Picture Window

Judith Saltman, column editor

Learning to Illustrate Children's Books

Kathryn Shoemaker

In Rumer Godden's The River, a young girl, Harriet, who considers herself a poet, asks the question, "But how shall I know?" in response to the statement, "You will be what you are. You will have to be... in the end everyone is what they are." The answer? "You will find out as you grow."

And so it is with becoming an illustrator. I tell the students in my illustration class that if they are illustrators, they will be gathering ideas and experiences in all their endeavours. Sometimes they will do this in deliberate pursuit of very particular information and skills, but more often they will be going about their day to day tasks and will find that the illustrator in them is watching, listening and creating things that will one day land on paper.

First they must acquire skills in drawing and painting because an illustrator needs to be able to draw and paint children, people, fauna, flora and just about everything with sufficient competence to create particular and convincing characters and settings. This is akin to a writer having sufficient competence to create characters out of dialogue, action and narrative. At the same time, a beginning illustrator needs to learn typography and book design in order to compose illustrations that respect the type and the written meaning it presents.

Children's book illustrators need to learn how to tell a story with pictures for children of all ages. That knowledge comes from learning how children read pictures at various developmental stages and from creating countless thumbnail sketches, story boards and book dummies that bring words and pictures together over and over again until they sing. The creative work of making book dummies will develop a feeling for the pacing of the visual story as pages are read and turned. There is no substitute for this work; just as writers must write numerous drafts of a novel, illustrators must make numerous dummies of an illustrated book. Painting and drawing provide essential rendering skills, but it is the complementary application of literary sensibilities and practiced visual design skills that create the vital layers of meaning in illustration.

Of course not all children's book illustration involves storytelling. Illustration is used to convey educational information of every sort in both trade books and textbooks. Illustrators may choose to specialize in areas of personal interest, anything from botany to ballooning, from antiquities to black holes. While information illustration is not traditional storytelling, it does require the same understanding of children's visual reading abilities and demands great skill in sequencing visual elements.

Quite simply, to become an illustrator one needs to draw constantly and read voraciously. And it is critical to love both. It helps as well if the beginning illustrator loves type, graphic design, researching references and resources, and especially learning new things. Perhaps the desire to become an illustrator will take an art student down the road to finding out that he or she is in fact a designer, an editor, a painter, a scholar, a teacher, or a filmmaker. I hope that my students, like Harriet, will in this way find out what they are.

My experience with my most recent work (for My Animal Friends by R. David Stephens, to be published next year by Tradewind Books) only goes to show the complexity of the illustrator's task. The text, a simple song, calls forth real and imaginary animals that follow a preschool child through his day. Every other double-page illustration spread follows the child through his daily activities. The gentle verse gives animal sounds as clues to a repeating guessing-game that identifies each of the child's animal friends.

I did three versions. First, I visualized the entire text occurring at night. I created a dummy with the animals in the riddle song whimsically popping into the boy's bedroom window as he sits up in bed.


The editor didn't like this idea. He felt it was too static with the child in bed the whole time.

For the second version, I rethought the poem itself and spoke with the writer. I felt that there was a problem with the poem in that it had no action or movement. I asked the writer to look at his verses and consider putting them in a sequence with the child progressing though the day. He worked with the verses to structure a time sequence from morning through bedtime. I then redid the illustrations with every other double-page spread as a daytime sequence interspersed with the animal riddle as a fantasy element. I made the visual images cumulative, so that all the animals from the previous riddles accumulate as the text progresses. This cumulative element was envisioned as a visual play on the riddle. But the editor didn't like it again. He thought it was visually confusing.

Third time around: I tried to consider what continuity could be created in terms of the visual and verbal rhythms and narrative. I began to think more deeply and visually, and decided that I would have the riddle animals visually presented as floating on a quilt which would separate the fantasy imagery from the child's day to day activities and the ordinary animals. The creatures on the dream-like quilt could be giant -- larger than life. Out of the context of the song's flow, these giant animals would be too big or scary, but within the context of the dream quilt, they were comfortably contained within an imaginary world.

The editor liked it. So did the writer.

The process of revising, rethinking, and not being frightened of giving up my thoughts and artwork, and of being able to play creatively with art and text, led to a final visualization of the story which was acceptable to editor, writer and illustrator. One change was particular interesting: the writer hated the black labrador dog that I painted as the child's companion. He felt it was frightening, so I dropped it.

Black dog

I changed it to a shaggy golden lab dog. In fact, it worked much better, because the black colour of the original dog would have popped up repeatedly in each image and would have dominated each spread visually.

White dog

The writer couldn't state why he objected visually to the black lab, but I had to trust him. In fact, there was a lesson here: trust your collaborator, even if he can't articulate what is happening visually.

I think illustration is like marriage -- often there are times when I have to step back, take it in, and think about things that I don't want to change but should consider changing anyway. I prefer working with picture-book writers because a picture book requires intense, personal collaboration. There is a huge benefit in working face to face or voice to voice. I disagree with the common editorial decision to separate authors and illustrators. It takes a really good editor to intuitively pick the two people with the complementary strengths in personality and sensibility to make each other's gifts accessible through their collaboration of art and text.

Kathryn E. Shoemaker has extensive experience as a designer, art teacher, curriculum specialist and filmmaker. She is the illustrator of thirty books for children. Her most recent work, My Animal Friends written by R. David Stephens, will be published by Tradewinds Books in 2002.

Volume 5, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2001

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"Learning to Illustrate Children's Books" © Kathryn SHoemaker, 2001.
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