Subscribe to The Horn Book

Just Enjoy the Pictures: Hand-Crafted Versus Digital Art

Raise your hand if you find it challenging to determine the media used for picture book illustrations today. Even before computers, art labeled “mixed media” left readers scratching their heads over how the pictures were rendered. Increasingly challenging in today’s digital world is ascertaining whether picture book art is hand-crafted or computer-assisted. For Caldecott committee members — and the children for whom these books are created — what matters most is the end result, not the process employed. But if you’re an art lover like me, you might find yourself getting worked up over questions of technique. And the question of paint versus pixels, hand-crafted illustration versus digital art, is one that brings out strong opinions in the children’s book world.

I have a confession: I originally set out to write about a resurgence of hand-crafted techniques in picture book illustrations — that is, a shift away from the days of creating artwork entirely on the computer (think the poor, used-and-abused airbrush of the 1980s). But it turned out that my premise was faulty. I didn’t actually discover a pendulum swing back to illustrations crafted entirely by hand. While speaking with people who create, teach, and edit picture books, what I heard about most frequently was a blending of hand-crafted and digital techniques, the latter being woven into the process, just one part of many steps.

Baby Bear Sees BlueOn the one hand, we have artists who don’t touch their computer, except perhaps in the early stages for scanning sketches for the publisher. Their final art is created without sitting down at any type of electronic device to tweak sketches, add digital coloring over hand-drawn work, or polish and refine originally hand-rendered lines. Ashley Wolff (Baby Bear Counts One, the Miss Bindergarten series), who teaches illustration at Hollins University, is one such artist whose pictures are hand rendered. In 2012, I asked about how her teaching informs her own illustration work. “The students I encounter bring me all the news from the country of Digital,” she told me. “I don’t want to move there, but I enjoy learning about the exotic customs practiced.” She added, “I recently found myself at a booksellers’ gathering and was mildly surprised to have to explain that, yes, this artwork was actually made with a linoleum block printer and watercolor, rather than [some] new Photoshop brush that simulates woodcut.”

bluebirdIt’s true that digital art has gone through some growing pains (see: used-and-abused airbrush, mentioned above). But there are quite a few artists today who work primarily with computers and who do so while maintaining a distinctive, engaging style. Bob Staake (Bluebird) and Frank Viva (Along a Long Road) are two who come to mind. Both artists’ works, although digitally generated, have warmth and heart.

The gray area in between is what seems most common — the cases of those illustrators who integrate their handmade work with their electronic devices. Many artists who prefer traditional media have welcomed the computer and made it a tool, like a paintbrush. In my 2009 interview with Pamela Zagarenski, for example, the Caldecott honoree (Sleep like a Tiger, Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors) explained that she usually paints on wood, but that she sometimes incorporates computer graphics into her intricate mixed-media collages.

romping monsters“The computer is a tool, like any other, and the more tools an illustrator familiarizes him or herself with, the more versatile and flexible he or she becomes,” says illustrator Shadra Strickland (Bird, Eliza’s Freedom Road), who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art. All things in moderation, she believes. She also notes a growing sense of nostalgia for the hand-crafted, especially among younger, computer-savvy students. Strickland, as well as instructors Victoria Jamieson (at Pacific Northwest College of Art; also the illustrator of Pest in Show), Kelly Murphy (Rhode Island School of Design; Secrets at Sea and Romping Monsters, Stomping Monsters), and John Hendrix (Washington University; Rutherford B., Who Was He? and Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek), says that these students tend to gravitate toward the use of traditional tools, what Murphy calls the “hand-to-paper connection.” Strickland adds, “I think there is something about working by hand that connects us to the feeling of being a child.”

abe lincoln crossesIt’s all about the story, says Hendrix. “Illustration has always embraced new media and ideas and has never felt any sort of media was ‘precious’ or ‘essential’ to the ideas of illustration.” The editors with whom I spoke agree, adding that good execution, skill, vision, and a technique that serves the story well trump the medium any day. But what they want most, especially in digitally manipulated artwork, are illustrations that possess a human quality. They want warmth in the look of the art. While illustrators appreciate the control they get from tweaking art digitally, their editors want to see soul. They don’t want to see pictures that have been altered to death in Photoshop — overly polished, bland work that is missing its squeaks and wobbles, rattles and lumps.

While many people embrace the notion that the computer is merely another tool in an artist’s toolbox, there also exists a disdain for art that tries to be something it isn’t, such as digitally created artwork that attempts to look like it was rendered in oils. Why go through the trouble to fake it when you can do the real thing? Why slap a filter on it to make it look like oils instead of taking the messy risk of working with actual paint?

