Children's illustration grows up

 David Lucas

Colossal sea monsters, lonely robots and questing skeletons populate the fairy tales of David Lucas, whose deceptively simple images turn out to have hidden depths.

“I like stories that make sense, that mean something, that end in a satisfying way,” he says. “I see the world as a meaningful pattern – and my work grows from that. I see both stories and pictures as patterns, and I want both to be beautiful, like a fractal pattern, with every part reflecting the whole.”

The exaggerated scale of the sea beast against the tiny hero adds to the drama of this scene from The Skeleton Pirate

The author of a dozen children’s books including The Skeleton Pirate (out next year), Lucas’s stories are usually “absurd visual metaphors for common emotional states”, he says.

“My starting point is usually to mix up themes and motifs from fairy tales or myth, with details of my own life – usually focusing on some problem or difficulty I’ve been thinking about.

“I try and find things in my own life that will resonate with others, and that fit the timeless pattern of fairy tales.”

David’s studio, as he prepares his newest story book, Grendel, due out in 2013.

His illustration style is similarly timeless, with a graphic, brightly coloured look that is inspired by medieval and folk art. “I like my work to have a slightly antique flavour – I deliberately distance it from fashions and the present,” he says.

In keeping with this medieval influence, Lucas’s characters are deliberately simple and almost flat. “My characters are more like puppets or paper cutouts,” he says.

“I make them out of simple shapes, making a kind of approximation to reality – with, I hope, just enough realism to be convincing. I’ve always loved sharp, clear outlines.”

The images are bright and exuberant, but look closer and there are darker forces at work: Lucas plays with scale, so a hero is shrunk to ant-like proportions against a vast, looming monster, or towers over a castle.

Another scene from The Skeleton Pirate

“I try and find a way of uniting all sorts of opposites within a picture: flatness and depth, pattern and realism, a sense of both the particular – a specific person or place – and the universal.

“Something comes mysteriously alive when there is that tension between opposites,” he says.

Il Sung Na

There is a softness and delicacy to the work of Il Sung Na, a Korean illustrator with six titles to his name. The stocky, rounded animal characters in his bedtime book Zzzzz: A Book of Sleep are etched in soft lines and decorated with watercolour splashes, patterns and doodled motifs, closer to toys than to wildlife.

Just as appealing as the characters are the jewel-bright backgrounds they sit in; richly textured and subtly ornamented with little emblems, they give the images a tactile, spontaneous and somehow very engaging quality – as one reviewer has pointed out, there is more than a hint of modernist Marc Chagall to them.

“Colouring is my favourite part of the whole book-making process,” Il Sung says. He draws and colours the characters and backgrounds separately. “I enjoy using acrylic, soft pastels and oil bars. Sometimes I use pen and ink, too. Then I use Photoshop to assemble them.”

Like many children’s illustrators, Il Sung finds that less is more when it comes to character design. It’s a process of constant refinement to get to the essence of that creature.

For bedtime book Zzzzz, Il Sung Na uses a colour palette that is muted but avoids cutesy pastels

“I observe a subject that I want to make a character very carefully, trying to find the distinguishing features that make a subject itself,” he says. “Then I exaggerate or emphasise those parts and keep the rest very simple.”

Although he sometimes collaborates with writers, he is just as happy writing his own texts, using stories that pop into his head “at any time, from nowhere,” he says. “What’s important is that the text and image work together as one – the text doesn’t need to be long, explain many things or be very fancy.”

A colour sample and sketchbook for another of Il Sung’s books, Teacup in a Storm

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