Illuminations from the Illustrator

Is the Message in the Medium? by Hazel Buys

When planning illustrations for a children’s book, how important is the decision the artist makes to use watercolor, pastel, pen and ink, graphite (pencil) or any other medium?

A brief examination of several picture books suggests that how an image is made is just as important as what is depicted in the image.

Last Night, illustrated by Hyewon Yum, is a wordless picture book illustrated with linocuts. The flat character of the images is softened through the use of complementary colors resulting in figures that appear more 3-dimensional. The irregularity of registration as the different colors are applied adds visual interest and suggests the fluid nature of dreams. Although the colors are subdued, consistent with the night-time setting, the colors are fresh and evocative. The absence of detail matches the dream state of the story.

Shaun Tan’s memorable presentation of an immigrant’s experience in The Arrival is executed in pencil (graphite) resulting in a monochromatic color scheme that moves through all values of white to black, with hints of sepia. The soft washes and careful drawings of characters and strange objects are visually evocative of the story of an immigrant’s difficult journey to a new life. Tan’s technique suggests cherished family photographs, distance, time passing and the strangeness of a new culture that is consistent the subject of this wordless picture book.

Collage is the medium Ed Young chose for his picture book, Seven Blind Mice, which he uses to great effect, placing the color assemblages against a black background. Sometimes the paper is uniform in color, sometimes it has texture and splashes of additional colors. The piece-over-piece structure of collage mirrors the text of the story as the mice examine the elephant bit by bit, imagining a variety of possibilities from the “piece” each considers in turn.

The Three Questions, written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth, shows us yet a different approach. The loose, expressive watercolor paintings are full of light and quiet energy. The color effect is soft and ethereal, punctuated by the red of a kite or dark green of a forest floor. The images are spare and economical but at the same time are layered with visual interest, just like the deceptively simple, but ultimately profound, answers to the three questions.

Common to all these books is a superb match between image-making and story. As is true with the best of picture books, these illustrations move the story to another level, adding a depth of experience that makes each book memorable.

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