Kindness is a Wonderful Thing

This morning I received a Christmas greeting from a lovely illustrator of children’s books. It was unexpected, and most welcome. It reminded me how easy it is to reach out across the world with a kind word, and I wondered why we don’t do it more often.

As I sit here in my winter, behind with my projects and trying not to beat myself up for not getting my owl books finished for the Christmas stockings, her message from summery New Zealand lifted me and in some quiet way turned my thoughts back to my projects with a lightness I hadn’t felt for a while.

Later in the day I was tidying my large assortment of papers, trying to weed out a few of the older ones. Was it coincidence that among those papers was a delightful, but long-forgotten, greeting card from the same illustrator, sent on a very different occasion? lisa allen card

I enjoy her illustrations. They are whimsical, light, good fun. They can be touching, poignant, memorable. Somehow, even when the books are as diverse as “Anzac Day Parade” and “A Hot Cup of Chocolate” the illustrations still show her distinctive hand. It got me thinking about how, when we are being true to ourselves, things are cohesive; everything fits together well.

Lisa, who sent me both the card and the Christmas message, is also a kind and generous artist who has willingly given her time to discuss – at some length on the phone – the technical aspects of illustrating with me. So, this dark and foggy evening, my post is not about what I am doing, but about what we could all be doing. It’s about sharing kindness. Sharing a little kindness is not difficult. A message that takes you a few minutes to write might just be the sunshine in someone’s day.

And yes, Christmas is nearly here, but is not too late to add more books to the gifts under the tree. And if they are illustrated by Lisa Allen, you are sure to have fun with them too.

A Book Without Pictures

“and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” (Lewis Carroll, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’(Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking Glass).

One of the blogs I follow is Brainpickings. Today my inbox brought me some background on Alice in Wonderland.

It has been an ‘Alice’ kind of week. A young Italian friend is reading Alice in English. She purchased her copy of it in Spain. Alice certainly gets around. We had a little fun with my favourite quotation about memory. Here it is (in context):

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first —’

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘— but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

Occasionally I wonder if I am living backwards. My book without pictures has been on hold for a long time, stalled on 30,000 words when I took a break from it. The next chapter is writing itself as I sleep – my subconscious has been working backwards. My paintings for an exhibition are progressing reasonably well; my daytime work is going forward. And somewhere in the working day, and on my desk, are some little owls waiting for some colour. A book must have pictures, after all.

Thanks Also to You

A lovely message arrived in my in-box. Here is a section of it.

“Gosh (grandchild) and I have enjoyed your books, they evoke so many questions, you have added so much detail and she doesn’t miss a thing.”

One of my aims is to have my books read to children, and with children, ideally snuggled in with time to enjoy. It is a time that I love myself, and must have enjoyed as a child. It is more than reading; it is physical contact, sharing, exploring new things together, revisiting old friends, and wandering off into an imaginary world in a safe way. So a big Thank you 🙂  This made my day.

And a response to my “Discipline Required”  post on Facebook: “That picture makes me want to be in Italy SO MUCH!! But you should work, because I had to read “The Lost Happy” about 6 times in a row to D and J yesterday!!!”

Here is a little tease from Fluff and Scuff, while you are waiting for the next books, D and J.

From page 7:

Scuff scampered and scurried and hurried up the tree, branch by bendy branch, twig by wobbly twig.

Don’t fall off, Scuff.

Page 11:

Wind looked all around.  What did he see?

He saw baby owls asleep in the tree. 

But by Page 25:

Fluff was looking up at a big, yellow… 

What was Fluff looking at, I wonder?

Which Medium? (part two)

Painting and book illustration, while related, are two quite different ways of thinking, and my approach to each is different. But even within the illustration work I am using different approaches, alternatively watching my choices and immersing myself in the joy of painting and drawing.

Danish author/illustrator Danish Henrik Drescher says “My books grow out of visual concepts. I ‘build’ the book as a picture book and apply the words last. I use whatever materials I need to express my ideas.” (Pg 47 Children’s Book Illustration and Design edited by Julie Cummins 1992, PBC international Inc, New York). I think that is an exciting approach, and maybe when I have finished the increasing number of books in my diary I can try that too. For now I am more a painter/writer turned illustrator and in creating the images take a mixture of approaches.

