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Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

24 FEBRUARY, 2012

A Brief History of Children’s Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling

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From cave paintings to Maurice Sendak, or what modern ebooks can learn from mid-century design icons.

Back in the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci made the following remark about visual storytelling:

And you who wish to represent by words the form of man and all the aspects of his membrification, relinquish that idea. For the more minutely you describe the more you will confine the mind of the reader, and the more you will keep him from the knowledge of the thing described. And so it is necessary to draw and to describe.”

Finished artwork for Ajubel's Robinson Crusoe.

From very early on, we both intuit and learn the language of pictorial representation, and most modern adults, the picturebook was our first dictionary of this visual vocabulary. Yet the picturebook — defined by its narrative framework of sequential imagery and minimalist text to convey meaning or tell a story, and different from the illustrated book in which pictures play a secondary narrative part, enhancing and decorating the narrative — is a surprisingly nascent medium.

In Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, illustrator Martin Salisbury and children’s literature scholar Morag Styles trace the fascinating evolution of the picturebook as a storytelling medium and a cultural agent, and peer into the future to see where the medium might be going next, with case studies of seminal works, a survey of artistic techniques, and peeks inside the sketchbooks and creative process of prominent illustrators adding dimension to this thoughtful and visually engrossing journey.

Though pictorial storytelling dates back to the earliest cave wall paintings, the true picturebook harks back to a mere 130 years ago, when artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) first began to elevate the image into a storytelling vehicle rather than mere decoration for text. Maurice Sendak, widely regarded as the greatest author of visual literature (though he refuses to identify as a “children’s author”), once wrote of Caldecott’s “rhythmic syncopation” and its legacy:

Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counter point that never happened before. Words are left out — but the picture says it. Pictures are left out — but the words say it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”

Even early on, tensions between the creative vision and marketability of picturebooks captured the same friction between artist-storyteller and publisher that continues to plague children’s — if not all — publishing. Walter Crane (1845–1915), another Victorian-era picturebook innovator, famously grumbled about printer-publisher Edmund Evans’ approach to publishing:

“…but it was not without protest from the publishers who thought the raw, coarse colours and vulgar designs usually current appealed to a larger public, and therefore paid better…”

(Evans, per Crane’s remark, seemed to have taken on the role of a “circulation manager” of books, and with that came the same perception of compromised editorial integrity we’ve previously seen in the context of newspapers.)

Lewis Carroll's The Mouse's tale is an early example of text taking the visual form of that which it describes or alludes to.

But the picturebook didn’t fully blossom until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when new developments in printing technology, changing attitudes towards childhood, and a new class of exceptional artists catapulted it into a golden age. The first three decades of the twentieth century germinated such timeless classics as Curious George and the Babar stories. But as war consumed Europe, resources dwindled and the paper shortages of the post-war era placed new demands for keeping publishing costs low. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the austerity of the time, there was a profound longing for color as escapism, which reined in the neo-romantic movement.

Then, in the 1950s, a peculiar cultural shift began to take place — the line between artist and author started to blur, and a crop of famous graphic designers set out to write and illustrate picturebooks as a way of exploring visual thinking. (Just this week, one of the most celebrated such gems, the only children’s book by the great Saul Bass, resurfaced to everyone’s delight.) Among the highlights of this new frontier was a series of children’s picturebooks by legendary graphic designer — and, paradoxically, notorious curmudgeonPaul Rand.

He and his then-wife, Ann, produced Sparkle and Spin (1957), Little 1 (1962), and Listen! Listen! (1970), all an exercise in demonstrating “a playful but sophisticated understanding of the relationship between words and pictures, shapes, sounds, and thoughts.” (It was in the same period that Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco introduced young readers to semiotics, the study of signs and symbols.)

André François's Crocodile Tears (Universe Books NY, 1956) uses an extreme landscape format to reflect and emphasize the subject matter. It was François's first picturebook as author-artist.

In Um Dia Na Praia flat color without line is used with careful attention to the placement of every element in order to develop a wordless text. The very simple shapes need to carry the entire weight of a subtle pictorial narrative.

