Wednesday, May 30, 2012


You've surely seen them---those diagrams of art covered with red zooming arrows, circles, and triangles.  The example above is from Uri Shulevitz's fabulous book, "Writing With Pictures."  But I have a personal and embarrassing confession to make.   When I look at one of these diagrams---even Uri's---my brain freezes.  For me, those diagrams and compositional theories are like an instruction manual written in an indecipherable language.  
But I do have a handful of simple guidelines concerning page composition that serve me well---and that you'll find are pretty much universal to any successful picture book.

1.  Set margins for the page.  I usually set my page margins at around 3/4" to 1" for the top and front edges; around 1 1/8" for the gutter and the bottom edges.  This allows enough room for thumbs and fingers to hold the page without covering up anything of importance.  And these margins dimensions I give (and that show in the photo above) will appear in the finished book to be roughly the same.  The curve of the pages turning into the gutter means that the wider margin actually looks the same as the top and front margin, optically.   And the bottom margin, just because it is at the bottom, appears to be the same as the front and top---again, an optical illusion.

2.  Keep anything of importance within the margins; and if it's of great importance (e.g. the main character), keep it well within the margins.    This doesn't mean there must be frames or borders for the art.  Even if the art is going to bleed off all four edges (i.e. run off the edge of all four pages), a margin will help keep important elements where they will have the most impact.  Think of a theater stage:  if a character or element is too close to the wing, it gets conflated, visually, with the edge of the stage.  It loses the audience's focus.  

3.  The center of the page, as indicated above in the photo, is the place of stasis on the page.  Keep important elements off-center.  Even if the overall composition is intended to be more static, place the main character, for example, off-center.  (Clearly, I believe that movement is critical to a successful composition.)

4.  General movement on the page must always be from left to right.  We read (in English) from left to right, and turn book pages from left to right.  In a book, we expect the "next thing" to be to the right, not to the left.  Since children are learning how books work when they use picture books (even if they can't actually read yet), it is doubly important to be consistent in this.    

5.  When composing a double-page spread, don't let anything of importance (such as a character) run across the gutter.  

There are of course many other considerations at play when I am composing pages.  These five are my basics.  

My usual caveat:  There will be successful exceptions to everything I've said here.  And now, having stuck my neck out to a dangerous extent, I will quickly withdraw it before any rotten tomatoes find their mark!

Monday, May 28, 2012


If the artist is going to infuse his art with the mood of a manuscript, he needs keys that will allow him to enter into that mood, regularly and predictably, throughout the time he is working on the illustrations.
I depend on multiple vehicles to revisit a manuscript's mood.  When I returned from an on-site research trip to northern Maine for the book Spuds, by Karen Hesse, one of the things I brought home with me was a huge bag of freshly-dug Maine potatoes.  I dined on those potatoes regularly---mashed, boiled, baked---throughout the time I was creating the art for the book.  Some of them, raw and still speckled with dirt, I kept in a bowl next to my drawing board.  Each time I looked at, smelled, or cooked those earthy potatoes, I was once again strolling over the high, wide, wind-swept expanse of the book's landscape.
I couldn't visit an actual landscape when I was illustrating The Cats In Krasinski Square, by Karen Hesse---the Warsaw of the book had been destroyed during WWII.  But I watched many times the film "The Pianist", which was set in the same place and era as the book.  The movie enabled me to walk the streets and experience the atmosphere of the times, and above all to feel physically the mood of Cats.  I also listened endlessly to my CD of piano music---Chopin, Schumann, Schubert.  I'm not sure, even now, how and why this worked; but as soon as I pressed the "on" button at the beginning of each workday, that music transported me instantly to the world of the book's brave heroine.
As for staying in the mood for my own title, Little Brown Bear---in my absorption, I  (and my two young children) ate with the bears' wooden bowls and spoons; dried dishes with their red-and-white towels; poured water out of their pitcher; stored belongings on their breakfront.  I literally lived the bears' lives.  I was probably never OUT of the mood the entire time I was creating the art for that book. 
A musical recording, a fragrant leaf, a swatch of coarse fabric, a crunchy cookie, a piece of furniture, a dance step---each artist chooses her own keys, whatever will open the door for her to the mood of the manuscript she is illustrating.  So that as she creates, she is always absorbing mood through her skin, and releasing mood through her fingers onto the paper.  She is imbuing her art with emotion---with life.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


So far my posts about illustrating picture books have dealt with some of the more logical and rational parts of the process.  Today I'll talk about assessing the mood of a manuscript.  This can be a very subjective activity, dealing as it does with the invisible and the emotional.  Yet it is one of the most important steps that an artist goes through in illustrating a manuscript.  The more thoroughly she has absorbed the mood of the manuscript, the more successfully she can translate that mood into concrete images.  Some of the questions I might ask myself as I attempt to sense the mood of a manuscript:
Is it soft and fuzzy?  Sharp and distinct?
Bright and colorful?  Grayed and subdued?
Flat and straightforward?  Nuanced and shaded?
Flowing and flexible?  Stiff and rigid?
Plain and unadorned?  Complex and detailed?  
Amorphous and misty?  Definite and clear?

The illustrator absorbs the manuscript's essence through his pores, and then allows that essence to flow out through his fingers onto the page.

Monday, May 21, 2012


My daughter gave me a present on Mother's Day.  When I unwrapped the package and found this miniature blank book inside, I squealed with pleasure.  The book is exquisite.  Notice its green and gold tooled binding...its red silk ribbon bookmark...
...and the teeny-tiny pocket at the back, for storing mouse-sized papers.  As I examined the volume's perfections, I said something about "saving it for a special occasion."  My daughter frowned.  And immediately  I realized that it was time for me to---well, to turn over a new leaf.  No more saving blank books for special occasions which never seem to arrive.  
So I use this Mother's Day gift every morning, listing my gratitudes for the day.   My list can vary.  But there is one thing for which I am always grateful:  a daughter who understands me this well.  A daughter who knows that nothing would delight me more than a tiny blank book.