With the owl series the words came in prose. Some of them popped themselves into verse. Some images arrived with the text, and some images are still evolving. It’s little surprise that my family of owls is proving to be quite troublesome. It’s not because of Fluff and Scuff’s mischievous adventures; I can create them scampering up and down the tree without too much trouble. But I really would like to paint them in watercolour, and despite my best efforts they keep evolving into pen and wash or mixed media. I am being pulled towards acrylics too.

So what are the advantages of one medium over another? Watercolour can be fast, although I like to work with many washes which does slow the process down. Watercolour is a surprisingly expensive option, as each storybook has approximately 25 illustrations, and each sheet of watercolour paper is an invisible expense. Illustrations are usually created larger than the actual book page size.

Michelle and the Bumblebee was illustrated on 300gsm watercolour paper, on this occasion using cold-press rough. When Mum Fell Asleep in the Bath is on Bristol board, which is for graphic design but which will take a limited amount of water without the paper cockling (buckling). The Lost Happy illustrations are on cartridge paper, but will be reprinted onto a different more absorbent paper so that I can colour them at my leisure and release a hard-cover, coloured edition some time in the future.

I started the owl series of illustrations on 300gsm hot press smooth watercolour paper, my most expensive option. It was a thoughtful, reflective process as I created the characters, using many washes and building them up slowly. It is my favourite weight to work on, and that was the paper I had on hand at the time. I will change to a lighter-weight watercolour paper as I wont need to use so much water, and a cold press rough will give me some texture. I can add acrylic paint to it if I choose, provided that the paper is at least 240gsm. The acrylics I have chosen are Derivan Flow, as these are highly compatible with watercolour.

So the paper choice is made. The mixed media option has selected itself. Now to the dominant colours. Children’s books give absolute freedom of choice. I think I will clear off my desk, select a bright and happy palette, put the pens, ink blocks and acrylics aside, and get ready to start again in watercolour. I don’t want my drawings to be too tight. As the owls come down from the tree a more spontaneous, brighter, energetic look is called for. Tomorrow is a painting day. It will be fun!

Illustrated Stories and Picture Books

What is a picture book? Is it a story with a picture on every page? No, I don’t think it is as simple as that. A picture book relies on the images, as much as the words, to enrich and progress the story.

One of the most delightful picture books for children is Leo Lionni’s Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959).
little blue and little yellow
This book, which marked the beginning of his career in children’s books, grew from using torn pieces of paper to illustrate a story as he entertained his grandchildren on a train journey. The simplicity of this book arrived naturally in the making of it. Another book creator spent two years on the design of a book of shapes and colours. Having had sets of illustrations in my mind for several years now, I understand how easily that time passes.

Peter Catalanotto said “It’s amazing how much time and work go into something to make it look like it came off the top of your head.” (1992, Children’s Book Illustration and Design, Julie Cummins Editor, PBC international Inc, New York. Pg 31). I agree wholeheartedly! My pencil and eraser are well employed to create even the most simple image, and often the image mischievously takes on a life of its own when I return with the pen or pencil to outline the finished painting. Keeping it simple is not easy, nor is creating something light-hearted and loosely drawn.

In my illustrations I tend to leave evidence of the making of the picture. I like the pencil mark, the run of watercolour, the strength of a line applied in more than one stroke. I believe that this helps make the role of the artist more accessible to children. The picture is not perfect, nor is it computer generated. It has many entry points and is something that an interested child might aspire to do.

I used the word illustrations deliberately in the paragraph above, because two of my three published books are, in my view, illustrated story books rather than picture books. Although every page is illustrated, and one can get a sense of the story without reading the words, the pictures are designed to illustrate the text.

From Michelle and the Bumblebee:

blog p 20
Michelle sat down on a box beside the chair. She opened her thermos flask of yummy hot home-made tomato soup. She had made it with tomatoes from her garden.
The soup smelt so good. Mr Bumble Bee wriggled his nose.
“Would you like some too?” asked Michelle.
(pg 20).

In The Lost Happy the pictures carry the story as much as the text does.

blog pg 17     blog1.jpg
(Pg 17 no text)                                                               No. There was no HAPPY there. (pg 21).

So how do I decide which approach to take? It depends on how the story unfolds. If I form the text well ahead of the images, I am more likely to produce an illustrated story book. If the images arrive first, then a picture book is more likely to unfold.

