Child's Play

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?

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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.


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

Menagerie se­ries.

DREAM OF FLIGHT The son re­alises his fa­ther’s dream in Gra­hame Baker-Smith’s book FAr­THER.

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