Essence and the Whole

dec 10, 2018

There is a very charming and honest video interview with Carl Cneutt, illustrator of ’the Witch Fairy’ and ’the Golden Cage’, where he says:

Once I get to the point of sitting down, then usually I get into some kind of panic and I don’t quite know what to do, so through the years I learned that I should stay put there and try to do things on the paper and have confidence that one day everything will click together and I will know how I should do this. (Cneutt, 2017)

Fig.1: Cneut,C. The Witch Fairy (1999).

I think probably every human being recognizes this fear that occurs during creative processes. The part where you don’t know the answer, where your rational mind won’t help you, where you have to just trust that if you follow your impulses, everything ‘will click together’.

It is this clicking together that fascinates me. What does it mean? My search how to capture the essential in illustration, showed me that perceiving the ‘essential’ is connected to perceiving the ‘whole’. And in order to capture it, illustrators use the human capacity of seeing that whole. When a drawing captures the essential well, it is not only the essence of the character that leaps of the page, but also of the situation, the relationships, the emotions, the character’s goal, the materials used, and the essence of the illustrator her/himself. When all these click together in just the right way, the essential is captured.

It would be impossible to focus on all these elements separately, but apparently human beings have the capacity to connect to all these elements at once. So I studied this capacity in the past blogs, discussing ‘Drawing on the right side of the brain’ by Betty Edwards, looking into Goethean Observation, studying intuitive and irrational capacities as Quentin Blake, John Cleese and many others teach them. But also just trying myself to connect to the whole while drawing. For me, the most important lessons are these:

– Drawing with a deep connection to and love for your subject

– Using the essence of the materials you work with

– Drawing without hesitation.

– Trusting to irrational capacities.

As Marit Tornqvist tells us in an interview by Toin Duijx, sometimes when she is drawing there is no intellect involved, she just chooses her materials with her intuition and she feels as if ’there’s a direct line from my heart to my hand’ (Duijx, 2016). I have quoted her twice in these blogs, because this is such a clear statement about irrationality.


Fig.2: Tornqvist,M. Jij bent de liefste (2002)

I have mentioned ‘rationality’ and ‘irrationality’ a lot in these blogs. So far I have avoided going into the work of Carl Jung, because it is such a complex matter; but I don’t want to omit it completely, as his work has been very important to me in understanding irrationality. So here goes:

Jung distinguishes ‘feeling’ and ’thinking’ as the rational functions a human being has at his disposal to process information. ‘Sensing’ and ‘intuition’ are the irrational functions. Feeling is often seen as irrational, but Jung explains it as a rational function by which to give value to information; to weigh likes and dislikes, acceptance and rejection. This feeling process takes time, just as thinking does, and is governed by the laws of reason. (Jung 1921, p.434). Sensing and Intuition form the irrational axis, and work without time, they are immediate.

Sensing tells us that something is there, just as it is. Intuition ‘just knows’ something, the knowing appearing suddenly and accurately. Jung tells us intuition works through the subconscious and can’t be explained with words; it just needs to be trusted (Jung 1978, p.34).

With your intuition, it is possible to connect to all available complex information at once (conscious and subconscious), and to know what needs to be done by doing it. Very common sense really, but terribly neglected in our society. I have done a course where we practiced with the irrational axis intensively. One of the assignments was to go out into the city for an hour with a question in mind – an important problem you wanted to solve but had no answer to. And to take everything you encountered seriously, as information to help you with your question. Of course the rational mind sputters at this assignment. Mine did. It was close to scary to just go out and follow where the road leads you. But the results were enlightening for each and every student. For my part, I walked into the city with a question in mind about the class I was teaching and a problem my pupils were facing. They are all girls, and the most amazing coincidences happened to me on the road, teaching me how to move beyond the girl-boy limits and to take on a different tempo in teaching.

For me the most reassuring thing about this experience, was that you can trust to learning and creating. You can start moving with a question in mind; cooperating with the world. Which, in spite of the anxiety you feel, will work with you to find the answers.

I think this is the most important thing about capturing the essential in illustration. To move with the use of these irrational functions into the unknown and find the answers coming out of your brush, pencil, or whatever material you work with. This is not to say that rational thought and feeling have no place in the creative process. Obviously you need them to study your subject, to know how it looks, moves, feels. How a story unfolds and how to logically sequence your illustrations and all that. But when the creative process gets stuck in rational processes and does not move through uncertainty and a kind of playful trust, it does not reach the stage where suddenly things click togeter. The results are often too clinical. The audience is not moved by them, because they don’t capture the essential.

These little drawings I made for St.Nicholas day; it is a tradition in the Netherlands to make poems and other funny stuff for your family and friends on the 5th of December. I had no other aspirations with them than to give something kind and funny to my daughter, which may have helped to loosen my hand. The words are in Dutch (and in Dutch they rhyme :-)), the last line is:

In order to share, he should always keep playing

I would like to give a heartfelt thank you to Jan Peeters, who set up this website for me; and to Peter Paul Gerbrands and all facilitators of the WRCG course. This course made it so much clearer how to work with the ‘instruments’ of awareness, both rational and irrational, and to use them for the benefit of others. And thank you to Carla Frayman, Petulia van Tiggelen, Daniel Bennett, Ralph Herbers and Anouk Bannink who kindly sent me their choice of essence-capturing illustrations.

Duijx, T. (2016) ‘Marit Törnqvist: A Direct Line from My Heart to My Hand’, Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature, Vol. 54, No. 4, 2016, p. 22-25

Hagen, H., Hagen, M., Tornqvist, M. (2002) Jij bent de liefste. Amsterdam: Querido

Jung, C. G., Baynes, H. G. (1921). Psychological Types. London: Kegan Paul Trench Trubner

Jung, C. (1978) Analytische Psychologie. Rotterdam: Lemniscaat

Minne, B.,Cneut, C. (1999) the Witch Fairy. Bristol: Book Island

Pauwelijn, G. (2017) Interview with Carll Cneut, illustrator of witch fairy. Available at: (accessed: nov.9, 2018)