Friday, December 18, 2009

Vintage Christmas

Mark and I are leaving for Omaha on Monday to spend Christmas with his mom, sisters and family.  Since I have a million things to do before we leave, I don't have time to do a regular entry in my blog.  Instead I thought I would post some vintage Christmas cards that I found among my mom's things when I cleaned out her house a few years ago.   You can click on the images to see them larger.  I hope you enjoy them.  Merry Christmas everyone!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Favorites in Pen and Ink

I've always had a fondness for drawings created with pen and ink or scratchboard.  Maybe that's because I've always found drawing with pen and ink somewhat intimidating and I admire those who can do it well.  When working with pen and ink, you not only have to be careful about not spilling or dripping your ink, but you have to have a good plan of where you're going with your drawing.  If your not careful with your crosshatching and shading, you can overdo it and end up with areas that are too dark.  This becomes even more of a problem if your drawing is to be scaled down for publication.

But when a pen and ink or a scratchboard drawing is done well, it can create a feeling of drama, delicacy or even energy. Three of my favorite children's book illustrators who have worked in these mediums are Maurice Sendak, Erik Blegvad and John Schoenherr.
The first Sendak illustrated book that I was ever aware of was one someone gave to my mother when I was very young. It was a little book written by Ruth Krauss called "A Hole is to Dig."  It has since been reissued in combination with another Krauss/Sendak collaboration, "Open House for Butterflies."  Both books are very charming and consist of Krauss's funny definitions like "A hole is to dig," "Dogs are to kiss people," "Snow is to roll in," "Buttons are to keep people warm," all accompanied by Maurice Sendak's wonderful pen and ink illustrations.  As children, my sister and I use to look at this book over and over again.  Many of the two page spreads are filled with details that keep the reader lingering on the page long after the minimal text has been read.

Erik Blegvad is a Danish artist, who even though he has illustrated over a hundred books is relatively unknown in this country.  Maybe I should say he's not a household word like Sendak, but then few illustrators are.  Blegvad also works in pen and ink, sometimes in black and white, but often his drawings are delicately colored with watercolor.  I believe many of his books are out of print but two that I know of are still available: "Around My Room," a book of poems by William Jay Smith, and "Mud Pies and Other Recipes, a Cookbook for Dolls." "Mud Pies..." is a sweet and funny little book with actual recipes on how to combine various elements like mud, leaves, dirt, sand etc. to create meals and desserts for your dolls.  Like Sendak's work in "A Hole is to Dig," Blegvad fills his illustrations with lots of interesting details.  Often there will be little dogs or cats somewhere in his pictures which always include lots of children involved in various activities.

I think my first exposure to Blegvad was from a calendar he created for Woman's Day magazine (which my mom subscribed to) in 1964.  I turned ten years old that year, and Blegvad's calendar captivated me enough that I cut it out of the magazine, strung it together by punching holes in the top margins and tied the pages together with string through the holes.  I still have it and I still love looking at the sweet illustrations.  One thing that I find striking about his illustration of a classroom for the month of May, is that he depicted an integrated classroom, which I think must have been a rather daring thing to do in 1964.

One book that is worth hunting down is his illustrated sketchbook called "Self Portrait: Erik Blegvad," which was published in 1979.  It is out of print but I easily found a used copy online.

An interesting fact is that Erik Blegvad's son, Peter is also an artist whose work "The Book of Leviathan" is a collection of his Levi and Cat's adventures, a comic strip that ran in The Independent on Sunday, a British newspaper.
One of my all time favorite books as a child was "Rascal" by Sterling North, based on North's youthful experiences in raising a wild raccoon.  The illustrations in it by John Schoenherr, which I believe are done in scratchboard, wonderfully evoke the WWI era in which the story takes place.  I love this portrait of the young Sterling with Rascal on his shoulder, framed in an oval that reminds the viewer of a turn of the century photograph.  And the picture of Sterling reading a book while sitting in a tree with Rascal conked out on a higher limb is one of my favorites.

