I stumbled upon Paula Rego’s work as I conducted more research in narrative art. I found her work of particular interest because of the way she appropriates the narratives she read in books without being dictated by them. She uses them as a starting point I suppose. She visually rewrites the narratives and turns them into a series of paintings. Looking at her work is similar to reading in between the lines. What is more important is what has been left out rather than told. She accentuates some details and leaves others out. She has no interest in conventional ideas of beauty, or in conventional ideas of art. Art, she says, is ‘disgusting and to be avoided’, by which she probably means do not play it safe and sterile. What interests her is ‘the beautiful grotesque’.
I am particularly interested in the body of works that reference fairy tales. She doesn’t shy away from showing the dark aspects of these tales. For instance, in Little Red Riding Hood, the themes of ambiguity and violence are present just as they are in the tale itself.
At the end of the tale, Little Red Riding Hood’s innocence dies with her as she is eaten by the wolf. Some theoreticians such as Zack Zipes, an expert on Brothers Grimm, argued that the ending was a sexual act symbolising the chaos of nature. The Brother Grimm tales are still very relevant since we are still attracted to them today. They deal with essential human struggles which are universal and sadly all too common. Most fairy tales are dark because they deal with traumatic incidents that have happened in real life. They can be whimsical despite the dark overtone but they are satisfying because they give the readers a catharsis that helps him overcome whatever it is he s dealing with. I am of course looking at this from an adult’s point of view. A child may not be aware of the undertone especially since there has been many different versions of fairy tales. Some have been turned as a cautionary story warning children to behave and listen to their parents. So in the case of LIttle Red Riding Hood, if she had listened and never left the path, nothing bad would have happened to her.
Contemporary filmmakers and writers, however, reinvent earliest versions of the tale by indulging in the very dark symbolism and the theme of sexual awakening. I am thinking of “Red Riding Hood” written by David Johnson which Catherine Hardwicke directed. Here a werewolf is introduced in medieval times.
Rego’swork illustrates fully the Portuguese proverb :”Whoever tells a story adds a facet.” As a painter, printmaker and collage artist, her style moved away from loose lines to stronger ones. Rego was influenced by surrealism and in particular by the work of Joan Miro. She is in the tradition of automatic drawings whereby the artist disengages the conscious mind from the process of making, allowing the unconscious to direct the image making. But no matter what, her work has always a strong narrative element in place.
My thinking process
Her approach is appealing as I have never adopted this process before. I am more of a planner. I suppose I take a lot of time planning in my head and jolting things down before actually grabbing a paintbrush. I wouldn’t have the confidence of tackling a blank canvas (and I like to paint big) without the initial thought process. I then have the feeling I anticipated as many problems of composition, theme …as possible before new ones arise as I go along. It leaves free to then grow the work organically directly on the canvas.
I think best when I take my dog for a walk. This is when my problem solving happens. Rain or shine, I brave the element because it is the only way I can declutter the mess in my brain. And also it is really healthy so I kill two birds with one stone.
For my characters, I take a very similar approach. I become an actor. I act the scene. I take the pose. For Max and Misty, being animals, it could have been a bit more tricky but it wasn’t since I turned their personalities into tantrum toddlers. I had to worry about accurate anatomy and realistic situations. I couldn’t have had Max in a tree but Misty could. Sometimes, it is like working backwards. Where do I need to get to and how can I get there?
For my paintings, I adopt the same approach. I will think about what I want to say and how I want people to perceive it. Whether they will or not is actually neither here nor there. I sketch my characters directly on the canvas. I refine them in my sketchbook where, like a magpie I gathered all my references. Very often, the composition has been changed over and over so maybe I should adapt a different approach.
Like Rego, I am fascinated by stories and fairy tales. My favourite book of all times is ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll.For the painting below, I wanted to have a medley of characters and different scenes from the book and one monochromatic painting. As I went along, I had to leave a lot of characters out and decided to add a splash of red. This led me to think of a series of paintings in different colours and the symbol of each colour…Another project in progress.
It is some time a good idea to walk away (literally) from your own work, look at others and interact with fellow artists.
I am passionate about picture books! I am not sure how many I own but it is always a joy to look at the artwork and listen to the words rolling into songs almost. I treasure them. I have a few favourites. Shh.
