By Barbara Cooney
I don’t know exactly how I came to be an illustrator of books. Certainly much art throughout the ages has been in the form of illustration, although not necessarily in books. Since I was very little, I intended to be an artist of some sort. As I grew older, I wanted also a liberal-arts education and chose Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was strong on the study of art, too. There were lots of courses in art history and also in the applied arts: drawing and painting, still life, landscape, life studies, architecture. I took them all. When I graduated from Smith, I left with a portfolio of this and that — line drawings, smudgy charcoal still-lifes and nudes, runny watercolor landscapes, unsuccessful portraits, as well as caricatures of friends and relatives and lots of children who always hung around me when the landscape classes were out of doors. Except for the black-and-white pen-and-ink and charcoal drawings, most of what I did was in full color; the more color the better.
And after college, then what? I had no idea how to tackle the real world. Being a greedy reader, I narrowed my field down to book illustration and with my portfolio began to trudge the streets of New York City. I presented “my soul” to intimidating art directors, visited many publishing houses. By a fluke, I eventually landed a job. “The job,” said the art director, “will be in black and white only.” My world is all color, I thought. “You will have to learn to think in black and white,” said the art director. So, that winter, I enrolled in a graphic arts class in New York City at the Art Students’ League. There I studied etching and lithography. Now I began to think in terms of black and white. My bibles were the notebooks of Hokusai, whose lines I copied daily, as musicians practice their scales. Another mentor was Aubrey Beardsley, whom I admired for his bold use of areas of black and white as well as the delicate decorative patterns he employed. Wood engraving then took my fancy. This I simulated by using black ink on scratchboard, a clay-coated board on which black ink is applied and then white lines and areas are scratched out — or scraped off — with sharp-edged tools. In many books, more than thirty five, I used this technique, and all the while I yearned to work in full color. But, no, black-and-white pictures were much cheaper to reproduce than full-color paintings, whose colors had to be separated by photography or laborious overlays, a separate plate made for each color: black, magenta, yellow, and a blue-green called “cyan.” And besides, said my editor, you have no color sense. That did hurt my feelings. I continued with the scratchboard.
I also began to work with black pencils (Prismacolor) on a toothed translucent paper. As the technology of reproduction advanced, I began to be allowed four colors — but each additional color had to be drawn on a separate sheet of paper or plastic film — black for the key picture, and, still in black, the overlays for the magenta, yellow, and cyan plates.
Another system was what we called “blues.” The black key drawing was reproduced in a non-photographic blue ink on a white sheet of paper. On this the artist painted with black the areas that were to be some other color, maybe a flat green for leaves and grass, or a blue for sky and flowers — not necessarily the magenta, yellow, and cyan of the separations by photography. In other words, we made our own separations, sometimes with “blues,” sometimes on transparent overlays. I never liked doing overlays, but it’s what we had to do.
One day, the same editor surprisingly said, “How would you like to illustrate a Mother Goose in French — and in full color?” And I was off to France with five children the following summer. In the beginning of this full-color phase, the art was separated by photography — and, yes, it was expensive. In the end I never did illustrate a book with lithographs or etchings, although I used much scratchboard and sometimes charcoal, sometimes brush and sumi ink as well as pen-and-ink. Anyhow, at last I did books wallowing in full color — at first with casein paint or gouache, then with watercolor, and acrylic paints, colored pencils, and pastels.
Gradually, I began to mount fabric on illustration board: coarse linen, percale, handkerchief linen; now I work almost exclusively on silk. No longer does color reproduction depend exclusively on four-color separations being made by photography. Today the artwork is scanned by a computer. To be scanned, the artwork must be flexible enough to be placed on a curved drum; ordinary illustration board is often too stiff. Although sometimes for scanning the top layer of the art can be peeled off, I think this too dangerous, possibly destructive, to monkey around with a finished piece of art. Some artists do use a special board called Scanner Board which is especially designed to have the top layer of the actual art peeled off. I personally don’t like the texture of Scanner Board. Illustration board mounted with fabric suited me fine, but, as I said, illustration board is really too stiff for peeling, especially when covered with fabric. To combat this, my present system is as follows: (1) On a piece of matte plastic (mylar or similar film), mount very fine white silk with a mixture of water and acrylic matte medium. (2) When this is dry, apply with a roller a layer of somewhat diluted acrylic gesso. (3) When that is dry, sand the surface with very fine garnet paper. (4) Then repeat steps two and three until there are two to four layers of gesso. The result is a flexible sheet with a lovely egg-shell texture. Its color is titanium white, the same white I use in my acrylic paintings. That’s it.
P.S.: It takes forever.
P.P.S. It’s worth it.
Barbara Cooney, author and illustrator of more than 100 books for children, died in Portland, Maine, on March 10, 2000, at the age of eighty-three. She was twice awarded Caldecott medals, first in 1959 for her illustrations for Chaucer’s Chanticleer and the Fox and then in 1980 for Ox-Cart Man, written by Donald Hall. Her Miss Rumphius received the American Book Award and inspired the creation of the Maine Library Association’s Lupine Award.
From the March/April 1998 Horn Book Magazine. This article is part of our Picture Book Month 2012 coverage.