This week, I took a trip to the capital again. It was for illustrative purposes though so it doesn’t count as a holiday.
As we all know, the best kind of procrastination is the kind we can pretend is work 🙂
So this, definitely-work-related trip involved spending many, MANY hours in laughably enormous London bookshops (for work. Of course.)
I will say, central London definitely doesn’t do things by halves. The Picadilly Waterstones has become a frequent haunt for me on recent visits and still has yet to fail to astound me with its vastness, it is simply a Goliath! I get serious thigh burn every visit from just meandering from section to section (because, you know, book shop work out right? I ain’t usin’ no lift!)
The reason I thought I’d mention this week’s visit to this literary colloseum, was because of a current, lovely little surprise I’d happened across that I think needs a little shout out. Naturally, my feet had auto-piloted to the children’s floor (not department, floor. A WHOLE FLOOR) where I discovered the most beautifully displayed arrangement of sketchbook and back up work from Nobrow’s ever talented, William Grill.
Now on his second publication with Flying Eye, Grill’s backup work astounded me by it’s sheer elegance. I’m not really a gallery guy, I don’t think illustration should be kept on white walls or in glass cases, but this small collection, was just enough and was displayed perfectly to give insight into the adoration of drawing that’s so apparent in his books, without any pretension or grandia. Grill’s doodlings and planning were methodical and detailed, speaking with the same delicacy as his finished penciled books and is painfully neat and organised.
If the exhibit hadn’t been so carefully designed; the tools of his trade and collected samples of inspiration scattered amongst his working pages, I’d probably have had some kind of breakdown at the lacking visual power of my own, heinous behind-the-scenes. But I digress, if you are in the area (or lost/ following a trail of thread in the labyrinthine bookshop) I highly recommend checking out these snippets of genius. It will make you sick with envy, but such is the nature of Nobrow’s artistic catalogue.
So, having spent several hours browsing, drooling and drawing a yak in a hat in Waterstones, I thought it was probably the wise move for my wallet to move on. So I did. Right into multistory bookshop numero deux: Foyles. Which actually brings us to the main purpose of my London exercise in bookstore-navigation.
The good people Foyles had been illustrator collecting, and kindly (and reasonably, at only a mere £5 per ticket!) thrown together a lineup of top quality talent for a panel discussion event: The Power of Pictures. It was little wonder that the event was packed up to the rafters with an all start cast of Benji Davies, Jean Jullien, Marion Deuchars and Oliver Jeffers. Those of you who are familiar with the works of these contemporary picture book giants, will understand what a fab mix of approaches this panel represented and there was no way I was going to miss out on this, simply because I happen to live three hours away. Oh no.
I’ve attended a lot of talks and lectures from talents within the arts, and panel events are by far the most successful in my opinion. Lectures can easily fall into an overview of one career, which while interesting on a personal level, they can fail to get into the meat of what is IS to make successful commercial art.
Yet this event did just that. Featuring talents from all over the spectrum of the, once shamefully named ‘commercial’ arts, these four powerhouses of creativity have all ended up in the field of picture books and each spoke with a unique voice (both visual and literal) that channels the experience of their past works.
Yes, of course the basics were covered. The topics of ‘style’ and the questions of best visual mediums; the digital means vs traditional debate, yet with a string of different opinions and experiences involved, The Power of Pictures was able to extend further than the realms of an ordinary lecture may allow.
“For me, it’s not so much a strategic decision, but more of a guttural reaction to what is suitable”
– Davies on artistic material
The insightful discussion branched into all aspects of the picture book field, from creation through the publishing process to the more practical aspects of the market and its constant progression. Each members’ approach to the field seemed to tether their visual styles to them and, in analysis of their thought process, they all offered insight into the vital hows and whys their work has reached the artistic notoriety that they all respectively have.
The art of storytelling has truly ceased to be about simply nice pictures to accompany authored words, and become about the artists’ personal approach to storytelling. Traditional artist, Jeffers insisted that book illustrators are trying to “buy immortality”, as it allows their own ideas to exist instead of working to illustrate a company’s brief in a manner akin to the fine artist. The, previously editorial, Deuchars saw all commercial arts as a form of selling, it was simply the content that changed: “…[ book illustration] is not selling a product; you’re selling a story,” And unsurprisingly, the very graphic Jullien spoke in the true voice of a designer, assessing any story as an exercise in “problem solving.”
“Obviously you don’t have to illustrate the words.”- Deuchars
Clearly, there is no particular correct channel here, as all four approaches have lead to beautiful, successful children’s books; each with its own unique credit. What became clear was that all four artists did agree on one vital point: that their book work was in no way tailored to the audience in a way that compromised themselves. While there were little guidelines in creating for children (Davies’s shared anecdote of being encouraged by publishers to lose reality’s logical whale size for the sake of the story’s progression in his beautiful The Storm Whale) each member of the panel never felt they were trying to reach into an unfamiliar head space. Far from it. While their books are all enjoyed by children, none considered this a particular driver in the execution of such works. In fact, there was an agreement that it would be counterproductive to attempt to enter the mind of a child, as it brings restrictions to your readership.
