I have always loved books and as a child some of my greatest treasures were stories illustrated with beautiful workings in pencil, pen or paint. The pictures would create a visual context for the tales and bring to life worlds both real and imagined. I would spend hours gazing at the illustrations longing to crawl into the very pages. Even now when I see books that I loved as a child the illustrations awaken a powerful nostalgia.
The illustrations in children’s books are the first paintings most children see and because of that they are incredibly important. What we see and share at that age stays with us for life.
When I was young I think I mostly responded to how the illustrations made me feel and in many ways this hasn’t changed. But as an adult I can now also appreciate the talent, skill and imagination that created those images. It seems to me that, in the art world, illustration, particularly of children’s literature, is both underrated and undervalued, as if it were a lesser medium. Yet to have just a cursory look at the diversity and range of illustrations in children’s books, whether they are simple pencil drawings or richly detailed watercolours, you cannot help but appreciate the craft.
The verbal patterns and the patterns of behaviour we present to children in these light-hearted confections are likely to influence them for the rest of their lives. These aesthetic impressions, just like the moral teachings of early childhood, remain indelible.
Books are often a child’s first foray into the world of stories and a safe haven of the imagination, a place to learn heart-truths and frame perceptions of the world around them. Even the darker tales can help a young mind make sense of aspects of reality that are frightening and difficult to understand. As such, the illustrations can give a tangible expression to emotions that cannot be fully explained or expressed, as well as offering an enjoyable escape from reality.
Despite the ever increasing role of digital media in the lives of children there is still clearly an important place for books. While they may no longer be central to the lives of many exploring the realms of imagination I think children have a natural love of visual imagery. The popularity and sales figures of illustrated children’s books prove that it is by no means a dying art, but it is perhaps an under-appreciated one.
To delight a child, to add a new joy to the crowded miracles of childhood, is no less worth doing than to leave a Sistine Chapel to astound a somewhat bored procession of tourists; or to have written a classic that sells by the thousands and is possessed unread by all save an infinitesimal percentage of its owners. It is, then, not an ignoble thing to do one’s very best to give our coming rulers – children – a taste of the Kingdom of Art.
About the Artwork…
I have long been obsessed with children’s book art and so this is a little diversion from my usual creatures and a reworking of one of my older illustrations of The Princess and the Pea. I’ve been exploring painting with just black and white, playing with light and shade, and this little artwork is the first in a series of monochrome illustrations of stories old and new.