Sendak, Carle, Provensen, and 20 Other Beloved Illustrators’ Advice to Children on Being an Artist
“No story is worth the writing, no picture worth the making, if it’s not the work of the imagination.”
By Maria Popova
“Every child is an artist,” Picasso is all too often cited as having declared. And yet not every adult is an artist — at least not a conscious, active, self-identifying one. How, then, do we lose the creative spark as we emerge from childhood, and what can we do to keep it forever ablaze?
That’s precisely what great and prolific Eric Carle (b. June 25, 1929), one of modern history’s most influential picture-book artists, sets out to answer in Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art (public library), which he envisioned and edited — at once a soul-lifting treasure for creative minds of all ages and a warm invitation for children to feel “among friends, fellow dreamers and scribblers” through the personal stories of such celebrated artists as Maurice Sendak, Leo Lionni, Alice Provensen, Steven Kellogg, and Jane Dyer. Accompanying these short and lovely letters, which do for art what Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds did for science and philosophy, are charming self-portraits by each of the artists, most created specifically for this project, along with fold-outs of artists’ notable works. The best part? All proceeds from the book benefit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
Eric Carle, who dreamt up the project, shares his own story:
Ever since I was very young, as far back as I can remember, I have loved making pictures. I knew even as a child that, when I grew up, I would be an artist of some kind. The lovely feeling of my pencil touching paper, a crayon making a star shape in my sketchbook, or my brush dipping into bright and colorful paints — these things affect me as joyfully today as they did all those years ago.
Carle, like a number of creative greats, including Dr. Seuss, Sherwood Anderson, and Wendy MacNaughton, came into illustration by way of the commercial arts — in his case, graphic design, an influence so wonderfully evident in his work:
My own style grew out of my work as a graphic designer. I try to express the essence of my stories and ideals very clearly, using simple shapes, often in bright colors against a white background. You might almost think of my illustrations, and especially the cover art, as little posters.
In his celebrated picture-books, Carle aims for imaginative clarity, relying on emotional intuition over rationalization and always listening to that universal inner child:
I do my best to simplify and refine, to be logical and harmonious. But I also try to keep an open mind, to listen to my intuition and allow for the unexpected, the coincidental, even the quirky to enter into my work. Ultimately, my aim is to entertain, and sometimes to enlighten, the child who still lives inside of me. This is always where I begin.
And just as in my boyhood, making pictures is how I express my truest feelings.
The remarkable Sir Quentin Blake, who among other feats illustrated Sylvia Plath’s little-known and lovely children’s book, discovered his calling by realizing what he could not be, speaking to the importance of having a great mentor and amassing a diverse arsenal of creative influences:
I suppose that really I had a training or education not so very different from a lot of other artists and illustrators — it’s just that I didn’t have it in the normal order. When I was at school I liked drawing, and I liked anything to do with humor, and I liked writing too. When I was about fourteen, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a man who both painted pictures and drew cartoons for newspapers and magazines, including Punch, the most famous English humorous magazine at the time. He was called Alfred Jackson and every few months I would take him a collection of my drawings to look at. Now I look back and realize these were in fact lessons or tutorials, and what was especially good about them was that he talked not only about the cartoonists’ drawings in Punch at the time, but also about Michelangelo and Modigliani as well.
Thanks to Jackson’s encouragement, Blake began submitting his own humorous drawings to Punch. Two “not very good” ones were eventually accepted when he was only sixteen and became that pivotal ignition spark for a long and successful career. But despite this early nod of approval, Blake didn’t go to art school — instead, he enrolled at Cambridge University to study English literature, training to become a teacher, then honed his art by the sheer force of grit and doggedness:
I thought that if I couldn’t make a living as an artist, at least I shouldn’t starve.
By the time I had finished these studies, I had realized that I simply did not draw well enough to be the kind of artist and illustrator that I wanted to be, and so for two days a week over two years I drew — and drew and drew — from the models in the life classes at Chelsea School of Art. I really found out how people looked and moved and balanced, and though nowadays I almost never use a sketchbook and just make everything up as I go along, it’s those days in the life room that are the back of it all.