It seems that illustrators kept a closer likeness before than they do now even though Clifford is a huge red dog…
Another point that seems also obvious is that the dogs and cats look rounder when the books are targeted for a younger age group.
How did fine artists painted them? I had never thought about the difference before. Painters have to worry about accuracy and likeness as shown here.
Contemporary artists have moved away from portraits and add another dimension to the animals that are so familiar to us as shown below.
Cat Art Show Los Angeles, a two-weekend, four-day group exhibition beginning Jan. 25, which promises “an examination of the psychology, inspiration and physical impact of cats in our lives.”
And it goes on and on. When can one say that’s it. I have my character. I can’t help feeling I need to get on with the project at hand even though deep down I am not always satisfied with the outcome and I know that with more time I will get it right, or at least as right as I can make it.
But I have a schedule and I need to move the project along. Next step colouring and poses. Putting them in real situations will also allow to cut word count. My intention is for the images to do most of the talking.
A good story must be character-led. A picture book has usually a main protagonist sometimes two as in my story. I see my characters as actors who must physically embody the poses, movements and emotions needed to tell the story of two best friends who fall out over a misunderstanding and realise they miss each other terribly. The narrative runs true for a pre-school child who can easily have tantrums with his best friend over anything if he/she doesn’t get her way. The trick is to make it interesting enough for the child to want to read on and see what next.
In order to achieve this the characters must be rounded and three dimensional. They must have faults too. Little Miss Perfect would be boring and totally unrealistic if she was to behave the same way from beginning to end. For Max and Misty I designed a list of words that describe them emotionally. I also designed their bedroom as characters are never isolated from their settings. I also felt a bedroom shows a lot about a character’s personality.
This approach apart from designing the bedroom in collage didn’t depart too much from the way I begin a storytelling. Dogs come more naturally as I grew up with one and I now have a lovely yellow labrador. Whereas cats are more of a challenge as I have never had any. I had to study their anatomy more, their skeleton and their personality etc..I then looked at lot of pictures of cats and dogs and watch youtube videos to understand how they move.
Another problem is I wasnt happy with the name of my cat. I kept changing it. It started with Cleo, then Coco, then Ernest to Misty for which I settled. Max and Misty had a nice ring. I liked the alliteration and the contrast between a one and a two syllable name.
Still, it took a lot more sketches for Misty than for Max. I started in pencil but because I kept rubbing out, I decided to use pen and ink instead. I had a few happy accidents that boosted my confidence.
Once I was happy with their shape, their colouring, I put them in situation alone and then together.
Capturing the essence of Max and Misty proved a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. Keeping them looking the same on every page was even harder. Keep the same outline, the same eyes, the same number of whiskers, the same rounded ears, the same floppy ears, think of the way the fur moves etc…I also studied children’s in the park, in the street to look at their body language, their expressions. I even looked at myself in the mirror for expressions. I gave Max a red collar to make him straight away recognisable. To identify him from the Wild beasts, Sendak had given a wolf suit to his main character Max (I also called my puppy Max for this reason and my dog is also called Max). I gave Misty white paws and the tip of her tail is white.
Finally, Max and Misty had to be equal. They are given the same number of lines, the same number of pages, they both had to be likeable and they both have to change in their own right. And of course, I didn’t want any hidden patronising message. This story could happen to real children who fall out and make up as friendship prevails.
I was then able to draw the roughs, create a new storyboard, import them in inDesign to construct a dummy book. This in turn gave me a tool to evaluate the layout and the composition.
I decided that the some of the events had to be changed to make the misunderstanding clearer between the two friends. On Misty;s side of the story, Max appeared to big on the page compared to her etc…. The actions didn’t show her personality enough. Misty is calmer and tidier. She had to be seen brushing her teeths!
It is at this point that I added the text… a whole new ballgame!
I touched on the conventions of the picture book genre and already alerted of my intention of breading some of these rules.
In a nutshell, I am exploring the idea of having a double sided book that will tell the same story from each character’s point of view and the resolution in the middle of the book! I felt the idea was challenging and exciting to keep me going for months. I must confess that I have never seen it done before and maybe there is a reason for it. I will have to find out if such books exist.
