Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Eric Carle’

30 JANUARY, 2014

Some of Today’s Most Beloved Children’s Book Illustrators Each Draw Their Favorite Animal


A menagerie of loveliness from some of the world’s greatest illustrators.

I have a soft spot for animals and the loveliest books about them, but having just said farewell to a beloved feline companion, I was triply taken with What’s Your Favorite Animal? (public library), in which the great Eric Carle invites some of today’s most celebrated children’s book illustrators — including Jon Klassen, Peter Sís, Lucy Cousins, and Lane Smith — to each draw their favorite animal

A simple concept, but an infinitely delightful and rewarding execution.

Eric Carle: Cats

Carle contextualizes his own selection with a heart-warming anecdote:

I have always liked animals. But cats are my favorites. I have a photograph of myself when I was three years old, holding a couple of kittens. And I am sneezing. I must have been allergic to them, but my mother claimed I had a cold.

Later when I was grown up, Fiffi lived with me in my Greenwich Village New York City walk-up. Fiffi was a long-haired black beauty. One day when I was peeling string beans in the kitchen, she showed great interest in my task. After a while she even began to meow ever so slightly. It sounded like begging to me. Finally I threw a string bean down the long hallway. Fiffi chased after it, fetched it, and returned it to me. Again I threw the string bean down the hallway. Finally, after many chases, Fiffi picked up the string bean, ignored me, and walked into the closet. She placed it into a shoe of mine. Then she curled herself around the shoe and went to sleep, guarding the string bean.

Peter McCarty: Bunny

Lucy Cousins: Leopard

Jon Klassen: Duck

Jon Klassen, enchanter of the ordinary, goes for the underduck:

Most times when you see a duck in a story, it’s not very smart. Usually it is in the middle of falling for a trick somebody is playing on it. But I like ducks. I like watching them walk around.

Mo Willems: Amazonian Neotropical Lower River Tink-Tink

Peter Sís: Blue Carp

Sís relays the heartening twist on a peculiar national custom behind his choice:

I am from the Czech Republic where people eat carp every Christmas Eve. It is a tradition. Just before the Christmas holidays, giant barrels with live carp are set up in the streets so people can buy one and bring it home fresh. There, they let the carp swim in the bathtub Christmas Eve. The carp would look all blue and lonely in the bathtub, and we, the children, would be fascinated and give her a name and try to put our little fingers in her toothless, breathing mouth. What usually happened on Christmas Eve when the carp is supposed to become dinner was that the children would cry, go on strike, and finally the carp would be taken by the whole family to the river Vltava and released. You would see many families coming with their carps to the river and blue fish swimming toward the ocean. This gave us all hope! So my favorite creature of hope is the blue carp.

What’s Your Favorite Animal? is absolutely wonderful from cover to cover. Complement it with 2013’s best books about animals.

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19 NOVEMBER, 2013

Beloved Illustrator Eric Carle’s Vibrant Ode to Friendship and How It Reunited Him with His Lost Childhood Friend


A heartwarming tale of affection and determination, told by one of our time’s greatest visual storytellers.

Eric Carle (b. June 25, 1929) is arguably the most celebrated — and prolific — children’s book author-illustrator alive and a tireless champion of art for young humans. Almost half a century after his beloved classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which has delighted generations of children, Carle returns with Friends (public library) — the heart-warming story of an inseparable boy and girl, and the boy’s quest to reunite with his dear friend after she moves away. The tale was inspired by a photograph of 3-year-old Carle embracing a girl in a white dress in his hometown of Syracuse. Though he never learned her name, he remained enchanted by the mystery and innocence of that early friendship.

Illustrated in Carle’s signature technique of colorful hand-painted tissue paper collages, the story exudes the joyful warmth of Maurice Sendak and Ruth Krauss’s vintage ode to friendship, I’ll Be You and You Be Me, the vibrant adventurousness of Alone in the Forest, and, above all, Carle’s own singular touch.

But here is the most astounding part: After the book was published, Carle’s mysterious childhood friend saw the story and the two were reunited 82 years after the photograph that inspired the book was taken.

Friends comes forty-eight after the very first book he ever illustrated, a 1965 edition of Aesop’s fables. Perhaps poetically, the second book Carle illustrated as a young artist was a small collection of quotes about friendship.