Alice Provensen — one of my all-time favorite artists, who together with her husband Martin illustrated such vintage gems as The Animal Fair, an adaptation of Homer for kids, a cookbook by James Beard, and Aesop’s Fables, and who continues to draw into her nineties — shares a delightfully heartening ugly-duckling story of creative purpose:
When people look at my work, they often say, “Your picture is so good. I can’t even draw a straight line.” I think everyone can learn to draw. The important thing is to keep trying, keep drawing.
Young children make marvelous pictures. There is nothing they can’t draw. They paint and draw from their imaginations and the world around them. And they are not afraid to draw anything.
I saw a child’s picture, a country landscape. It had fifteen trees that looked like lollipops, both a sun and a moon in the sky and a crazy river running through. It wasn’t very realistic, but it was a miracle of design. … And when children draw people or portraits of themselves, even if they are only stick figures, they have an animate quality that a professional rarely gets.
She speaks to the momentous role of early encouragement:
My mother encouraged my efforts. Pens, paper, glue and scissors, crayons, oil paints and canvas were always available to me. My sixth-grade teacher entered one of my pictures in a contest. I won a scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute’s program for public school children and I have been drawing ever since.
Inversely, it is adults’ active discouragement that leads kids to self-censor the precious, uninhibited imagination that lends their drawings such magic:
It isn’t until an adult criticizes the picture and makes derogatory comments … that children lose their confidence and stop drawing. If young people spent as much time drawing as they do learning [the] alphabet … they would all make good pictures and maybe never even need to draw a straight line.
Paul O. Zelinsky, who recently penned this beautiful essay on what it was like to have Maurice Sendak as a teacher at Yale and who modeled his distinctive style after the old Italian masters, shares a more technical and hands-on glimpse of his process:
The old master oil paintings were usually done in transparent oil colors on top of a black-and-white underpainting, which was often painted in egg temperas. My version of this technique was to start with a watercolor underpainting, which is fast drying like tempera, but I have an easier time controlling it. Then I seal the underpainting with a coat of clear, matte acrylic medium. That keeps the oil paints, which come next, from soaking into the paper, where they would turn dull and flat. Instead, thin layers of transparent oil paint can be smoothed into glowing colors and bold, glossy surfaces, with a depth and space that I don’t think can be gotten any other way. It isn’t easy to do, but when it works, the results can still surprise me.
But my favorite has to be Maurice Sendak himself, who has delighted and continues to delight generations with his heart-warming picture-books, his literary illustrations, his vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading, and his irreverent wit. His heartening story, which echoes Joan Didion’s insistence on the importance of keeping a notebook, is a bittersweet celebration of art as self-therapy:
I was sickly as a child and gravitated to books and drawing. During my early teen years, I spent hundreds of hours at my window, sketching neighborhood children at play. I sketched and listened, and those notebooks became the fertile field of my work later on. There is not a book I have written or a picture I have drawn that does not, in some way, owe them its existence.
He attests to the notion that sharpening emotional recall is the key to genius:
If I have an unusual gift, it’s not that I draw particularly better than other people — I’ve never fooled myself about that. Rather it’s that I remember things other people don’t recall: the sounds and feelings and images — the emotional quality — of particular moments in childhood. Happily an essential part of myself — my dreaming life — still lives in the light of childhood.
Reflecting on the art of picture-book storytelling, Sendak shares his strong opinions about the interplay between words and pictures:
An illustration is an enlargement, and interpretation of the text, so that the reader will comprehend the words better. As an artist, you are always serving the words.
You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work. Then you must let the words take over where words do it best. It’s a funny kind of juggling act.
Like Herbert Spencer, who thought the same of writing, Sendak believes that confining yourself to one artistic style is creatively impoverishing. He ends with some invaluable advice to aspiring artists:
Artistic style is only a means to an end, and the more styles you have, the better. To get trapped in a style is to lose all flexibility. If you have only one style, then you’re going to do the same book over and over, which is pretty dull. Lots of styles permit you to walk in and out of books. So, develop a fine style, a fat style, and fairly slim style, and a really rough style.
As an aspiring artist, you should strive for originality of vision. Have something to say and a fresh way of saying it. No story is worth the writing, no picture worth the making, if it’s not the work of the imagination.
Do treat yourself to Artist to Artist — it’s immeasurably wonderful.
Published September 9, 2013