Assignment 1: Invisible Cities: Octavia

TASK: Produce an illustration that visually responds to the following extract, reflecting its visual depth either by applying the principles of perspective or throwing out the rule book to create an image with its own visual logic.


If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.

This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope-ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clotheshangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable-cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.

Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.

(Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities.)

1: Research and concept map

About Invisible Cities

A free pdf is available also on the Internet:

The book as a whole explores imagination and the imaginable through the descriptions of cities by the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo. The Travels of Marco Polo, Polo’s travel diary depicting his purported journey across Asia and in Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Empire) China, written in the 13th century, shares with Invisible Cities the brief, often fantastic accounts of the cities Polo claimed to have visited, accompanied by descriptions of the city’s inhabitants, notable imports and exports, and whatever interesting tales Polo had heard about the region.

Calvino’s book is framed as a conversation between the aging and busy emperor Kublai Khan, who constantly has merchants coming to describe the state of his expanding and vast empire, and Polo. The majority of the book consists of brief prose poems describing 55 cities, apparently narrated by Polo. The cities are divided into eleven thematic groups of five each: Cities & Memory; Cities & Desire; Cities & Signs; Thin Cities; Trading Cities; Cities & Eyes; Cities & Names; Cities & the Dead; Cities & the Sky; Continuous Cities; Hidden Cities. Short dialogues between the two characters are interspersed every five to ten cities and are used to discuss various ideas presented by the cities on a wide range of topics including linguistics and human nature. The interludes between Khan and Polo form a framing device that plays with the natural complexity of language and stories.

The book has been the basis for various architecture projects, and also an opera (see end of this page).

Concept Map

I first read the whole passage and the book Invisible Cities. Then I annotated the passage, highlighting what I saw as the key words/elements (see above) and did a concept map to start to visualise these.

There was a clear polarity between the certain looming doom towering over the fragility of people scurrying about their business along catwalks and chains all stickily ensnares in a spider’s web that could break at any moment.

Key concepts:

  • spider’s web/net
  • people living suspended
  • looking down into the void between two steep mountains
  • ladder and foot with broken struts
  • uncertainty, fragility, doomed


A number of artists and illustrators came to mind (to be written up still):

MC Escher‘s impossible perspectives and Tower of Babel whose exhibition I had just seen at the Dulwich Gallery

Geoff Grandfield‘s bold and exaggerated perspective with his tiny people and hidden meanings

Dore’s etchings of Dante’s Inferno

People and Power introduction (See below)

Giacometti’s skeletal people and use of pencil on oil from the recent exhibition at National Portrait Gellery

Chinese cityscapes with lots of people scurrying around their business while the emperor (powerful doom) surveys the grand scene.

Henry Moore’s skeletal people

Wyndham Lewis futurist mechanical cities.

2: Composition and collage exploration

Thumbnails on iPad

Based on these initial thoughts I did some sketches in Procreate on my iPad to try and capture some different ideas and composition.

I could have further developed these as they were in graphite and/or charcoal and/or gouache/ink. Drawing on for example Escher. But I really wanted to explore materials further, and particularly perspective before proceeding. With the intention of a digital layering approach more like that in Hybrids.

Into the Abyss: Explorations of Perspective in Rotterdam

On a holiday to Rotterdam we stayed in a tall apartment building that had opportunities for sketching the people below as the hurried about their Christmas shopping.

It was however extremely cold and often rainy and windy, so I could not spend too long out on the balcony and took many photographs. When I got home I collaged these into concept ideas of city life – and lots of people living in honeycomb cells rushing around along walkways without communicating to each other.

The Spiders Web: looking through and down even further –  London Eye

Although the work in Rotterdam explored cities, it did not really look ideas of Spider’s web and the sort of entanglement or dramatic perspective looking through and down that I was aiming for – partly with the People and Power sequence in my head. Our son had bought us tickets for the London Eye and I took that opportunity to take lots of photographs from different angles (no time to get enough sketches though maybe next time). Again I collaged these in my sketchbook to explore further compositional possibilities. I particularly liked the tangle in collage 2, the crazy buildings in collage 5 and the extreme contrast in scale in collage 6.

I also tried them in black and white in Lightroom.

The Really Deep Abyss: CN Tower Toronto

I then remembered also the glass floor in the really tall CN tower looking directly down and found these two photos. I thought these might be very interesting as part of the framework for the abyss. I converted them to black and white and increased the contrast – I really liked the downward curve of the white pillar in the second image.

I also did some Internet searches on precipices, abyss and crevass and pasted these in my sketchbook for reference and drawing.


3: Media Experiments

Again I could possibly have done a large drawing or print like Dore’s etchings. But I do not currently have enough drawing skill to draw people from above – though I am practising. An alternative would have been to refine the collages to something more pared down like Geoff Grandfield. But I did not feel this really made the best of what I had learned earlier in the course in for example the Hybrids. So I decided to do some more texture experiments that could be part of a perspective treatment like Grandfield’s but have greater textural expression of the concepts in the passage.

The Spider’s Web

So far I had looked at perspective, walkways and depth. But what about the fragile spider’s web?

