C hildren’s book illustrators spend a lot of time drawing people. We study anatomy, sketch models, and collect photographs. We ask our friends or family members to hold coffee cups, sweep the floor, or twist a hairbrush while we draw them, to get that “certain angle” that looks plausibly human. We all want to make people come alive on the printed page.
But bringing people to life with a pencil or brush is not just a matter of anatomical accuracy. We want to convey a human feeling, not a biological record.
All artists seem to have their own unique way of drawing people. The depiction of hands and feet alone seems to be codified into each individual’s style. And without a doubt, there are as many ways of drawing babies as there are artists to draw them! The same could be said of how we draw houses, cars, trees, cats, and horses. We all develop our own personal approach. But unlike these non-human elements that occupy our world (and our illustrations), people is a subject we seem to struggle with. What we express, whether highly realistic or cartoon-like, may have anything from a mild to astonishing impact. Why is there such variety in how people draw people – and how viewers respond?
The answer is because we are people ourselves. To the extent that we are human, when we draw a human we are creating a self-portrait. Like a good actor who reaches deep into his or her own experience in order to bring forth authentic tears, a good artist will delve into his or her own physical experience when bringing the image of a person to life. The more deeply rooted our art is in human experience, the greater will be the response of our human viewers.
How do we bring physical experience into our work? By having physical experience. In its essence, I believe an original work of art is an embodiment of physical energy. As living mammals, we too are embodiments of physical energy. The more we transmit our vitality in our artistic creations, the more vital they will be.
When I think about how I can keep my art alive, I think about doing something physical. If you want the good hard work of planting a vegetable garden to come through your illustrations, try planting a garden yourself. If you want to convey a real sense of what it feels like for Jack to climb the beanstalk, try climbing a tree or a ladder – and look down. Carry some firewood or ride a horse instead of just looking at pictures of other people doing these things. You’ll be amazed by the effect on your work.
When illustrating Trouble, a tale from Eritrea, I felt compelled to listen to Eritrean music and cook an Eritrean meal. I wanted to hear the rhythms and taste the food from that part of the world. I felt that the unique blend of spices and sounds that characterize the local culture of this tiny northeast African country would help yield a more authentic palette when illustrating the story. A palette of colors, that is. Keeping the injerra batter fermenting in my kitchen for three days imparted a sense of the pace of life in the story. Eating the meal I prepared while wrapped in a neTela (graciously lent to me by the author who had spent her childhood in Ethiopia) gave me a feel for what it’s like to scoop up the food in the traditional way – using the spongy pancakes fried up from the batter with the decorum of wearing the capacious, gauzy white shawl.
After that meal, not only was my stomach satisfied by the delicious Eritrean food, but my mind’s eye had all the food it needed, too. Somehow, I had a better sense of which colors to mix and what mood I wanted to impart when it came time to begin the finished art.
And what of the little boy in the story? He ran. He crouched. He swung from trees and teetered atop stone walls. The day the manuscript arrived, I went for a jog. I veered off the road, aiming my footsteps between rocks, thinking of my mischievous protagonist. If there were no cars in sight, I jumped over a ditch! I felt my weight come down on the coarse gravel surface. Sure, I watched my own kids run and jump, too – my son was the same age as the boy in the story at the time – but when I started drawing, the memories came through my muscles more than my eyes. I remembered my own experience walking the hard, sun-baked ground of West Africa several years earlier. My editor had chosen me for this book partly because she knew I had traveled to Africa to study dance. And dance it was that informed me now of how to enliven the figure of this character as he moved and ran under the hot African sun.
Of course, it’s not always possible to experience what we illustrate. I don’t think I’d be willing to endure a storm at sea if I were commissioned to produce a book on the subject. Not everyone can climb a tree, swing an axe, or dig a hole. Most illustrators do not consider their work from an athletic point of view. But as living, moving people who draw our own kind, we can use our bodies as people use them everywhere. We can bend. We can twist. We can reach. We can throw. We can curl up in a ball. We can occupy the forms and feel the movements that make up our common experience as humans, and let that feeling infuse our art.
When young artists ask me how best to study illustration, I want to say, “Do yoga. Or dance. Or t’ai chi – anything to move your body.” If you want to draw people, take up a physical practice that will cultivate a keen sense of body awareness. With this in mind, I don’t feel the need to use models when I draw people. Unless I need to capture a specific likeness, I don’t often work from photographs, either. I just try to feel human form and action as well as observe it. If I have to climb a mountain to do it, all the better – it gives me the stamina I need to make my deadlines!
This fall, I’ll be traveling halfway around the world to research my next book: all about olive trees. I’ll be working in three different olive groves in order to gain a firsthand understanding of how to cultivate and harvest olives. Getting my hands dirty and my clothes oily will be the best thing I can do for my work!
Please, just don’t ask me to illustrate a book about rock-climbing: I have terrible fear of heights.
This article was originally printed in the quarterly journal of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI), June 2006. It has been revised and updated for this blog.