Illustrators Ireland's Illustrated Beatles show featuring 42 artworks inspired by 42 Beatles songs, toured Ireland throughout 2013 to much acclaim. The song list was compiled by Irish creative types, broadcasters and writers and some of Ireland's leading illustrators were invited to give a response to the song title through the medium of illustration. My piece from the show, Tomorrow Never Knows, went on to win a Silver Medal in the Society of Illustrators prestigious annual exhibition, Illustrators 56.

I was delighted to get 'Tomorrow Never Knows' as my song title. It's a great piece of mid-sixties pop, influenced by eastern mysticism and psychedelic drugs. Lennon adapted the lyrics from Timothy Leary's book The Psychedelic Experience which in turn was adapted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

My initial excitement at the song choice was short lived as I soon realised that my lack of first hand knowledge of either hallucinogenics or mysticism might prove a disadvantage. Still, I wanted to avoid psychedelic cliché and overt religious references in the piece yet stay true to the spirit of the song.

My first inclination was to send up the over-commercialization of the Beatles and the bankruptcy of hippie culture. I designed an advert for Mop Top Acid Tabs but, after arriving at the above draft, I knew it wasn't going to result in a stand-out image. Besides, it was hardly a fair reflection of the song.

I must point out that the note on the page of sketches to "Remove Worn Work Snot" is not a reference to my studio hygiene. It's an anagram of 'Tomorrow Never Knows'.

Casting about for ideas, beyond the anagram generator, I decided to concentrate on the Eastern angle. I know little or nothing about Tibetan culture but have long been an admirer of Japanese design, particularly their mid-century ephemera. The above matchbox labels (from Maraid Design's collection) exude a definite Japanese aesthetic and a beautiful simplicity. While thumbing through the book Commercial Design of Japan, the page below caught my eye. I liked the grand landscapes rendered in such simplistic terms and felt I could use it as a starting point for my illustration, "Turn off your mind relax and float down stream".

Commercial Design of Japan, p165, Seigensha Books, 2006

After some sketches I settled on a few basic elements, traced them with a brush and ink and scanned them into the computer. After assembling the elements in InDesign (don't ask) and adding some colour, I had this:

I can't say I was too excited by my creation. For one thing, the composition lacked any tension. The square is a notoriously difficult animal to coax a satisfying composition from. Luckily, I had a copy of Louis Wolchonok's The Art of Pictorial Composition to hand. Surely that would contain a few ideas, I thought, but alas he managed to avoid the troublesome square, including not one example in the 177 pages of the book. Damn you Wolchonok!

Even if the composition did work, the image would still only convey the first line of the song. Dividing the square into panels would help solve the composition issue and give me more space to tell the story. Better still, dividing it into three gave panels with proportions similar to senjafuda, the paper stickers posted on shrines and temples in Japan (below). Still not quite Tibetan but Eastern and spiritual. Also, Lennon first met Yoko Ono in November 1966, just a few months after the song was released in August of that year.

One Thousand Shrine Stickers (Senjya Fuda), Seigensha Books, 2004

Working with the new panel shape, I played around with the elements I had, dropping a few, until I had a first panel I was happy with. I then worked up the other two panels, mainly using the ever trusty circle, trying to capture the psychedelic element of the lyric:

Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining

Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being

Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing

And ignorance and hate mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing

But listen to the colour of your dreams
It is not leaving, it is not leaving

Arriving at the composition above, I felt I was finally getting somewhere. Next I wanted to achieve a print texture similar to the vintage matchbox labels with each of the 4 colours overlapping and blending together to give a nice organic feel. There are numerous ways of digitally adding textures which mimic different print processes including Mister Retro's Permanent Press plug-in for Photoshop. While it definitely has its place (the Mop Tops Tabs image above is an example of the filter in use) I knew it wasn't going to cut it when it came to a 450mm x 450mm gallery print.

I decided to explore using rubberstamps to achieve the look I was after. I separated the 4 colours which made up the image, allowing for trapping so the colours would overlap nicely when stamped together in different inks. I sent the separations (below) to the Royal Stamp Company to be made into stamps 70mm square. I got the impression that they don't get many requests like this, but they came up with the goods no problem.

Once I got the finished stamps back, and started playing with them, I soon realised that it would be very difficult to achieve consistent colours with the inks available. I decided to stick to stamping them in black ink and then adding colour on the computer after they had been scanned in as hi-res greyscale files. Below you can see how the individual scans came together.

The texture from the stamps varied depending on the paper stock used. After a bit of experimentation I settled on the texture on the right above. While it looked underwhelming on screen, I knew it would hold at a large size and had the feel of the rough offset printing used on matchbox labels.
I wasn't satisfied with the colour depth from the greyscale images with colour applied. To add an extra richness, I created duotones for each colour by making second versions of each of the greyscale scans and adjusting their levels in Photoshop. Above left is the original green colour, below it is the corresponding greyscale image. Beside it is the second version of the greyscale image with the midtones deepened. I applied the lighter yellowy-green colour to this one and overlaid it with the original. On the right is the resulting duotone. I repeated the process for all of the colours. Below is the full image with all of the duotones applied.

The final requirement was a 'paper' base for the full image to sit on. For that I scanned a nicely textured paper with a prominent grain, again in greyscale. I applied a deep yellow colour to it and overlaid it on the image. It was important to have the grain of the paper at the same scale as the texture of the stamps, otherwise it would be very obvious that it had been applied rather than feeling like an integral part of the image.

Larger versions of the individual panels can be viewed here

Prints of Tomorrow Never Knows are available from The Copper House Gallery

The Illustrated Beatles Exhibition is at the Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge, 9th February – 9th March, 2013

Thanks to Peter Donnelly of Illustrators Ireland for organising the exhibition.