Children's illustration grows up

 Laura Barrett

For its first children’s book, Taschen – a publisher best known for its art, design and ‘sexy’ books – has turned to the original fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, teaming them with illustrations by some of the finest children’s illustrators of the 1820s to 1950s. It also commissioned a series of new silhouettes for the book, from London-based illustrator Laura Barrett.

Laura’s silhouettes recall medieval woodcuts or paper cutouts. “There are some dark elements within my work, but children can still identify with them – in the same way as with the tales themselves,” says Laura

Laura’s elegant vignettes are at once evocative and mysterious, thronged with animals and symbols and people whose expressions you can’t make out. This makes them a perfect match for the stories, which are charged with magic and hidden meanings.

“Despite the large amount of detail and intricacy, the nature of silhouettes means that a lot is left up to the imagination of the viewer. The stark contrast within a silhouette also works well to capture the opposites in fairy tales: light and dark, good and evil and so on,” she explains.

She set out to capture “moments of movement and action” from each tale, sketching out individual characters and elements in Illustrator before combining them and experimenting with the composition, and adding all manner of decorations. “I can get very caught up in making my work too intricate, so I had to work in a slightly bolder style to make every detail legible,” she says.

“I can still clearly remember the illustrations in so many of my childhood books, and I love the idea that a child will grow up with this book in their collection, possibly picturing my illustrations when they think of certain fairy tales,” she says.

Laura outlines her ideas in a sketchbook, linking key words and images

Laura is now working on another fairy tale project: “It’s a gothic fairy tale picture book, that will also be suitable for adults. I’d love to continue illustrating for such a wide age range,” she says.

 Chris Haughton

Bright, graphic and instantly charming, Chris Haughton’s A Bit Lost is the tale of a baby owl who falls from his nest and must find his way back to his mother, with the help of woodland creatures.

The story has a sing-song rhythm. “I really like the idea of it being like pantomime – on the turn of the page, it needs to be, ‘what’s going to be next?’,” he says.

Scenes are dotted with hidden details. “All the animals are in the background – the mother owl’s in all the pictures looking for him. I liked it that you don’t notice that at first, but on subsequent reading maybe you’ll see it,” he says.

The style was inspired by classic illustrator Leo Lionni. “My tendency’s always to overwork things, and I looked at Leo and realised I don’t need half that stuff. I kept it as simple as possible, because it has more character.”

Chris works with a bright but limited colour palette

This simplicity helped him avoid tweeness. “There’s something cool and graphic about it,” he says. “It’s trying to get that balance, not including any details you don’t need.”

Creating the book was surprisingly challenging. “I do an advertising illustration in two days, maybe a week. Doing the book took 10-and-a-half months,” Chris says ruefully.

Full-page illustrations often face pages with only the characters on them – a simple technique that balances out each spread. But this wasn’t an automatic decision: “There were things I hadn’t even thought about,” he explains.

“Because I’d been working as an animator, all my pages originally had a full background, and I couldn’t work out what was wrong. After two months of experimenting and doing vignettes, it occurred to me to knock out the full background so you only see the characters – it’s not the most obvious thing to do. As an animator or illustrator you don’t do that.” 

A Bit Lost was an instant hit: it has been translated into eight languages and has won international awards – there are even owl toys. “It’s been quite remarkable,” Chris says. His second book, Oh No, George!, is due out next year.

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