Illustration: Mary Blair, Christian Robinson, & Shel Silverstein
For this class we focused on all sorts of illustrators for children’s media. There are so many great children’s illustrators, it was hard to choose just three! We chose these artists because of their individual methods and techniques — each of them does art in a specific and different way from the other people but they create art that is exciting and entertaining in its own way.
Our first artist is Mary Blair, an Oklahoma born artist who produced concept art and animation for Disney Studios. Blair trained at the Chouinard Art Institute in LA after winning a scholarship for her artistic talent. At the beginning of her career she mainly worked in watercolors as a member of the prestigious California Watercolor Society.
In 1940 Blair joined Disney studios, with her husband, and did concept art for Fantasia and Lady and the Tramp. In 1941 she went on a 10-week trip to South America on a “South American Goodwill Tour” sponsored by the government aimed at fighting the spread of Nazism and fascism in the Americas. They visited Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Chile, and Mexico. This trip inspired the use of bright colors that defined the rest of her career.
The pictures above shoe some concept art she did as Art Supervisor on the Disney film The Three Caballeros. In the class we watched the clip below to see how they used her sense of color and tone to create a beautiful landscape for the animation to travel through.
Blair’s style and use of bright colors and color patterns influenced many of Disney’s feature films of the 1940s and 1950s. Her designs were used in the films The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953).
Walt Disney loved Blair’s work so much that even when she and her husband decided to live in New York to produce television commercials and work in advertising, he kept Blair employed and flew her back to California for major meetings.
We talked to the students about how her work uses layers and colors to create depth. We looked at each of the pieces of concept art and found the thing that was the furthest away and then the thing closer, and closer, and closer, and then the thing that was the closest to the viewer. We talked about how Blair used that depth and layering to draw the eye to the part of the picture that is the most important. It might feel like the thing that is most important should be in the very front of the picture, the thing closest to the viewer, but with Blair’s work that is most often not the case. She always has vines, trees, or buildings framing the thing that is in the mid-ground, the thing she wants to bring attention to.
Blair’s vibrant and varied use of color helped create the quintessential Disney “look” throughout the 50’s and 60’s, even after she left to pursue other projects. She also designed the facade and some of the characters for the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland, originally for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Above you can see the different color palettes she experimented with to create the ride as it exists today!
For our Mary Blair artwork we made colorful dioramas in wooden boxes with paper and paint. We got small wooden boxes from the dollar store that had slats on the sides to help the students create depth in their dioramas.
First we gave each student a piece of darker colored card stock, that had been cut out to fit in to the back of their box, to paint a background. We glued that in and then used paint and colored card stock to cut out and hot glue onto the different levels of the box to create a scene. They could do a scene from a movie, a book, or just make something up themselves.
You could use any box for this project but the slats were super helpful in indicating to the students what was in the background and what was in the foreground and how to bring attention to what was most important to you in the scene. If you don’t have a box with slats you could cut them out of the bottom and top of a cardboard box or just draw lines to glue the papers to so they stay far enough apart that the depth of the diorama can be seen.
Our next artist is Christian Robinson, a California based artist, author, and illustrator of children’s books. Robinson was born in 1986 and grew up with his grandmother in Los Angeles. We watched this video about him where he talks about why he loved art as a child and wanted to be an artist.
He has written and illustrated 17 children’s books, a few of them are pictured below. So many students in our class owned or had read at least one of his books and during our Art in the Park program last summer, Neighborhood Art Center gave out copies of Last Stop on Market Street and had a project based on Christian Robinson’s art!
Robinson says in the video that one of the most important things that drives his art is showing kids themselves in books, kids of all shapes and sizes, different skin tones and hair and clothes, and kids with different abilities and families.
He makes his art my painting or stamping designs on paper and then cutting them out and creating collages and painting the details of the people or environment.
His people are simply and geometrically designed and he uses simple facial designs to convey emotion.
We used the picture from the book Rain and talked about how he uses emotions to convey the story on these pages. Both the old man and the boy are saying the same thing, “Rain!” but because of their faces you can tell the emotion they are saying it with. We talked about the simple things you can do on a face to portray emotion, the downturned mouth and v shaped eyebrows to show the anger in the old mans face vs the open upturned mouth to show the happiness in the boy’s face.
For our first activity we gave each student a mirror, a sharpie, and a sheet of paper (you can download the pdf to print here) with different emotions on it and we went through them one by one as a class and drew, very simply, the emotions listed.
We had mirrors so they could see their face acting out the emotion and draw it if they needed help. They had so much fun making over the top emotive faces and learning different ways to draw faces.
Then we made our own Christian Robinson inspired self portraits using a lot of our scrap paper that kids have painted on in the art center over the years.
It was so fun to see how the students created emotion on their self portraits after having thought so much about how to show emotion through illustration with the previous activity.
Our last artist is Shel Silverstein, a poet, cartoonist, author, playwright, and songwriter who was born in Chicago in 1930. He started drawing when he was 7 by tracing his favorite artist’s cartoons. He has written 15 children’s books which have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold more than 20 million copies. His book, A Light in the Attic, stayed on the New York Times bestseller chart for 2 years!
I think that if you’re a creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it’s received.
His children’s books are immediately recognizable with their goofy poems and black and white line drawings. He also recorded a grammy winning album where he read and played music to his poems. Below are some of his poems and with each there is a link to listen to Silverstein read or sing it.
We talked about how his illustrations help to show what is happening in the poem or frame it in an interesting way.
The poem Carrots, seen above, doesn’t even completely make sense without the illustration to go with it.
For our Shel Silverstein project we gave each student a small booklet and some black pens and sharpies to write and illustrate their own books. They could do poems or a story but they only used black pens on the white paper. For the younger kids we helped them write out what their story was after they were finished with the illustrations.
This class introduced the students to three illustrators who use different techniques to convey the stories they want to tell. If you haven’t heard of some of the books or authors check out their books at your local library to introduce your students or children to some new artists and the many different ways you can use art to tell a story.