And while digital tools may make it easy for an illustrator to globally remove mistakes in initially hand-rendered work, flaws are a welcome part of art made by a human hand, reminding us of the vulnerability of the creative process. If artwork is intended to be created digitally, that’s one thing. But, as one illustrator to whom I spoke noted, if we see inconsistencies and flubs in an illustration by, say, William Steig or Shel Silverstein — seeing moments when a hand shook, a page on which the book’s protagonist looks slightly different than he or she does on another, or where a color isn’t perfectly matched — this opens a door to readers for communion with those artists. If artists afraid to show vulnerability digitally remove a smudge here and an inadvertent jot there, a sense of honesty can be lost. This gets at the heart of why we readers care: some artists are comfortable enough with the digital toolset to let their humanity shine through. Some are at their most expressive with traditional methods.

Wolff notes that recently she saw another illustrator discuss her digital techniques and was charmed: “I have no disdain or feeling of superiority…I just think I can wander happily on my parallel path and we can all create beautiful images.” An art-lover like me may have expected a pendulum swing, but instead I see artists expressing themselves with the tools they prefer in an increasingly large sea of options. In the end, for picture book readers, what matters most is that we are moved by what we see.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Illustration.

Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.



  1. What a great reminder that putting yourself out there flaws and all, while scary, is ultimately the best way to make beautiful art and really connect with your audience (and indeed, in life the best way to connect with others.) I’ll certainly keep this in mind while I sit down to draw today. Thanks for another wonderful post Jules!

  2. Using a sophisticated program like Corel Painter to render an illustration could not be further from “slapping a filter on it.” There are still plenty of kid lit illustration jobs that require quicker turn around than the luxurious nine months to a year of a trade picture book. Computer tools and programs have allowed artists to bring a higher quality of art to those publications. It takes all the skill required of traditional media to create it convincely with virtual tools.

  3. As an artist myself, I think the choices are wonderful. Today I love how the magic of water, paint, and paper work together is watercolor painting. But who’s to say that tomorrow I won’t be fascinated with wood block printing, Photoshop, or oils? The medium used is a choice of tool, but also what you love and are comfortable with. Great article Jules!

  4. As a picture book artist who works in many different mediums, I find it fascinating that we’re still having a conversation about the value of digital versus “traditionally”-created artwork, but maybe these things take time. After all, the boos and hisses hurled in 1965 at Dylan for going electric seem to have finally quieted down once the world apparently accepted that a guitar is a guitar is a guitar.

    We don’t seem to shriek in horror when a digital clock lacking a big and little hand tells us that its 12:14. We don’t shudder over the fact that we ride in a subway rather than on the back of horse to get from uptown to downtown. We don’t lament the good old days of kerosine lanterns while we casually flip a switch and there’s instantaneous light in our basement. And we certainly don’t suggest that the stories written in crow quill ink were far better than the ones banged out on a soulless typewriter.

    Why then does it still seem to matter to some people if the spots on the dog in the picture book were created in paint or pixels?

    My books are thought of as digital, but if you saw how I actually create my artwork, you’d never call it anything but “hand-crafted”.

    I draw with pen and ink, paintbrushes, even old sponges and twigs, then scan the mess digitally. I’ll then incorporate those elements with objects that I create, tweak and modify the I’s and O’s by pulling around a soap-shaped mouse (in Adobe Photoshop 3.0, a 1995 program so ancient and outdated that I had to post videos of me using it on YouTube because nobody believed such an old school app could even be opened — without your computer spontaneously exploding).

    But how ANYone’s images are created — “traditionally” or digitally — none of that matters, really.

    Whether its paint or pixels, both require the same common denominator to make them come alive; an artist talented enough to know how to push them around.

  5. Sometimes the mystery of how the art is created can be almost as exciting as the art itself, especially for many of us picture book fans, who are not ourselves artists — even though what matters in the end is the final product.

    Thanks for the discussion and the thoughtful responses!

  6. I’m no artist but I love other peoples’ art, and what shines through for me is the humanity behind it, or a unique perspective that the art helps me see. I don’t think it matters what tools the artist uses–the outcome matters.

    Perhaps the fear some have over digital art is that we will lose the traditional art methods. Just like we ride the subway and use electric lights, I’m glad there are still horses and kerosene lamps out there too. And don’t forget the hybrids–I love my little LED lamp that looks old.

  7. I loved this piece Julie – a little hymn to the opportunities of hand made (I was hoping for the swing back theory – but willing to accept whatever tells the story). A person’s hand does guide the computer program – but I like thinking about those “flaws made by the human hand” – a quirky line or singular watercolor bleed – the way you can always recognize a David Hockney or Wayne Thiebaud or Shirley Hughes drawing. And I realize that because I don’t know the computer programs’ capabilities, I might miss those signs of the individual I notice in a more old-fashioned hand made illustration. Thank you for your writings – I’m so happy to have discovered them.

