Every picture tells a story

By Aaren Madden, July/August 2013

Renee Nault draws viewers into a vivid, dreamlike world.

In artist and illustrator Renee Nault’s “High Ground,” a fox clings precipitously to a moss covered rock while a waterfall courses past. In “Leaving,” created for The Los Angeles Times, the departing swish of a woman’s intricately patterned skirt tells all that is needed about two gold rings abandoned in the storm cloud of her shadow. In “Fleeting,” a winged, antlered deer—with a fawn’s spots and the tail of a lion—glides across the page. It’s a creature out of Nault’s imagination, evoking a mythology that is as unique as it is hauntingly familiar. Like so much of her illustration work, each of these have an uncanny way of opening a door into a larger narrative, one that offers glimpses into a dreamlike world of her own creation.

Nault creates dynamic images with contrasting surface treatments. Washes of watercolour—some saturated with lush colour, some a moody grey—bleed into each other, erupting in spontaneous bursts by touching a bead of water. They are reined in by precise outlines and patterns rendered in ink. In “High Ground,” which was featured in a recent exhibition at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, this results in a madly rushing waterfall that is also controlled, linear and strikingly lyrical.

Born in Vancouver, but raised in Victoria, Nault at first hoped to become an animator but had the self-awareness to realize that it wasn’t for her. “When I learned what is involved in the lifestyle of an animator, it’s pretty dull,” she says. “You can’t move; you have to stay with your studio, and you’re just at it five days a week. You have to be on someone else’s schedule.” For one who craves travel (she has toured Europe, Asia and Africa) and the allure of big cities like Paris and Tokyo, that clearly would not work. So, she studied illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, and for six years has been attracting clients like the LA Times, EMI records, and numerous magazines and books, as well as creating her own illustrations and prints. She has exhibited in Toronto and here in town at the fifty fifty arts collective and, as noted, at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. 

Nault has lived in Vancouver and Toronto but returned to Victoria, where her family lives. “When I came back to Victoria, I thought it would be boring,” she admits. “But actually, it’s really easy to focus here, and it’s nice to be close to nature,” she says. “I can go for a walk in the forest after lunch and just soak up the atmosphere, get some visual inspiration. I don’t have to take a train out of the city to get to the forest or the ocean. You go outside, and there it is.” 

More than that, though. Something about the underwater landscapes she sees here always strikes a chord with her. Besides vivid colour, they contain what she describes as a “languid weightlessness” that has found its way into her work. Looking at Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, she found a similar effect and a profound, connecting influence. Begun in the 17th century, these are popular Japanese woodblock prints, most familiar, perhaps, being Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanagawa”. 

Ukiyo-e actually translates as “pictures of the floating world,” being the ephemeral, unattainable realms of entertainment, pleasure, natural beauty and historical greatness that are detached from the cares of daily life. 

Since the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, Japanese prints have influenced Western artists in form and content. Hokusai’s wave certainly echoes in Nault’s rendering of the water in “High Ground” and she loves the patterns and vivid colours in the prints, but she also reaches for what she calls the “fleeting” quality they convey. It’s that sense of an otherworld just beyond reach, one made all the more vivid for its elusivity. Explains Nault, “I am interested in that dreamlike state where things become hyper real.” 

That’s because, for Nault, it’s a place rife with imagery and inspiration. Creatures emerge from it that, in their mystery, take on an ambiguous symbolism. “I don’t like to pin it down to something that can be decoded,” she says of these enigmatic figures, “but definitely there are some recurring motifs. The deer I use a lot as a totem animal,” she explains. Horned animals fascinate her: “They seem almost symbolic; their horns are reaching for the sky and it’s almost like a crown. It seems so supernatural to me,” she says. The horns are like a conduit through the otherwise impenetrable interface between the dream world and reality.

It’s a notion at the heart of Nault’s latest project. She has just completed the first issue of her graphic novel series called Witchling. It begins, of course, with a vivid dream and a horned mythical creature. No text appears for several pages, but the action and atmosphere in the images captivate the reader immediately. “It is a fantasy about gods, monsters, witches—and a girl who talks to cats,” Nault says. 

The story travels from city to forest and through epic adventure. “I actually had to cut a lot out of it because it got so complicated with all these overlapping symbols, all these mythologies weaving together,” she shares. Even so, it will eventually comprise 12 to 16 issues, collected into three book volumes—but Nault, smiling, refuses to reveal the exciting conclusion.

It seems it will be anticipated by many, even though Witchling only made its debut at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in May. Mere days before attending, Nault had 100 copies printed. It was a wild success. “This is my first comic, and I sold all my books, all my prints [at the festival],” she marvels. Demand on her website is high, and she’s quickly getting more copies printed.

Lloyd Chesley, owner of Legends Comics and Books on Johnson Street (where locals can purchase the book) isn’t surprised: “I see uncountable comics, and this is one of the most beautiful to be produced this year,” he says. “And I mean wherever: France, England, America, Canada. Turning every page, you just want to be there.” 

And you are. Rendered in transporting, beautifully reproduced ink and watercolour images, it’s a graphic novel that is also a handheld artwork. It’s a door open even wider into Nault’s rich, floating world of image and imagination. 

Aaren Madden is looking forward to introducing the incredible world of comic art to her children, who were fascinated by Nault’s many creatures and images. See more at www.ReneeNault.com.