But many of these pioneering picturebook storytellers, just like Sendak does to this day, had an aversion to identifying as “children’s book” authors. Salisbury and Styles write:

Of course, many of the best picturebook artists would not describe themselves exclusively as such. André François was born in Hungary, in an area that became part of Romania after World War I. But it was as a French citizen that he spent his working life as a graphic artist, spanning visual satire, advertising and poster design, theater set design, sculpture, and book illustration. François’s work exhibited a childlike awkwardness that belied a highly sophisticated, biting eye.”

(Sound familiar?)

In the 1960s, as a generation of British artists emerged from art school, picturebooks entered a new era of vibrant paint and color, with many artists combining book illustration and painting to make a living. (Including, as we’ve seen, Andy Warhol.) It was in that era that some of the most influential picturebooks were born, including Maurice Sendak’s most beloved work and Miroslav Šašek’s timeless This Is… series.

Miroslav Sasek's 'This is…' series introduces children to countries and cities around the world. What distinguished them from many such books was the artist's eye for the anecdotal detail of different cultures. This is London was published by MacMillan in 1959.

(Don’t miss Šašek’s lesser-known 1961 gem, Stone Is Not Cold, in which he brings to life famous sculptures from London, Rome and the Vatican City in irreverent vignettes from everyday life.)

Maurice Sendak may be the greatest illustrator for children of all time and was certainly one of the earliest to make an impact on educators and scholars, as well as on children, parents, and the artistic community. Where The Wild Things Are (Harper & Row, 1963) was not Sendak’s first picturebook, but it was the first one to make a huge impression on children and adults alike. Interestingly, it caused a furor when it was published, with many critics anxious that it would be too terrifying for children.”

Vladimir Radunksy's swirling vortex of type and image perfectly complements Chris Raschka's rap text in Hip Hop Dog.

(You might recall Vladimir Radunsky, above, from his fantastic illustrations for Mark Twain’s Advice for Little Girls.)

But the book’s most fascinating feat is its discussion of the socially constructed and increasingly fluid criteria for what is suitable for children, with complex themes like violence, sex, death and grief, and human rights violations turning picturebooks into a powerful crossover storytelling medium for all ages. Even some of the most beloved storytelling of all time, like The Brothers Grimm fairy tales and Arabian Nights, was aimed at children but often featured dark, even savage, themes, and picturebooks have a documented history of radical politics.

The bleak, uncompromising visual and verbal text of Wolf Erlbruch's Duck, Death and the Tulip.

No Hay Tiempo Para Jugar / No Time to Play (text Sandra Arenal, illustrations Mariana Chiesa; Media Vaca, 2004). Produced in typical Media Vaca hardback format, the book gives voice to the child laborers of Mexico in words and pictures

Paradoxically — and disappointingly to those of us who celebrate the cross-pollination of genres, ideas, and narratives — traditional booksellers and the marketing departments of major publishers have remained oddly stringent about how picturebooks are labeled and sold, confining them strictly to children’s literature. (For an example of just how short that sells them, see Blexbolex’s fantastic, layered, remarkably thoughtful People, as delightful to kids as it is thought-provoking to adults — yet it remains shelved in the children’s section at the Big Corporate Bookstore.)

Color woodcuts by Isabelle Vandenabeele from Geert De Kockere's Vorspel Van Eeen Gebroken Liefde (De Eeenhoom, 2007)

The CJ Picture Book Festival in South Korea seems to get this crossover evolution, stating in its manifesto:

Picture books, in the present era, enjoy a status as a culture form to be enjoyed by people of all ages. It is a precious and versatile art that has already left the confines of paper behind, shattering the boundaries of its own genre and fusing with various other forms of art and imagery.”

