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What’s (new) with computer art? And Crankenstein and a pretty great Unicorn.

oldmac_300x231I started having the conversation about using computers to create or enhance picture book illustrations back when this was what my computer looked like. It was already clear how quickly technology was advancing. I sure thought that by now our thinking about computers and picture books would have advanced further than it has.

At first, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, books with computer art seemed to fall into just two categories: amateurish with blurry, muddy colors; or exemplary with crisp vector graphics created by masters. Remember how amazing David Pelletier’s The Graphic Alphabet looked back then? There didn’t seem to be any middle ground. In Horn Book Guide parlance, they were either 1s or 6s.

About five years later, when there was a broader spectrum of computer art in picture books, I spent several hours discussing the state of illustration with Barbara Bader in a Stockbridge MA coffee house. We got pretty amped up on caffeine and were also high on our idea to write an article together on computer art. Our premise was that it didn’t matter how illustrations were made. What mattered was the effect of the art in the printed book. When the buzz wore off, this idea seemed so self-explanatory that there was no need to write the article. Everyone knows that good illustration is . . . good illustration. Acceptance of computer art would be just around the corner.

A few years later I wrote an article about three established illustrators who learned Photoshop the same way they learned any new medium: to have more options. There was still some taboo where computer art was concerned, sometimes because critics thought it made the art look too artificial. Or even if it looked okay, using a computer was a cheat, allowing the illustrator to cut corners and save time. But I figured anyone who’d ever been frustrated when their computer wouldn’t do what they wanted it to would realize pretty soon that this didn’t make sense. Acceptance really was just around the corner.

But no. In fact, I’m pretty sure the majority of 2013 books that rely to some extent on the illustrator’s Photoshop skills are encouraged to stay in the closet, computerwise. Now I’m starting to fear that the situation won’t really change until the next generation of critics is in charge. I’m talking about the ones who were comfortable manipulating a mouse before they could tie their shoes. (Or should I say velcro their shoes?)

Okay, time to step down from my soapbox. Happily, the conversation will continue in more depth once The Horn Book Magazine publishes Julie Danielson’s  knowledgeable and in-depth article in our March 2014 special issue on illustration.

Martha asked me to do a post on a couple of books that are pretty blatant in their computer use: Crankenstein by Samantha Berger, illustrated by Dan Santat; and Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea.

CrankensteinThere’s been a lot of buzz for Crankenstein, which tells us, right up front on a pretty hilarious CIP page, that Santat’s art was done in Photoshop. And that he handlettered every word in the book. If you haven’t seen this very funny picture book, I bet you can tell from the title that it’s about a kid with anger issues, who turns into a monster when things go wrong. The art is so bold and large and out there that I think part of the major love this book is getting is for its surprising subtlety. While subtext is certainly a large part of what makes it work, this book didn’t need a lot of subtle touches, so the fact that it goes for so many of them speaks volumes about what a labor of love a book can be. Peek behind the dust jacket. Front AND back. Read the bios. Read the cast of monsters in this book. One thing Photoshop does best is layers, particularly allowing different layers to have different amounts of transparency. The running cry of frustration — “MEHHRRRR!!” — goes back and forth in the layers. Raindrops and reflections and gradations — all made more effective with Photoshop than with any other medium. (My only quibble with this book is the ending, which is a text problem rather than an art one. I don’t quite buy that the main character’s reaction to seeing another child equally frustrated is to laugh. If only.)

Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great

Where Santat used Photoshop to create extremely bold, strongly emotional art, Bob Shea goes a more subtle route. While his Dinosaur vs. books are more overtly Photoshop-driven, this one uses more real watercolor (I think) and brings in computer-driven elements a lot more sparingly. Like Crankenstein, this is a mood book, but it contrasts the surly goat narrator with something we don’t see much in good picture books: a sparkly, seemingly saccharine, rainbow-happy, glittery unicorn. At first we think this might be a jealousy book, but Shea happily doesn’t go for the obvious. In the end, it’s about prejudice . . . sort of. With a very light touch. The obvious computer use here comes near the end of the book when the new friends imagine what they could do together. Their line-art selves become 3-D with gradient shading and vector art props. But earlier in the book, if you look closely you can see Photoshopping at work. Look at the page where Unicorn tries to play soccer. There’s no other way I know of to get that smooth felt-green background with white negative space for Unicorn’s body. Well, there are always multiple ways to achieve an effect, but electronic layering makes the most sense here. I also suspect Shea drew his character’s outlines on paper, then scanned them, layering body colors and backgrounds around the stick figures. Just a hunch. This is one of those books that doesn’t admit computer use, but given Shea’s other books it’s pretty hard to imagine he feels a need to keep quiet about it.

Phew. Long post. If you’re still with me, I’d love to know what YOU think about computer art and these two books!


Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Brenda Bowen says:

    Great post, Lolly. I would say that nowadays more artists use computers than not; and publishers commonly use Photoshop or In-Design to clean up artists’ lines, resize images, et al. Do we mourn that tissues and proportional scale rulers (if that was indeed what they were called) are now vintage items?

    Do you remember when artists who created their work in full color were cheating because they didn’t have to pre-separate by hand? I do.

    For the curious:

  2. Hi Lolly.
    You are correct on most counts. The green field was originally an oval shape that I extended in photoshop. As for the other characters I drew them all by hand. As for your hunch, I WISH I did them separately and layered them. That would have been the smart way to go.
    Thanks for featuring my book.

  3. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    I read “Crankenstein” less as a book about a kid with anger issues and more as a more universal take on what happens to all of us when we’re having a terrible, bad, no-good day. I mean, nobody likes waking up at 6:59 am to an overly cheery good-morning greeting and having your blanket snatched off your bed! Crankenstein is clearly a monster, but he’s also clearly a kid, and somehow author Berger and Santat maintain that tension all through the book, showing us the things that might turn an ordinary kid into a cranky monster.
    I agree with Lolly that one of the things that stands out about it is the level of detail and the amount of subtlety — as she said, so much more than you’d expect in that big, bold art.

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