Until now, I had always thought I would display my final outcome, a fully written and illustrated picture book and a poster of some of the final artwork. But as the project evolved, I have been thinking of books as an art form too. I guess being a Fine Art student, it was inevitable that my research would lead me in this direction. Also with my own work, I always think that books should live elsewhere than on the shelves too. I know for most of us, they resonate long after we read them. But for children, who allegedly have a smaller attention span, I think it is essential that they are reminded of their favourite story visually thanks to a painting or a sculpture.
This is how I came to the idea of developing a second book that would be more sculptural with no word. I would pick some elements of the various scenes of the first completed book and let the viewer decide on what the story might be. I elected to create a tunnel book which enabled me to have three scenes starting with my two characters being miserable and alone. the second layer gives clues as to what may have happened and the last one they meet up again. No names, No words. Just buildings and trees rising along the sides and above framing the story.
My third idea was triggered by my love for books and looking at the amazing work done by book artists. I decided to have a box carved into a book full of my two characters secrets. No names. No words. No stories but the premise of one. It is up to the viewer to decide.
In essence, all three books are sculptural. As we speak, I am in the process of making a pop up scene that will bring the story to its resolution. Therefore even the 2D platform has turned into a 3D one. I do not like boundaries and being contained in boxes: painter vs sculptor – fine artists vs illustrators – writers vs storytellers. In this day and age, pluralism has begun to become the norm. The more we think outside the box, the more interesting we become.
I am planning to display the three items on a shelf and have an A1 poster above giving the opening line of my story and two main scenes. I am not sure what space I have been allocated, but I hope that my display will be colourful enough to be inviting and intriguing.
When I come to installing my work, I might change the order of the books or even have more than one shelf to display each item separately. It will very much depend where it sits in the room and what is on either side of my work too. I will find out nearer the time.
Now that the story has been written and the final artwork has been completed, I have the task to scan everything and find out whether all the careful planning is coming to fruition. For this I am using inDesign….for the very first time!
The objective will be twofold: to place the artwork in 5 signatures and type the text with the type font I selected as well as making the most use of what inDesign has to offer to make my text curve, climb, skip …just as my characters are doing. From inception I very much wanted to treat the text as illustration in the same manner as Sara Fanelli or Lauren Child. Art and text are there to complement each other in meaning but also aesthetically.
I also intended on the text mirroring the mood and emotions through scale and spacing. If I had kept to Microsoft Word, I would have had to make do with fewer possibilities and this is why despite the tight deadline, I have endeavoured to tackle a new software. Again, I apply the same process as for the whole book where less is more. I was careful not to overdo it so that the meaning does not get lost in the multitudes of effects. For most part, the text remained straight and sat above or below an image. The text curled and swirled only when necessary: a change of pace, a turning point in the story.
I also made the decision to have two fonts: one for each character since both stories are read from each point of view. It is not distracting but it adds another layer and I hope that the font will further illustrate each character’s personality: Max is more bouncy and Misty is calmer. Another crucial decision was to leave the font black. I had thought f colour coding it as Max’s things are blue and Misty’s are red but after careful consideration, I thought it would have been overkill and would have defeated the object. Instead, I colour coded the tile and created Max’ name in bones and Misty’s in fishbones. It took a few attempts to get the right size and the spacing regular. And even when I thought that I had achieved this in the lightbox, I hadn’t completely once I had painted over with blue and red watercolour paint. I therefore had to clean the blemishes in Photoshop. I had a basic knowledge of the latter software but now I have leant a whole new set of tools. For example, the clone stamp has proved particularly useful for importing an image over a background whereas the rubber even the soft rubber left some soft edges. I intend to carry on learning more techniques on Photoshop and inDesign before tackling Illustrator once the course is over.
Overall I am pleased with the result and my learning curve but it is far from perfect. But with more time, it would have become easier and quicker to move from tool to tool proficiently and to gauge effectively what worked or not instead of having to print even spread to check it out. I intend to carry on working on the book to improve it further.
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.
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.
I ‘ve wanted to get to the final project for so long that I find myself intimidated by the task at hand now. I feel more research is necessary before indulging into the creation of my picture book. Having looked at Maurice Sendak’s masterpiece more closely made me realise even more that planning is crucial for a successful outcome. I therefore decided to analyse the work of other successful and more contemporary author/illustrators whose work resonates for various reasons.
It is one thing liking a book and remembering it long after you’ve read it. It is another to understand why this is the case. In some ways, the analysis takes the magic out of the subconscious experience. I guess it is the same process whenever you are trying to create: artists look at old masters, film producers analyse classic movies, writers analyse books…
First of all, I am invariably coming back to Oliver Jeffers whose style appeals to me for its simplicity and its depth. For the purpose of this blog, I will first of all focus on Lost and Found.
Of particular interest is the use of space – more specifically the negative space that informs the reader on the character’s emotions although the boy’s face itself is devoid of expression. The positioning of a strong horizon line in his landscapes is equally important as the vignettes floating on a white page to give us a breather. The reasons why it works are twofold: the variety between the settings and layout from page to page and the focus on the main character makes us care for his plea more and more – the boy has to succeed in making the penguin happy / once he realised he didn’t do the right thing, he has to find the penguin no matter what!
Film effect: the camera is zooming on the boy as we are sharing his doubt about his decision
The interaction between the boy and the penguin is kept to a trip to the South pole with a boy telling stories and the penguin listening quietly, followed by an accolade as they part and go their separate way. This adventure is on two colourful double spreads — as if it is just the two of them in the world – mimicking the centrality of a child in the world. Jeffers makes us look at the world through the boy’s eyes. What else matters? Nothing. But even though not much happens and not much is said (well nothing by the penguin actually), many emotions are shared by the two characters and conveyed to the audience: sadness, doing your best to make a friend happy and loneliness that follows the loss of a friend.
A double spread for a stormy adventure:
Simultaneously, the simplicity of the cartoon looking drawings, almost childlike, makes it accessible to a child himself. The boy is a blob with a featureless face and a very prominent nose. His legs are two sticks and footless. The penguin and the boys are lost in a gigantic landscape painted with soft watercolours and a limited palette of blues and green. The scale of their cold surrounding makes their loneliness and fragility believable and makes us care for them. The ‘boys books’ as Jeffers refers to them, namely How to catch a star, Lost and Found, Up and Down, The way back home, have been a very successful series turned into pop up books, apps or short animations proving that if you respect your audience and that you do not dumb down, everything is possible. Jeffers also agrees that ‘children are smarter than we give them credit for’ and ‘I totally avoid forced content, thinly veiled morals, anything preachy or funny for the sake of it.’ (Brazell, 2011:118)
While it deals with sadness or loneliness at times, the illustrations are full of little and hilarious details that lift the whole story like a mother’s hug. The stories are uplifting and make everything possible. This is why Jeffers’ books are so popular.
Like a pantomime:
The more unbelievable, the better:
Jeffers constantly changes and innovates. For instance, he is passionate about the relationship between text and image and has a background in graphic design and visual communication. He plays and experiments with typography and treats it as illustration itself. He seems to find routes that connect words and pictures going through one medium to another. A talented artist will create a synergy. In Jeffers The Great Paper Caper, an environmental whodunit, the credit on the opening page is designed as a tree. The text emulates the type of an old typewriter used by detectives to type their report. Jeffers is totally aware of how just a few words and the choice of the typeface can totally change the meaning of a picture.
In the Incredible book eating boy, Henry’s story is wittily told visually and textually. He devours books (the right hand side corner of the back cover has been nibbled too) and acquires knowledge but invariably gets very sick and has to read books instead. The artwork combines collage with drawings onto pages from ancient fly-blown books. The paint used is acrylics and Dulux homepaint. The background is made of lined, square and graph paper as settings for classroom.
Overall, Jeffers can easily be identified as contemporary conceptual artists. His style cannot be classified because he uses a wide range of media and succeeds to convey a remarkable breadth of emotions with very few details and lots of white space in a more linear narrative.
Jeffers has contributed to enhance children’s reading experience and exploration of the world with a unique and innovative approach.