The unique developmental capacities of children, Salisbury and Styles point out, also shape the stylistic suitability of visual texts, presenting their own set of paradoxes and challenges:

Many publishers and commentators express views about the suitability or otherwise of artworks for children, yet there is no definitive research that can tell us what kind of imagery is most appealing or communicative to the young eye. The perceived wisdom is that bright, primary colors are most effective for the very young. The difficulty is that children of traditional picturebook age tend not to have the language skills to express in words what they are receiving from an image. They can also be suggestible and prone to saying what they imagine adults want to hear. So, even with the best designed research projects, the world that children are experiencing will inevitably remain something of a mystery to us.”

In her Chain of Happiness illustration, Marta Altes screen-prints with three colors.

So where is this ever-evolving medium headed? Salisbury and Styles cite gaming developer turned children’s book illustrator Jon Skuse, who articulates both the tragedy and infinite potential of today’s children’s ebooks beautifully:

The eBook isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about an ‘exploration,’ and experience, rather like a pop-up book. What many publishers are doing wrong at the moment is just copying printed picturebooks on to this format, which does both media a disservice. It’s just like looking at a PDF. Children will simply flick through. A printed picturebook is a particular kind of physical experience that can be savored and revisited. The eBook needs to exploit its own particular characteristics and strengths to evolve as similarly special but distinct experience.”

The authors conclude with a metaphor for the future of picturebooks borrowed from Lane Smith’s fantastic It’s a Book:

Perhaps the last word (or, rather, the last word and picture) should go to that modern master of the idiom, Lane Smith. In his new picturebook, It’s a Book (Roaring Book Press, 2010), Smith’s ape tries to explain to Jackass that the thing he is holding is called a book. Among the stream of questions asked by Jackass are: ‘How do you scroll down?’, ‘Does it need a password?’, ‘Can you tweet?’ and ‘Can you make the characters fight?’. When Jackass eventually gets the hang of this strange object, ape is forced to enquire ‘Are you going to give my book back?’. ‘No,’ replies Jackass.”

As fascinating and rich as Children’s Picturebooks is, it suffers one conspicuous contradiction — with its concern with the format and future of the book, and its multitude of references to other books and historical materials, a kind of baked-in framework for truly networked knowledge, it would have, and should have, easily lent itself to the digital medium, where each of the dozens of books mentioned would be linked and explorable in rich media. Still, it remains a rigorously researched and compellingly curated survey of a tremendously important storytelling medium, one that equips young minds with a fundamental understanding not only of the world but also of its visual language.

Captioned images courtesy of Lawrence King Publishers

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16 FEBRUARY, 2012

Urville: An Autistic Savant’s Remarkable Imaginary City, 20 Years in the Making

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A rare glimpse of the extreme frontiers of human ability and imagination.

With its population of 12 million, its formidable architecture, and its extensive infrastructure, Urville, the capital of a large island province, is one of Europe’s most important cities. If your geographic confidence is beginning to quiver and crumble, you can exhale — Urville is entirely imaginary.

For the past 20 years, French autistic savant Gilles Trehin has been devising and developing this fanciful megacity, from the remarkable architectural detail to the thoughtful cultural context rooted in real world history, including WWII’s impact on the city and how the forces of globalization are changing its fabric. For instance, on the French Revolution:

In 1789, during the French Revolution, Urville has 2.8 millions inhabitants, but the number of habitations became too limited to host the huge population growth due to the Industrial Revolution. In order to cope, the authorities of Urville call upon the famous town-planner Oscar Laballière (1803/ 1883) to start gigantic urban projects which are still outlining Urville even today.”

Urville gathers 300 of Trehin’s meticulous, obsessive drawings and sets the door ajar to this complex and intricately woven alternate reality, inviting you in. It’s part Stephen Wiltshire’s panoramas, part Gregory Blackstock’s lists, part Jerry’s Map — an utterly original.

At its heart, Urville offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a savant, the artistic equivalent of Daniel Tammet’s linguistic and mathematical prowess.

Thanks, Wy

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08 FEBRUARY, 2012

Da Vinci’s Ghost: How The Vitruvian Man Came To Be

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Fifteen centuries of combinatorial creativity, or what Leonardo’s to-do list has to do with ancient Rome.

