The art of illustrations

through pictures

The art of illustrations

It’s magical to illustrate books for children,” says Kris Di Giacomo, in her clear, sweet voice, with an understated smile on her face, while meeting me in Chennai.

This much-acclaimed American-origin, Paris-based illustrator of children’s picture books was pit-stopping in Chennai while on a visit to India for a book fair. “The thing about India is that it’s an explosion of so many things — colour, sound, life and art happening on the streets… I have to go back and let it sink in.”

Kris herself makes you think of the fictional Heidi of the mountains; everything about her persona alludes to it. Incidentally, her childhood unfolded in the Swiss mountains. It was a happy time that revolved around climbing mountains, skiing down slopes, building snowmen, stargazing, farm animals, stuffed animals, muppets, friendship and books. As a child, Kris lived with her parents in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In becoming an illustrator for children, it helps to revisit and hold on to the memories of your childhood, she feels. “While growing older, if we can do that and connect to our childhood, that’s magical,” she muses.

Among Kris’s books, most noted have been ‘Take Away the A, Brief Thief, Me First!, The Day I Lost My Superpowers, and Where’s the Baboon? with text by  Michaël Escoffier. Take Away the A was named one of the Best Children’s Books of 2014 and given a starred review by Kirkus Reviews; Enormous Smallness, a biography of the poet E E Cummings with text by Matthew Burgess, also received a starred review from Kirkus. In fact, her collaboration with Michaël Escoffier has already yielded 16 books, each of them hailed to be masterpieces. “It is fun collaborating, rather than working on your own all the time,” she says.

Often, Kris’s illustrations don’t just support the tale, they are the tale. Take The Day I Lost My Superpowers for instance. In this book, the text says one thing, and Kris was given the mandate to project a different reality, creating humour in the process. For instance, the text of the tale says that the child has the power to make things disappear; the illustration shows her eating the yummy goodies. “One of the charms of being an illustrator is that it lets you create subtext through images, conveying thoughts that text can’t narrate,” she says.

Not surprisingly, her illustrations have been opening a door into humour, imagination, conjecture, possibility, and learning. Kris’s illustrations work even better because they empathise with children, rather than talking down to them. 

Humour and pastel palette

An intriguing aspect of her illustrations is the colour scheme — a muted pastel palette is what she favours; a far cry from the colours you would expect in books for children. “It’s hard to force young children into something. I don’t think they mind (the pastel shades),” she says, and pauses to add, “In any case, colours are personal. Maybe it started because I studied fine arts in college; or perhaps I live in Paris where the sky sports a grey hue quite often. I don’t like jarring bright colours. Nor do I want to fall into a cliche. For me, I think pastel shades are quite funny and lend to humour.”

This illustrator uses the digital medium quite a bit. She begins with pen and paper, and then lays it with colours she has already scanned. Then on, it’s a digital process of construction working with colours, size, light, layers, textures, etc, using the scanned images she has. Without clear ends in mind, she keeps scanning interesting textiles and papers in interesting shades for potential future use.

The digital format does bring in the burden of over-choice. When to stop editing, which particular version to finalise… “True, it can take a really long time,” she concedes, adding that she works parallelly on many or even all the pages of the book at the same time. “Many a time, I bring a book to completion. And start all over again.”

Working digitally is also a bit of a risk sometimes. I think how life would be were I to lose all those images I created and the colours I have scanned. But I guess that’s life and one would start over again,” she ponders aloud. “I love playing with colours, like with a toy.”

Humane animals

Minimalism is another intriguing hallmark of her imagery. “Every detail is important,” she says. The characters she illustrates, are they drawn from real life? “Once in a while, I visit zoos and natural history museums, but most of the drawing I do is at home using pencil on an A4 paper and I do refer online.” She says she has been influenced by cartoonist Quentin Black.

Often, Kris’s animals sport human characteristics. She says that the animal illustrations actually reflect human traits in a magnified, accentuated way, and invites us to view aspects from a distance and be self-critical. She adds that she likes to look for the animal in the human and the human in the animal. 

Unlike what you would expect of an illustrator of children’s books, Kris didn’t grow up with Tintin and Asterix, or Enid Blyton, for that matter. The classics for her, as she grew up in an international finishing school in Switzerland, was reading Roald Dahl and Astrid Lindgren. After finishing school, she took some time off. “I was not in a hurry.” Then she went to Parson’s School of Design in Paris. Nevertheless, Kris didn’t choose to become an illustrator until much later.

Needing a job, she taught English to French children in Paris. “Completing art school is not always a job-giving exercise,” she says wryly. As a teacher, soon she was wanting to do a picture book to better illustrate her lessons. Around the same time, she met Michaël Escoffier who was her friend’s friend, and Kris’s career as an illustrator took shape, and she has been in Paris ever since.

Talking about Paris, the subject veers to the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, which were quite a shock. A time when a lot of illustrators felt connected. She says. “I had to respond with images. It was disturbing, but it didn’t stop us from going to cafes.” Kris also works to collect funds for refugees. “A number of illustrators are doing it. We have so many refugees living on the streets of Paris,” she says. “I think they are victims themselves. People are a bit cautious now, but we have a lot of sympathy still.”

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