Books are more than visual reference for Charlotte Ager, they are studies in how to tell stories

21 August 2019

Charlotte Ager needs no introduction here at It’s Nice That. Time and time again we’re in awe of her intuitive illustrations, from the beaches of Reykjavik to Indonesian villas, she captures the world around her with charm and style. For this week’s Bookshelf, the artist and illustrator talks us through the books that she repeatedly returns to. On these notable titles she explains: “I use books in my practice less as visual points of reference and more as studies in how to tell stories and express ideas.”

For Charlotte, it is the mark of a good illustrator to be empathetic. Not only to digest the world around us but also to examine how other people might. Reading is a great tool in aiding Charlotte to do both; “it opens you up to people and places you might never have known about before” she says on the matter. “As someone who frequently feels incapable of expressing things, I’m in constant admiration of writers who can capture feelings in such succinct and varying ways,” says the illustrator. Similarly to how she combines unique colours and compositions to communicate through drawing, a writer can curate words on a page to evoke a feeling or emotion. “And in a world that constantly feels overwhelming” she continues, “I love the certainty that comes with a book; the containment of an idea in a certain number of pages which has a physical weight to it.”

Milton Avery

I look at this book a lot, and every time without fail, I feel slightly sick from seeing colours pushed together so beautifully. Milton Avery was an American modern painter who, in my opinion, is ridiculously underrated. No matter what mood I’m in, when I open this book it’s like I’m being punched in the gut. It’s easy to overthink images but when I look at his direct forms and harmonious colours, I’m reminded of the utter simplicity of connecting a person to an image. Also, the tutor who introduced me to him mentioned he was one of the great painters who remained loyal and loving to his family which makes me love him even more, not like the underlying weariness I feel with other painters like Picasso or Degas.

Mitch Forsyth: Things When I Think ‘You’

This book was recently gifted to me for my birthday by my very talented friend, Mitch Forsyth, and it’s been sitting right next to me on my desk for weeks. The synopsis on the back reads: “Here is one for the lovers; a collection of things when I think ‘you’”. It’s a lovely rambling collection of moments when someone thinks of the person they love. It’s silly and funny and utterly lovely. The drawings feel immediate and confident and I can feel his enjoyment of drawing each one.

When I’ve been agonising over a final illustration for hours, it’s good to be reminded that I really do love what I do, and the same goes for others. Throughout the book, the writing has a wonderful tone. The sentences are almost nonsensical but somehow make their point more clearly than a simple declaration of love. I love that element of word play which dismisses a grammatical formula or convention to purely express something in the truest way possible. 

Svetlana Alexievich: Chernobyl Prayer

Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian journalist and her approach to documenting history is something I find extremely inspiring. Chernobyl Prayer, like the format of all her other books, is a compilation of collected oral histories and focuses on the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. She collects voices from a series of people affected by the explosion, from the residents to the firefighters who were called in to control it. The author records people grappling to understand the impact of something that no one had ever experienced before. She removes her own words from the text so that only the interviewees’ voices remain, the quality of which demonstrate her beautiful ability to draw stories out in an unhindered way.

The testimonies are dark, honest and sometimes witty, reflecting the humanism of an event whose devastation was masked from the public. I loved history at school but it’s often relayed in a way that removes it from all emotion, condensing the stories down to dates and names alone, which to me, is entirely trivial. It presents no real insight to the lives of people and offers nothing to learn from. So Alexievich’s work is critical in offering a way to read history that connect us to people, documenting voices that would otherwise never be heard. To an illustrator, this notion is really important and I can learn a lot from considering the way she frames these stories.

Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things

I rarely re-read books because I’m always hungry for new things ,but I have re-read this one as least four times. Set in Kerala, India, Arundhati tells the story of a wealthy Indian family, pulled apart by various tragedies. The writing is magnetically poetic and fiercely good at cutting to the core of hard emotions, for instance: “He began to look wiser than he really was. Like a fisherman in a city. With sea-secrets in him.”

Often, we revert to certain clichés to understand difficult emotions, but Arundhati’s poetic, twisting language feeds the narrative in such a way that stuns the reader more and more as the layers of understanding are gradually peeled back. She gives you time to grapple with people and the way they feel. The whole book inspires the way I think about making images in ways that could similarly influence people. 

Carson McCullers: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

I’m drawn to everything Carson McCullers writes because of her themes of loneliness and desperation; notions that a lot of people shy away from. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter centres on around a mute protagonist whom others come to worship. They put him on a pedestal and project their own desires onto him as they are desperate to find connection with someone. I think her characters are immensely real and that doesn’t come from their physical descriptions but often their actions towards others and their inner monologues. I take inspiration from all of this and it helps me to create work that’s deeply emotional and able to highlight the flaws in human connection. There’s often something really special about drawings with time-based elements. The fact that you can sit somewhere and see a place unfold with time, through the snippets of a conversation or the changing light. This book also feels like that to me and helps me think about image making in completely different ways.

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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