Schoenherr also works in other mediums including watercolor.  He won the Caldecott Medal for his illustrations created for Jane Yolen's "Owl Moon," and also wrote and illustrated "Rebel," a story of a gosling who gets separated from his mother.  Interestingly, Schoenherr, like Blegvad, also has a son who is an illustrator.  John's son, Ian Schoenherr illustrated "Newf," by Marie Killilea and many others including "Read It, Don't Eat It," one of several that he also wrote.

By the way, Rascal was reissued a few years ago and the reproductions in it were terrible, many of the fine detail lines were missing, choked out by the black ink.  They looked like copies made from poor copies.  If you're interested in seeing these illustrations, look for an older copy of this book.  Sadly, the same thing seems to have happened with another book illustrated by Schoenherr, "Incident at Hawk's Hill," by Allan W. Eckert.  My copy of this book was purchased in 1996.  I have not seen earlier editions so I don't have anything to compare them to, but the illustrations in my copy are very dark and muddy looking, I doubt that this is the way that they were meant to look.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

More Books That Remind Me of My Childhood . . .

I have a hard time getting rid of old books.  Actually, not just old books, but old toys, paper ephemera, etc.  Each item that I've saved is connected with a memory.  Since memories help to make us who we are, I feel that if I part with something old of mine that is connected with a memory, than that memory will eventually fade away and a part of my life will be gone.  I guess my sentimental nature also plays a role in my desire to save things.  Because of this, I still have in my possession, most of the books that I owned as a child.

Two books that hold memories of my childhood are two different Deluxe Golden Books - "The Fairy Tale Book," and "The Snow Queen and Other Tales."  "The Fairy Tale Book" was a Christmas gift to me from my parents in 1961.  I know the year, because my mother inscribed it on the title page.  It says "Vincent from Mother and Dad," but even though my father is mentioned, I know that this book was my mother's idea.  She always claimed that she believed in fairies, so fairy tales were very special to her.  I was a little over six years old on that Christmas.  After all of my presents had been opened, I remember taking this oversized storybook back to my bedroom and spending a long time looking at the beautiful illustrations by Adrienne Ségur.  The cover on this book is another of those illustrations that I use to love to stare at, studying the details, imagining what was going on in the scene. At that age, I still believed in the possibility of finding a magical tea party taking place beneath the gnarled roots of a tree.

The book contains 28 traditional stories from all over the world.  The cover illustration comes from the story "The Seven Crow Princes," a Brothers Grimm tale.  All of the illustrations in the book are very sumptuous and filled with wonderful details, like the woodland plants and the costumes seen in the illustration from "Bright, Deardeer, and Kit," by Madame la Comtesse de Ségur (above left) or the finery worn by the cat in this illustration from "Queen Cat," by Madame d'Aulnoy.

A year or two after I received that book, I received a companion volume called "The Snow Queen and Other Tales," with more tales translated by Marie Ponsot and illustrations once again by Adrienne Ségur.  The stories in this book are from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and a selection of traditional Russian fairy tales.  The last half of the book is filled by "The Nutcracker," by Alexandre Dumas.  The cover illustration is from that story.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale "The Snow Queen" has always been a favorite of mine.  My first exposure to the tale was from a 1957 Russian animated film that was dubbed in English with the voices of Sandra Dee as Gerda, Tommy Kirk as Kay, Louise Arthur as the Snow Queen and with an English prologue by Art Linkletter.  The animation in this film was beautiful and I found the tale very haunting.  I think my obvious enjoyment of this film is probably what prompted my mother to give me this volume.  On the right is an illustration from "The Snow Queen."

"The Fairy Tale Book" was reissued five or six years ago with a slightly altered title, "The Golden Book of Fairy Tales," but it is the same book and it is readily available. "The Snow Queen and Other Tales" has also been reissued but with a different cover illustration.  This time the illustration is one chosen from "The Snow Queen," (and not "The Nutcracker," which was featured on the original cover) which makes sense considering the title of the volume.  Unfortunately "The Snow Queen" volume seems to have already gone out of print and is only available in very expensive used copies. 

