Art of the book – about the trap of hyperinformation and achieving something of your own


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Conversation of Irina Genova with Damyan Damyanov

Damyan Damyanov is a famous name in the contemporary art of books, posters, postage stamps. Among the wider audience, he is known for many talented artistic implementations of contemporary and classical, Bulgarian, and translated books for children and adults (covers, layout, illustrations).

His prestige among the artistic and literary circles is due to original artistic interpretations, vivid, memorable images, variable as literature itself, as well as precise practice of the “craft”. Damyanov has been generously sharing experience and skills with his students for years. He was recently awarded the Associate professor title at New Bulgarian University. The interaction between Damyanov’s artistic and teaching skills in the field of books and other polygraphic forms is of central interest for the survey on the impact of the Internet on artistic education in the 21st century.

In what ways do you think today everything that the concept of “art of the book” encapsulates is influenced by the internet era? (Here I think about online access to books, magazines, textbooks; about computer “tools” for creativity; about the awareness of the (future) artists of the book themselves, thanks to the databases on the web.) Can you differentiate between positive and negative aspects? I am aware that the question, and hence the answer, cannot be precisely focused, but what is particularly important for you personally, in your practice?

I like to say that technology is the most wonderful, but also the most terrible thing that happens to people. In the field of graphic design and illustration, the Internet can also be a powerful drug, doping of sorts, against the lack of ideas, but it can also be a poison. I will never cease to be surprised that so many people use the web not to learn more, not to develop and enrich themselves, but to kill their time in the most excruciating way possible. The internet is another turning point in history that we are witnessing, a discovery that allows us to save time, but whether we appreciate it enough is another question. The difference from just two decades ago is so great that even science fiction writers never imagined it. We can find, read, and learn without changing our location. We can see who is doing what in their artistic field anywhere in the world, thanks to platforms like Behance, Pinterest, Instagram, and all others. However, this is where the trap that lures students to the “easy”, to what will not only save time, but will free them from responsibility in general, is placed. Students are not only facilitated by the fact that the research on a given task is a few clicks away, but are also very tempted to adopt a ready-made solution; even cases of plagiarism are not rare. The other effect of hyperinformation is the suction, the supergravity that this information causes. As a result of the endless digging through the profiles of all kinds of artists, it sometimes happens that students get lost in these labyrinths and eventually they barely get to create something of their own.

Another important point is the use of a variety of graphic software, which is a wonderful tool for creating different variants, makes it possible to use predefined colour scales, textures, brushes, etc. However, this hides the danger of sacrificing the individual approach and each artist’s unique view, which is why we see so many things that look the same.

Please note that so far, I have not even mentioned the “wonderful new world” of artificial intelligence, which until now we have looked through the slightly open door of futuristic dreams, but the gates are already wide open and whether this is a new beginning or a fanfare foretold end to everything known, we are still to find out.

What motivates students to master the art of the book? What are your observations as a tutor and mentor about their preferences for book forms in creative terms – analogue or digital, handmade or computer-designed? What sources do students use in their education?

Several factors harness students’ interest in the book and its creation. First of all – this creative sphere allows the artist to see his or her work as a realized product, and moreover – a published one. Moreover, the book is a work through which they would directly interact with the recipient, in other words – the reader; they would tempt him. In the educational process, I pay particular attention to the fact that the artistic solution should be a function of the text, should speak the language of a particular genre, the selected means of expression should be such as to best serve the text. However, based on the author’s word, the artist is not expected to illustrate it, but to find that image or images that synthesize a message or suggestion, the conceptual core found in the deep fabric of the text. The resulting work is dictated by a certain story, shaped by the author’s language, but it is even better for it to be a contribution, to live its own life even when we consider it regardless of the literary context.

When working with students, we discuss many examples from one or another area of book design, and these examples are not necessarily only good. There is also a lot of “craft” in the activity of the book artist, related to the technical part of this art – the peculiarities of printing, polygraphy and all the visual and tactile opportunities they give. In this sense, our topics are focused entirely on the printed product.

As for how students come up with their ideas and their realization – I stand for a very simple principle that has been proven time and time again by much bigger names than me. It is about the first step to work, the generation of the idea that, in my opinion, gives the best fruit using only a white sheet and a pencil. Nothing more.

The ease of producing and reproducing texts and images with new technologies presupposes banal proposals both in the process of education and on the book market. The book production is looking for quick solutions and realization. Do you see a conservative trend for the otherwise favourable field of children’s book re-publishing of books with illustrations from the 1950s and 1960s?

I absolutely agree with your statement – fierce competition in the book market often prefers the banal, well-established and least risky solution. However, let us also put ourselves in the shoes of those whose task it is to sell the book after it has been written, translated and illustrated. Even when these individual milestones are brilliant in execution, this is far from guaranteeing commercial success. Here is the place to mention that in addition to the conceptual and aesthetic issues in book teachings, it is often about what we can call the “commercial look” of the product, as well as the difficult task of its creation to fit into a certain budget without making heavy compromises with quality.

As for the re-publishing of books with classic illustrations – this can be a good approach for established illustrators, because their work is a key to the sentiment of the client. However, we should not forget that illustration, like the other visual arts, does not stay the same, but on the contrary – it rushes at a furious pace, trying to fit into the next trend. If we look at the catalogues of some of the world’s leading exhibitions of the children’s book – Bologna and Bratislava, we will definitely notice fashion trends and waves. Compared to them, illustrations from a few decades ago often look morally obsolete even when they possess undeniable artistic qualities.

And finally – what education do we need when the art training of book artists meets the market?

This question is particularly important and I am glad you are asking it. My observations show that the deficit that book design education suffers from, I would even say graphic design in its entirety, is the narrative of what I often call “living life”. Despite their good academic background, a number of students find themselves completely unarmed to face aggressive reality. We can consider the art of a book cover as part of the big tree of visual communication. It aims both to dress a text in a meaningful and beautiful way, but also to advertise the product. In this sense, the work of the artist must reach the minds and hearts of the reader, who is initially essentially a spectator. However, this road is far from straightforward and cloudless – it does not exclude various “stumbling blocks” – these may be authors, translators, editors, even the commercial director of a publishing house. Before reaching the buyer, the cover or illustrations must, in simple terms, be approved by all of them, and this sometimes has to do with battles that the artist has to fight. That is why his or her preparation is good to be well supported with communication skills and vocabulary, language skills, sometimes even basic knowledge of psychology to push his or her idea. The ability to persuade, to be able to defend and justify our work is, in my opinion, of utmost importance. The link between the laboratory university environment and the publishing sphere is the bridge we are yet to construct. This would lead to the realization of more products of high artistic value, which are the fruit not only of the work of one artist, but of his or her interaction with the various units in the publishing process. After all, the art of the book and illustration is far from being a strictly individual pursuit, even though it may seem so from the outside.

1 F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tender is the night. Sofia: Krag, 2023

2. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tender is the night. Sofia: Krag, 2023

3. Yulia Spiridonova and Damyan Damyanov. The Scissors (Wolves). Sofia: Ciela, 2022

4. Wilde, Oscar. Fairy tales (The Fisherman and His Soul). Sofia: Ciela, 2021

5. Rodari, Gianni. Tales on a Typewriter (Garden of the Commandant). Sofia: Ciela, 2020

Reproductions were kindly provided by the artist.

Art of the book – about the trap of hyperinformation and achieving something of your own

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