Some of the world’s most inspiring illustrators have plied their trade in children’s books. So what makes this audience so appealing for fantasy artists?
When the English illustrator Grahame Baker-Smith was at school, the careers officer told him not to expect anything of himself. “You’re basically a plodder,” he said.
It sounds just like the sort of thing the downtrodden hero in a children’s story might be told early in the book. And it’s something plenty of young fantasy artists have heard from parents and teachers over the years. However, Grahame persevered with his art and in 2011 was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal for FArTHER, a children’s book he wrote and illustrated.
“In it, a father pursues the ancient dream of flying, but never achieves it no matter how many wonderful flying machines he makes,” says Grahame. “The obsession makes him at times absent to the needs of his son. He’s called away to war and never returns. His son grows up and is visited by the same dream. He achieves it by making a few adjustments to his father’s inventions. Flying quickly becomes a commonplace, everyday experience. When he in turn has his own son he wonders what he’ll do, how will he go farther.”
Like so many other fantasy artists, illustrating children’s books was Grahame’s goal for a long time. For him, the satisfaction comes from bringing together words and pictures in his own stories. “I’m inspired by the thought of other worlds
I’m fascinated by the possibilities of other dimensions, other life, time, future and past
and the many mysteries and miracles of this one. I’m fascinated by the possibilities of other dimensions, other life, time, future and past,” says the Bath, UK-based artist.
Over in America, South Carolina’s Cory Godbey is another illustrator who just wanted to create children’s books, pure and simple. He loves drawing monsters, but not the terrifying kind you’ll see in other strands of fantasy art. Cory has been illustrating the Jamie’s Journey books by Susan M Ebbers. “In the books, a boy dreams his way around the world and visits all sorts of different places. One of my favourite images is from the second book where I got to illustrate a trio of ice creatures on the top of Mount Everest,” explains the artist.
Cory certainly isn’t alone when he cites Arthur Rackham and Maurice Sendak not just as influences, but as reasons why he’s an illustrator. Growing up on the other side of the world in Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese artist Turine Tran also looks fondly on Arthur’s work. Her other influences include Randolph Caldecott, Jiri Trnka and Mary Blair. Meanwhile, the award-winning Austrian children’s illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger also lists Rackham among her top influences, along with Edward S Hewitt, Heath Robinson, Edmund Dulac and Winsor McCay.
Many of these names hark back to the Golden Age of children’s illustration, which began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period, printing technologies were being developed that enabled drawings and paintings to be reproduced en masse and in colour, at a relatively affordable price. The likes of Rackham, Kay Nielsen and Dulac could now illustrate books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, tales by the Brothers Grimm, and the poetry of Poe.
First I think about the subject – but not too much, because to me, the looser I start the better
While today’s fantasy illustrators discover these older works through their art courses or by reputation, even stronger influences are drawn from the artists they enjoyed as children. “The three that immediately spring to mind from my childhood are Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein. All were imaginative revolutionaries in the field by pushing what could be done in a picture book,” says Tony DiTerlizzi, co-author and illustrator of The Spiderwick Chronicles.
While the children’s book illustrators of the 50s, 60s and 70s display inventiveness and varied styles, when it comes to technique, the influence of the likes of Rackham and Dulac is more pervasive. Their skills with watercolour in particular remain breathtaking, even in today’s digitally enhanced world. Sketching their outlines, they’d block in the main shapes, eventually finishing a stronger line drawing with ink. Then watercolour paint would be applied over and over again, with the artist subtly building up layers of translucent colour.
FAIRIES BY CANDLELIGHT
The completed images often look deep and moody, to match the shady and mystical nature of the content. Although there’s plenty of lightness in their works, frequently it does feel like you’re looking into a fairy world by candlelight.
An artist like Turine Tran, who illustrated her own book, The Wild Daisy Field, uses a similar building-up process to Rackham, but in her process the watercolours have been replaced with virtual brushstrokes. “I usually work in two stages: pencil sketch and digital colouring,” she says. “For the sketch, first I think about the subject – but not too much, because to me, the looser I start the better. Then I consider the form, getting interesting shapes and
rhythm into the composition. Once the basic forms are there, then comes my favourite part: the details. Lots of fantastic details. Later, when it comes to colouring, more details are added. I love details. I feel fun, spontaneous, childlike and free when I do the details.”
