Author: Esperance Tide
Published: July 08, 2021
Caitlyn Edwards is a self-confessed Les Misérables nerd. Her love for Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, and its adaptations on stage and screen, is so great that last October, Caitlyn painted an illustration from the novel every day of the month. Those 31 paintings have since been collated into a zine called The Misérable(s) Month, now available to purchase from The Book Box.
Firstly, tell us what you create! It doesn’t look like you’re an artist who sticks to just one medium…
I have absolutely too many hobbies! I enjoy digital art, watercolour and gouache painting, pottery, dress-making, guitar playing, theatre-stuff, and attempting to string words together in a way that makes an ounce of sense.
What inspires you?
Content wise, mainly musical theatre. I flew to Boston in 2018 to catch the Moulin Rouge in pre-Broadway previews and I’d just never experienced anything like it. The sets, the costumes, the lighting, the cast! It was impossible not to feel a little inspired! Seeing that show is what got me back into wanting to draw after a decade-long hiatus! Style-wise I follow a ton of amazing artists on instagram and tumblr, and I like trying to pinpoint what it is about their work that makes me stop and go ‘wow’. It might be the colour scheme, it might be the way they use light, sometimes it’s purely just a funky lineart texture. But I’m always taking mental notes on what makes something pop to me and trying to think of how those things could translate in my own technical approach to the things I make.
How did you learn the skill of digital art?
I’m self-taught! It’s amazing what you can figure out with a bit of time on YouTube. I started watching short tutorial videos a couple of times a week back in 2018 and picked it up really quickly. I’d done art class in high school but dropped it after graduating when I started working. I had a baby in 2016 and tried going back to traditional mediums when she was about two. Given that most art supplies aren’t very kid friendly, digital art seemed the safest way to indulge in this rekindled love of drawing. I use the Procreate app on my iPad for almost all of my digital work these days, which means I can work on things from pretty much anywhere and clean up takes half a second! I love the freedom you have when working digitally. I can try things that are way outside of my comfort zone and if they don’t work then I can just delete that particular layer and still have the foundation of the piece to continue working from, as opposed to having to scrap an entire canvas to start from scratch.
Tell us about the process from paper to finished piece.
It varies slightly piece to piece but things almost always start in my sketchbook. Once I’ve got a concept I’m happy with, I’ll snap a photo on my iPad and begin working on it digitally - this involves any tweaking or resizing, as well as throwing down colours to find something cohesive and fun. If I’m sticking to a digital piece I like to work lineless, so once the sketch is looking polished enough I’ll block out the main colour scheme and then add one to two shadow layers, another layer for highlights, and then a final layer to smooth out any rough spots. If I’m working traditionally, I’ll print off the tweaked sketch and use my light box to transfer it to watercolour paper. Any intricate detailing gets done with a pencil once the main shapes are down, and then I go in with my fineliners before getting out the paints. I like to work with watercolours mostly, they’re transparent so they’re quite fun to layer over one another, and they provide the opportunity for some pretty rad and easy gradients. Plus, I never have to redo my lineart like I do with my more opaque paints! I’ll do a final go-over with a really tiny fineliner for any last details, and then it’s done!
What is The Miserable(s) Month? And what is a zine?
Ah, a trick question, as it is now two things! It’s first iteration was as an art challenge, and now it exists as my zine! I’ll describe both.
There’s a pretty big internet based art event that happens every October called ‘Inktober’, where basically anyone who wants to participate creates an ink drawing and posts it online every day for the month – usually correlating to the official prompt list. The idea is to build a daily drawing habit by, well, drawing daily for 31 days. There was a little bit of controversy surrounding the creator of Inktober last year, and I like to avoid unnecessary drama where I can, so I posted on one of my social media accounts asking if anyone would be interested if I put together a Les Misérables themed prompt list as an alternative to the official list, and got a pretty overwhelmingly positive response! A bunch of people sent in prompt suggestions, I random-number-generated the list from those, and by the end of the project there wound up being 450+ Les Mis themed art pieces created as a result, which was so many more than I expected, and made it a really fun experience!
All of my finished illustrations are now collated together into an art zine, which is also called ‘The Misérable(s) Month’, and - by the time this article goes to print - should be available to buy from The Book Box! A zine is essentially an independent / self-published booklet, usually printed in smallish batches. They used to be mainly made by hand with the intent to photocopy, but they’ve gotten a little fancier these days. To me, it’s a really great way to dip my toe into the world of publishing without having to commit too strongly. Preparing the artworks for print has been a helluva learning curve and as a result I will be significantly better prepared for if I ever do approach an official publisher with a future project!
Why did you decide to undertake this project and how long did it take?
