Telling stories with pictures alone is certainly a discipline all of its own. Look at those marvellous examples by Shaun Tan:

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A page from The Arrival, by Shaun Tan

or Raymond Briggs:

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A page from The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs

or any number of graphic novels which are beautiful, agile, and yet textless.

Telling a story which is already defined by some words feels, at least, at the moment, to me, different – more of a responsibility. And I think all illustrators must hate that, at least some of the time. In a story already written, some of its meaning is in the elsewhere of someone else’s words. That the one I’m drawing currently is a story in a Charles Causley poem, even more so.

When I was a child, I was given a few Charles Keeping-illustrated book-versions of poems printed by the Oxford University Press. Particularly impressive were Beowulf, The Lady of Shalott, and Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman. Keeping seemed so varied in his style, and yet all the pictures were in black and white – ink and line and possibly graphite, or charcoal – minkily creating clouds or mist or dark fens where monsters live.

I became fascinated by the dramatic moment in a visual narrative at that point. Having subscribed to the Disney magazine years before, with its pointers on how to draw Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, then trying to apply those techniques to other single-frame versions of characters like Bugs Bunny or the Pink Panther, I hadn’t really considered how complex the move from one frame to another could be.

In Charles Keeping’s Shalott, our Lady sits in her tower for what feels like very long time during a slowly panning scene, with Tennyson doing the ‘voiceover’. This seems to me because Keeping heightens her stillness by altering her pose only slightly, and the perspective moves around (away?) from her. She seems to disappear before she really disappears in the story…


And then, when she eventually changes her character/ goes against the advice of the curse, her silhouette changes, becomes animate, alive, turned away:

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‘Half-sick of shadows’, sheer boredom drives her towards towards life (and the ‘curse’ – or whatever it stands for ).

Of course, one other great consideration with single-poem picture books is ‘Where the hell should the text go?’ And that doesn’t mean taking liberties or pulling it around – with poems, some of what it says is how it is on the page. If you shove a few lines onto the next page or the previous one you can entirely mess with dramatic timing, or completely trash an emotive or aural effect. You basically can’t break up verses, and certainly not couplets (perhaps, if they are on opposing pages?) , but you might want to put a verse on one page (as Keeping does) and then have the character move through the frame to the next image.

These are some of my quandaries as I finish My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear. Drawing sometimes feels like precisely that: pulling things from the air and mind, and helping them settle somehow on a page.



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