Saturday 21 November 2015

Looking at the illustration of eyes in children's picture books - Paeony Lewis

Four talented professional illustrators have helped enormously with this blog post on the illustration of eyes. Huge thanks to Jonathan Allen, Penny Ives, Bridget Marzo and John Shelley. Without you, my musings would have been paltry!

From Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Imagine if those monsters looked directly at you…
Eyes may take up only a tiny part of an illustration, but they say so much and it’s vital to get them right. Have you noticed how Max's monsters in  the classic Where the Wild Things Are never look directly at the reader? How scary it would be for a child if they did look at us!

Eyes can have such huge impact, regardless of how minimal the illustration.  In This Is Not My Hat, part of the story is told through tiny changes in the eyes of the big fish. From the story text we know the little fish steals the hat of the big fish and thinks he won't notice. However, although we're not told anything in the text, through just the eyes of the big fish we see him wake up and discover his hat is gone and obviously he wants it back.  It’s stylish and very effective. 

Four excerpts from the pages of This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (Walker Books, 2012)

With just a few strokes of the pen or brush, really subtle emotions can be seen in eyes. In No More Yawning! (I'll admit it's by me!), the illustrator, Brita Granstrom, portrays an emotional scene between mother and daughter with the barest of marks. I won't say what's happening - can you guess the emotions? The answer is at the very bottom of this blog post.

Excerpt from No More Yawning! by Paeony Lewis,
illustrated by Brita Granstrom (Chicken House, 2008) 

In this image from  No More Yawning! Brita's watercolour illustration reflected the words of the story. However, sometimes this isn't the case. I often smile when there's the need in a story for the text to say one thing and the eyes of a character tell us something else. The interplay of words and illustrations can be such fun. In the example below the eyes show us that the zebra's words are said with resignation. Given a choice the zebra wouldn't do it again, but he wants the moose to be happy (rather like a parent and child!).

From Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (Andersen Press, 2013)

So why have I been looking at the eyes of characters in picture books? Although I'm an author and definitely not a professional illustrator, for a few years I’ve been studying art and in class next week I'll be sketching and painting two characters from one of my stories. It was this that got me thinking about eyes.

I knew I didn’t want realistic eyes for my characters. Instead, should I use small dots or big dots? Should they be round, oval, square or just lines? Or how about big eyes with pupils as these can be really expressive?

Excerpt from Pom Pom gets the Grumps by Sophy Henn (Puffin, 2015).
These pandas have very expressive eyes.
Owl and Squirrel have big eyes in
A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton
(Walker Books, 2010)

At first I thought I’d use big eyes as they seem popular. Human babies have big cute eyes. This appealing trait is reflected in manga and anime, the Powerpuff Girls and Bratz dolls, Teletubbies, Muppets, Elsa and Anna in Frozen, Mickey Mouse... Etc, etc.! Nobody ever said: “Oh, what lovely small eyes you have.” Instead, we might use eye makeup to make our eyes look bigger and more attractive.

However, if having big expressive eyes were a prerequisite for picture books then that doesn’t explain why beady-eyed mice, bears and elephants are also popular characters, or why many illustrators use small dots for eyes. So maybe I should consider dot eyes too. Ho hum, I think I’ll talk to some professional illustrators. They’ll know much, much more than me! To begin, here's a lovely introduction by Penny Ives...

Penny Ives

Two little black ink dots and there we are: a pair of eyes.

But move the dots closer together, up or down or round by the ears and everything changes.

Enlarge them to the size of saucers or miss one out and we have a spaced out pussy or my cat Fozzie who sadly is minus one eye these days.

Simple cat eyes   © Penny Ives, 2015

To achieve the right look for both the cat in the red suit and Miss Austen, and all eyes in the right place, I used the method outlined below.

The Red Suit  © Penny Ives
Miss Austen and the Penguin  © Penny Ives, 2015

First draw a circle.
Put two dots on small pieces of tracing paper.
Move them around over your circle.
A face with eyes!
Or you can use Photoshop of course!

But it's amazing what two ink dots can do.