I also wanted some texturing for the abyss.  I first experimented with paint – making some black acrylic pages in my sketchbook and incising lines in the acrylic with a credit card while it was still wet. I found that using different speeds and strength of movement at different times in the drying cycle gave different types of line. Interestingly when I photographed these to put in to the computer image, the light on the shiny paint also had different effects from the different images.

But these paintings were fairly static flat on webs. I thought I would need to make these more interesting, also for things like the hammocks. We had some old spider’s webs in our bathroom – they catch the mosquitoes! I photographed these from different angles to get some ideas.

I also did some Internet searches on hammocks, and frayed rope and pasted these in my sketchbook for reference and drawing.


At this stage I had a number of layers to my image from the collages, photos and spiders webs.

But what about the ensnaring stickiness and the people? Glue Drawings

I was still wondering what to do about the people. Also the idea of dark Giacometti and Moore doom and mystery was lacking. As was the sticky ensnaring quality. I had been noticing some interesting effects of drippy PVA glue as I had been doing the collages and thought that for fun it might be interesting to explore the idea of stickiness with that. These glue drawings, overlaid with graphite, charcoal or black acrylic and white chalk turned out to be very much more interesting as a technique than I had anticipated. It was possible to use a water brush or just scratch to take the black off the white underlying glue to get different types of tonal effects. Then bring these out further in Photoshop.

See full Post on Glue Drawings

I cropped and selected quite a few of these and placed them into the montage to see what they might look like. There were many possibilities, but I did not want things to get too messy. I finally selected narrowed my selection down to just a few below.

Developing the final image

First black and white version

The first version of the final image sent to my tutor was a black and white montage in Photoshop combining the various elements.

I was quite please with this image – I like the mythical quality of the glue drawings and the insignia at the top. I also like the swirling downwards spirals and think this has achieved depth. The use of black around the edges and blue towards the bottom for aerial perspective is also deliberate. But

  • Parts of it are too dark. For example the diagonal rope hand rail could be masked better so that there are gaps between the ropes.
  • I feel also maybe there could be a frayed rope or broken step to really give the sense of impending disaster. For example exaggerate the gap of the second walkway rung from bottom left.
  • It might be good to print out and draw on some people on the top left triangle space.
  • And add some faint textured netting on the white columns.
  • I like the two glue drawings bottom right, but maybe they could be better linked into some sort of narrative. For example the people at the bottom in the blue colour could maybe be even smaller and more clearly under the gondolas on top.

It is also too complicated. I also wanted the underlying structure to be clearer, with any additions as texture. The file is quite sensitive to any changes because of the masking and different blend modes. So I decided to do this after getting some feedback and a gap.

Exploring further

As I prepared for final assessment I developed this image further into a range of different interpretations. Unfortunately the original large Photoshop layer file had become corrupted. So I used the flattened tiff file and experimented in Lightroom with:

  • changing colours (suggested by my tutor) through using duotone to produce different moods. Only slight alterations in warmth and saturation or tonal contrast between highlight and shadow colours can produce very different moods.
  • cropping and using lens distortion to accentuate specific features suggested by the colours and tones used
  • differing exposure, contrast, shadow highlight balance and clarity to further bring out different features depending on the relative tonal values of different colours
  • adding vignettes both dark and light to focus attention, or provide some tension and subtlety
  • haze/dehaze to reduce black and produce clouds

In making my final selection, I was looking for clarity, atmospheric colour and dynamic composition.

I narrowed my selection to 2 main images. Although I like the dynamic composition of the purple one, I feel that the darker image, with the boat (Charon??) and the deeper plunge of perspective more closely echoed the main concepts I had.

Some further possibilities to explore

I found this assignment really inspiring and would like at some point to come back to it, and maybe do a series for different cities.

1: Drawing/etching/drypoint inspired by Dante’s inferno and Dore etchings

When my drawing and drypoint/etching skills are high enough I would like to attempt a large drawing and/or print poster. This could also use some experiments I did not incorporate into the assignment piece above.

Mesh drawings  see post and also work with netting for my Book Design course.

Photomontage black and white to draw on

2: 3D from Alexander Calder and Mariana Brancovic

I have also become increasingly interested in incorporating 3D sculpture in various ways into my workflow or as a form of illustration in its own right.

For my Book Design course I looked at Kirigami for an altered/artist’s book.

I also became very inspired by the wire constructions and mobile sculptures of Alexander Calder at the recent exhibition at Tate Modern, and the rope sculptures of Brankovich.

But I need to develop these 3D skills first.

Further Inspiration: You Tube

People and Power

I found some video interpretations from a Search on You Tube using 3D and architecture that could give some further ideas.

Invisible Cities (and in particular the chapters about Isidora, Armilla, and Adelma), is also he basis for an opera by composer Christopher Cerrone, first produced by The Industry in October 2013 as an experimental production atUnion Station in Los Angeles. In this site-specific production directed by Yuval Sharon, the performers, including eleven musicians, eight singers, and eight dancers, were located in (or moved through) different parts of the train station, while the station remained open and operating as usual. The performance could be heard by about 200 audience members, who wore wireless headphones and were allowed to move through the station at will.

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