Illustrating 'Moby-Dick,' and 4 Other Art Projects Inspired by Classic Books

Beloved works of literature, re-imagined for the 21st century

Tin House

Art inspires art, often crossing boundary lines in magnificent cross-disciplinary manifestations. As a lover of remix culture and a hopeless bookworm, I revel in the cross-pollination of visual art and literature. Here are five wonderful art and design projects, inspired by literary classics.

1. Wake in Progress

In February of 2010, Paris-based designer and illustrator Stephen Crowe set out on an ambitious project -- to not only read James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, considered one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language, but to also illustrate it. The result is Wake in Progress -- a creative feat that's part Saul Bass, part Edward Gorey, part Lynd Ward, and yet entirely its own and entirely terrific.

wakeinprogress1.jpgFirst Line

wakeinprogress2.jpgPage 22

wakeinprogress3.jpgPage 25

wakeinprogress4.jpgPage 75

wakeinprogress5.jpgPage 76

wakeinprogress6.jpgPage 79: Kate Strong, a widow

"Nothing that appears in Finnegans Wake is ever just one thing. How exactly do you draw a talking fox which is also a mouse, one of two arguing brothers, a pope, and modernist author Wyndham Lewis?" ~ Stephen Crowe

2. Every Page of Moby-Dick

Since 2009, former high school English teacher and self-taught artist Matt Kish has been drawing every page of the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition of Herman Melville's iconic Moby-Dick, methodically producing one gorgeous, obsessive drawing per day for 552 days using pages from discarded books and a variety of drawing tools, from ballpoint pen to crayon to ink and watercolor. Last year, the project became Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page -- one of the 11 best art and design books of 2011, gathering Kish's magnificent lo-fi drawings in a 600-page visual masterpiece of bold, breathtaking full-page illustrations that captivate eye, heart, and mind, inviting you to rediscover the Melville classic in entirely new ways.

"I've read the book eight or nine times [...] Each and every reading has revealed more and more to me and hinted tantalizingly at even greater truths and revelations that I have yet to reach. Friends often question my obsession with the novel, especially since I am not a scholar or even an educator any longer, and the best explanation I have been able to come up with is that, to me, Moby-Dick is a book about everything. God. Love. Hate. Identity. Race. Sex. Humor. Obsession. History. Work. Capitalism [...] I see every aspect of life reflected in the bizarre mosaic of this book." ~ Matt Kish

everypagemobydick1.jpg'...Jonah feels the heralding presentiment of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowel's wards.'

Ballpoint pen on paper, September 17, 2009

everypagemobydick2.jpg'But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive.'

Colored pencil and ink on found paper, August 6, 2009

everypagemobydick3.jpg'Hearing the tremendous rush of the sea-crashing boat, the whale wheeled round to present his blank forehead at bay; but in that evolution, catching sight of the nearing black hull of the ship; seemingly seeing in it the source of all his persecutions; bethinking it - it may be - a larger and nobler foe; of a sudden, he bore down upon its advancing prow, smiting his jaws amid fiery showers of foam'

Ink on watercolor paper, January 22, 2011

everypagemobydick5.jpg'...and when the ship was gliding by, like a flash he darted out; gained her side; with one backward dash of his foot capsized and sank his canoe; climbed up the chains...'

Acrylic paint, colored pencil, ink and marker on found paper, September 30, 2009

everypagemobydick6.jpg'...hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling...'

Crayon, ink and marker on found paper, November 24, 2009

everypagemobydick7.jpg'Moby Dick bodily burst into view! For not by any calm and indolent spoutings; not by the peaceable gush of that mystic fountain in his head, did the White Whale now reveal his vicinity; but by the far more wondrous phenomenon of breaching. Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance.'

Ink on watercolor paper, January 11, 2011

everypagemobydick8.jpg'Thou Bildad!' roared Peleg, starting up and clattering about the cabin. 'Blast ye, Captain Bildad, if I had followed thy advice in these matters, I would afore now had a conscience to lug about that would be heavy enough to founder the largest ship that ever sailed round Cape Horn.''

Ballpoint pen and ink on found paper, November 16, 2009

3. Word Bible Designs

In his Word project, designer Jim LePage set out to create original designs for every book of the Bible, in an exercise in self-discipline that allowed him to marry his love of design with his desire to read the Bible more. Though the impetus for the project sets off my own religious alarms, the Bible, too, is literature, and it's hard to dismiss the refreshing approach of this literary art project. Besides, perhaps this is the kind of secular silver lining Alain de Botton promised in Religion for Atheists.

word1.jpegWord: 3 John

word2.jpegWord: Jude

word3.jpegWord: 2 John

word4.jpgWord: 2 Timothy

word5.jpegWord: 2 Thessalonians

word6.jpegWord: Nahum

4. Hark! A Vagrant

From New Yorker cartoonist Kate Beaton comes Hark! A Vagrant -- a witty and wonderful collection of comics about historical and literary figures and events, based on her popular web comic of the same name.

Beaton, whose background is in history and anthropology, has a remarkable penchant for conveying the momentous through the inane, aided by a truly special gift for simple, subtle, incredibly expressive caricature. From dude spotting with the Brontë Sisters to Jane Austen dodging groupies, the six-panel vignettes will make you laugh out loud and slip you a dose of education while you aren't paying attention.

"I think comics about topics like history or literature can be amazing educational tools, even at their silliest. So if you learn or look up a thing or two after reading these comics, and you've enjoyed them, then I will be more than pleased! If you're just in it for the silly stuff, then there is plenty of that to go around, too." ~ Kate Beaton





Beaton is also a masterful writer, her dialogue and captions adding depth to what's already an absolute delight.



5. Beholding Holden

From writer Mike Norris and artist David Richardson comes Beholding Holden, an enchanted visual exploration of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, a follow-up to their earlier collaboration on depicting the fictional Glass family.

beholdingholden1.jpgHolden Caulfield

beholdingholden2.jpgOld Mr. Spencer


beholdingholden4.jpgStradlater, Holden's roommate at Pencey

beholdingholden5.jpgJane Gallagher

beholdingholden6.jpgSunny, the prostitute Maurice, an elevator operator moonlighting as pimp, offers Holden in Manhattan for 'five bucks a throw, fifteen bucks till noon.'

beholdingholden7.jpgMr. Antolini

Norris and Richardson also collaborated on a fantastic series of illustrations based on Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, considered the third greatest book of the 20th century.


This post appears courtesy of Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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