Friday, December 04, 2009

Tribute to an untapped talent

In yesterday's post I mentioned my mother's dreams of becoming a commercial artist.  Though she never achieved that goal, she did leave behind a number of drawings, sketches and a few paintings.  She did a handful of paintings on wood panels that we've had in our family since my earliest memories.  For awhile some of them hung in my sister's childhood bedroom. When we sold that house after the death of my father, some of the things that we wanted to keep were sent to my house for storage and safekeeping, until my sister and I could sort them out and decide who gets what.  These wood panel paintings were some of those things that I've been in custody of since 2005, the year the house sold.

I'm not sure what year my mother painted these, but I think it was while she was a teenager, in the early to mid 1930s.  My mother always encouraged me in my artistic pursuits and she was very up front when I did something that she didn't think was good.  I don't remember her criticizing the work I did as a child, but I do remember a few critical comments she made about work that I did as an adult.  But she always encouraged me to draw and to take art lessons.  Sometimes I think she may have been living her artistic pursuits vicariously through me.  I wish that she had been able to continue her studies in art and had been able to practice her artistic skills.  I would love to have seen where she would have gone with them if she had been able to continue.  Since she never had the chance to be published during her lifetime, I thought that putting some of her work on my blog might be a nice way of commemorating her talents.

I think the painting of Peter Pan is probably my favorite.  I love the way that Peter's shadow is painted in a flat color, perfectly mimicking his pose as he leaps through the window.  I also love the somewhat off kilter perspective that makes you feel, as the viewer, that you are also flying above the bed and the sleeping Wendy.   In the painting with the child praying at his mother's knee, I do like the composition and use of color, especially the way that she has a large vertical yellow block of color to the left behind the mother with a horizontal green block beneath it.  The green is picked up again in the vertical shape of the curtains.  The blue in the mother's dress is echoed in the panes of the window.  The only pattern, other than the window panes, is seen in the chair's base and the ottoman upon which the child kneels.  The figure of the mother and child are a nice contrast to the abstract, geometric background.

I love these pieces for a number of reasons.  First, and most obviously because they were painted by my mother at a time in her life when she still had hopes and dreams.  But I also love them for their innocent subject matter and their somewhat naive execution.  From clippings that I've found among my mother's things, along with her sketches, I know that the artwork that she created was often copied from other sources.  I don't think she always had enough confidence in her skills in order to be able to draw from memory or imagination, so she often used other works as reference.  Often they were people in advertisements or other children's book illustrations.  What she chose to draw or paint were always things that appealed to her and to her imagination.  If she saw an illustration that she particularly liked, she often tried to see if she could draw (or paint) it herself.  I don't know where she got the ideas for these wood panel paintings or if she copied them from other sources, but I do know that in her execution of them, she managed to make them charmingly her own.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Correspondence School

In case any of you are wondering where the name of my blog, "Light and Shade," comes from, I'll explain.  When I decided to start this blog, I was trying to come up with a title that would make some sort of reference to either the act of drawing or the way we see images.  As I scanned my bookshelves for inspiration, I came across the title of a book that once belonged to my mother.  The book is called "How to Draw the Head in Light & Shade," by Edward Renggli.   The last part of the book's title "Light and Shade" jumped out at me as the perfect name for this blog.  One element of the act of drawing involves interpreting what we see in terms of light areas and dark areas, so "Light and Shade," seemed perfect.

The book is a slim little volume, less than a hundred pages. As you can see from the image in the upper left, the dust jacket on my copy is nearly ripped to shreds (I've got it protected under a clear mylar book cover). It is a book that I remember my mom having on her bookshelf from my earliest memories.

My mother had at one time had ambitions to be a commercial artist. She had even enrolled in the Famous Artists correspondence school - you know the one that used to be advertised on the inside of matchbooks asking if you could draw this man (or sometimes it was a cartoon turtle). The add went on to say something like, "if you can draw him, then you might have what it takes to be an artist." My mom signed up, received the three volumes of lessons and course work and began doing the assignments.  Unfortunately, she was sidetracked when my older brother was born. I was born 20 months after that, and then in another 20 months, along came my sister. With three kids under the age of four, there went my mother's free time to finish the course, and also her dreams of a career in art. Anyway, I still have the Famous Artists correspondence books that she received and they served as my first introduction to the world of illustration. The books still contain some of my mother's finished assignments.  At the end of each chapter, there was an assignment description and a page with an example of what you were to copy.  To the right of that was a blank space where you were supposed to create your copy of the work.  After you finished the assignment, you would mail it in and then it would be sent back to you with a tracing paper overlay that would have criticisms and comments written on it in red pencil.  You can see an example of one of my mom's assignments in the image on the upper right (unfortunately my scanner's bed wasn't big enough to scan the entire page, but I think you get the idea).

