A flower in my hand: creating the artwork for Cheval Sombre

Craig Carry designed the sleeves for the two Cheval Sombre albums, Time Waits for No One and Days Go By, as well as the new Althea EP. Here he explains how this stunning artwork came about.

The starting point arrived by chance.

I had made a small screen print edition to coincide with Cheval Sombre’s Wonders Of Nature concert in NYC, and had sent one in the post (having run out of spare sheets of backing paper, I packed it together with an old dud print of mine, in order to keep the poster safe prior to rolling). I was curious (and quite embarrassed) to discover, some time later, that it was indeed this humble, discarded print that seemed to capture Chris’ imagination. Fast-forward six weeks, to April 2020, and Chris wrote asking if “I might let it fly across my next album”. “Yes!” came my immediate, enthusiastic reply. And so begins the journey.

To begin, Chris would make some sketches (as black ink drawings) and send on. From the outset, I excitedly realised this new album would in fact comprise a pair of two new full-length Cheval Sombre albums. Having initially been envisioned as a double LP, these two separate albums would still be very much envisioned as a pair, both inextricably linked together “like two sides of the one coin”. I was amazed at how clear Chris was in his vision for both albums (visually, as well as musically): both LPs were to feature the same bird (iconic, austere, splendidly symbolic) where both LPs were to be differentiated from one another by the directions of flight paths (horizontal and vertical) and overall colour palettes.

Time Waits for No One would be the first of these new albums. The bird flying along a horizontal path (to denote the “sensual journey between birth and death”) atop a colour palette inspired by French Expressionist painter Georges Rouault (marking the “darker, more earthy” tones of the music within). 

Days Go By, the second album of the pair, its music “more angelic, light-filled”, the sketch features the same bird but here it’s journey would be along a vertical flight path (to denote the “heavenly, celestial journey”) while the colour palette would reflect this more heavenly journey too (greens, blues, yellows, white). 

Importantly, the sketches also make note for a “super-imposed cross”, which would become visible once both front covers are superimposed on top of one another… the two birds flying in different directions (its horizontal and vertical journeys) combining to form a left-justified, cross-like image.

What made the prospect of the album artwork so exciting at this stage was the knowledge that both sleeves had to be carefully interrelated as both records were to be “two halves of one whole artwork”. To have two albums across multiple formats paired together like this was an important design consideration to keep closely in mind. 

While Chris shared his precise vision for these albums, we also slowly began trading favourite artwork and designs, imagery conveying an appropriate feel and tone we felt could help form a general direction for the initial visuals to follow. Chris would often mention how he envisioned the artwork to be austere, graceful, elegant. Less is more. We traded lots of images (sleeves, book jackets, gig posters, modernist designers, Russian Constructivism, Art Deco and Art Nouveau posters). The ones that proved most significant for this project would be the book design of Thomas Merton’s Praying The Psalms (1956) and the modernist book jackets by Alvin Lustig for New Directions during the mid 20th century. Graphically, both speak in a particular clarity through simplicity and austerity, traits we both felt would be important for the album art.

While we exchanged initial concept sketches, we would also trade songs. Beginning with Leonard Cohen’s ‘Sisters of Mercy’ and Alice Stuart’s ‘Once I Had a Sweetheart’, these songs would punctuate (and soundtrack) each new update and moment of progress. As we read each other’s words we had a song to soundtrack it. I also had received a mix of Time Waits for No One’s sprawling, majestic title-track to light the way ahead.

The first thumbnail sketches would consist of the pair of birds in flight and their horizontal and vertical flight paths. We sought to solve how both front covers could link together. For a long time, we played around with the idea of having a semi-abstract “bird shadow” element beneath, or, later, a more constructivist and segmented-like background to the front covers, with the aim of adding more points of interest to the background, while also helping to establish the necessary linking device between both front covers. Other ideas included having an additional “Merton-detail”, a miniature, segmented semi-abstract form – alluding to a bird in flight – positioned on the back cover as a focal point. 

