Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Conducting a Picture Book

When I pick up a book it is usually because the cover has invited me.  With colour and words, mood and promise the cover has called and I have answered.  Once open in my hands, though, a picture book turns into music. 

I first became aware of this while at the Bologna Book Fair many years ago.  Overwhelmed by the visual noise, the candy-shop quality of books at every turn, I wandered, found quiet corners and book after book after book.  Every one of them had appeal.  Strengths.  Serious quality.  But one after another I put them down.  Over and over again.  I had come to the ultimate book lover's feast and I intended to carry home with me only the irresistible. 

Books from other cultures in other alphabets and scripts, some in more familiar languages, even those in English, as I turned the pages my mind began a melody - a tinkly version of twinkle twinkle little star, as if played on a music box, or the whole shebang, cannons and all, of Beethoven's Eroica - a lilt, a whoosh, a quiet whisper of lullaby - they all sang in my hands.  And yet...

...some books were ALL cymbals.  One or two were missing the whole Bassoon section, all twiddly flutes and basso profundo but like a doughnut without a filling.  And so it went.  I carried my little map everywhere and filled it with symbols for each booth visited: What was the mood, the tone, the feel of each one?  And everywhere I opened the books and heard music.

Now, many years later in my sunny studio I open a folder and pull out a page of thumbnails.  I've read the text many times, made notes and scribbled numbers in the margins.  The thumbnails on my desk now are a map of the music the words are making in my mind.  Do I hear inviting themes echoing playfully in different registers? (Thank you Mozart, Bach and Clementi). Are the voices all represented, supporting one-another - or have I left someone home with laryngitis?  (Handel, you rock!)  Is there room for the reader to chuckle, a sense of play? (Queen, definitely) Does everything come together meaningfully toward the end? (Ah, Stan Rogers and his White Squall!)...and does the ending leave you at a pause, a breath, and ready to open it at the beginning and start the music all over again? (Lhasa da Sela, you are now star music yourself, but your Con Toda Palabra still plays in a sure and steady loop...)

These are greats, and in their context my drawings feel more like a fife and drum duet or a playground chant but still, as long as I hear the melodies made by words and images telling a story, so long I will work erasing and adding lines, experimenting and failing and trying again... until something I have made is exactly the right melody for the words.  Until the closing of the last page invites the book be opened from the first page again.  And again.

These above are opening thumbnails for an exercise I did recently.  I enjoy their musicality, their promise.  At the moment the thumbnails I am researching and developing are a different kind of music altogether - the music of moonlit ripples on a night pond.  The echoes of memory as they weave themselves into a future.  The promise of eggs as yet unhatched.  When the images on my table in front of me looks like the music I hear in my mind, I will know I am done.

Cue the conductor...


  1. I often like thumbnails more than finished art because they're so full of energy and enthusiasm. I hope you can keep that as you develop these ideas. Love the way you describe your love of books. Me too!

    1. Hi Linda! Absolutely - keeping that energy in a different size and medium - especially when you have to 'get it right' is a major challenge. Sometimes I have to start a piece over and let the mistakes happen, just to keep from choking the life out of the work.


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