The second thing I decided to change was my working process. And because I am used to writing the text first, I had decided to change my working process to develop a more visual way of thinking. I therefore sketched characters first as I also decided to have a character led story as I usually start with a plot and then create characters to inhabit my world.
Once I had decided my characters would be two animals, the logical step was to choose them. Initially I settled for a bear and a penguin. Everyt ime I drew them, I felt I was too influenced by Oliver Jeffers and Catherine Rayner’s styles, who both created books with the animals. So much so that I had to give them up and chose something that would enable me artistic freedom and I elected a dog and a cat.
I sketched the dog easily and chose his name Max very easily too. I even drew him from life (which made things a lot easier) and from pictures when he was a puppy. I also studied the anatomy of dogs to include some realistic features. Moving on to the cat was trickier. I do not have one and every time I went to my neighbour’s to draw her from life, I was sneezing away and discovered my allergy was worse than I thought. I had to study cats a lot more to understand their temperament too. I struggled a lot and couldn’t settle for a name either.
I therefore decided that to change my mind on one decision I had made earlier might do the trick. I wrote the story in full. Straight into 12 spreads even though I knew I would alter the format.Self editing would have to be done later to cut the 800 to about 500 words. Nevertheless, having the story in words led to thumbnail sketches .
Putting them in a storyboard format makes it more obvious to evaluate what works and what doesn’t. My story had subplots that made me cram sequences in. It was so confusing that instead of writing less I would have to write more. I would need to choose what to leave out and what to show in images more carefully. But the biggest problem was I didn’t have enough room to expand on each character. Let me explain. A picture book has 12 double page spread or 16 for longer ones and tell a story from beginning to end. In my case, I had 6 double spread for each of my character, an overcomplicated story or stories even.
I added 2 more double page spreads for each which gave a lot more scope to understand who they were and what they were doing.I also analysed the books of authors illustrators that I liked and tried to understand what worked or what didn’t. I annotated as if I had to write an essay about them. I split the images from the text as well. It became apparent that the more simple the books were, the more appealing they were. To get a similar result was going to take a lot more planning.
So far, I have looked at Maurice Sendak and Oliver Jeffers and definitely got a sense there is more to picture books than meet the eye.
I am also very fortunate as I had the chance to meet some artists at conferences and seminars. Last year I attended a workshop with the very successful and talented author/illustrator Catherine Rayner at the SCBWI conference. (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).
The workshop was fun and extremely productive. We worked as a team and in a day had to come up with plot and characters on a given theme. We also had to imagine the wordless story that Catherine had illustrated and constructed as a dummy book. For both assignments, we all came up with different stories and different angles. For me, this epitomizes the versatility of the picture book genre even though more often than not it follows a set of rules as to the number of pages, the layout and the word count. I will come back to this later as I do not intent to follow any rules – the cornerstone of my final project.
Meeting a professional and spending the day with them is worth months of art school in my eyes. When they are as generous and bubbly as Catharine, they share a lot of their experience and tips. It also must be incredibly lovely to step out of the studio and meet like minded people, who share your passion for books!
Catherine described a daily routine as being different every day depending on the project she works on. Similarly, each and every one of her books started in a slightly different way. But it is soon obvious that the artist always starts with the main character for whom she devises a narrative. She would start drawing him/her ( they are all animals) in an obsessive way. For her first book, she was still a student and loved drawing tigers. She went to the zoo (many many times) to draw them from life. She also names them. In this case, Augustus was not smiling (it is hard to draw a smiling tiger) so he had to find his smile. It is as if the character she creates whispers the story in her ear.
Sylvia was lonely and wanted a friend.
Iris and Isaac fell out …
And Abigail…well you will have to find out for yourself!
Rayner loves working with scale and cropping details off the page – playing with angles and viewpoints. The visual effect is heightened and seems to have happened by magic. It is at this point that storyboarding comes handy to check what works and what doesn’t at a glance. I would sum up storyboarding as mapping the whole story.
Rayner’s colour palette is subtle. I was convinced she used watercolour but in fact she uses acrylic inks, which make the artwork really vivid. I will definitely experiment with this medium.
