Thursday, August 20, 2009

Artistic Influences: Kay Nielsen

Recently I was asked about my early artistic influences, so I thought I'd try to re-trace my personal path, as an obsession with one artist or style led to another. Immediately I thought of the surrealists I had studied and so admired when I was in high school and college. But one day it suddenly occurred to me that Surrealism was not my first influence at all, that my artistic sensibilities had also been informed by images I encountered much earlier in my life, a time that was buried deeper in my memory.

"Snowshoes" by Kay Nielsen

Being a child of ample imagination, I loved to read fairy tales. My fascination with these stories went beyond listening to an adult read "Red Riding Hood" or even watching Disney's iconic "Snow White" or "Sleeping Beauty"; I went to the library and checked out every book of fairy tales I could find, and devoured them.

"Pop! Out Flew the Moon" by Kay Nielsen

I was captivated as much by the pictures as the stories; the stunning illustrations in many of these books sparked an aspiration to draw like that myself. I populated my own imaginary world with knights, princesses, horses, and dragons that I drew and cut out. I would make up fantastic tales, and act them out with these 'paper doll' characters.

"A Large Flock of Birds" by Kay Nielsen

Some of the most inspiring illustrations were done by Danish artist Kay Nielsen, who worked during the Golden Age of Book Illustration in London around the turn of the century. According to Terri Windling (From Fairy Tales to Fantasia: The Art of Kay Nielsen), "Kay left Copenhagen for Paris to study art in Montparnasse. It was there that he, like so many art students, discovered Aubrey Beardsley's work, with its fine use of line and ornamentation and its aura of dark romance. Beardsley's drawings made a considerable impression on him, containing as it did two of the things he loved best: imagery from myth and folklore, and the strong influence of Japanese art."

"How Morgan Le Fay Gave a Shield to Sir Tristram" by Aubrey Beardsley

"The Sea off Satta" by Hiroshige

"The North Wind Went Over the Sea" by Kay Nielsen

I loved the drama and emotion these pictures evoked, the lush colors, the stylized figures. For me, they were an integral part of the stories, as important as the words. The strong sense of composition and use of flowing line are aspects of Nielsen's work that I unconsciously incorporated, over time, into my own work.

"Dakini" by S. Davidson

I think the function of artwork as narrative has also been an aspect of my work, and one that has come to the forefront again in my recent work.

"The Traveler's Tale: As the Crow Flies" by S. Davidson

"Then He Took Her Home" by Kay Nielsen

It's strange how these things we've forgotten about have influenced us so profoundly. Perhaps they lay so deeply and thoroughly imbedded in our past that they've become a part of us.


  1. Thank you for jogging my memory of these childhood favorites

    ...every one of these artists also lives in a certain hidden part of my consciousness. seeing your post makes those wonderful times of pouring over the pages of the fairy tales come back with joy.

  2. Hey there, loved the Kay Nielsen images, easy to see the influence.
    BTW, I am now following YOU!

  3. I, of course, a newcomer to this blog, but the author does not agree


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