This is it! Here’s my display for the exhibition installed at last! Less is more…
I had planned to display the other two pieces: the book carved into a box filled with Max and Misty’s Did you know? cards and objects memorabilia as well as the wordless tunnel book. All three books have the same narrative in a different format.This is this aspect that fascinated me and I sought to explore.
However, after having a conversation with my tutors, we decided that it may be distracting from the main book itself and its innovative format. (You have to flip the book over to read both sides of the story and the resolution is in the middle). Since the book’s ending has a 3D element inside it in the form of a pop up, I didn’t mind too much. Instead, they recommended I showcased the pop up but I chose not to. It is after all the resolution of the book and readers don’t start a book by its ending. So I will let the visitor pick the bookt up (with white cotton gloves please) and discover the surprise inside it.
Creating the book has been a roller coaster. I had to wear so many hats: author, illustrator, graphic designer, bookbinder, printer and all that with some non existent skills.
I had to learn: handling watercolour since I usually paint with oils and acrylics – manipulating my artwork in Photoshop: very different from playing with special effects. I especially had to master how to hide blemishes and enhance colour so that it looks good and real and still hand painted. I am very pleased to have retained this element. It was crucial for me.
I had to discover InDesign for the layout of my book from scratch. I have definitely only scratched the surface here.
I had to think about typeface and created my own. And even though it looks amateurish I am particularly pleased with the tile because it is mine and it enhances the meaning of the book.
I had to learn how to bind a book and needless to say I am very unskilled with a needle. Preparation (flattening your signatures before hand) and preparation are key. In the end, I had to give up the idea of the hard cover. Having hard a conversation with a book maker expert, the artist in residence, Richard Nash, I agreed that the cover would look thicker than the book itself. It would have looked ridiculous. He suggested a coptc stitching but I failed to deliver. In the end I applied a basic stitching giving it my own twist to make it look pleasing to the eye. I also decided on a book jacket having had to include the cover in one of my signatures to have a multiple of 4. You live and learn, don’t you.
The most interesting aspect was the interplay between text and image. Not so much what you say but what you leave out – not so much what you show but what you leave out. It is wonderful to write and draw, you have the ability to choose the best medium for a scene. At every time, I kept my audience in mind. And although I wanted the story to be accessible I didn’t want to do all the work for them. If not what is the point of reading?
I very much enjoyed all the research about visual storytelling, child development, child psychology, and reading about semiotics. I also tried to cover the cultural aspects by researching the distribution of picture books. Children in the world are not all equal and in underdeveloped countries books are not an accessible commodity. Similarly we get to see work by a few talented artists only. Distribution of picture books is very pricey.
I also touched on the development of publishing and expressed my concern about the trend of epublishing It has a place but it is too soon to assess the impact it has on children’s literature and its audience. I personally feel that at young age, holding a tangible object and sharing a moment with a special person enhances a child’s experience. Opening a book is entering a magic world that will hopefully resonate with you for a very long time.
Finally I wanted to bring to the fore that there is not just one format for books. Books can be sculptural and many artists have demonstrated the truly amazing possibility of paper as a medium. Creating the pop up was extremely challenging and at times I didn’t think I would succeed. I am planning to also explore book arts a lot more from now on.
I wish I had more time..I will revisit my project and very likely take it apart to start all over again! I will take my time and get it right.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Art is introduced to children through picture books, which use a dual system of pictorial and verbal language. ‘What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?’ asked Alice in Wonderland. In the increasingly visual world we live in, a book has to do more than sticking to traditional conventions to compete with television, cinema, animations and computer games. The paradox of picture books is that they have to remain childlike but are increasingly sophisticated.
‘A picture book is text, illustrations, total design: an item of manufacture and a commercial product, a social cultural historical document and foremost an experience for a child.’ (Salisburys, 2012:75) With illustration seen as ‘an original and exciting medium of self expression,’ (Selby, 2003:10) there is an increasing trend for illustrators to also write their own text. ‘Making a picture book is often a matter of finding solutions to the design problems presented by the story.’ (Hunt, 2009:106)
Since the 1960s, picture books have become one of the most exciting and versatile literary forms and have been the object of acclaimed academic studies in Ways of the illustrator by Joseph Schwarcz, in Introduction to picturebooks codes by William Moebius, in Words and Pictures by Perry Nodelman, for whom reading itself is an ‘act of vision.’
