Thursday, 21 March 2019

An interesting musing for this week's "ReadItTorial" - Traditional art vs Digital Art in Children's Books - Does it make a difference?

One unexpected Twitter reaction to last week's ReadItTorial (on the subject of "Nothing is Original Under the Sun" or "How do some books even get published?") was a tweet from a couple of our favourite creative folk. 

Griselda Heppel's "Ante's Inferno" is the sort of darkly delicious fantasy I'd have eaten my own arm off for the chance to read as a kid. 

James Mayhew's fantastic "Katie" books are absolutely amazing, and he covers a huge range of other cultural subjects in other stories for children. 

James and Griselda had both been reading some of the tweets around last week's article, and came back with a rather unexpected pair of replies:

I wasn't quite expecting this but examining these tweets, there's a very valid point being made here about the quality of artwork in children's books (I was actually pointing out that for some publishers, author-illustrated books comfortably kill two birds with one stone so might 'get a pass' and get published where some straight-texts without illustrations might not).

So here we have a truly awesome gent who has studied (and produced) traditional art talking about digital illustration perhaps being a root cause of the falling standards in kidlit art.

It's fair to say that if you look at most children's picture books these days, there's a distinct swing towards digital workflow for most illustrators. Even if you're not purely working digital (and these days there's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't - I'll come back to that point), most artists will use some form of digital cleanup, retouching or perhaps even colouring to enhance or improve their traditional artwork before a publisher's design team gets near it and starts prodding and poking it into an acceptable form to be printed and reproduced.

Digital art has come on in leaps and bounds. I clearly remember being a struggling art student at BCT in Brighton, and gaining my first access to a digital art package called Painter through college. This thing ran on a PC, it came in (of all things) a paint can (I'm really not kidding!) but it was the first time I remember using something that really felt like paint. You could layer the colours on thick. The digital brushes were amazing, the package even had watercolours and brushes that smeared, blended and felt like the media they were trying to reproduce.

I fell completely in love with digital painting back then, and it took some years for hardware to start catching up with what was possible with the paint packages. The first Wacom I bought had a pressure-sensitive wireless stylus (just like they do today) and was the size of some folks' mobile phones in drawing area but DAMN, did that ever revolutionise what was possible in digital art packages. That was nearly 20 years ago by the way.

Nowadays you could comfortably spend a LOT of money pursuing the perfect digital setup. Wacom Cintiq tablets can be the size of a large PC monitor, working at impossible-to-imagine resolutions with amazing colour reproduction and depth. Packages have also evolved, ranging from the tried-and-tested Photoshop, through to Clip Studio (which can now even COLOUR your art using artifical intelligence - Say WHATTTT!?!?!?) or my own current favourite setup, the iPad, the Apple Pencil and a copy of ProCreate. With these tools, artists can create stunning works of art that may never exist anywhere outside a computer - but commercial artists are every bit as capable of making amazing illustrations for children's books using digital tools as well as traditional methods.

The point is - all those fabulous tools are absolutely worthless without a modicum of talent backing them up.

You can spend a lot of money on pursuing your dream of becoming an illustrator, or very little money at all. But if you have a really solid portfolio, and can demonstrate the ability to work to briefs, to commercial (printable) quality, and know what works and what doesn't for kidlit illustraton, you're still a zillion miles off achieving the ultimate goal of finding your work regularly in demand and published.

I don't think it's massively important to have received any formal training, but sometimes a grounding in even the most basic art techniques can help a lot (I've spent a lot of time going to life drawing classes, and just aimlessly drawing faces, studying tons of books and tutorials but still consider myself to be a fairly poor artist who really wishes he'd completed his 3 year course instead of running out of money and resorting to resuming a soulless and unsatisfying career in IT to pay the bills instead).

The issue James and Griselda were both trying to highlight maybe should be decoded in this way then...that there are certain 'trends' that are fast becoming cliches in children's books, and the publishing industry on the whole is very against taking any risky chances with a whole swathe of books from birth to maybe Year 6-7.

As I said in response on Twitter, there are certain kidlit art styles that I will cross the road to avoid. Once an artist's 'style' becomes popular, other artists will either reproduce or just blatantly copy that style for their own kidlit illustrations, and sometimes that can rob a perfectly brilliant story of its worth (kind of the flip side of last week's ReadItTorial where I said that some books look great, but have the most godawful cliched stories).

We've rarely seen children's picture books that have truly execrable artwork in them. Outside the realms of self-published books (not all self published books, I should quickly say, just the majority we've encountered), commercial art for children's books demands the highest possible standards, and new artists are emerging every single year, capable of producing work that would pass muster with even the fussiest kids (or adults for that matter).

But perhaps, returning briefly to the subject of last week's ReadItTorial post, we're seeing the industry falling back on what will reliably sell, "playing it safe" with tried and tested styles and looks - whether digital or traditional. Again stifling the possibility that someone truly ground-breaking might see their book in print. As I said last week, we're seeing the same thing happening in movies and TV with endless reboots, in videogames, so why should the same not be true in kidlit?

At ReadItDaddy though, we're always, ALWAYS looking out for "those folk" who don't play it safe.

The ones who are capable not only of cramming delicious little details into their illustrations to enhance a fantastic story, but fully understand how to work stuff in there for the adults reading to their kids, to the point where those kids dressing up as their characters on World Book Day are doing so because it's the visualisation of the story they've fallen in love with as much as the text itself.

There are so many folk we could name who do this with every single book they put their talents to (whether illustrating stories they've written, or illustrating someone else's work). God it's tempting to just reel them off by name, but you know who you are, if we're following you on Twitter and retweeting everything you show off, you'll definitely know.

Worth pondering on Griselda and James' point though. Do you think kidlit suffers at the hands of digital workflow becoming the norm? I really would be interested in seeing this one get discussed further so @ me on twitter @readitdaddy or comment below!