The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 3, No 1 (1999)

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Annette Goldsmith, column editor


The Patient Illustrator

Ian Wallace


Ian Wallace is one of Canada's most eminent illustrators and children's authors. His next book, Boy of the Deeps, will be published by Groundwood in Canada (and DK Ink in the United States) in Spring 1999.


Sarah cover

Among my refrigerator door magnet collection is a domino-sized rectangle with the saying, God grant me patience, and I want it NOW! While that piece of white ceramic speaks volumes in my personal life, it is in fact, the antithesis of my work as an illustrator. During the process of illustrating a book, patience plays a significant role, with time as the dominant player.

By time, I don’t mean the time constraints imposed by my editor in the form of a deadline or a financial timeline imposed by the duration of a project and its impact on my income that year. Time, as in the "passing of" or "duration of" has always been the least relevant element of time in illustrating a picture book. I do what has to be done in the time it takes to get the job done.

The critical aspect of time is the length of time it takes me to reach the juncture where I fully comprehend the characters and their story from every perspective and every angle. When I can smell the characters’ blood in the media I am using. When I can see the tracks their history has left on the paper’s tooth, and when I can watch them climb out of the dark into the light of my studio. This point in time is truly a revelation. It’s the moment when I can say, "So that’s what that character or that situation is all about!"

Having illustrated sixteen books over the past twenty-four years, I am keenly aware of the physical ability of my left hand to lay down lines and shapes on a piece of paper. But creating images that speak with honesty and integrity and bring alive circumstance and history, culture and race or whatever variables bear on the story can take infinitely longer.

I can fill several pages of a sketch pad with thumbnail drawings in a day’s work. Quick and uncomplicated, these tiny drawings get down only the basic forms while giving me a sense of the possibilities for a complete illustration. I can flesh out the finer details of these thumbnails in the next step of the process, where I draw larger, more complete pencil roughs which are sometimes the same size as the final illustration. These details begin to reveal elements of character and circumstance, while in the same stroke, put thoughts inside the protagonist’s head. They also solve any problems that have been hanging about. Understandably, these rough pencil drawings, potent with information about the characters’ journey, personalities, place in time, and the specific event coming to light, simply take much longer to portray. I can complete a final pencil rough in an eight-hour day, but sometimes many more hours are required. The last step in the drawing process is to produce a finished drawing. This drawing becomes the prototype -- the black and white image onto which I will place colour through the media I feel to be the most appropriate for that particular story.

Hopefully all of the combined work in the various drawing phases will capture the essence of each specific passage of text which has been chosen for illustration. And if the effort in that process has been successful, interpreting the story and adding meaning to its impact, the lines will be evocative and truthful, the shapes will add depth and credibility to the spaces, and the image will capture the mood of the protagonist’s heart.

During the creation of the forty-three illustrations for W. D. Valgardson’s story, Sarah and the People of Sand River, my patience as an illustrator was put to the test. Thirteen months into the project, after my research had been completed and after all the preparatory rough work was done, I was painting finished watercolour pictures when I came to a dead stop. One of the images lacked an essence of character. If the artist is patient, if he waits long enough, the right response will come and he will find the place where the image belongs. Perhaps not within the timetable he has established in his head; but it will come. I have never underestimated the importance of the moment when a character reveals his or her intention.

This particular serendipity came out of a great measure of frustration with an image that had not resolved itself to my satisfaction from the day I gave it life. I couldn’t understand or explain why the image had given me so much trouble, or why I was unable to find a response to what Valgardson had written that went beyond the merely adequate. But my illustrator’s intuition told me that this moment in the story was critical to the reader's understanding of a young Icelandic girl's relationship with a mythic Cree raven, her protector, possessed with magical powers that would ultimately save her life.

The response I had drawn was, as I have mentioned, adequate, perhaps even lovely to look at, but only that. This reality should never be an illustration’s only justification for existing. If I had left that image as it appeared in the finished rough drawing, the reader would have been none the wiser, not aware of the loss of something more potent and symbolic. Every morning when I entered my studio that particular drawing was there to confront me, taped to the wall alongside all the other roughs in storyboard fashion. Weeks turned into months. I painted sequentially through the book, my brush moving as the lens of a camera moves, illustration to illustration, capturing Sarah’s life. Cover. The End Paper Triptych. Title page. Illustration Number One.