Images courtesy of Philomel / Penguin Group

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Sendak, Carle, Provensen, and 20 Other Beloved Illustrators’ Advice to Children on Being an Artist


“No story is worth the writing, no picture worth the making, if it’s not the work of the imagination.”

“Every child is an artist,” Picasso is all too often cited as having declared. And yet not every adult is an artist — at least not a conscious, active, self-identifying one. How, then, do we lose the creative spark as we emerge from childhood, and what can we do to keep it forever ablaze?

That’s precisely what great and prolific Eric Carle (b. June 25, 1929), one of modern history’s most influential picture-book artists, sets out to answer in Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art (public library), which he envisioned and edited — at once a soul-lifting treasure for creative minds of all ages and a warm invitation for children to feel “among friends, fellow dreamers and scribblers” through the personal stories of such celebrated artists as Maurice Sendak, Leo Lionni, Alice Provensen, Steven Kellogg, and Jane Dyer. Accompanying these short and lovely letters, which do for art what Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds did for science and philosophy, are charming self-portraits by each of the artists, most created specifically for this project, along with fold-outs of artists’ notable works. The best part? All proceeds from the book benefit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

Self-portrait by Eric Carle

Eric Carle, who dreamt up the project, shares his own story:

Ever since I was very young, as far back as I can remember, I have loved making pictures. I knew even as a child that, when I grew up, I would be an artist of some kind. The lovely feeling of my pencil touching paper, a crayon making a star shape in my sketchbook, or my brush dipping into bright and colorful paints — these things affect me as joyfully today as they did all those years ago.

Carle, like a number of creative greats, including Dr. Seuss, Sherwood Anderson, and Wendy MacNaughton, came into illustration by way of the commercial arts — in his case, graphic design, an influence so wonderfully evident in his work:

My own style grew out of my work as a graphic designer. I try to express the essence of my stories and ideals very clearly, using simple shapes, often in bright colors against a white background. You might almost think of my illustrations, and especially the cover art, as little posters.

In his celebrated picture-books, Carle aims for imaginative clarity, relying on emotional intuition over rationalization and always listening to that universal inner child:

I do my best to simplify and refine, to be logical and harmonious. But I also try to keep an open mind, to listen to my intuition and allow for the unexpected, the coincidental, even the quirky to enter into my work. Ultimately, my aim is to entertain, and sometimes to enlighten, the child who still lives inside of me. This is always where I begin.

And just as in my boyhood, making pictures is how I express my truest feelings.

Self-portrait by Sir Quentin Blake

The remarkable Sir Quentin Blake, who among other feats illustrated Sylvia Plath’s little-known and lovely children’s book, discovered his calling by realizing what he could not be, speaking to the importance of having a great mentor and amassing a diverse arsenal of creative influences:

I suppose that really I had a training or education not so very different from a lot of other artists and illustrators — it’s just that I didn’t have it in the normal order. When I was at school I liked drawing, and I liked anything to do with humor, and I liked writing too. When I was about fourteen, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a man who both painted pictures and drew cartoons for newspapers and magazines, including Punch, the most famous English humorous magazine at the time. He was called Alfred Jackson and every few months I would take him a collection of my drawings to look at. Now I look back and realize these were in fact lessons or tutorials, and what was especially good about them was that he talked not only about the cartoonists’ drawings in Punch at the time, but also about Michelangelo and Modigliani as well.

Thanks to Jackson’s encouragement, Blake began submitting his own humorous drawings to Punch. Two “not very good” ones were eventually accepted when he was only sixteen and became that pivotal ignition spark for a long and successful career. But despite this early nod of approval, Blake didn’t go to art school — instead, he enrolled at Cambridge University to study English literature, training to become a teacher, then honed his art by the sheer force of grit and doggedness:

I thought that if I couldn’t make a living as an artist, at least I shouldn’t starve.

By the time I had finished these studies, I had realized that I simply did not draw well enough to be the kind of artist and illustrator that I wanted to be, and so for two days a week over two years I drew — and drew and drew — from the models in the life classes at Chelsea School of Art. I really found out how people looked and moved and balanced, and though nowadays I almost never use a sketchbook and just make everything up as I go along, it’s those days in the life room that are the back of it all.