Unlike the first three stories, the owl series that I am working on at present came to me in both words and images, the two aspects arriving together. They are more integrated in my mind and the page design will reflect that too. For the owl books I have taken off my teaching hat – visualising the young reader running a finger along the words under the pictures – and put on a more playful one, joining the little owls up a tree. It has been fun.

Book design comes in to the composition too. “Design (is) important; the simpler the text and concept of the book, the tighter the focus is on design”. Julie Vivas, (Ibid, pg 207). This brings me back to the delightful blue and yellow shapes which cuddled and turned green. The simple images speak eloquently, without elaboration. The design is minimalist, and no doubt was exceptional in 1959.

Leo Lionni’s book is a picture book. The picture carries so much of the story. We don’t have anything more than colour, size, and a rudimentary shape to guide us, yet we can picture the little coloured families created. Words add to the pictures in some of the pages, but the pictures are hardly dependent on the written word.

Lionni is both author and illustrator, although he questions that title. He writes:
“As someone who has chosen to be responsible for the totality of his picture books – the integration of words and images – I do not think of myself as an illustrator. Even the word illustration seems misleading. Although illustrations help to give form and color to verbal abstractions, the pictures should not merely illustrate but create a special environment for the story’s action. They are in fact more like the scenery in the theatre, the stage sets in which the actors move and act.” (Ibid, pg 98).

This is how I see a true picture book; the pictures adding more meaning to the text, the text relying on the image for its setting. Image, word, and book design, become integrated parts of the workings of the story. The illustrations will add detail that is not necessary in the text, and will at times move a story forward without text.

My goal is to create picture books that will draw in little viewers, that allow discussion, seeking, pointing, discovering. The text and image go hand and hand in picture books, and the challenge to me is to match my style, materials and colours to the many and varied images that arrive in my imagination along with the words.

A Book I wish I Had Written

Art for Kids


The Only Book You’ll Ever Need to Be the Artist You’ve Always Wanted to Be.

by Kathryn Temple

kathryn temple book   kathryn temple book 2

I was recently browsing the shelves of a public library and discovered Kathryn Temple’s Art for Kids Drawing, (2005, Sterling Children’s Books, New York. ISBN 978-1-4027-8477-4).

The subtitle of the book says it all: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need to Be the Artist You’ve Always Wanted to Be.

Oh how I wish I had written this book, or at least had it when I was a child. It is simple, yet comprehensive. Although written for children, it is exactly the resource I love as a teacher. The diagrams and sketches are relevant, the language plain, and the drawings delightful.

All the important issues are addressed in the foreword (don’t skip reading that) and the eight chapters cover all that anyone needs to know to develop excellent drawing skills

unnamed2      unnamed1   .

From the table of contents to the index I am impressed, enjoying every page. Those of you who are (like me) fans of Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain will recognise the wisdoms described so simply here in Art for Kids Drawing.

The book is a useful size, soft cover, portable. It is not at all intimidating but makes drawing well seem the most natural thing in the world – which it is for children, until we “squeeze it out” of them in our urgency to educate using the left side of the brain.

In the delightful and informative foreword Kathryn writes “…”everyone starts out as an artist – it’s just that some people have most of the artist squeezed out of them by the time they grow up.”

Page 9 (in the edition I have on my lap as I type) gives a list of “Drawing Rules to Live By or Life Rules to Draw By. These five simple rules would serve well on the walls of classrooms everywhere.

You can be sure that this one is on my shopping list for when my grandchildren are a little older. Everything I would like to teach them is here, and in the meantime I am going to enjoy some revision myself!

The Book Lovers

Learning about pollination from the safety of the washing basket - as you do!
Learning about pollination from the safety of the washing basket – as you do!

It has been a huge pleasure for me to see children enjoying my stories and to hear them say “Can you read it again please?” (or “Again, again” from a younger one).

I was pleasantly surprised to see how interested my two year old grandchildren are in Michelle and the Bumblebee. This story seems to have appeal across the ages, and appeals to flower and bee lovers as well as anyone who likes to read a true story. When I wrote the text from Michelle’s real life story notes I imagined children from about 4 to 8 or 9 enjoying it. In reality the age range that it appeals to has been much wider. Thank you Michelle.

p 11 print

“I hope you will be OK, Mr Bumble Bee”, said Michelle.
“It still gets a bit chilly at night”.

Michelle covered his hiding place with some more grass to help protect him from the cold.