Eventually my day of reckoning arrived. One winter afternoon I had completed the illustration that would appear in the book prior to the one that was causing me such grief. I had no recourse but to confront the troublesome image head-on the following morning. It was the next in line, and I am a sequential man. The camera was focusing on image number twenty-three. Several weeks earlier I had decided that if I could not resolve the problem, I would skip the image and move on, something I had never done before. I read and reread what Valgardson had written with simple eloquence. And looked and looked again at what I had drawn.

"Sarah picked up and delivered laundry in snow that was nearly up to her knees."
I had drawn that image in clean pencil lines; her body bent against the cold and by the weight of her load borne inside a wicker basket, set on top of a wooden sled. A cluster of houses and a church could be seen and read by the reader.

"She had no winter boots, only thin leather shoes." No need to draw her feet here, they were hidden beneath the deep prairie snow.

"Her feet got so cold that when she returned to Mrs. Simpson’s house, she cried when her feet started to thaw." I didn’t illustrate that sentence because this image was already established as an outdoor scene of Winnipeg streets in the 1890s, the dead of winter, the precursor to Sarah arriving home. A brilliant sun shone in the clear cold sky.

"Wherever she went, the raven flapped along behind her but he never came close and never spoke. The large black bird appeared as Valgardson had described it, following behind Sarah like an airborne shadow."
That night I lay in bed unable to sleep, fighting off frustration and fatigue. All the while the pencil image of Sarah, struggling with her burden, haunted me. And then I was falling asleep, one of those heavy descents into that void of rest where I could actually feel the physical movement of my body as it drifted downward through the dark, the mattress, and the box spring. Suddenly the floor came up to meet me and just before I hit that wood surface, I jolted awake. I opened my eyes. I heard my own voice inside my head, saying Valgardson’s words:

"Wherever she went, the raven flapped along behind her but he never came close and he never spoke."
In an instant the troublesome image flashed before me, not as a pencil rough, but as a completed watercolour image. To my surprise, the brilliant light of day was gone from the Winnipeg street. The sun had set, and the moon was full and round, shimmering with its own halo in the night sky, casting a soft violet light over the snow. The frame houses and church, huddled together against the dry cold, were almost lost in their own shadows. I searched for Sarah. To my relief, she was still there just as I had drawn her originally except that she was now fully realized, with light and shadow that reflected her inner strength.

I looked behind Sarah to the spot where the raven should have been as Valgardson had described him, flapping his wings. He wasn’t there! I searched the street. My eyes drifted up into the winter sky. I tracked the path of stars. Miraculously, they formed the outline of the mythic bird with its wings spread wide.

"Thirteen months!" I said inside my head.

Raven image

My research for Sarah and the People of Sand River had led me into the protagonist’s Icelandic Canadian culture, then beyond it into the culture of the Cree of Manitoba, Canada, and finally into the symbolism and myth around the raven, in the hope that I could portray both races of people (of which I was not a part) with dignity and respect and with as much accuracy as was humanly possible. Never presuming to believe that I could ever fully comprehend what it was to be a Native person of any century, or someone of Icelandic ancestry, I was mindful of the possibility that, if I did my job well, if I slipped the boundaries of race and reached the place that marks us all as human, I could appear to have at least stepped humbly into their shoes and walked alongside them.

During that critical research period of illustration I had been reminded of the fact that the Native people believe that the raven is a constellation, and like the stars of night that make it up, is always present, always near. "But he never came close and he never spoke." For thirteen months that rich symbolic piece lay buried beneath a mountain of information I had unearthed and eluded my ability to capture it at the most relevant moment in Sarah’s life and, just as importantly, in the right context of Valgardson’s story.

I respect rare precious moments like those. They are the miraculous moments of illustration, for ultimately they take the artist and the reader a great distance beyond what is essentially an adequate response to the writer’s words into the realm of extraordinary truth. Those moments, however, do not happen in the purely physical length of time it takes an artist’s hand to draw lines on paper, lines that sometimes become a bird, flapping its wings. They occur only when the artist’s hand and brain and heart and memory are patient enough to wait for the moment when they align themselves like the stars in a constellation.

 

Works Cited

Valgardson, W.D. Sarah and the People of Sand River. Illus. by Ian Wallace. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 1996.

 

Ian Wallace


Volume 3, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, 2nd April 1999

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"The Patient Illustrator"
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Ian Wallace, 1999
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680