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My Goals as an Illustrator

by Marcia Brown

When recently I was invited to speak on my goals as an illustrator, I was reminded that twenty years ago I was asked to give a talk and write a paper on this same subject. As I reread that paper, I saw that most of my ideas have not changed very much but have only become more pronounced. Just as when one watches landscape the distant things stay put while those nearby are changing constantly, so one’s goals in illustration do not change often enough to provide good ammunition for the speeches illustrators are asked to make about their work.

Often reactions to performance in one of the arts will reveal something about another. A few evenings ago a friend and I heard and saw a performance of Oedipus Rex by Stravinsky, a modern musical score based on the classical theme and nourished in its composing by many heroic examples for voice and instruments from other periods. The” visual presentation” had been entrusted to a painter of considerable reputation who saw fit to vie with the composer for honors in creating a parallel composition of the costumes and decor. He used a prize fight, with Oedipus the popular hero, in the usual satin bathrobe and prize fighter’s shoes, in an effort to bring the ancient conflict of Oedipus into a modern arena, where it might appear to be more meaningful than in its own period. What was forgotten was the idea that the story so transcends its period, and evidently any treatment of it, that the attempt to pin it to the present seemed ludicrous. The thing did not come off. One wondered why there had been such a lack of faith in the work itself, which needed no help from anyone, and lack of faith in the audience.

I often think of illustrators as I think of performers of music. Those one can listen to longest are often those most selfless, those who are content to be a medium for the music. They put their own individualities at the service of the music to probe its depths and reveal its spirit, rather than to display the idiosyncracies of their own personalities. Techniques that hammer can dull the eyes as well as the ears.

Even though I may be the composer, I have come to think of the illustrator more and more as the performer of the spirit of a book. If one lives with a book from its beginning, one may be closer to that spirit. Some spirits speak so loudly their voices are unmistakable. Others are more delicate. No one way can be called the best way to interpret them to a child.

Feelings appropriate to the fine arts, especially painting, are often called forward in speaking about illustration for children. Little children readily look at all kinds and styles of art. They are probably the freest and most imaginative audience in the world. But illustration is illustration, and not painting. It is communication of the idea of a book.

This all sounds obvious and has been said many times before. But every book I illustrate has to be considered in these terms.

By now most of us realize that ours is an age in transition, an age in which many old values are being turned upside down and many old solutions are no longer valid. We love dramatic descriptions of phenomena, but the word explosion is not too violent a one to describe the swift changes we are undergoing.

In a delightful Italian picture book, nella notte buia, Bruno Munari shows a little cat that sees a light in the sky, far off. He goes to find his little friend, and they hold a conversation on a bench in the black space of night, with the little light far off in the sky. Their paws are around each other’s necks and their tails are entwined.

“Do you like little white mice?”

A bat flies overhead, and of course the cats are afraid. One runs off; the other takes refuge under a flower in a pot until the bat, too, grows smaller and smaller in the distance. Meanwhile the light still shines.

But a little boy and his father are not content just to watch the light from below. They bring a ladder. “Let’s go see,” says the little boy. Another man appears with his ladder. They make a little structure, and one of the men, with valor and a certain flair to his gestures, starts to climb up. Another man appears with his ladder, and there develops a most interesting balancing act, with appropriate display of masculine bravery, skill, and vigor. The little boy seems to be ballast for one end of the lowest ladder. Then still a fourth man shows up with his ladder.

The last picture in the episode shows men, hats, ladders flying through the air, topsy-turvy. One man is trying to make off with the longest ladder. But on the end of it is the little cat, who had just been out to enjoy the evening, gaily riding through the air. And the episode ends, showing the source of the light: “And here is the firefly that is going to sleep in the field because by now it is day.”

And so with delicacy of feeling, with very few lines, and almost as few words, an artist who is also a poet makes a comment on how things are.

One wonders if that little cat is not very much like the child of today, riding out chaos and explosions, while someone is trying to make off with the big end of the ladder.

