Scratching The surface
Bumpy. Squishy. Rough. Rippled. Smooth. The mere words awaken our fingers, stirring up memories of those sensations. Because texture makes objects understandable and tangible in real life, it plays an essential role in picture book illustration. Evoke the texture of an object, creature, or place, convincingly, and you bring a page to life. In Cyril and Pat, Emily Gravett’s assured depiction of texture, from the twisty, knotty tree branches to the glassy lake to the pitted husks of the park peanuts, feels so real.
Her two rodent stars have much in common. Large pink noses, thick gray fur, and a zest for fun. Their budding friendship is going places, until, suddenly, it’s not. Gravett’s story delivers the full package, complete with lively action, strong characterizations, and laugh-out-loud humor.
Buckle up for an emotional thrill ride – loneliness, joy, fear, and back again. And then our two heroes: Cyril the squirrel, with his nimble fingers and exuberantly swishy tail, and Pat, whose long, bumpy, hairless cord is about as far as it gets from squirreldom majesty. But by then, we readers are thoroughly invested in these two unlikely allies. We don’t care if Pat hails from the other side of the rodent tracks. He’s a great guy and some things are more important than having the same tail. Now, if only Cyril will see the truth before it’s too late.
In the dreamy cover of The Mitten String, written by Jennifer Rosner and illustrated by Kristina Swarner, distinctive flecks of texture play off the luminous colors, giving a fuzzy softness to a rosy jumper, imbuing luxuriant thickness to a side-swept ponytail, and suggesting grassy depths in a flower-filled meadow. Rosner’s story, about a young knitter who creates a precious gift for a visiting mother who is deaf, honors one of her own deaf relatives. Great-great-aunt Bayla lived in an Austrian village in the 1800s. Family lore has it that she tied a string from her wrist to her baby’s to ensure that she would wake in the night when her baby cried.
Swarner’s whimsical pages bring to life this tender folktale with a style that is old world, yet fresh and contemporary. Her mixed media technique begins with a pencil sketch that she transfers to a linoleum plate. She prints in black and white on heavy paper, then pulls out her watercolors and colored pencils to create color breaks and rich textures. For more about Swarner’s process, read Kathy Temean’s interview.
When Zuri wants a special hairstyle for her mom’s long-awaited homecoming, her daddy does his best to oblige. But the road to hair joy is a tricky one, paved with combs and creams and unruly elastic bands. Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry and illustrated by Vashti Harrison, began as a Kickstarter campaign and developed into an Academy Award-winning animated short film. Now realized in picture book format, this gentle father-daughter story is full of humor as Zuri’s well-meaning dad faces off against her soft curls and kinks and a bevy of hair products in hopes of pleasing his number one fan.
Harrison keeps her compositions simple and tightly focuses on the characters and their interactions. Her realistic and sensitive gestures put us inside the bodies of Zuri and her dad so that we feel their emotions as Dad tries one ‘do after another under the watchful eye of the chagrined family cat. With expressive micro-brush marks and granular shifts in value, Harrison showcases Zuri’s ever-changeable hair, from elaborate braids to a voluminous afro to puffy buns. At last, Zuri gets a style worthy of the very special day, just in time to surprise her mom.
Spirals are all around us. Their beauty is celebrated in gorgeous detail in Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Beth Krommes. A wood engraver, painter, and pattern designer, Krommes creates dramatic, vivid, undulating textures with the hard lines of a printmaker. She fills her scratchboard images with springy lady ferns, whirling snail shells, the coiled bodies of snoozing animals, and countless other natural spiral shapes. The intricate and varied hatch strokes lend exquisite detail to the images. Sometimes dark on light, other times light on dark, the hatchings fade into white as Krommes reserves space around key shapes in her treasure box spreads. The effect is a world as beautiful, dense, and beguiling as nature itself.
To help us tackle different surfaces in our painting, we have the example of Emily Olson’s tutorial on painting various textures of fur. Her YouTube channel shares generous instruction and examples of her amazing watercolors of animals. Texture, we remember, is one of the few, the smallest handful ingredients that Design.
Texture is an important ingredient of design. Every painting medium must contend with how to express the universe of tactile experiences out there. (The very small basket of design elements also includes Shape, Color, Line, and one or two other visual attributes, depending on the list you’re citing.)
Eric Lin of Cafe Watercolor celebrates the Year of the Mouse in his depiction of sunlight splashing on a cute little field mouse. Ana Mason shifts gears to the smooth surfaces of glass and water and what happens when you add light in her careful step-by-step.