Cristina Bencina wins 2023 Folio Book Illustration Award

The Colorado-based digital artist won this year’s prize with her ominous, intricate illustration based on Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The Fliers of Gy

Illustration by Cristina Bencina showing a darkened background filled with grey trees, and an angelic figure flying upside down, with orange flames at the top of the illustration
© Cristina Bencina

Cristina Bencina has been announced as the winner of the Folio Book Illustration Award, which was launched last year by the Folio Society to mark its 75th anniversary.

The brief this year was to create an illustrated interpretation of Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The Fliers of Gy. It appeared in her short story collection Changing Planes, published in 2003, which takes readers into a series of unique worlds. The Fliers of Gy focuses on a plane inhabited by feathered beings, who once had wings and the ability to fly. As time went by, wings only appeared in rare cases, and came to be seen as an affliction.

The winner was chosen by a judging panel that included the late author’s son, Theo Downes-Le Guin, and the winner of the inaugural prize in 2022, Evangeline Gallagher. The panel also named five runners up: Den Owen, Jens Maria Weber, Merran Coleman, Nate Sweitzer, and Thomas Barclay. Over 730 illustrators from 58 countries entered this year’s competition.

Bencina, who was born on Long Island and is now based Aurora, Colorado, studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Her line art illustrations are created digitally, though she combines them with hand-made textures, such as watercolour. “Texture is so important and adds an organic feeling to the artwork, which is especially important for digital artwork,” she tells CR.

Her digital illustration for The Fliers of Gy shows a feathered figure upside down, its wings unfurling and shedding feathers. The base palette is overwhelmingly dark and shadowy, bar the silvery being at its centre and the orange flames raging overhead. The trees lining the image are subtly interspersed with the arrows raining from above, gradually revealing the gravity of the scene.

After reading the story carefully, Bencina started by thinking about the mood, atmosphere, and colours that she felt reflected it. “I chose this scene in the story because it was most striking to me as a reader. Originally my lines were black, but I had an idea of inverting the whole image (white lines on black canvas) and I loved it instantly. I thought about how the painting should feel. I wanted the inverted white lines to feel like shock or pain – like she has been struck by arrows and her soul has left her body. I added falling feathers around her for chaos,” she explains.

“I thought of the rest of the piece, that it would be interesting to have a downwards perspective. I wanted to have the arrows and treetops follow the same path to the vanishing point on top. I love repeating elements, and the triangular treetops mimicking the arrowheads throughout the painting.” She added the flames towards the end of the process – an element of the illustration that particularly impressed the judges.

Theo Downes-Le Guin commented: “The contrast between the dark values of the illustration and that bright punctuation of fire at the top was absolutely entrancing.”

Elsewhere, fellow judge and a Folio art director Raquel Leis Allion noted that “the pop of colour from the flames at the top of the mountain and the dark landscape guide your eye around the image. Cristina has captured the sense of falling perfectly.”;