Twenty years ago bookmaking still struggled under wartime restrictions, but there were the examples of excellence from the twenties and thirties to look up and back to: The White Cat by Elizabeth MacKinstry (1928); Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág (1928); The Painted Pig by René d’Harnoncourt (1930 ); The Fairy Circus by Dorothy Lathrop (1931); Calico Bush by Rachel Field (1931); Ola by the d’Aulaires (1932) ; Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty (1938); Mei Li by Thomas Handforth (1938). But at the same time the field was plagued with books that had the saccharinity of greeting cards, books that possibly filled some emotional need and were very successful commercially but which did not even attempt to give a child an honest picture of himself or life around him.

Many artists pleaded with those working with children to be more open to experimental illustration and to work derived from contemporary painting, and to raise their personal standards of taste. Much more interest began to focus on the individual author and artist and his contribution.

Here we are, twenty years later, trying to ride out the explosions, like that little cat that only came to admire the light on a summer night.

To serve the huge numbers of today’s children about seventy publishers are putting out nearly three thousand books each year. Houses that had one editor, who often handled all promotion as well as editing (one even wrapped up the books), and one secretary in the juvenile department now have several to many editors and assistants.

Twenty years ago we were pleading for more receptivity to the new. Now we can ask ourselves to take a long look at the guests we have so blithely invited in.

As foreign-born artists have been more and more absorbed into the American scene, national contributions to American illustration from other countries have diminished. Many publishers reprint translations of foreign picture books, just as other countries reprint some of ours in order to enrich their own lists. Commercial techniques are now exchanged so widely internationally that it is a bit hard to identify the individual contributions of a particular country. Many artists have come to the field of illustration from that of painting or print making and have brought great richness of technical experience as well as personal freedom to their work.

Today a sculptor can fashion clean rectangular boxes, or give an order to a cabinetmaker to fashion them, and announce that his work is signing the death warrant of all previous art. And the announcement is listened to and taken seriously. Critics write enthusiastically about shows of optical experiments that used to be part of a design student’s art-school training. The latest fads from a fashionable art market are put forth for a child’s consumption a few months after a brief foray in the advertising field. Many books seem to be put out for oversized children in adult skins. The huge and overwhelming single image on a page, when the object described is only an incidental detail in the story; the indiscriminate use of close and hot color harmonies derived from the fashion world; overblown illustrations in overblown color in which the thread of a story or fable is lost in the extravagant garment given it — these are in the books that are not content to persuade but scream for attention and all too clearly proclaim their origin in a highly competitive market.

Speaking of a complex contemporary musical score of more visual than audible interest, Harold Schonberg, music critic of The New York Times, wrote of “Decibel Power versus Expressive Power.” They are not the same. We could describe such books of decibel power as books for the eye (often of enormous visual interest as objects) instead of books for the eye and mind and heart, in which the whole book and each of its parts function to express in just proportion the idea within. Many people have confounded the aims and methods of illustration with those of fine art, which has its origin in an entirely different level of the unconscious. They forget that a book starts with an idea, whether or not it has a text, and illustration is at its service. Successful illustration extends, embellishes, illuminates, but never obliterates the idea.

In spite of the dashing compositions, the blowups, the typographical shocks, many of our books today are conventional. Each age sets up its own conventions. One has only to look at publishers’ catalogues to see some of ours: The children who seem to call to the reader, “Look, Ma, I’m acting!” instead of going about their own business; the stereotypes of harebrained but charming elderly friends of children; the mechanical abstractions of trees and animals; the orange-pink color schemes, no matter what the subject; the huge blown-up image from contemporary poster technique with the main interest in design; Neo-Victorianism in fine pen-line techniques derived from nineteenth-century engravings and drawings; delicate and poetic ideas awash in a sea of textures and colors that all but drown them, that stultify and limit a child’s response; use of collage and mixed media, such as crayon and woodcut, together, occasionally at the price of the graphic unity of the page; visual elements from other works that had a deeper origin in reaction to life — tag ends of art techniques filtered down from painting, through commercial illustration, finally to become manner and formula in the child’s book; morbidity of technique — tattered rags and incrustations of decay that come from painting techniques. What do they have to say to a child, unless the decay is purposeful, a part of the story being told?