Long gone are the days when they were seen as a simple form with a single and unique interpretation and referred to as ‘closed text’ as defined by Umberto Eco, who applied semiotics to literature. It may have been true for stories whose illustrations echoed the text such as Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and traditional fairy tales. But as Uri Shulevitz points out there is a distinction between storybook where pictures supplement a text that does not need the pictures to be understood and picture books where pictures complement the text to tell the story.
Picture books are the perfect genre in the context of structuralism. They have their own conventions: thirty-two pages, a story arc, a single main character, a denouement that will empower the main character, a limited amount of words, a varied but logical layout and a linear narrative. The pictures must show what the text does not say in a childlike but easy to understand style. For Nodelman, ‘convention determines not just recognition but meaning. (Nodelman, 1988:14)
But some artists have pushed and experimented with rules to give us an enhanced experience ‘Pictures in contemporary picture books are often intricate in detail and sophisticated in style, even when they accompany a simple text, or even single words.’ (Nodelman, 1988:19) Children use their knowledge and their imagination to find meaning in the narrative that enfolds page after page.
Jean Piaget, an influential psychologist, argued that the children’s state of development dictated how children could make sense of the world around them but that with age came better understanding. Others such as Lev Vygotsky have argued that Piaget’s theory neglected the fact that children were capable of abstract thought before the age of ten. Therefore even before they can read, they are able to make sense of ideas in pictures in a very sophisticated way.
And this is why picture books are an exciting genre that constantly innovates to capture the imagination of its readers.
Salisbury M; Styles, M (2012) Children’s picturebooks the art of visual storytelling. London:Laurence King.
Salisbury, M (2007) Play Pen New children’s book illustration. London: Laurence King.
Brazell D & Davies J (2011) Making great illustrations. London: A C Black.
Shulevitz, U (1997) Writing with pictures how to illustrate children’s books. New York: Watson-Guptill
To start with, I thought it most appropriate to look at the works of illustrators even though my pathway is Fine Art. After all, a lot of illustrators have graduated in that subject. And I also think that divisions between disciplines are artificial and most unhelpful at a time when pluralism has become the norm. Can you imagine Picasso saying when I am drawing I am a fine artist but when I male ceramics I am a craftsman? His oeuvre extended far beyond the realm of traditional painting and nobody has ever regretted it to be the case.
I have chosen to concentrate on authors/illustrators, i.e. the artists who both create picture books juxtaposing text and image. First of all, I looked at the master of picture books’ creator Maurice Sendak. Where the wild things are was published in1963. More than 50 years later, it is still considered a masterpiece and so for many reasons. Before looking at the artwork in detail, I was most fascinated by the way the story was told. We know the protagonist, Max, problem through the images and not really through the text. He is basically very naughty, staring on books, chasing the dog with a fork… We go into Max’s imagination through the images again which is when the plot is further developed. The images do most of the work throughout the story and I will not spoil it by giving all the details. Another striking element of the book is the layout. Sendak increases the size of the illustration as Max’ imagination goes wilder and wilder and reduces them when the story takes place in Max’s daily life. The last spread is text only. The juxtaposition of text and image makes the whole story coherent and one without the other would lose its strength. I personally want to explore the interaction in my own work.
Creating a picture book is problematic at best. It has to look simple as it is destined for a children’s audience but it also has to appeal to the adult who will read and share the experience of the child. The ‘most simple looking’ books are in my view those which have taken more time to create. The artist has thought as much about the story as the composition and the layout of every spread. I will also add that the fewer words there are, the more thinking has gone at the conceptual stage to make the synergy between text and image work
Anybody can say little with a lot of words and lots of art but to say a lot with a limited amount of words and a limited amount of illustrations requires practice and in the case of Sendak’s an incomparable talent.
Where the wild things are is as exciting now than when first published. It was innovative for the time because of the way the story was told and the illustration taking over the narrative and the layout mimicking the action/ the adventure. Those who want to succeed in the genre always refer to it as a benchmark.
The images of Max in his room grows steadily page after page
in sync with the forest that grows in his imagination
Then the images gradually disappear totally to leave the text tell the ending of the story.