I’d followed the official Inktober prompt list in 2019 using only digital art, but I really wanted to have a go in actual inks, which I’d never touched before. If you ever want to learn the capabilities of a medium quickly, I can absolutely recommend using nothing else for 31 days! The Misérable(s) Month prompt list was finalized and posted by the end of the first week of September, which meant I had 3 weeks to formulate some sort of plan before the 31 days of painting began. I set quite high goals for myself for the month – I wanted every piece of mine to link back to a direct quote from the novel, but I also wanted each of the main characters to get a solo illustration, which was possibly the hardest restriction I could have put on myself! I knew I wanted to paint exclusively in red and black, but that meant I had to be quite sure about the placement of values in each illustration before starting to avoid adjacent parts blending together, so every piece got thumbnailed digitally before I ever put pencil to paper. I found it more effective time-wise to work in batches of two or three pieces at a time. I’m a single parent with a day job, so I knew I wanted to be working a few days ahead to account for any unexpected hiccups throughout the month. It also made it easier during the actual inking stage, working on several different pieces at once meant I wasn’t being too impatient to allow for proper drying times between layers. All up, the ink was cracked open on October 1 and I finished my 31st piece at around 3am on October 29 – a couple of hours before I needed to board a plane to the city!
In terms of turning the artworks into a book, I took a much needed break from looking at them after October was over. Once the New Year had passed I was finally prepared to get stuck back into the logistical side of getting things ready for print. It took almost four months to get everything scanned in and polished up. There was a lot I didn’t know about printing requirements, which meant having to re-do stages a few times. And I spent a decent few weeks of that time filming the entire start-to-finish process of how I painted the cover art! You can find that video here:https://youtu.be/fcHPwL-YTW4
What is it about Les Misérables that you’re so drawn (pardon the pun!) to?
In the prologue of the novel Victor Hugo wrote, “So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless,” and he was right. There’s something exceedingly captivating about watching this diverse cast of characters grapple with their own moralities, backlit by a society slowly struggling towards its own greater good. I have a particular soft spot for the young revolutionaries - a group comprised of barely-named mostly-students dedicated to the idea that the future belongs to love. Vicky H was a little optimistic when he had Enjolras declare, “The nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy,” (i.v.i) but isn’t that a hell of an idea to strive for. Aside from the story itself, I really adore the small corner of the internet I’ve found that is filled with other Les Mis nerds. Nothing brings me more joy than seeing someone’s fresh hot take on this 150+ year old novel.
What’s better – the novel, the stage show, or the film?
To me, nothing matches seeing a live stage show. I saw Les Mis in Perth back in 2015 and was lucky to have a seat in the back row, because I couldn’t stop leaping to my feet every time the red flag would make an appearance on the set! This project was actually a way to bully myself into finally cracking the spine on my copy of the novel (I have the Rose translation, which comes with a couple hundred pages of incredibly handy footnotes!). I enjoyed the brick of a book much more than I expected to and I have approximately four thousand post-it notes and underlined quotes littering the pages of my novel now. I’m looking forward to re-reading it at a more relaxed pace later on this year! I will always have a soft spot for the 2012 film, as it was the only thing that could reliably give pause to my daughter’s meltdowns from the ages of six months to two years.
Are there plans to exhibit your work? If so, what can we expect to see and when?
Yes! Extremely fresh plans! I am turning 30 this month and as an utterly indulgent act am treating myself to my debut solo exhibition! The Misérable(s) Exhibition will be on display in the Art Room at the Cannery Arts Centre from June 19 until July 3, and will have all 31 illustrations from the month, plus the cover on display! The exhibition will launch at 6pm on the June 19 (which happens to be my actual birthday) and will be open during Cannery office hours after that.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
The long term grand plan is to put together a graphic novel, but that one is a few years off yet. I would love to have a go at illustrating a kids book in the meantime, and I’m really itching to get into painting on a larger scale. All the murals we have going on around town have me so inspired!
You recently performed in Esperance Theatre Guild’s production of Art for Art’s Sake, your first time on stage in seven years. What made you decide to tread the boards again? How did it feel?
It was such a delight to be back at the theatre! I’ve been pining to return to it for years, but solo-parenting a tiny human makes committing to a rehearsal schedule a bit of an impossibility. My mom was an absolute champion and we worked out a babysitting system that meant I could finally commit, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better production to have jumped back in on. I got to work with some of my all-time favourite theatre people, as well as make new friends with folks that have joined since I last bowed out. My role of Samantha probably had more lines than all of my past characters combined, but I managed to make it through the entire run with only minor hiccups! I think I’ve burned through my babysitting vouchers for the rest of this year, but I already can’t wait to be involved again and I’d love to try my hand at directing a show in a year or so!
When you’re not creating, what can we find you doing?
I work down at the Volunteer Resource Centre, but outside of that you can catch me probably op shopping, possibly cooking, maybe tending to my tiny verandah garden, and almost definitely re-enacting musical numbers with my nearly-five year old.
Lastly, tell us where we can find your work!