The problem-solving began in earnest with establishing the pair of birds. It was important to create these in an almost semi-abstract way, while still representative enough to communicate as emblems of flight. For both birds, the sketches would be continually refined over a lightbox, paring down all positive and negative shapes to get as simplistic and austere an image as possible. The Days Go By bird’s starting point would in fact be the same old dud print I had sent Chris, and we refined this while making its wings a symmetrical image. For the Time Waits for No One bird, a moment of chance arose. Out of the blue, Chris shared a number of photos of a cloud-filled blue sky, the cloud forms appearing to reveal a bird-like shape. I printed this photo and blew it up, loosely sketching the shapes and refining until we were happy to arrive upon the final bird shape. The aim for the bird forms was to arrive at images of elegance, grace, spirit. 

Another key element to the process was establishing the diamond-like “flight paths”. In the early stages, these paths (while keeping their horizontal and vertical orientation) would be more fluid and curvilinear, with nods to a more psychedelic-infused visual. However, we felt this lost the more strict, rigid horizontal/vertical forms, and distracted from the pair of birds. Also, the superimposed pair of flight paths no longer appeared “cross-like”. The solution, then, was to establish a grid for the flight paths, keeping to within the same overall rectangle form for both. Having established this, we could use this as the basis for a grid to aid the layout and set the typography from accordingly.

Once both grids were formed, we decided to run the entire flight path across both front and back covers (Time Waits for No One runs across both covers and spine, while similarly the Days Go By flight path runs seamlessly across both front and back covers). We were so pleased with how these flight paths looked that we decided to use these superimposed flight paths for both sides of the inner sleeves: the credits page with the front cover superimposed view, and the lyrics side containing the superimposed flight paths at their full “flat plan” view, as if seen from a far greater distance.

Colour proved as important to the sleeve as its composition. From the beginning, Chris had been so clear in how he visualised both albums that he had envisaged the colours as being like the paintings of French Expressionist painter Georges Rouault. This wide selection of Rouault-inspired colours differ for both Time Waits for No One (darker, earthier) and Days Go By (brighter, celestial). With examples of Georges Rouault’s thrilling expressionist paintings close to hand, we focused on the areas of thick impasto paint and accents of pure colours found in the shadows of his timeless paintings, such as his masterpiece ‘The Old King’ (1936). The colours we gleamed from Rouault’s paintings were the reds (crimson), oranges, light greens, dark greens, yellows (light/dark), dark blues. We talked about the importance of primary colours, and how the colours could resemble illuminated sunsets, colours at twilight (though still dark).

Importantly, Time Waits for No One’s diamond colours would also include some of Days Go By’s colours: the overlap including the pale and medium yellows and the pale green, as both journeys (mortal and celestial of the twin journeys/albums) were linked together as the one overall journey. For Days Go By, the colours needed again to reflect the album (“lighter, airier, brighter”) and once Chris sent on a photograph of a piece of stained glass from a magazine spread, we knew we had found our second colour palette.

Colour would inform a lot of the subsequent decisions for the album layouts, again highlighting its importance to the themes of both records. The flat plans would be broken up by single background colours across the spine, front and back covers; outer and inner sleeves: Time Waits for No One possessing the darker-blue/navy-blue/turquoise-green across its front cover, spine and back cover; while Days Go By is coloured pale-blue/yellow-green/warm-yellow. Some other sources of inspiration for the use of colour were: the early ’00s sleeves of Type Records; Steve Reich’s Phases retrospective boxset for Nonesuch Records; records by Berlin label Sonic Pieces. 

We were very close to using other typefaces but in the end chose a combination of Edda Black (front cover) and Edda filled (back cover), to tie back to the debut self-titled Cheval Sombre LP (the stained glass-like diamonds in the flight path would also point back to “the diamonds album”). Caslon would provide the choice of typeface for the smaller copy and the text on both inner sleeves. 

A final stroke of good fortune occurred quite late in the day, when the files were being prepared for print. Both albums were printed and manufactured by DMS Vinyl and this final, all-crucial print finish decision was to have the alternate bird and flight path spot varnished on to each front cover. The idea to do so came from Marc and Stuart, the twin designers at Sonic Cathedral. The spot varnish is the final ingredient in helping to bring Chris’ vision from that first ink-drawn sketch to life. Now, both albums are truly (but subtly) tied together as a pair, inextricably linked. As in Chris’s original notes, the superimposed LP covers forming an actual cross would provide a crossroads therefore, an entry point, a third realm”.

The new Althea EP visually follows in the same direction as the two LPs. The record, a 10” with two cover versions and a remix of ‘Are You Ready’, concludes the series.

For more of Craig Carry’s artwork visit his website craigcarry.net