If my mentioning these trends, which can so often result in visual cliches (but which need not if the idea of the book remains uppermost in importance), seems negative, perhaps it is because we become so accustomed to virtues in what is close to us that we hardly notice them and are roused only by apparent faults.

Never before have illustrators been so sure of a welcome for their most extravagant and bizarre experiments. Never has such lavish production been put at the disposal of the little child’s picture book. The barker’s voice in the market place must be loud to be heard and his wares must glitter.

When experimentation and breaking down the visual means into their simplest elements occur at the total service of the idea, we can get something as imaginative as Leo Lionni’s Little Blue and Little Yellow. Collage can be used to tell the story richly, with the textures employed adding a dimension of visual metaphor to the story, as in the same artist’s Inch by Inch.

Artists are constantly enlarging their fund of means to tell a story. We can ask that the means remain means, that experimentation and techniques remain tools, not ends. The search for novelty can be our goal; it can also be our curse.

Some artists, like Maurice Sendak in much of his recent work, are harking back with wit and re-creation of atmosphere to some of the best of the nineteenth-century line illustrators — Cruikshank, Tenniel, and Richard Doyle — and are performing a most valuable service in revitalizing a tradition that is probably much more vigorous than many of our seductive eye-catchers that remain on the decorative level and hardly attempt to illustrate a story in depth.

There seems to be very great interest in the composing process, in the how of making a book. It might be a good idea if we were occasionally to ask why, and we might end up with” Why on earth?” There is a great interest in the contribution of the individual artist, but perhaps we are asking him to talk too much about how he works and are not looking hard enough at what he does.

Some time ago I was one of probably a great many people who received a questionnaire from the National Council of Teachers of English on the “composing process” — as good a name as any for it — to try to track down what is elusive in the process of making books. The questions were intelligently thought out, as such things go. But I suspect that what is elusive will remain so, since it is a subtle combination of personality, inner drive, and imagination in the author or illustrator himself.

Illustration and writing are often a lonely business, and artists when they get together often compare notes on ways of working. I am often asked why each of my books is apt to look different from the others. Each artist has his own way of working. After a while he works in possibly the only way he can, given his own temperament. I feel about each book very differently. My interest is in the book as a whole, not just in the illustrations. Every detail of a book should, as far as possible, reflect the intention the artist and designer had toward the idea of the book. These intentions need not even be expressible in words, but they should be felt. That quality of the individual book that is strongest — the simple vigor, the delicacy, the mood, the setting — should determine the color, not an arbitrary application of brilliance to whatever the subject.

The atmosphere of a book is extremely important; in older boys’ and girls’ books it is perhaps more important than depiction of events. A story that is very traditional in feeling can often suffer from illustrations that are stylistically too different in period. When one adapts a modern technique to illustrations for a historical period, one must think of the young child looking, with little knowledge of period. Do the costumes give the feeling of the period if they do not reproduce the details?

Freshness lies in the intensity of expression, not in the novelty of the technique.

In order not to drag the ideas or techniques that I have developed during work on one book into another, I try to take a good piece of time between books, painting or just taking in impressions by travel, in order to clear the way for the next.

Some books are of course related by period, and the same research holds for both; this is true of Cinderella and Puss in Boots. But the spirit of the two is completely different. The quality in a story itself and in the way it is told determines style. Puss is extravagant, swaggering. The king, a bon viveur, enjoys the outrageousness of the cat. Cinderella, with the tenderness of the godmother, the dream of the girl, the preposterousness of the sisters, is in a completely different mood.

People speak of some artists who use different techniques as if they had fifty up their sleeves ready to appear, full-blown, when needed. But the life of an artist is one of constant preparation. He almost never feels that he has realized his aim. When a book is finished, he is usually just beginning to feel how it might have been. Stacks of trial drawings and rejects attest to many efforts to find the right way to say what one has to say. One develops the technique necessary to express one’s feeling about the particular book in hand. Sometimes this takes several months of drawing into a subject until one is ready to begin the actual illustrations.

People often ask how much time it takes to make a book. Five days, five months, three years — as long as is necessary to get down one’s ideas and feelings about the book.

