One of the most meaningful, impactful and profound undertakings an artist can embark on is to illustrate a children’s storybook. An illustration, in the context of a children’s book, can be much more than a simple drawing. Through it, children acquire a visual language and cultivate their first taste for beauty.
When implemented in a thoughtful manner, the illustrations in our children’s favorite books serve to stimulate important cognitive concepts such as memory, imagination, creativity, critical thinking and perhaps most importantly, a love for reading.
So in essence, the art found in illustrated storybooks is not just for adorning the page, it is a message; one that reaches far deeper than most of us truly comprehend.
Every child you encounter is a divine appointmentWess Stafford, An author, former president, CEO of Compassion International and an advocate for children
Therefore, given the potential for the illustrated image to impact children’s mental development so thoroughly, it only makes sense to learn a bit about the different design styles and techniques that are available to artists interested in making a change and making a difference in our little one’s lives.
Current illustration techniques have had a long time to develop into their current expressions. The illustrated book has existed in some way, shape, or form since the advent of the written word; however, the first modern children’s book is thought to be A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, written and published by John Newbery, in 1744.
Current techniques help to contribute meaning and subtext to the written words, and sometimes illustrations themselves tell the story, with an almost total absence of words. As Martin Salisbury so eloquently puts it in his seminal book on children’s book illustrations, “drawing is the fundamental language.”
Drawing from Life: The first technique that aspiring illustrators should strive to master is drawing from life. Bypassing the plethora of second and third-hand imagery that bombards us constantly in our day to day lives, and drawing directly what the artist sees around him enables him to establish a deeply personal connection to the world around him. Drawing from life feeds the imagination and incites creativity.
Self-portraits and location sketches are great starting points for children’s book illustrations.
Drawing children and animals, especially in groups, is a fundamental skill for the aspiring storybook illustrator. Their different proportions, movements, and gestures are fantastic tools for instilling dynamism and flow to any drawing.
Watercolor: Watercolor is one of the most popular techniques used in children’s illustrations. Watercolor is highly functional and does not require the possession of many utensils nor a high degree of technical skill, at least initially. However, watercolor requires a significant degree of forward-planning due to its transparent nature. One must always work from light to dark when working with watercolor.
Acrylics: Nothing beats the bright, bold, and vibrant versatility provided by acrylic paint. The fast drying times and the wide spectrum of available colors makes acrylic paint a perfect match for thousands of artists around the world. Acrylic paint also allows the use of a large variety of mediums and surfaces. Acrylics can also be easily combined with other media to achieve a collage composition to significant effect.
Pastels: Oil and chalk pastels are another popular choice for children’s storybook illustrators. The latter is especially predominant in the industry because it allows artists the ability to add subtlety to the piece. Chalk pastels are also perfect for blending colors due to their dusty texture which allows for physically “rubbing” the colors together to achieve a much-desired softness.
Black–and–White Work: Black and white drawings are highly evocative if a bit unorthodox for children’s storybooks. Perhaps the black and white line drawing techniques are more suited for older children’s books. Pen, Ink, and Brushwork are highly suited to this color scheme, but these styles require a high technical skill.
Pen Work: Colored felt-tip pens are used to create illustrations with clear contours, clean colors, and sharp tones. As the color is indelible and transparent once it dries, illustrators take advantage of this quality to easily superimpose images with minimal mixing.
Colored Pencils: Colored pencils offer an easy to learn and difficult to master technique. Colored pencils are best used for small formats since the intensity of their tone is less than that of other media; however, colored pencils afford artists the ability to include a high degree of detail to the images being illustrated. Colored pencils are also highly complementary of watercolors since they can provide the drawing with starker shading and more volume than the softer watercolors can.
Screen–Printing: Since the advent of the printing press, various printing methods have emerged that facilitate the rapid illustration of children’s books. Amongst the most popular of these methods, we find woodcut, linocut, and screen printing. Printing methods typically require that the artist have access to specialized equipment and thus is not a practical technique for smaller sized projects.
Digital: A plethora of state-of-the-art computer software suites are available on the market; these provide artists with a multitude of powerful illustration tools. These computer programs allow artists to paint faster than ever before, have multiple variations of a single piece, and quickly make revisions and correct mistakes. However, many artists see digital art as a lesser form because much of the artistic work is done by a machine.
The future is bright and colorful
The inexorable advance of the e-book, which many experts predicted would consume the publishing industry, has not had much of an impact on the illustrated children’s book. You see, the illustrated children’s storybook is the product of an amalgamation of a series of timeless artistic, literary, and editorial processes.
As the digital world continues to mature, the visual image will only take a more front and center position in our collective consciousness. The illustrated book will continue to incite, inspire, and elucidate. Artists will continue to find new and exciting ways to transfer the fruits of their imagination to the page, and the techniques involved will continue to grow and deepen.
The medium will continue to mature and redefine itself, but it will never completely disappear.