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

Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also reviews for The Horn Book, Kirkus, 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.

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Carolyn Hunter

Hello. I am an Early Childhood Educator. I just published my first children's book, entitled , "Mean, Mean COVID-19!". I am presently writing and illustrating my second book. My illustrations are all hand drawn and I have been pondering computerizing my illustrations which seems to be the trend, especially among indie authors. I am old school and hand drawn illustrations to me offer the authenticity and warmth of a hand written letter. After reading your article I have decided to continue with my hand drawn and heartfelt illustrations. I would love to study art to improve upon my drawings. Any suggestions you could offer would be much appreciated. You can see some of my drawings at CeeCeesHeart.com. Thank you again for your article. 💙

Posted : Jun 24, 2021 06:48

Christa Blaney

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.

Posted : Feb 19, 2019 01:29


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.

Posted : Dec 27, 2018 06:04

Joana Borges

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.

Posted : Jul 09, 2017 05:13

Wendy Wahman

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.

Posted : Mar 09, 2014 08:54

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