“For the illustrator, creating a stamp design for your country is like being an athlete competing in the Olympic Games,” says Jay Cover, Manx native and one third of acclaimed illustration collective Nous Vous. Cover has worked with the Isle of Man Post Office to create a set of four stamps celebrating the Chinese Year of the Ox, a landmark project in that it’s the first triangular set of stamps to be issued by any of the British postal administrations (Royal Mail, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man). This innovative canvas, and the subject, adds to the illustrator’s pride in the project: “[It] speaks to our Island’s global outlook, our openness and our desire to embrace other cultures.”
This is actually Cover’s second set of stamps, having worked with the island’s post office in 2018 on a set celebrating Manx Folk Traditions. He grew up in a pub on the island surrounded by interesting characters and Manx music, so that project was particularly close to the illustrator’s heart. “The traditions and the music are something I grew to miss dearly whilst living in the UK. Creating the stamps was a way for me to reconnect and celebrate the culture I grew up in,” Cover tells It’s Nice That. “I’ve never felt my soul fill up in the same way producing work before; the emotional connection meant a lot to me as well as being able to do something to give back to the Island. Initially it had never occurred to me that I could actually produce a set of stamps, it was one of those dream jobs that I never believed to be obtainable.”
For this latest set, his client Paul Ford suggested a triangular canvas, which appealed to Cover as a challenge. He got to work researching what the Ox represented, as well as the customs of Chinese New Year. “After reading up, I decided to try and cover various aspects of the tradition,” he explains. In the 62p stamp, he depicts the Rooster “which in the zodiac is compatible with the Ox,” he says, and fitted the shape nicely alongside the Ox. The £1.58 stamp shows the Ox head in profile next to the rat. “This references the order of the animals in the Chinese zodiac,” Cover explains. “The emperor ordered the animals to race to determine the order in which the animals occur in the zodiac. Deciding the terrain was too difficult to navigate, the rat hides on the Ox’s back throughout the race and at the last moment leaps from the Ox’s head to take first place.”
The £2.44 and £3.22 stamps are reflective of the characteristics of Ox people, Cover says. With lots to choose from, he went for two contrasting traits: calm, and strong. “I was aware at the time of the situation we all currently find ourselves in and I thought going into the new year, these were traits that could help us to navigate these hard times.”
In his designs, Cover wanted to also represent two contrasting qualities of his impression of Chinese culture. “The first is ‘humility’, historically, politically and philosophically. You can see this in printing methods, the traditional wood block, the minimalist approach to subject matter in writing, sometimes in object making, such as the lantern, often giving the subject of their art space to take centre stage and not be crowded by other information,” he says. “The second by contrast was ‘extravagance’, especially in celebration. The use of gold and rich red, finely detailed pottery, finely crafted objects and well rehearsed ceremony. I’m aware Chinese culture is far more complex and nuanced, but I wanted to focus upon these to keep it simple for me as someone who hasn’t ever been immersed in Chinese culture.”
To illustrate humility, Cover kept the illustration minimal and paid respect to the subject matter by “not adding anything unnecessary” and integrating Hanzi where possible. These characters are intended simply to represent the individual animals and characteristics as solitary words. To convey extravagance he chose an elaborate printing method, picking spot colours prevalent in traditional Chinese imagery, red, jade and metallic gold – another innovation in stamp production which usually uses four standard CMYK colours – with black outlines. While paying respect to the culture through colour and depiction, the illustrator also felt it was important to stay true to his own style of illustration, hence the use of these outlines. “It’s always important to me that I don’t attempt to imitate the visual language of another craftsperson with a tradition of doing things in a particular way too much, for example the woodblocks, the delightful ink drawings or the tradition of writing with a brush. For me it’s disrespectful to even consider that I could in any way match or imitate the kind of skill and craft that goes into producing this visual language.” Instead he considered how these principles were reflected in his existing practice, and tried to amplify those in a way he felt comfortable with.
Importantly, the final designs were sent to a Hong Kong postal administration to check the cultural references and character usage was relevant, on point and appropriate.
Lastly, one of the key challenges was designing for such a tiny canvas. “Stamps, although small, are quite fussy things really, with the information that needs to be present: the Queen’s head, the place of origin, the price. Although I do love when these things all come together to form one image,” Cover says. “It’s important to make sure these things are harmonious, by picking appropriate typefaces, weights, a composition that allows room for these components. All in all I wanted variety in the way I approached it but also for them to complement each other and live together.”
The stamps are being issued from tomorrow, 7 January 2021.