It might be useful for me to tell you of my work on three different books, each of which presented a different problem in illustration and bookmaking. They happen to be mine, and I use them because I know them best.

One is a picture book, one a picture-story book, and one an illustrated book for older children. All three are of folk origin: One is a fable, one of the oldest types of folk tales; one is a synthesis of several European folk tales through a poet’s mind; one is a hero legend with chants from a people with an oral culture.

Myths and legends tell a child who he is in the family of man. In a book with ancient, mythic origins, some of the poetic depth of the story should be implied in the illustrations. The child, looking and reading, will understand and recall tomorrow more than he can tell you today.

Once a Mouse is a picture book in which the pictures complete a very brief text and, I hope, add some comment of their own. Since the book is for very young children, the details are only those needed. The woodcut is a favorite medium of mine, one that relates to traditional graphic media and that can be very successfully combined with type on a page.

Though the words of the fable are few, the theme is big. It takes a certain amount of force to cut a wooden plank, and a definite decision. Wood that lived can say something about life in a forest. An artist can make his own color proofs in printers’ inks, can mix his colors and give approximate formula to a printer. Even though the transparent colors on an offset press are different from the thicker ones used at home, this proving can be of enormous help in seeing what one will get.

Each artist has his personal feelings about his way of working, and the finished book is what is to be judged as successful or not, but in my own books I like every color to be cut on a separate block in order to maintain the optical unity of the medium. A book is like a very small stage. Just as a violent drama on television is sometimes hard to take in one’s living room, what is effective in a large print can often break up a comparatively small book page.

The story of Once a Mouse moves in an arc from quietness to quietness; from meditation, to concern, to involvement, to anger and action, back to meditation. The colors I chose were the yellow-green of sun through leaves, of earth, the dark green of shadows, and the red that says India to me. Red is used as a force to cut into the other colors when its violence is needed. Excitements are fairly easy to make in illustrations — a chase, a fight, an explosion — and offer immediate release. The quiet power of inner life is much harder to achieve and must be felt more deeply.

In the fall of 1962 I was invited to go to Hawaii as guest of the Honolulu Book Fair. Just before I went, I had reread The Wild Swans of Andersen. Hawaii made a great impression on me. But when I flew from one island to another, the shadow of the plane on the clouds below reminded me of Elisa in her net borne by her wild swan brothers. When in November I saw the huge waves crashing in at Sunset Beach, I thought of the endless rolling waves that gave her courage to be inexhaustible in her search for her brothers. There are vast images in that story, vast implications and sonorities that can ring in a child’s mind far into adult life. It is a story of light and shade, with strong contrasts: dark toads that turn into bright poppies when they touch Elisa; the forest pool in its shadow and the shimmer of light through the leaves; the darkest part of the forest that is also the deepest despair — no bird was seen, no sunbeam pierced the gloom — “yes, indeed, there was solitude here, the like of which she had never known.” And then the free, vast spaces of the sea, the dark waves rearing up to show their white sides.

A white swan swoops down over the dark vault of Elisa’s prison; between the black cypresses that would be there in an Italian graveyard shines the moon. Over the dark tumbrel the eleven swans descend with a great flashing and beating of their white wings, and the story ends with the miracle of the white flower, like a star blooming on the pile of faggots, and the dazzle of light and happiness.

To try to show these contrasts I used a broad lettering pen dragged over rough water-color paper and sumi for the gray washes. I needed the simplest means of achieving dark and light. The rose color for the swans’ beaks, for the dawn, for the poppies and the roses I got from rubbing sanguine powder into the plastic contact plate. I was afraid to trust delicate washes either to dropout half tone or hand-clearing. The drawings were frequently vignetted around the type to tie the two more intimately together and to give variety to the movement of the book.

When I was in Hawaii I was so enchanted with the natural beauty of the islands and the charm of the people, I did not even think of looking for material for a book. The Hawaiian folklore I knew was long, involved, and difficult for a Western child. And the wild swans had ensnared me for most of the winter and spring following that first visit.

