not an electronic version. Which is a special treat, because I usually keep my originals.

Thank you, Cécile!

If you are interested in finding out more about Cécile and her work, check out her website and the list with her illustrations in The Future Fire here.

You can find The Future Fire here.

For more information about The Future Fire’s fundraiser and the illustration by Cécile, see here.

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