• Strange New Heavens: The Story Behind the Collection

    “I am transported to wonderland. I walk in streets where gold is dirt, and I have no desire to gather it. I wonder whether it is worth while to explore the canals of Mars, or rock myself on the rings of Saturn, but before I can decide, a thousand other fancies enter my excited brain.”

    An Essay on Hasheesh – Victor Robinson (1912)



    Damp Earth and Golden Spires

    It’s October 7 and our new collection, which is the culmination of 10 months of hard work, has just been released. There is so much planning and preparation with each new illustration I create, that working on an interlinking and visually cohesive series, can become an all-consuming task. Now it’s done, I can finally breathe out.

    The concept behind Strange New Heavens came from the ashes of Revelations, our last collection, and in some ways, it’s a natural follow-up. Where Revelations studied the ideas behind epiphany and the Earthly struggles between birth and death, Strange New Heavens looks upwards and explores the ritual use of intoxicants to unlock new layers of consciousness and mystical other worlds.

    This series takes its cue from those artists, poets and shamans that, throughout history, have used powerful, now-forbidden drugs to ascend the staircase to the stars.         

    The Concept

    “Daucas-Carota was seated astride the clock, and made appalling grimaces at me.

    The hands did not move.

    ‘Wretch! You have stopped the pendulum,’ I cried, drunk with rage. ‘Not at all–it’s going back and forth as usual, but suns will crumble into dust before this steel arrow has advanced a millionth of a millimetre.’”

    Le Club des Hachichins – Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier (1846)

    I have always been fascinated by the many artistic and literary references which exist, that detail the experience of using drugs to gain access to new realms of thought. The idea of taking a forbidden shortcut to enlightenment is, in itself, intoxicating. There is no shortage of places to look in order to find lurid descriptions of chemical transcendence, and the downfall that invariably follows, but I wanted to describe a more mystic event.

    Engravings from alchemical/emblem books.


    Like the engraved prints in early alchemical and emblem books, I intended to create a series of illustrations that would describe the very process of absolute intoxication. This was the starting point of what would become Strange New Heavens.         

    Setting out The Journey

    The initial stage of design involved dividing the whole experience into pieces, and assigning each piece its own written description, much like choosing which pages of a book to illustrate. At first, I decided on seven levels of transcendence, but soon felt that this left too many gaps in the process. I then settled on 14 levels and split them across two collections (a clue as to what you can expect in 2019!), with the mid-point being the threshold between this world and the journey to enlightenment. The point at which reality ceases to exist.

    The images in this collection do not represent the effects of a specific drug, but roll into one all the experiences I have looked into regarding the ritual and historical use of opium, hashish, as well as many types of hallucinogens and dissociatives.

    The Seven Levels of Intoxication – Parallels with Alchemy

    Symbolism is the art of changing or shrouding the meaning of a message by representing it in another less obvious, or completely unrelated way. This was an extremely useful tool used by alchemists, who wanted the chemical processes they were working on in secret to be understood only by a chosen few.

    Their complicated diagrams and maps could only be followed when viewed in the right order, and by those people who already knew the codes and symbols used. The green lion, the old dying king, the white queen and various pieces of apparatus, which appear in many alchemical prints, were all used to symbolism different processes and reactions. Different alchemists used the same symbols to mean different things, or different symbols to mean the same thing, hoping to obscure their secret work.

    The Unseeing, The Thief, The Conspirer and The Ritual. The first four parts of Strange New Heavens.


    This way of thinking has had a profound effect on my own art, and I now find myself interlocking different sets of symbols and settings to explore my own secret world.     

    The pomegranate, the flaming sun ray, the hand and dagger, the burning castle, and countless other icons, fit together in this new series, and describe a story and a process which can’t be fully described with words.

    The stages of the transformation are as follows:

    • Unseeing: Blindness and chaos with no awareness of any higher realm. A cold and logical place.
    • The Thief: An awareness of something other than the present. The idea that the key to the next stage is forbidden and must be taken without consent.
    • The Conspirer: With the key in hand, the first thoughts of what it means to leave this Earth and head for the uncertainty of the unknown. 
    • The Ritual: Taking the raw materials and, following careful instruction, forging them into something useful and powerful.
    • The Initiated: The poison has been consumed and the point of no return has arrived. A feeling of intense, overwhelming trepidation.
    • The Poison Takes Effect: The first effects begin to creep though the veins. The eyelids grow heavy and something unknown begins to take control.
    • The Threshold: As this world falls away, a doorway appears and there is no choice but to enter. The light becomes blinding and the way forward presents itself.

    This is the first part of the journey. The rest will follow.

    The Technique

    As with previous collections, I first finished several designs in pencil before moving onto inking. With each new series of illustrations, I find myself wanting to include more information and more complex narratives and this has resulted in the use of much smaller pens, and a return to stippling with dots to render more subtle areas of tone.

    The four stages of artwork. Pencil work, cyan printout, black inking, and white highlights.


    After each pencil drawing is constructed and finalised, it is flattened in Photoshop and printed out at 8% cyan on 250gsm Bristol board. At this point I am sitting in front of an extremely pale blue print out of the design, which is dark enough that I can see where to ink, but light enough that, once finished, the pale blue guide artwork can be easily removed in Photoshop without effecting the inked layer.

    I ink all of my pieces with Staedler pigment liners (sizes 0.1 and 0.05) and Faber Castell PITT pens (sizes S and F) and occasionally I’ll use a brush to fill in large areas.

    Once the black layer is complete, I work over the whole image again adding white highlights. These are worked on using a variety of techniques, including scraper board layers and using a pen on tracing paper, which is then inverted in Photoshop and dropped over the original artwork.   

    The Poison Takes Effect


    Into the Sun and What Comes Next

    Far from being a complete series, I feel that Strange New Heavens has just started. I have so much more to add to this project and just as the iconography of death became the focus of many year’s work, this new direction promises so much.

    Rather than looking down into the earth I want to look upwards into impossible architecture, blazing sun rays and the infinity of the heavens. Who knows where this will end? Maybe it won’t.



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