Baba Yaga is the quintessential fairy tale character. She is horrifying and magical, yet if you can just do the impossible, she will give you her grudging aid, which, perhaps, was intended for you all along if you could simply overcome life’s limitations.
I painted Baba Yaga with watercolor on art board using instructions from Stephanie Pui Mun-Law’s book Dreamscapes: Myth & Magic.
For a selection of the crone’s twisted wisdom, peruse Taisia Kitaiskaia’s Ask Baba Yaga column. I do hope Taisia eventually releases her collected advice as a regular book; her work is just delightful.
Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is a novelization based on the fairy tale “Donkey Skin.” I first came across the book as a young teen while looking through the book selection at a church rummage sale. I loved both McKinley and “Donkey Skin,” so the combination seemed like a magical prize. The moment I saw it I snatched it up and tucked it under my arm as if it might vanish from existence if I didn’t purchase it immediately.
Lately I have heard an increased quantity of talk about what kinds of stories are good for young people, with parents feeling horrified that their tender children might be exposed too early to some variation of violence or atrocity. I’ve noticed that children look at stories through a different lens than adults. Fairy tales particularly clarify this point. When the witch wishes to eat Hansel and Gretel, children’s eyes see this as demonstrative of the witch’s evil nature. They’re not fixating on the gritty details of cannibalism. In recent literature, The Hunger Games set this conversation ablaze. While parents were horrified at children killing children, the kids reading the book saw how children were tested and proved their strength and ingenuity. Small, young people persevered and triumphed.
I have read that McKinley receives the most negative feedback in comments that regard Deerskin. People claim to be horrified that she wrote such a book. When I first read about this reaction, I was astounded. Yes, within the book the title character is violently abused and left to die by her father. Yet, as a young teenager I understood Deerskin to primarily be a book of hope. After a terrible event, the heroine goes out into the wild lands with her faithful dog and heals. My younger self received the clear message that even after the greatest of horrors, one could go out into the safety of the forest and heal. I found the book to be brilliant and magical; I read it repeatedly. My teenage self had wished that Deerskin had ended with all of the heroine’s troubles clearly behind her, but now I admire the balance that McKinley struck in her closing. Some wounds are not so easily healed.
Reading Deerskin as an adult, I find the story equally powerful, even though my understanding of the book’s meanings has changed. McKinley moved enough away from Perrault’s tale that as you read it you feel you’re experiencing something entirely new and yet familiar. McKinley has certainly captured the vibrancy and poignancy of fairy tale. Deerskin is a magical tale.
I painted “Sun Worship” with instructions from Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s book Dreamscapes Myth & Magic. I painted the image as a gift for a family member who collects masks. Since the painting is bigger than my scanner, I snapped a few shots of it outside before gifting it, and, ironically, the overbright sun has washed out the photos–so they are what they are.
I was glad to work more on trees and added a textural bark overlay for the entire tree. I’m happy with the outcome.
Scarlet is book two of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, a series intended to span four books while telling the science fiction drama of impending war between Earth and Luna, while featuring a reworked fairy tale for each book. The first book, Cinder, charmingly tells the tale of a cyborg Cinderella–I was very impressed. Scarlet picks up where Cinder left off, but splits between two story lines, one following Cinder and the other following Scarlet.
Scarlet’s grandmother has disappeared and the police have given up on the case. Scarlet determines to hunt her down herself, no matter the cost, even when evidence suggests a dangerous gang has kidnapped her grandmother. A dubious street fighter, Wolf, offers his aid, providing the best lead Scarlet is likely to get, but Scarlet suspects he is part of the gang himself. Wolf’s suspicious motives are underscored by his oscillating personality: one moment he is shy and sweet, while the next he is bestially out of control. However, Wolf’s behavior seems a solid match for Scarlet’s own snap judgements and anger management issues. The mystery of Wolf’s background and true intentions mixed with the character dynamic between Scarlet and Wolf prove to be the highlights of the book. Scarlet is hands down the most memorable Little Red I’ve ever read.
Scarlet is solidly a middle-of-the-series book. While the “Little Red Riding Hood” story seems to come to a close, the overarching story continues, and Cinder’s in particular is no nearer closure than at the end of the first book. I found the split storytelling to be a weakness and would have preferred following only one set of characters for the duration of the novel. Just the same, the Lunar Chronicles are enjoyable, with strong characters and solid fairy tale twists, and I look forward to reading Cress and Winter.