“Writing stories for children, you really have to switch the left brain off.” – Deuchars
Jeffers refuses to acknowledge his works as children’s books at all, instead plumping for the term ‘picture book’ so that there can be no division; he makes his books because he wants to, which differentiates such works from his previous commercial endeavors. Jullien too, asserted that to try and artificially enter the head space of a child would be to talk down to them, creating a dividing and inauthentic story, a point seconded by Davies.
It was , for me, Deuchars who hit the jackpot regarding this question of readership, with an assertion that stuck with me throughout the rest of the night. She claimed that in creating a story, the key is conveying emotion; and if that has been done correctly, the age of the viewer is irrelevant. As a constant analyser of my own visual narratives with a view to assess where their strengths and weaknesses may lie and why, I found myself unintentionally nodding along like a plastic bulldog in a shopping trolley. In my experience, social understanding and emotional empathy is something people almost always have a handle on, regardless of age, knowledge or experience. I believe that to tap into that IS to communicate, and in my practice I think I will always drive to do this as successfully as the current market’s dream team that sat before me.
From here, the discussion traveled through question’s of collaboration in storytelling and the pros, cons and preferences of working with authors and other creatives. The self-assured Oliver Jeffers seemingly adored the exclusivity of indulging in his own, unique creations, yet positively acknowledged the impact of working alongside a good editor. Often considered a lonely practice, analogies were flying as the illustrators attempted to verbalise their feelings towards collaboration. Davies likening it to creating a film in which “you have to play all the roles” and Deuchars, considered it the chemistry of a marriage. Jullien, as one might expect from a designer, wholly relished the practice of bouncing off of other practitioners as it “pushes [him] to forget [his] own uncertainties.”
“It takes the right people to show you the way”- Jullien
The closing topic of the night, was another that seemed to bring unanimity to the diverse opinions of the panel. I was surprised and overjoyed, that it was a feeling that I had come to hold very strongly myself in critiquing my own work: that the designing of a character held the key to any story.
It sounds so self explanatory, yet in a sea of beautiful artists making beautiful books, it’s easy to forget the basics in lieu of making a more expansive, original or beautiful image. While many discussed elements of the panel’s practices had depended on individual preference, this really seemed to be a non negotiable. To have a character was to have a story. The team were all in agreement that they had labored over getting the look of their protagonists right. From Deuchars demandingly ‘drawing a bird doing yoga’ to ensure she had the movement right, to Davies laboring over each pixel to ensure the eyes were in exactly the right place, the look and feel of a character is the key to that vital emotional engagement. Jeffers and Jullien were in agreement that in removing facial details, character simplicity can bring you the freedom to create the emotions you need to evoke and I was reminded of Alexis Deacon’s similar assertions at masterclass event I attended a year or so ago.
“One Pixel makes ALL the difference.”- Davies
Ultimately, I left London that night buzzing with inspiration. The panel had all shared their plethora of approaches to the same practice with honesty and analytical insight that I felt truly engaged in the life of picture book illustration. Each practitioner stepped to a different tune, yet each had developed a unique and curious visual distinction to call theirs.
“Illustration is about what you, the illustrator, choose to focus on.”- Jullien
Their paths had been carved from confidence in their own convictions and an understanding of their visual language. Instinct undoubtedly plays a role, but they had not simply drawn things to be pretty, instead analysing and laboring over what they had wanted their images to convey. The world of words is a separate beast to the language of pictures and the work of each of the panel artists is a perfect illustration of the vitality of combining the two with intelligence and intent. For me, Deuchars had summarised the secret to story telling in picture books with a comment on character, accurately asserting that ‘without a character you can make a beautiful book, but you don’t emotionally engage in the story.”
I thought back to Grill’s wonderful pencil landscapes in Waterstones, and had wanted to disagree. But while Grill’s landscapes ARE utterly beautiful, they are just that – beautiful imagery. It could be the biases and figurative subject of my own work talking, but for me, the work that sang in that glass cabinet (and indeed the pages of the finished article) were his working sketches of the dogs, his loose depictions of the people, his developments of the characters.
The landscapes were made MORE beautiful by the figure of a husky gazing out towards them, because suddenly, I was engaged. The involvement of character invites narrative to a scene; it asks for emotive understanding. Characters make a book a book. Without them, Grill’s could have been very attractive non-fiction. A quirky, historical workbook. With them, it is an engaging, contemporary retelling of historical tales.
Not that, I hasten to add, beautiful workbooks would be anything to sniff at, of course. Non-fiction in it’s original, un-narrated form is still a valued and important member of the bookshelf, but it is a separate beast from a story book. And it was just that: the passion for story books; for narratives and characters that packed out the Foyles auditorium with people from all around the country that evening.
Once more, I am reminded how wonderfully diverse this picture book bag is. All approaches are entirely different and equally valued. There is space and place for every kind of book these days and the vast shelves of these wondrous bookstores are brimming with talent and creative magic. You don’t have to draw the words. You don’t have to have words. There are no hard rules, aside from simply caring and investing in the subject.
And the results are numerous, surprising and precious. There is emotion, there is character, there is always narrative. This week I have again been reminded of the real power of pictures. In all their glorious forms.