Jonathan Allen

The eyes are the window to the soul, etc, etc. As far as drawing eyes goes, I subscribe to the 'circle with a dot in it' approach. What I call ‘Beano’ eyes, after the comic of that name. I don’t go for the single dot approach because for me it is too limiting and emotionally distant. I have no argument with artists like Quentin Blake and Margaret Chamberlain who use the dot method, but it doesn’t suit me. It’s ‘Beano’ eyes for me every time.

I prefer the way the 'circle with a dot in it' method delivers a range of subtle emotions and describes personality. My drawings are all about facial expression. Take that away and you don’t have much really. The eyes are the point of engagement for the viewer.

For an incredibly crude and simple representation of the ‘human’ eye it is amazingly versatile in what it can express, (along with eyebrows and the mouth). The shape of the eye, the size of the dot and its position are the crucial things. Even subtle variations of these can change the emotion an expression carries. This subtlety means that you can move away from the generic Happy or Sad expressions and into expressions that say things like “I know you think that’s funny, but actually it upset me but I’m trying not to show it.” Or “I’m not supposed to be here but I’ll act innocent and see if I can get away with it.”
Here’s a very quick illustration of the same face with just the eyes changed to ‘illustrate’ my point. Sort of.

Dog eyes © Jonathan Allen, 2015

John Shelley

I sometimes use sweeping point-of-view changes in picture books,  sometimes changing from panoramic views to close-ups. This makes the drawing of eyes a bit awkward, dots work well at distance but for me are a bit too sparse for a close-up. At what point do you change a dot eye to a more fully formed one for the same character, and is there an interim stage? 

Dot eyes used in advertising
on ski train in Japan, by John Shelley
For many years I drew fully formed eyes with whites, pupils, irises, etc., whenever possible, only using dot eyes for figures at a distance. For middle-ground figures this would be a black dot pupil, with a grey line defining a rounded upper eyelid giving space for the whites of eyes, though for close-ups I’d paint the iris, pupil and lids. I was happy with this, though sometimes the white of eyes became too prominent in the mid-ground and I remember Klaus Flugge (publisher) told me how much he hated 'Disney eyes'. I had to be careful my figures didn’t always carry a permanent expression of surprise, and always avoided 'goggle-eyes' as you often see in American animation. When I started doing a lot of advertising in Japan my figures in my more graphic ‘commercial’ style became much simpler and I almost always just used dots for eyes. 

Above and below:
I've just finished painting my latest book (Japanese publisher, 2016):
Yozora o Miyage-yo (Let's Look at the Night Sky), illustrated by John Shelley.

A combination of dots and dots within eye whites were used in this book.

Nowadays I use a combination of developed eyes or dots, it depends on the detail in the project. I draw fully formed eyes for non-fiction historical work like Stone Giant or Will’s Words, but for character-based picture-book fiction I’m turning more to just using dot eyes, though I still show eye whites for closer and mid-ground figures, the definition being shown just with paint rather than drawn eyelids. However I still have that problem of what to do for close-ups. I think if I were to do a book with small figures throughout, I’d probably just use dots. Howerver, the more panning and close-ups there are involved, the more uncomfortable I am with just using dots.

Doddles from sketch book, © John Shelley

The other thing is the positioning of eyes on a face. In Japan I learned quickly about 'Hello Kitty' - it’s the baby-face effect where facial features are lower on the head and the eyes are slightly apart. This appeals to our innate attraction to baby faces. It’s everywhere in Japan and is pretty well a formula now. Use sparingly! I like to doodle in sketchbooks using different proportions and positions of  the facial features. It’s so much fun to push the proportions to see what you come up with - they may not be ‘attractive’ figures, but they're definitely full of character.

Bridget Marzo

Of all subjects to do with illustration the question of eyes is closest to my heart.

For me it’s not so much about the ‘how’ - the styles - fashions for representing eyes which range from the realistic to the round or dot eye.

Much more important is the ‘why’ - the intention of the characters in the story or the purpose of the book.

