Friday, January 20, 2012

Barbara Cooney in Black and White

In a career that spanned six decades, artist Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) illustrated over one hundred children's books. She twice received the Caldecott award for best picture book, in 1957 for "Chanticleer and the Fox," and in 1979 for "Ox-Cart Man," by Donald Hall.  I first became aware of her books while I was working in a bookstore in Washington state. I think the first one that I read was "Miss Rumphius," her 1982 American Book Award winning story of a woman who sets out to make the world a more beautiful place by planting lupines everywhere. Cooney considered this book to be a part of what she called her trilogy, which also contained "Island Boy" (1988) and "Hattie and the Wild Waves" (1990).  In the book "Children's Books and Their Creators," edited by Anita Silvey,  Cooney is quoted as saying that the books in this trilogy "come as close to any autobiography as I will ever get."

Miss Rumphius and her later books were created in color using acrylic paint and Prismacolor pencils, but some of her earlier works were done in black and white.  On a recent trip to our public library's children's classics section, I discovered one of her earlier books, a 1949 compilation of stories and poems compiled by the Child Association of America, called "Read Me Another Story." This book is filled with charming scratchboard illustrations that give us a glimpse into Cooney's style from the first decade of her illustration career.

Here is how Cooney described the beginnings of her career: "In the beginning I worked in black and white, that being the most economical for the publisher. I yearned for color. 'But,' said my editor, 'you have no color sense.' Still yearning for color, I accepted the discouraging pronouncement. Eventually a little color was allowed - sometimes two colors, sometimes three. But each color had to be painted on a separate sheet of paper. These were called 'overlays.' One art director hoped to convince me that working with these separations was 'the purest form of illustration.' But I found it tedious."

Looking at these beautiful black and white illustrations from "Read Me Another Story," I don't think that the addition of color would add anything to their charm.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

How to Create an Art Nouveau Illustration

A little over two years ago, I started creating a series of illustrations that I could sell as prints in my Etsy shop and also to be used on T-shirts in my CafePress store.  I have called this series Celestial Creatures because each illustration features an animal (real or mythological) that has had a constellation named after it. After buying a book on Alphonse Mucha, I decided to create these images in an Art Nouveau style.

My latest illustration was for the southern constellation Tucana, the Toucan.

Before beginning, I gathered some reference images from the internet. I sketched my final image of the toucan, based on a composite of several reference photos.

I based some of my Art Nouveau floral shapes on some of the shapes in Mucha's work.

I created the image in Corel Painter 11 and started with a simple digital pencil sketch, which I refined as I went along.  At this stage, I also began to play around with the type that would be in the image.

I placed my sketch into an Adobe Illustrator file to create the curved border and the other art nouveau shapes.  I could have done this within Painter, but I find illustrator's shape tool is easier to work with.  Once I got the shapes the way I wanted them, I saved the file as a .psd (photoshop) file so that I could reopen it in Painter.

I then began to paint the background and the bird.  The bird, the border elements and the type were on separate layers from the background. For painting the image I used a combination of Painter's brushes. I primarily used some of the gouache brushes, but I also used the Artist's Oils soft blender brush as well as some of the regular blender tools. I added details with some of the pen brushes. 

From this point, it was just a matter of continuing to paint and blend, just as if I was working on a real canvas.  In case you're wondering, I use a Wacom Intuos 3 tablet and pen to do my painting.  I think something like this would be impossible to do with a mouse.

The Final Image

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Turkey Lurkey Times Two

Every year the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) hosts a contest for their illustrator members. The award is given by artist Tomie dePaola who, up until 2011, financed the award himself (now, SCBWI pays out the award).  Tomie was the artist responsible for getting the 'I' for Illustrators added to the society's name. Each year, he selects some text as a challenge for artists to illustrate.  The prize is a $1,000 gift certificate for art supplies and a trip to the NY winter conference.  This year he chose a passage from the well known children's fable, "Chicken Little." There have been many adaptations of this story, but the version that dePaola chose for this year's contest is by P.C. Asbjörnsen.

So they went along and went along until they met Turkey Lurkey
“Good morning, Goosey Loosey, Ducky Daddles, Cocky Locky, Henny Penny,
and Chicken Licken,” said Turkey Lurkey, “where are you going?”
“Oh, Turkey Lurkey, the sky is falling and we are going to tell the King!” 
“How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Turkey Lurkey.
“Ducky Daddles told me,” said Goosey Loosey.
“Cocky Locky told me,” said Ducky Daddles.
“Henny Penny told me,” said Cocky Locky.
“Chicken Licken told me,” said Henny Penny 
“I saw it with my own eyes, I heard it with my own ears,
and a piece of it fell on my tail!” said Chicken Licken. 
“Then I will go with you,” said Turkey Lurkey, “and we will tell the King!”

If you read the selection, you can see that, other than a lot of conversation, there is not really any action taking place. You have five characters, a goose, a duck, a rooster, a hen, and a chick taking turns answering Turkey Lurkey's question of "Where are you going?"

I ended up creating two illustrations for this challenge (I only submitted one).  The first illustration I created, was in my usual style, with somewhat realistic animals set against an animated film-style background.  It was perfectly fine, but I didn't think there was anything extraordinary about it. In the contest rules, dePaola says that he wants to be surprised by the illustration and jealous that he didn't think of doing it that way. Well, I didn't feel that my first attempt was at all surprising, and even though I was happy with the composition and I loved the colors, I felt it looked too Disney like and I doubted that someone of dePaola's experience would have been made jealous by it.

I decided to rethink the entire image and to try and work in a different style.  Changing your style is not an easy thing to do. It's like trying to draw with your left hand when you've grown up drawing with your right hand. I felt my brain was constantly trying to derail my efforts and to switch me back to older habits.

In an early version, I had chicken little on the ground.
I had a bit of a break through one night when my partner and I went to the movies.  We have a wonderful cinema here in town on the campus of Indiana University. One night they were showing Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 comedy "The Trouble with Harry." I hadn't seen the film in over 20 years so I was delightfully surprised when I saw the opening credits.  They were drawn by an uncredited Saul Steinberg in a style reminiscent of Paul Klee. They had the charm of a child's drawing but the sophistication of a mid-century New Yorker cartoon.

My final image that I ended up submitting to the contest.
When I got home, I tried to recall the images from the credits. In the credits, the camera pans from left to right across drawings consisting mostly of stylized plants and trees. There are a few birds in the drawing and they are all looking to the right. The camera continues to pan in that direction and it eventually comes to a stop, showing us what the birds have been looking at - a man's corpse. What I particularly loved about these credits was the stylized look of the plants, trees and flowers and those are what I tried to recreate in my re-imagined scene from "Chicken Little." You can can see what I came up with in the last image on the right.

The winner was supposed to be announced on January 2nd, but since today is January 3rd, it looks like I didn't win.  But that's okay, I learned a lot from this challenge and I've got two new pieces for my portfolio.