The three volumes are actually really great and they are where I first learned about many things related to illustration - anatomy (there are black and white photos of naked women and men in nothing but jock straps.  Pretty shocking considering this was the early 1950s!), how to mix shades of gray using gouache, how to do cross-hatching, how to draw folds in clothes and drapery, mixing colors, how to draw animals, and more.  The books also contain examples from many of the top magazine and book illustrators of the time, people like Norman Rockwell, Albert Dorne, Ben Stahl, and Jon Whitcomb.  I use to spend time copying images from this book and I still find the books useful for their lessons on perspective and anatomy and still reference them on occasion.  These volumes are over fifty years old now and I count them among my most treasured possessions.

Books that remind me of childhood, Part 1

My original intention for this blog was to write about illustration - either pieces that I'm working on, or the work of artists that have influenced me.  Many of the artists that have influenced me are those that I was exposed to from my childhood.  One of those artists was Garth Williams.  Probably the first book of his that I ever saw was "The Tall Book of Make-Believe," with stories selected by Jane Werner and published by Harper & Row.

All of the illustrations in this book are wonderful.  As a child, even the front and back covers fascinated me with its grassy wrap-around image where a little gnome draws water from a well, a little bear scribbles a note, a pixie waters a flower, a bunny pops out of a hole, and on and on.  To this day, I love illustrations that require you to spend time looking at them, searching for the many small details and activities that are taking place within the picture.

There are many illustrations in this book that I will always associate with memories of my childhood.  One is from a story called "Georgie" about a little ghost looking for a new house to haunt.  This illustration of the scary Mr. Gloams opening his door and frightening the little ghost is one that has always stayed with me. Once again, there are all sorts of things taking place within the image - several mice scamper across the ceiling beam, a bat hovers near the rafters, a couple of spiders spin their webs, a fire roars in the fireplace, and there are all sorts of other interesting things laying about in this very haunted looking room.  But what is most memorable to me is the old, red-nosed man with his cauliflower ear, bald head, and one-toothed grin, holding up his lantern as a very scared Georgie dashes out the door.

Another memorable illustration is from the story "The Very Mischief," by Lesley Frost, a story where all sorts of unusual things happen, not the least of which is alligators in the bathtub, a zebra kicking holes through a wall, a polar bear "hunting for ice in the frigidaire" and a tea party where fairies are using a pitcher of lemonade as a swimming hole.  Once again, this is an illustration with lots of activity and fun details that keep the viewer looking at it for quite a while.

The copyright on this book is 1950, but it was reprinted in 1992.  Unfortunately that printing has gone out of print and the book appears to be only available in used copies.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I’ve long admired the children’s books illustrated by David Small.  “The Gardener,” which he illustrated and was written by his wife Sarah Stewart, is a favorite of mine.   His latest book, “Stitches,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award in the young people’s literature category is a memoir written in the form of a comic. There are many such memoirs out there, but this one blows most of the others off of the shelf.  Small’s expressive line drawings colored with simple gray washes reminded me of the work of Will Eisner (who is often credited with inventing the graphic novel) but in its emotional intensity this one has few peers.  There are many panels that have no dialog in them at all, where you scan the panels and absorb the images in much the same way you would while watching a film.  The facial expressions of the various characters are so beautifully drawn that you immediately know their state of mind.  From the puzzlement and fear of the young David, to the smoldering anger of his mother, and the wrath of his demented grandmother, the line work says it all.  This is the story of a young boy growing up in a home filled with repressed anger and loveless parents, who in order to survive escapes into books and his own fantasies.  As you witness the trials that David is forced to undergo as he grows up, the book is sometimes painful to read, but the artistry and power of the author’s words and images keep you enthralled and by the book’s moving end, you may want to start reading it all over again.