Friday, 14 February 2014

Unleash Your Inner Rabbit by Jonathan Allen

A few years ago, oh all right, more than a few years ago, I did a drawing workshop as part of day at Andover Library (I think it was there. . .). Anyway, it was concerned with drawing animals in a kid's book style, working from some stuffed animals the museum service had available. It was quite fun, and some nice drawings resulted. But it wasn't the results that made it interesting for me, it was the change of viewpoint it triggered. It made me look at what I do from an outsider's perspective and begin to see it as a process to be explored objectively.

Drawing for children's books, in my particular niche at least, is about simplifying. About reducing something to its essence and expressing that in a few lines. The interesting thing about this process is, that the essence you are reducing something to has as much to do with shared preconceptions as it has to do with physical reality.

I'll give an example of this in context. I was doing some drawing on a big flipchart while on a school visit, and as a bit of fun, I tried an experiment. Before I began to draw I asked the children to shout out as soon as they knew what animal I was drawing. I quickly drew two basic sausage shapes, sticking up vertically.

That was all that was needed. "Rabbit!" was the immediate response. I drew a long tube, thicker at one end, with an inverted 'v' at the thin end,

"Elephant!" came the cry almost immediately. They didn't need many visual clues at all. Some of them even got "Giraffe" straight away from one ear and the two knobbly bits on it's head, I didn't even have to draw the long neck!

So what were they responding to? I think it was the idea of the particular animal that they were recognising. The shared concept of what a rabbit, for example, 'looks like' - what makes up a satisfactory rabbit according to our learned preconceptions. This shared concept would have been absorbed from children's books, cartoons and any other second or third hand manifestations of the collectively agreed Rabbit we carry within us, that they would have been exposed to. Some of it might have come from exposure to real rabbits, but not much.

Current scientific thinking seems to indicate that this mental process is a basic part of how the brain copes with the complexity of the visual world, by categorising and storing information into 'templates' to hold visual input up against, and guaging the relative importance of that visual input etc.  We interpret the world on a 'need to know' basis, and our 'need to know' rabbit has -

1 - Big, sticky-up ears.
2 - Two prominent front teeth, though not 'fangs'.
3 - A white fluffy tail.

Which is why, in a Children's book, as long as a character has those attributes, it doesn't matter what shape or colour it is, what size it is, or whether it talks, wears clothes, or drives fork lift truck, everyone knows it's a Rabbit. Of course it is!

featuring my 'inner, need-to-know fork lift truck'. . .


  1. When I'm illustrating I feel that I am drawing the 'idea' of something rather than the actual thing, sometimes reality can get in the way of a good picture!

  2. Thanks for sharing this! It's so interesting to see how different illustrators can interpret the same concept in so many ways, yet the essence is the same. That's why it's essential to be able to draw really well. It's also fascinating how very small details can change readers' perceptions and convey so much. I love the rabbit driving a fork lift truck -- I think there's a story right there!

  3. Yes, the impact of small details is fascinating. Especially in facial expressions. Changing the position and angle of the mouth, for instance, even if it's just a line, can change the character's mood radically. Computers are great for messing around with this. . .
    I think the rabbit in the drawing works in children's book distribution. .

  4. Bagsie be on your side in a game of Pictionary! It'd be great to create some kind of story from this if you could - Animals think they can make themselves disappear but they never can! They always give themselves away by their signature visual.

    1. Actually, I'm rubbish at Pictionary! I think artists are generally. They keep overthinking and being too slow ;-)

    2. Playing more often would be good to challenge yourself and loosen up. I might suggest that for my facebook doodle group!

  5. Fascinating. And, actually, I think that the process of selecting which facts to show in order to get an effect is very similar to what we do as writers.

  6. Very much enjoyed your post, and its title :-)

  7. Your blog has got me thinking, Jonathan. Thanks! When I've finished my current art course assignment, I'm going to have a go at 'simplifying'. Not sure what the outcome will be!

    Oh, and I suppose the simplifying also happens in its own way in writing. In dialogue we use words like 'said' in young books because it's a 'white word' that's instantly recognisable and doesn't require decoding by early readers.

  8. It is an interesting idea to simplify and find the essence of the subject.