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Hooked on Books: Illustrating the Classics with Viola Niccolai

December 03, 2019 by s.nagele

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories.

This month we talk to Viola Niccolai, the illustrator of the Helbling reader adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. We talked about becoming an illustrator, her creative process and her approach to literary works.

Visit VIOLA'S WEBSITE to see more of her work.


Viola Niccolai


Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How long have you worked as an illustrator?

I can recall a precise moment when for the very first time I really wanted my work to be published. I was working on the illustrations for my thesis project at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna. It was the first draft of what later became the picture book "The Fox and the Foal" written by Antonio Gramsci and published by the Italian publishing house, Topipittori. It was 2012.

HRB: Where does your passion for art come from?

As a child I was always drawing something, then leaving it to one side, only to return to it, sometimes years later. Drawing has never been a linear process for me. After high school I decided to apply to Art College. All of a sudden everyone tells you that you can’t draw; which is good, because although it is hard at first, you end up seeing things more clearly. Visual education is fundamental during our training, and it is something that develops gradually. During this painstaking phase we learn to look with omnivorous eyes, and then to practise critical observation. Above all, we learn to reflect on our own work critically. Next we learn about drawing, which can be defined exactly as Michelangelo said five hundred years ago, “when the hand obeys the intellect”.

Frankenstein illustration by Viola Niccolai.
Frankenstein, published by Helbling Languages in 2015. Illustration by Viola Niccolai. © Helbling Languages

HRB: You have illustrated classical novels. How do you approach a text that you have to illustrate?

I start off by doing quick sketches which are faithful to the text. It’s an intricate, instinctive process which I can’t skip and is a way of brainstorming what I know about the story. Then I move on, adding other levels of visual interest to these initial sketches. This stops me from becoming too attached to my initial more rigid approach. Then there is a preliminary phase in which I study the characters, and above all the atmosphere I want to communicate. For me, conveying the atmosphere of the verbal text is fundamental in illustration. Once I capture the atmosphere of a particular scene then I can finalise the illustration. This is the very last phase and it’s when I turn my eye to detail and add any final touches, and it only works when all  aspects of background and context have been dealt with. Work on the background may seem at this stage to be merely hinted at, but that’s fine. It’s never a bad idea to remove detail if it’s functional to fixing meaning.

HRB: You have a unique personal style, it’s atmospheric and characteristic. How did you develop it?

I think that every work should have the perfect balance of form and content, as they are inseparable and interdependent. So an idea works when it finds the right medium on paper, when there is a narrative which both formally and stylistically communicates the same message. The message that comes out must express these parallel paths, trying to bring them together as one.

HRB What or who inspired you the most?

Provincial life, from which I try to escape thanks to Marlene Dumas, Jockum Nordstrom, Hans Holbein, Mario Giacomelli, Edouard Manet, Diego Velazquez, Francis Bacon, Ben Shahn, Edward Hopper. And that brings me back to the province, on the other side of the ocean.

HRB: Can you recommend some picture books and graphic novels?

HRB: Are there any classic novels which would you like to illustrate?

Yes, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

HRB: Thank you for the interview!

Check out our lesson plan based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

  • Man or Monster: Frankenstein in the Classroom