Based in Gloucester, England, Nick Harris has been illustrating children’s books for 30 years. Today he works digitally, and like Turine, is drawn to detail. It’s an element of his style that he puts down to his personality. “Because my work revolves around linear drawing and I prefer things neat, it tends to lead to wanting to explain all the details visually,” Nick ponders. “Or is it that I choose to work that way because it’s just how my particular brain ticks? Rather OCD really… but then I believe we all operate at differing levels, dependent on how we each interact with the world. My images have also always tended to be character driven, and with character goes the need for a back story, if you really want to bring life to them.”
Work the detail
Whether it arrives through playfulness or obsession, detail is something that works to your advantage when illustrating a children’s book. Unlike an advertising illustration that usually needs to communicate something quickly and create a strong impression, a children’s
I believe we all operate at differing levels, dependant on how we each interact with the world
book illustration can be filled with subtlety. Of course, advertising can be subtle too, yet you’re never confronted by four-year-olds demanding you read them ads for Colgate Total Advanced Whitening Toothpaste. But they will want to pore over pictures of Thumbelina or The Gruffalo 15 times a night. Evidently, detail is an advantage because young readers can have fun spotting something new every time they look at the page.
After a while I realised I couldn’t go on forever doing small, dark illustrations
Another aspect that captures the imagination is texture. The worlds that Grahame has visualised are intriguing because not only are his stories touching, but you feel as though you can touch the materials in his pictures. This is something that the transition to digital has brought to the artist’s work.
mixing it up
“For most of my career I used natural media,” Grahame explains. “Then in 2005 I taught myself Photoshop. It was a light bulb moment. Suddenly I could combine elements in ways that I’d tried – and failed – to do physically! From then on the process has been one of combining paint, drawing, found and photographed textures, and anything that will fit on a scanner.”
Lisbeth Zwerger began illustrating books in the 1970s and is one of Europe’s most accomplished children’s artists. Although Lisbeth hasn’t yet migrated to digital like Nick and Grahame, her style has evolved from early Rackham-esque watercolours to more dreamlike pieces.
“After a while I realised I couldn’t go on forever doing small, dark illustrations,” says the artist. “They became a lot lighter. Eventually, I became bored with that technique and attempted to use more colour. At some point I had a blue phase; never much of a pink phase though. The work has to stay interesting to do. I used to use just watercolour. Nowadays I use everything in sight: pencil, watercolour, coloured pencils and gouache. I used coloured papers in Grimm’s Fairy Tales and, in my last book, Leonce and Lena, sepia ink.”
Just as illustrators have been evolving their techniques, new technology has arrived that’s changing how children enjoy books. We’ve all heard stories about twoyear-olds trying to swipe the pages of a book, or shaking them hoping to activate a sound or animation. Other media vie for their attention, from YouTube to iPads, smartphones to PlayStations.
For Cory, it’s an interesting and challenging time to be a children’s illustrator. “We live in an increasingly visually dense world, which for the artists means the appetite and demand for images has never been stronger. This presents you with countless possibilities and distribution channels for your work. At the same time there’s a danger of reaching a saturation point where we’re so inundated and overstimulated with images that they become like white noise.”
Cory concludes: “I think what matters most for me is the main idea that I always return to: keep creating honest work that connects with people.”
FArTHER A spread from Grahame Baker-Smith’s aviation obsessed, award-winning book FArTHER.
WALK WITH ME Vietnamese artist Turine Tran illustrates children’s imagery straight from her imagination – this is one of her personal works.
THE NUTCRACKER A great example of Austrian illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger’s surreal and affecting fantasy images.
JAMIE’S JOURNEY Beasts and adventures feature in the second Jamie’s Journey book, which was illustrated by Cory Godbey.
THE WILD DAISIES Nature and imagination in Turine Tran’s
own illustrated book, The Wild Daisies.
ROSEPETAL Early images by Lisbeth Zwerger are reminiscent of Rackham’s, such as this one from Rosepetal. Her style became more colourful and adventurous in later years.
THUMBELINA A bullfrog becomes a menacing monster in Nick Harris’ Thumbelina, for Soft Press.
INTRODUC TION The enormous creature with the floppy pink bassett hound ears arrives in Tony DiTerlizzi’s 2001 book, Ted.
DRAGONSONG An operatic dragon from Cory Godbey’s
DREAM OF FLIGHT The son realises his father’s dream in Grahame Baker-Smith’s book FArTHER.