Another one to experiment with Dr Ph Martin watercolour ink which is used by the renowned illustrator Emma Chichester Clark, who studied at RCA with Quinten Blake and Michael Foreman. She writes her books, illustrates for authors such as Michael Morpurgo, Martin Waddell, and also illustrated for magazines…
During the conference last November, I also met Alexis Deacon, one the ten best illustrators selected by Booktrust. Beegu is a story about being different and not belonging so Deacon played on the contrast of colours: a yellow alien on a grey background (representing the unwelcoming world Beegu finds himself in.) Scale is also extremely important and everything is looked at through a child’s point of view. The sequencing below shows how effective Deacon conveys Beegu’s loneliness with almost no word!
Last year I also attended a picture book retreat run by Bridget Streven Marzo and Anne Marie Perks. Again I met extremely talented writers and artists. Helen Stephens was one of them. She wrote and illustrated How to hide a lion, and shared with us the process of creating Fleabag. Her stories are also character driven. I will write about character development in another post.
Looking through all these talented artists’ wonderful sketchbooks highlighted how much planning and work happened behind the scene for just one book even though the stories appeared to flow simply and be totally accessible for a child to enter a world other than his own. To be a successful experience, the world has to become accessible and believable from the first page.
What makes a picture book different from any other narrative art is the word ‘book’ itself. When a book is put down on a shelf, its world is closed off. But when you open it, the magic starts again and each page turn offers a different space or time. It can even happen in strips like in comic books or in vignettes. As the child reads on, the whole story builds up to a satisfying resolution. Well this is the plan as ideas are still brewing as we speak.
The few examples I have looked here at here such as the scale, the colour palette, the sequencing are things I intend to draw inspiration from for my own story.
As the project is ticking along, I can’t help thinking about the exhibition and the potential display of my book. As my tutors have suggested there are many ways of thinking about a book, the other avenue is book art .
Traditionally books sit on shelves and are only taken out when we want to read them. They can be more than this. Children’s bookshelves are packed with novelty books filled with pop ups, flaps, folded double pages, cut outs…
This led me to experiment with the possibilities that paper offers as a medium. Yesterday, I was very fortunate to go to a workshop with Andy Singleton and Richard Sweeney at the Victor Felix Gallery in London. It was an exciting day full of cutting and folding.
Andy and Richard demonstrating techniques
Andy’s work: explores the natural and manmade world through intricate paper cuttings, paper sculpture and hand drawn illustrations. Earlier this year, Andy had a paper installation at the Victoria Revealed exhibition at Kensington Palace. His work was displayed in the cabinet with Queen Victoria’s original wedding dress!
And yesterday we were lucky to see some of his smaller scale work that enabled us to admire the intricacy ofAndy’s paper cutting:
Cut outs could become a subproject and be part of the display. In my case, I would cut a dog and a cat. I could also shorten the story or create a parallel narrative as if the two characters of my picture books were intended for a series. Otherwise, I could maybe create separate panels that could be displayed on the wall. The possibilities seem endless but time will dictate was is realistic or not…
We started the workshop with cutting techniques.
Cutting a template:
Cutting a continuous line drawing:
Cutting blind i.e. creating a picture as one goes along – here I decided on a tree.
For it to be more successful, I would need to use a reference for the bark and the foliage.
In the afternoon, we moved on to paper folding.
Richard’s work: concentrates on the manipulation of paper to create sculptures in their own right. He combines disciplines such as 3D design, drawing, and craft. Whilst he uses computer aided design too, he still maintains a hand on approach and maximises the properties of paper.
It was then up to us to experiment with basic techniques. We started with different types of pleats: diamond pleats and fan pleats
Paper folded at 45 degree angle to create a change of direction of folds
We moved on to scoring the paper with a biro or the xacto blade itself and combine with with the folds described above:
Finally, we cut triangle modules that can be combined with the pleats to make more complex structures
….. such as Richard’s magnificent work. (If only!)
It was a wonderful experience. I was not aware that such intricate and gigantic sculptures could be achieved with paper and paper only.
The quality of the paper is key. To assemble Richard uses watercolour paper that he sprays and pegs together until it is dry.
Many hours of diligent practice would be necessary to achieve only the smallest of their work. Maybe knowledge in physics and aerodynamics? Who knows?
Anyhow, for the final project, I plan to incorporate some of the cut outs for a mini book and possibly explore the possibilities of pop ups.