Self-portrait by Alice Provensen

Alice Provensen — one of my all-time favorite artists, who together with her husband Martin illustrated such vintage gems as The Animal Fair, an adaptation of Homer for kids, a cookbook by James Beard, and Aesop’s Fables, and who continues to draw into her nineties — shares a delightfully heartening ugly-duckling story of creative purpose:

When people look at my work, they often say, “Your picture is so good. I can’t even draw a straight line.” I think everyone can learn to draw. The important thing is to keep trying, keep drawing.


Young children make marvelous pictures. There is nothing they can’t draw. They paint and draw from their imaginations and the world around them. And they are not afraid to draw anything.

I saw a child’s picture, a country landscape. It had fifteen trees that looked like lollipops, both a sun and a moon in the sky and a crazy river running through. It wasn’t very realistic, but it was a miracle of design. … And when children draw people or portraits of themselves, even if they are only stick figures, they have an animate quality that a professional rarely gets.

She speaks to the momentous role of early encouragement:

My mother encouraged my efforts. Pens, paper, glue and scissors, crayons, oil paints and canvas were always available to me. My sixth-grade teacher entered one of my pictures in a contest. I won a scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute’s program for public school children and I have been drawing ever since.

Inversely, it is adults’ active discouragement that leads kids to self-censor the precious, uninhibited imagination that lends their drawings such magic:

It isn’t until an adult criticizes the picture and makes derogatory comments … that children lose their confidence and stop drawing. If young people spent as much time drawing as they do learning [the] alphabet … they would all make good pictures and maybe never even need to draw a straight line.

Self-portrait by Paul O. Zelinsky

Paul O. Zelinsky, who recently penned this beautiful essay on what it was like to have Maurice Sendak as a teacher at Yale and who modeled his distinctive style after the old Italian masters, shares a more technical and hands-on glimpse of his process:

The old master oil paintings were usually done in transparent oil colors on top of a black-and-white underpainting, which was often painted in egg temperas. My version of this technique was to start with a watercolor underpainting, which is fast drying like tempera, but I have an easier time controlling it. Then I seal the underpainting with a coat of clear, matte acrylic medium. That keeps the oil paints, which come next, from soaking into the paper, where they would turn dull and flat. Instead, thin layers of transparent oil paint can be smoothed into glowing colors and bold, glossy surfaces, with a depth and space that I don’t think can be gotten any other way. It isn’t easy to do, but when it works, the results can still surprise me.

Self-portrait by Maurice Sendak

But my favorite has to be Maurice Sendak himself, who has delighted and continues to delight generations with his heart-warming picture-books, his literary illustrations, his vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading, and his irreverent wit. His heartening story, which echoes Joan Didion’s insistence on the importance of keeping a notebook, is a bittersweet celebration of art as self-therapy:

I was sickly as a child and gravitated to books and drawing. During my early teen years, I spent hundreds of hours at my window, sketching neighborhood children at play. I sketched and listened, and those notebooks became the fertile field of my work later on. There is not a book I have written or a picture I have drawn that does not, in some way, owe them its existence.

He attests to the notion that sharpening emotional recall is the key to genius:

If I have an unusual gift, it’s not that I draw particularly better than other people — I’ve never fooled myself about that. Rather it’s that I remember things other people don’t recall: the sounds and feelings and images — the emotional quality — of particular moments in childhood. Happily an essential part of myself — my dreaming life — still lives in the light of childhood.

Reflecting on the art of picture-book storytelling, Sendak shares his strong opinions about the interplay between words and pictures:

An illustration is an enlargement, and interpretation of the text, so that the reader will comprehend the words better. As an artist, you are always serving the words.

You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work. Then you must let the words take over where words do it best. It’s a funny kind of juggling act.

Like Herbert Spencer, who thought the same of writing, Sendak believes that confining yourself to one artistic style is creatively impoverishing. He ends with some invaluable advice to aspiring artists:

Artistic style is only a means to an end, and the more styles you have, the better. To get trapped in a style is to lose all flexibility. If you have only one style, then you’re going to do the same book over and over, which is pretty dull. Lots of styles permit you to walk in and out of books. So, develop a fine style, a fat style, and fairly slim style, and a really rough style.

As an aspiring artist, you should strive for originality of vision. Have something to say and a fresh way of saying it. No story is worth the writing, no picture worth the making, if it’s not the work of the imagination.

Do treat yourself to Artist to Artist — it’s immeasurably wonderful.

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