3.4 Illustrators who define a story visually

The purpose of this exercise was to examine why some illustrators have been able to define stories visually.

Key words from the brief:

  • There are plenty of examples of illustrators who have defined a story visually by being the first or best illustrator to respond to it
  • Look at some of these examples
  • What is it about the illustrations that links so well with the text?
  • Pick a few visual examples to discuss in your learning log

Research

I’ve selected three illustrators that defined my earliest experiences of children’s books and who I still have a great affection for.

  • Theodor Seuss Geisel for the Cat in the Hat series which he wrote and illustrated
  • Ernest Howard Shepard for his illustrations for Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows
  • Beatrix Potter for her wonderful range of characters and books including The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and my favourite, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or, The Roly-Poly Pudding which she wrote and illustrated

Dr Seuss – Fox in Socks

Written and illustrated by Theodor Seuss Geisel under the pseudonym Dr Seuss. Using a very limited range of words and a simple, distinctive visual language to describe his absurd characters in increasingly silly situations is brilliant.

Fox in Socks 01
Fig 1 – Fox in Socks (1965)

The images have the same or more weight than the tongue twisting narrative because they bring to life the words and turn an absurd tongue twisters into a crazy imagined world. The story is a conversations between Fox and Knox.

A key function of the images is to turn the conversation in to a story by portraying the conversation between the two key characters. This means that the text remain very simple whilst communicating a humorous and complex story.

The character design and visual language; simple pen and ink drawing and large areas of flat colour, is iconic and instantly recognisable. 

E H Shepard – The House at Pooh Corner

The House at Pooh Corner is written by AA Milne and illustrated by E H Shepard.

The Winnie the Pooh series of books includes the adventures of Christopher Robin and a set of characters from the Hundred Acre Woods as well as books of poetry.

Winne the Pooh and Tigger
Fig 2 – The House at Pooh Corner (1928)

The writing is sophisticated and funny and works on a number of levels. Shepard’s illustrations are sprinkled throughout the stories and consist of black and white pen and ink drawings introduced as vignettes and full page colour drawings/paintings. These are used to frame the characters at key points in the plot.

For me they frame the way I imagine the characters; big hearted but simple Pooh, tiny squeaky Piglet, larger than life bouncy Tigger and sensible Christopher Robin. The illustrations effortlessly create a believable imagined world for the narrative to exist in.

The illustrations are instantly recognisable. It’s interesting to note that it’s the Disney versions of the characters are what make to the top of any internet search.

The contrast between the two visual styles, Shepard and the Disney version, that are used to depict the same characters is worth consideration. The job of the Disney character is to be expressive whilst being easy to animate with a range of expressions and postures. Words are spoken by an actor and the story is being told to the viewer. Because of this there’s less need to engage the reflective imagination of the viewer and the visual style is more of a depiction than an illustration of the character.

Beatrix Potter – The Tale of Samuel Whiskers

Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated 23 children’s books, many of which have become classics.

Like EH Shepard’s illustrations for Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows, the characters and stories revolve around animals.

Also like EH Shepard’s illustrations, the illustrations fall into two types; black and white pen and ink drawings and colour drawings/paintings. These are used for either scene setting introducing a character and their surroundings or at key points in the narrative.

My personal favourite is The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or, The Roly-Poly Pudding, where Samuel, an enormous fat rat and his wife Anna Maria capture poor Tom Kitten who inadvertently falls into their hands. They decide to make him into a roly-poly pudding, and the illustrations capture these key action points in the minds of the young reader.

Samuel Whiskers with the butter
Fig 3 – The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or, The Roly-Poly Pudding (1908)

Conclusion

The strength of these illustrators is demonstrated by the fact that whenever I think of any of these stories, and these were my childhood favourites that I must have read or had had read to me many times, it’s the images I recall first.

I think what makes them stand out and enduring is the inventiveness and skill of the illustrators:

  • In designing distinctive believable characters
  • Working with the narrative in order to bring it to life for readers
  • Adding a layer of interpretation that is strong and believable enough to visually enhance and frame the stories

List of illustrations

Figure 1 – Geisel, Theodor Seuss (1965) Fox in Socks New York: Beginner Books p.3.

Figure 2 – Shepard, Ernest Howard (1928) Milne, A A The House at Pooh Corner London: Methuen & Co. Ltd

Figure 3 – Potter, Beatrix, (1908) The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or, The Roly Poly Pudding London: Frederick Warne & Co.