For stories it’s the direction of the gaze, where the characters are looking, that matters. It can even be a device to prompt a story. Sometimes I’ll doodle two characters and play with eye direction. Giving a direction to a gaze by placing a dot in one corner or another of a eye socket is a key way to create a relationship between characters or reveal their view of the world. Actors know this. Follow a gaze and see how a character connects, or not, to others or to what they are doing. This is how Tiz and Ott first came to life, as I explored the way they reacted, or not, to each other.

When I run character drawing workshops for children and adults I’ll suggest a ‘quick draw’ recipe which includes drawing simple circles for eye sockets. The fun comes at the end when we add the dots for pupils in a specific direction. The characters come alive and it is as if you can read their thoughts. Are the characters making contact with each other or not? Is a character avoiding eye contact for some reason? Perhaps they are feeling shy, exasperated or guilty. Or are the characters literally 'seeing eye to eye'? 

Give the eyes a direction and it may lead your characters in a direction through a story.


Again, huge thanks to  Jonathan AllenPenny IvesBridget Marzo and John Shelley. Please click their names to find out more.

Now I must decide how to illustrate the eyes of my two characters. It's time to experiment!

From No More Yawning!
by Paeony Lewis, illus by Brita Granstrom
Finally (really!), at the beginning I suggested you guess the emotions of Mum and her daughter, Florence, as painted by Brita Granstrom. I wonder what you thought?!

In fact, at this stage in the story it's late and Mum is very tired and Florence won't/can't fall asleep. Florence is still feeling a little sad and pensive because Mum shouted at her on the previous page. Mum is now feeling lovingly guilty and is trying to reassure Florence by telling how she got to sleep when she was a little girl. I adore the way Florence's monkey reflects Florence.

If  you have any thoughts on the illustration of eyes then it'll be great to read your comments.
Paeony Lewis


Jennie Walters said...

Brilliant post! Love hearing the thoughts/techniques of these illustrators.

Paeony Lewis said...

Many thanks, Jennie. I'll admit that now I can't stop looking at the eyes in picture books!

Susan Price said...

What a fascinating post!

Jane Clarke said...

The treatment of the eyes is such an enormous contributing factor to the feel of a book, I'm awe of everyone who can encapsulate so much meaning in such a small feature. Interesting to hear the illustrators' thought process, good luck with your illustrating, Paeony.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Really interesting! Thank you.

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks, Jane. I'd planned to give more examples from picture books, but when I received the wonderful thoughts from the illustrators I cut back as it's a blog post and not a book! Originally I was going to include an image from your lovely 'Knight Time' because I liked the wayJane Massey illustrated the humans and teddies with dots for eyes and the dragons had circles and dots.

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks, Sue. Did you immediately look at the eyes in The Runaway Chappati?!

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks,Pippa, and I've just realised I should have used your 'Three Little Ghosties' as an example (with the illustrations by AnnaLaura Cantone). The eyes of those ghosts say so much - a perfect example!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Really interesting post, Paeony! Thank you. I loved the examples of the illustrators. I'm going to be eye-hunting all the time in my books, now...

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! Thanks!

Dow said...

What a great post!! Thank you!

Moira Butterfield said...

Thank you very much! Now I'm going to be looking at all the eyes in the picture books around my house.

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks everyone! It's lovely to know you found the post interesting. The poor illustrators were given hardly any notice for this blog post, so I'm doubly grateful to them. Now I keep looking at the eyes in books (and the body language, etc.) - I can't stop doing it! Yup, I'm obsessed!

Katherine Lynas said...

At the SCBWI conference I was advised to look at eyes, and what do I find in my inbox but a lovely blog post on the very subject, brilliant! You've given me some interesting points to consider, such as how they change when at a distance. I had previously noticed this happening in The Troll by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by David Roberts. I'm looking forward to pawing through my books to see how other people handle eyes. A very interesting post, thanks again.

Paeony Lewis said...

Delighted our blog post was there when you needed it, Katherine. Serendipity!

kateandme said...

Wo!!bowled over by this brings home just what goes into things,and how features mwatter so much

Unknown said...

Your Illustration are awesome. I run a slimier blog BeOnTrack. may I use your illustrations with credits? keep up the amazing work. You have earned yourself a regular reader.