Gesture is what we experience when we look at a picture – that dance of motion (real or implied), the shift of weight, the stretch in a muscle. It’s the active verb rather than the noun of the image. Gesture instantly connects us to characters, as fellow creatures who move, rousing our empathy and curiosity.
Llama Llama Mad at Mama by Anna Dewdney takes full advantage of the gestural possibilities of a busy errand-running Saturday. Though our little furry friend would rather keep playing blocks, Llama Llama climbs into his car seat and promptly nods off to sleep during the sunny drive. When they arrive at Shop-O-Rama, he groggily opens one eye. Soon he’s eagerly craning his neck forward from his perch in the shopping cart.
Gesture dominates every composition. Dewdney plants us, at child’s eye level, low in the scene, the better to see Llama Llama’s grimace at the smelly hooves around him. And how many sale-priced sweaters will he have to squirm into and out of? Llama Llama’s initial enthusiasm wanes and our little guy grows more and more restless and unhappy. His brow lowers and his frown deepens until Llama Llama’s frustration erupts into a full-out paper towel and orange juice-throwing tantrum. Mama Llama might be surprised, but, boy, the rest of us sure saw it coming.
Fortunately, there’s an empathetic grownup in the room, and Mama Llama quickly soothes her son, nuzzling his nose and cradling his hooves with her own. Anger and tension melt as the pair work as a team to cross off the last items from the shopping list.
We All Play / kimêtawânaw by award-winning Cree-Métis author, illustrator, and fine-artist Julie Flett, enchants readers right from the cover art with powerful gesture. Who could resist these scampering children? Or the lazy, stretching, nuzzling baby bobcats? The images whisper of a quiet joy.
Flett’s story and art flow together with bouncing lightness in the pages within, as if her words themselves are at play. Flett’s gestures are fresh and original, with silhouettes often emblematic of North American animal art. We All Play showcases both the Cree spoken language and familiar animals native to North America.
The gestures themselves are the composition and carry the story, with minimal but effective nature props, which also feel in motion – the hint of a snowy hill, a few delicate water grasses swaying, a handful of pawprints across a scene. Flett’s confident use of white space further strengthens the spreads.
As we immerse ourselves in this realization that all the world’s young – both animal and human – share a love of play, this simple story prompts bigger wonderings. What is the nature of play, and why do we love it so? What else do we share with the creatures of our world? Flett encourages readers to explore all those thoughts, and how we are connected.
Library Lion written by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes provides another outstanding study of gesture. A beloved celebration of libraries, Library Lion explores the nature of rules and when to follow them. Hawkes gives attention to every living figure on his library stage. He carefully and affectionately poses the lion and his humans, imbuing them with physicality and sensitive facial expressions. We feel every hug and tail swish.
Gesture is the focal point of every spread and vignette, with all the lines, shapes and angles working in concert to draw us deeper into this endearing story. Some pictures depict a group gesture, whether action or reaction. Others glory in an intimate moment, such as the lion rubbing his head along a shelf of new books.
Hawkes sets a gentle mood, suffusing the pages with a warm acrylic and colored pencil palette. He softly models the values and masterfully employs the other design elements, from size and direction to texture and color. His skillful pictures hearken back to the classic draftsmanship of Robert McCloskey while immersing us in a fresh and contemporary world. One thing is certain, we’ll never forget this lion character and the children and adults who love him.
Jim Panzee, the main character of Grumpy Monkey, won’t admit he’s grumpy, but his tight shoulders, bunched-up eyebrows and clenched teeth tell a different tale. Written by Suzanne Lang and illustrated by Max Lang, Grumpy Monkey wows us with a dynamic cast of animals from lounging lions to dancing porcupines all intent on brightening Jim’s mood.
Max Lang uses an explosive line-and-wash style to capture the essence of gesture, Every little branch, frond, and critter bursts with suppressed energy. The figures have it, the facial expressions have it. Even the white space and the larger shapes on the page seem to want to move.
Darks contrast with the white background, emphasizing the figure-ground dynamic. Lang’s poses are instantly recognizable, choreographed for us like dancers on a big jungle ballet stage. We see an astounding variety of mirroring and contrasting gestures, fully realized through the whole body of each character. Gesture in the coiled tension and the weight pulling on the form of creatures big and small. The emotions build until Jim literally storms off the page. Later we see Jim respond to a buddy’s chance mishap and his whole demeanor changes. His furry face grows concerned and his shoulders soften as the two share a branch. The image of the two beleaguered friends drawing solace from each other’s company reassures us that bad moods don’t last forever.
Star power and your story’s visual character
Hopefully, you’ve got a sketchbook full of candidates. Now it’s time to try them out in some scenes. Who stands out in the audition? Who’s strong enough to carry the show all the way to the final page turn? Agents say you need at least one true lead actor – someone who gets under our skin and makes us care. The Marks & Splashes course pushes you to develop that visual character who goes further. Whose shape, features, gestures, and attitudes command the stage and the page.
A figure familiar enough to identify with, and too new and fresh to ignore. Our course emphasizes character design. It’s a key module. And that’s because your authentic visual character can sell your picture book story all by herself.
Make Your Marks and Splashes combines video lessons with powerful, fun exercises and group check-ins to propel you to your goal of illustrating children’s books. Classes begin March 24 and you can do them in the comfort and convenience of home.
See what you’ll discover in the course here.
Thanks for the great post Mark, Gesture is so important and this post covers it so beautifully!
Thanks for the great post Julie!