Charcoal Illustrations for Children’s Literature

Today, in the middle of a mercilessly cold and snowy Vermont winter, I find my mind drifting toward imagination and complex flights of fancy—the kind I had access to when I was a child. My thoughts then were of a reliably unlimited character. They involved magic, flight, time travel, shape-shifting, invisibility, and contemplative conversations between people and animals. I was raised by an imaginative mother, and grew up steeped in the images of Tasha Tudor, Beatrix Potter, Trina Schart Hyman, and Shirley Hughes. I read hundreds of books, climbed trees, and went for long trail rides on my cranky, wild-eyed pony, who was fond of dumping me unceremoniously on a particular stretch of stone wall. It was the 1970s, and my siblings and I were allowed television only in the evening. The rest of the day was spent outdoors playing, no matter what the weather happened to be doing that day—unless it was a real blizzard. We were called in for lunch, then sent back out until dinner. I had plenty of time to invent, pretend, ponder, and embellish upon the ideas I had found in stories.

Looking back on the picture books I found most fascinating in childhood, I notice something interesting. The majority of the illustrations were etchings (especially in the case of material originating in the 19th century) or pen and ink, sometimes accompanied by watercolour. The colours, if any, were soft and low-key but the outlines were definite and precise—perhaps to appeal to a child’s developing sense of order and boundaries in the physical world. Charcoal, though rich with possibility, was largely ignored. Maybe it was considered too dark and murky for the genre.

Actually, charcoal can function as an ideal medium for an audience comprised mainly of children: witness the glorious sense of possibility apparent in Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrations for The Widow’s Broom. Evocative and atmospheric, the pictures invite you in, inspiring questions, impressions, and inspirations. They are filled with light, but are also characterized by a super-saturation of tone, especially in the case of the witch’s robes. The images are grounded, but one has the feeling that anything could happen. This is exactly what I look for in a book, even now—and it can be quite difficult to find.  

Do you have a favourite children’s illustrator? When you were a child, was there a specific artist who sent your imagination soaring, and produced images that remained with you through adulthood? Did they employ the medium of charcoal in their work—either alone or in combination with other media? Do you think charcoal has been underrepresented in children’s art—and if so, does that fact inspire you to create new works in charcoal for this audience? Let us know in the comments!

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