  8. Well said, Laura!

  9. Hi, Julie: Thank you for the the kind mention. I create my illustrations in the Adobe Illustrator program in the same way a collage artist cuts paper. It’s click, click, click with a mouse rather than snip, snip, snip with scissors. I don’t use any of the tools that allow for a perfect circle or rectangle, so, for what it’s worth, the art is full of hand-crafted “flaws.” Not that that’s a good thing at all – I agree with everything that Bob Staake said. Moreover, because I design and have a hand in directing the production on my books, I don’t approach illustration as an isolated exercise. I view the creation of a book as a designed object in the same way that an industrial designer approaches the creation of chair: one of the goals is to successfully steer that object through a complex manufacturing process. From this perspective, nothing is complete (including the illustrations) until the book is properly trimmed and bound. Again, not that this is a good thing, but all of my books (all four!) are printed using “special” colors. If you look closely (or though a magnifying glass) you won’t find any dots. These days, most picture books are printed using process colors. If the original art has been created on paper or canvas, it is digitally scanned and separated into CMYK dots. And so, the printed illustrations are facsimiles of the originals. The result is an optical illusion — using just four colors of ink the reader perceives something that looks very close to the original. I create my art on separate color layers and use the Pantone spot color matching system as way to let the printer know what colors I want. Using a formula, the printer physically mixes those colors. He then provides draw-downs (swatches) on the same paper that will be used to print the book. I might ask the printer to move the yellow in a different direction or add a bit of blue to the green until I see a set of draw-downs that I like. Similar to the silkscreen process, the book is printed using those solid, physically mixed inks. The illustrations don’t exist as I conceived them until the ink hits the paper. I take delight in the fact that the registration between the colors moves around a bit during the printing process. In a sense, each book is an original rather than a facsimile of an original. Or, other than the book itself, there is no original. Every graphic designer knows how to do this and the approach is not unique to me but I hope it helps to illustrate that any perceived divide between “Hand-crafted Versus Digital Art” is pretty murky. The idea that visual art is the result of eye-hand coordination rather than the power of an artists imagination (whatever the tools) is at odds with much of world’s most celebrated contemporary art. Still, when it comes to children’s books, it’s not lost on me that even a poorly printed facsimile of an original can offer the best experience for a child if the writing, art and design combine in just the right way. That’s a much tougher challenge — one that I hope to spend the rest of my life trying to figure out. What I can’t figure out is why my editors put up with me.

  10. Enjoyed reading this very much. I have to force myself from hitting ‘command Z,’ when my hand stumbles drawing in Photoshop. Blubs are good, and it’s too easy to smooth things out. I hope my work never gets so slick it lacks warmth. A very good reminder here for digital artists.

  11. It is great to be able to use a variety of media today, including digital. Illustrators that use digital have a lot of skill, because on top of using free-drawing, they are also sharp users of complex software. However, I tend to prefer the end result of traditionally-done illustrations, they seem warmer and more appealing to me. I’m also more comfortable to use this for my work because it is a way of digital detox. These days most of us already spend a lot of time in front of screens, especially if you have other professional activities that demand it, so I really do cherish my time spent drawing and painting with real tools. I particularly enjoy the unpredictability of using watercolour, and the different effects you get by mixing it with other media for special effects. For this I choose to ‘go retro’ with my work. And I became quite fast at doing it this way, since I can make a complete scene in 2 days, whilst it would take me longer (and with less enjoyment) to do it on Photoshop. Its great that there are all sorts of artists and illustrators out there, variety is always good.

  12. I know I’m late to this article, but I’m glad I found it. I illustrated my book by hand – colored pencil and watercolor. I found this after querying, “Do kids still like hand drawn books?” I guess they do. I thought that perhaps I should take a different approach because so much art for kids – especially cartoons and publications are done with computer software. I LOVE to draw, but I am also trained in Graphic Design software and am the production artist of a nonprofit. I like to add computer elements where they’re needed, so as far as my work is concerned the computer is another art tool. However, it can never replace the humanity that comes from the stroke of a paintbrush of imperfect line of a pencil. Somehow, those carry some of the artist’s soul.

  13. What a great article. I realized this weekend, at the Amelia Island Book Festival, as I looked around at so many digitally perfect illustrations that the illustrator of my books, Mark Wayne Adams, brings a sense of warmth and sweetness with his water colored sketches. It was as if a deep appreciation light went off in my head and heart for his talent. I’m definitely blessed to continue a series with this artist.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind