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.