Donkey Skin’s walk through the valley of the shadow of death is emphasized by the presence of the donkey skin. The donkey’s remains openly serve as the princess’s cloak, hiding her from her enemy, but the creepy skull provides double duty as a sort of shamanic guide, leading her along the dark and humble path that delivers safety.
Symbolically and thematically, the donkey skin with head attached works wonderfully, but at a more practical level, a donkey’s skull would not make a comfortable cap, and, rather than creating obscurity, the skull would transform the princess into one of the most remarkable and noticeable people passing by. A dirty animal skin alone would be much more suitable as a disguise.
Donkey Skin’s Shadow, watercolor on hot-pressed paper
A major theme within “Donkey Skin” is disguise and the transformation that disguise allows.
When the princess flees from the incestuous desires of her father, the princess’s fairy godmother instructs her to hide within the stinking skin of her father’s magic donkey. Alive, the donkey had provided an unending supply of gold for her father’s kingdom. The king’s willingness to slay his kingdom’s magic in order to gain his daughter for a wife transforms the donkey, with death, into a symbol of the king’s madness. The princess is terrified when she receives the donkey skin because she knows that no reason will stop her father; the skin she holds represents the death of the magic kingdom.
When the princess wraps the skin around her shoulders, she is enshrouded in death. According to the world of illustration, the donkey head sits atop her own, with its long, narrow head offering a screen for her face beneath. The only way the princess would obtain this shielding cap is if the skull remained attached to the skin, shaping the donkey’s head. With skull and skin combined, the princess is even more strongly donning a guise of death. The princess she has been must die, at least temporarily; her fairy godmother would have seen death as the princess’s final escape from her father’s madness. Wrapped in death, the princess walks alone, perhaps for the first time in her life, through the dark forests and wide lands of her father’s kingdom. She has left majesty behind.
As a magic animal, a donkey is quite humble, known for being slow, stubborn, and patchy. Along with the skin and her new name, Donkey Skin adopts the humblest stature. The donkey skin takes her from the heights of royalty to the depths of drudgery. She refrains from washing and requests the most menial of labor. Attached to the reeking skull, her donkey’s ears pronounce her a fool, but without the fairy tale luck of fools. In the topsy turvy realm where a king would kill his magic donkey, a princess must silently accept the mockery of peasants. As other victims have done, Donkey Skin accepts the shame. She embraces the coarse life of Donkey Skin and the protection it offers her from the truly bestial alternative of sexual relations with her father.
Along with death and humble stature, the donkey skin still retains its magical symbolism. A princess hides within. In rare, special moments, the princess steps to the foreground, washing the filth from her body and donning one of the three, celestial gowns her father had courted her with. At her fairy godmother’s prompting, Donkey Skin had asked for a dress like the sun, a dress like the moon, a dress like dawn (or twilight), and the magic donkey’s skin. Each garment is representative of the princess. The fairy godmother packed these gowns in an invisible trunk; she knew that the princess would later need a new guise in order to leave Donkey Skin behind. While wearing the sun gown, the princess is spied upon by a peeping Tom of a prince, who falls ill with longing for her. The princess had donned her gown within the security of her locked room, but outside of the safety of her donkey skin, she had been discovered.
Oddly, the prince requests that Donkey Skin save him from his illness by baking him a cake, a task that neither a princess nor a pig keeper would have had much experience with. Nonetheless, she bakes the cake, which is light, delicious, and contains her princess-small ring. Cinderella-style, the prince vows to marry the girl whose finger fits it. Donkey Skin is the last woman to come and try the ring, and she does so hidden within the magic of her hideous donkey skin. Only after she has received full acceptance in this guise from the prince does she drop the skin to reveal a princess clad in a celestial gown. The court is instantly convinced of her royal veracity. The princess is reborn.
I painted this with colored pencil and watercolor. I began with water colored pencils, but due to later washes producing unwanted additional color from layers of pencils, I switched to soft pencils, which were not creating the desired detail, so the bulk of the colored pencil was done with Derwent’s hard pencils.
I have finally read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire through A Dance with Dragons. The series has enjoyed so much popularity that I won’t bother with a summarizing hook or a reflection on my particular likes in the hopes of tempting others to read it as well. Instead, I’ll simply say this. My favorite two characters are:
1. Arya Stark
2. Jon Snow
Please, Mr. Martin, do not kill them off in some horrible way or twist them through the ugliest realities of life until they’ve changed into something abhorrent. Oh, or inflict upon them a combination of the two, leaving them shambling onward as the resilient undead. That includes Jon. And Arya. Thanks.