In the first century B.C., at the dawn of the Roman imperial age, the architect and thinker Vitruvius proposed that the human body could fit inside a circle, symbolic of the divine, and a square, associated with the earthly and secular — an idea that later became known as the theory of the microcosm, and came to power European religious, scientific, and artistic ideologies for centuries. Some fifteen hundred years later, in 1487, Leonardo da Vinci rediscovered Vitruvius’s theories and put them into form. Thus, the Vitruvian Man was born — one of humanity’s most powerful, iconic, and enduring images, and a cornerstone of mapping the body, dominating visual culture in everything from books to billboards. Yet its story is far more complex than that, and its enigma far richer than a handful of historical factoids. This is exactly what Toby Lester unravels in Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image — a fascinating century-wide saga that explores how Leonardo set out to expand the metaphysical horizons of his art by studying the proportions and anatomy of the human body and its relationship with the cosmos, and ultimately created a visceral impression of Renaissance thought itself in the process.

Lester observes:

At a superficial level, [Vitruvian Man] is simply a study of individual proportions. But it’s also something far more subtle and complex. It’s a profound act of philosophical speculation. It’s an idealized portrait in which Leonardo, stripped down to his essence, takes his own measure and, in doing so, embodies a timeless human hope: that we just might have the power of mind to figure out how we fit into the grand scheme of things.”

The story, spanning a wealth of disciplines, cultures, and eras, unfolds through two parallel threads — one tracing Leonardo’s individual journey, and one weaving together the collective narrative of the people and ideas who filled and filtered the fifteen centuries between Vitruvius and Da Vinci. Among them are ancient Greek sculptors, early Christian and Muslim philosophers, Renaissance architects and anatomists, and Poggio Bracciolini, the book-hunter credited with starting the Renaissance.

Leonardo was also a voracious information omnivore, a quality so fundamental to the very networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity that no doubt enabled him to create the Vitruvian Man. He always carried a notebook with him and was known to have owned at least 45. Lester writes of the journals:

These notes reveal Leonardo in his perpetually ravenous information-gathering mode. Benedictine monks, obscure medieval treatises, university professors, popular guidebooks, accountants, itinerant merchants, foreign diplomats, artillerymen, military engineers, waterworks experts: all are fair game to him as he hunts for information about subjects that interest him.”

To complement Robert Krulwich’s NPR story about the book, my supremely talented friend Wendy MacNaughton (remember her?) drew this lovely illustrated to-do list based on a page from one of Da Vinci’s notebooks circa the 1490s:

More than a treasure trove of historical ephemera — though it certainly is that, with its generous selection of rare archival images that capture the evolution of Vitruvian Man — Da Vinci’s Ghost is also a profound reflection on humanity’s timeless obsession with untangling the intricate relationship between the physical and the metaphysical in our quest to better understand what we are and where we belong in the universe.

Complement with the psychology of what makes a to-do list successful.

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31 JANUARY, 2012

Paris vs. New York: Minimalist Illustrated Parallels of Culture

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Macaron vs. cupcake, Proust vs. Salinger, bobo vs. hipster, bordeaux vs. cosmo.

For the past two years, graphic designer Vahram Muratyan, a self-described “lover of Paris wandering through New York,” has been chronicling the peculiarities and contradictions of the two cities through “a friendly visual match” of minimalist illustrated parallel portraits. Today, Muratyan joins the finest blog-turned-books with Paris versus New York: A Tally of Two Cities — an absolutely charming collection of these vibrant visual dichotomies and likenesses. From beverages to beards, hands to houses, Muratyan captures the intricacies of cultural difference in a way that blends the minimalist and playful visual whimsy of Noma Bar’s Guess Who? with the side-by-side parallelism of Mark Laita’s Created Equal to deliver something entirely new and entirely delightful.

la romantique

le café

l'obsession

(You might recall the above from the excellent Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language.)

le roman

la barbe

le matin

les mains

la façade

le réalisateur

l'apéro

Many of these gems are available as prints on Society6, one of the best places to find affordable art. A set of postcards is being released shortly.

Images courtesy of Vahram Muratyan / Penguin

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.