But just before I left the islands, an elderly lady gave me a historic collection of legends gathered by her husband’s uncle, who had grown up ‘on the island of Kaua’i. One story interested me particularly, “The Story of Paka’a and His Son Ku.” After the swans were in flight, I decided to return to Hawaii to see if I could get inside the atmosphere enough to do a book for children based on that legend, full of racial memories of the people, also full of courage, of a boy’s struggle to find himself, to discover his own place, to leap, at least in thought, beyond the mores of his own culture. The leap beyond the usual, the accepted, is so often what defines the folk hero. His audacity embodies the longings of a people for something beyond — beyond the next promontory, beyond the blue-black water where the sharks dwell, beyond the next island, beyond a restrictive social structure controlled by taboos. The material thrilled me, and I went into it more deeply, reading in Polynesian and Hawaiian myths and anthropological studies, talking to proud people who retained after a hundred and fifty years of foreign influence some of the old thought patterns and ideals of their fathers.

Dorothy Kahananui, Hawaiian musician and professor of Hawaiian at the University, led me to a full Hawaiian version of the legend, containing the old chants — so significant a part of Hawaiian life — the most important tie of knowledge and feeling of the past to the present and essential to the atmosphere and telling of the story. She agreed to make a literal translation for me, and I worked out my own version from that and from the two other versions that exist in English.

While I was writing the story of Paka’a, which swings back and forth from the delineation of character to the natural phenomena that form character and provide images of magnificence to describe it, I was naturally thinking of the illustrations. Full color would not only have been out of the question in cost for a long book for older children but would have intruded too insistently on a story that is one of internal struggle and growth as well as external action.

Except for enigmatical pictographs, of great interest to anthropologists but very primitive graphically, and wood and stone images of gods, there was almost no Hawaiian art that seemed effective to me as inspiration for illustrations for a legend for young people with probably a vague picture of a tourist’s paradise. I had thought of a carved medium, woodcut or linoleum, one that might hark back to the elegantly simple carvings and also one that could depict the atmosphere in which such legends arose. I finally settled on linoleum, and two points of view evolved in the illustrations that are also in my telling of the story. One is the background of vast natural forces — the winds that were thought to bear the tales; the basalt cliffs that gave an ideal to men’s character; the vast spaces of the sea, source of life and food, testing ground of prowess, image of both beauty and poignant and unfulfilled longing. The other is a simple delineation of character, pared down to its essence in the most direct of emotional confrontations. Linoleum, which can be cut or engraved, seemed to be the answer.

The color I chose for the printing was close to that I recall most strongly when I think of Hawaii — the deep green of the clefts in the great palis, where all softness has worn away in wind and rain but where living plants have clad the cliffs in velvet. I chose a deep, warm, almost olive green to harmonize with the warm-toned paper.

Margaret Evans, who designed the typography, chose Palatino, a type that has the strength and individuality in its cut to halt the eye on the individual word. I had tried to tell the story with strong, simple words, most of them Anglo-Saxon, words of action, with metaphors taken from Hawaiian life. The pictures would have to reflect the feelings of those words. Big things had to remain big. Action should have meaning, but thought and inner feeling are also action in illustration. I found this illustration for older children a challenge, with a more rigid type page than that of the picture book, with a very different mental approach from the reader.

The title page is symbolic — the steering paddle that meant command; the kahili, the feather standard, that meant royalty and the watchful care of a backbone for his king; the cliff that meant the rock-heart that does not yield or wear away. A windy book from a windy land.

In The Little Prince, Saint-Exupery makes a statement in the context of one human relationship that perhaps we could apply to another: “One is forever responsible for whom one has tamed.” Children walk, arms open, to embrace what we give them. To hand on to them die breakdown in communication that is all around us is a very serious thing. Those who work with children should be encouraged to hand on to them their personal involvement with the world. A child needs the stimulus of books that are focused on individuality in personality and character if he is to find his own. A child is individual; a book is individual. Each should be served according to its needs.


All of Miss Brown’s books are published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, with the exception of Three Billy Goats Gruff (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.). Copyright © 1967 by Marcia Brown.

From the June 1967 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.



  1. I studied design myself and I can totally relate to the statements above. I want to thank you for this excellent contribution and hope to read more about and illustrator’s goals in the future. Best of luck

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