“‘Look at this! It’s almost as good as a photograph.’ A group of teachers and librarians are filled with awe and admiration. I go to join them but I can already guess what the object of their enthusiasm is. They hand me a picture book illustrated by one of the ever-growing number of ‘brilliant’ artists who can ‘draw’ with near photographic precision. At first glance, it is an attractive book, but one of many on the market of similar style. My hackles start to rise as I scan the atmospherically lit pictures. Do the librarians and teachers really think we are suddenly sprouting a whole generation of Caravaggios?
I feel I just have to say something. ‘It looks like a photo because it is one’, pops out of my mouth in a rather aggressive way. The group turns and stares at me surprised and puzzled so I proceed to explain how easy it is to use photos, sometimes very cleverly, to make them look like drawings. ‘Really! But that’s cheating!’ is the shocked response of those I have disillusioned. I feel smug and satisfied. Another victory in my one-woman campaign for ‘real drawing’.”
Illustrator Lisa Kopper takes up the cudgels on behalf of ‘real drawing’.
As a professional illustrator, I have noticed changes taking place over the years which suggest an underlying shift of attitude amongst those who illustrate and those who commission illustration. The photograph as a foundation to illustration has become more and more prevalent. Is this ‘cheating’? Or, if the end result works, does reliance on photography matter? I think it does.
The emergence of photo-realism
Photo-techniques used to be confined to advertising. Perhaps even then, some clever book illustrators were using them, but they did not really come into children’s picture book publishing in a big way until the early eighties when the need for books which reflected our multicultural society became an issue. Publishers under pressure to produce such books found it difficult to find artists who could draw Black people. There were few Black illustrators (as is still the case today). Cartoon imagery was out as publishers feared they would be criticised for racial stereotyping if the representation of Black people was not realistic. Innovative writers and photographers like Joan Solomon partially solved the problem by doing straight photographic books about children from different cultures. These books filled a gap but tended to be information books.
This was not appropriate for the majority of picture books and other solutions had to be found. Some picture book artists turned to photographs and began to produce super-realistic drawn images directly from them: photo-realism. No one could say that their Black people did not look like Black people… they were so good, they looked just like photographs. In my view this was cheating in a profound sense because the real issue of why it is so difficult for people of one culture to draw people from another, was not addressed. I do not blame the artists for this; they were responding to a demand in the best way they knew how. But, over time, what has emerged from this trend is a kind of visual apartheid. Today, I would hazard a guess that 85% of children’s books depicting Black people use photo-technology of some kind in their image creation.
A short cut to good drawing
But just as the photo techniques did not stay confined to advertising neither did they stay confined to children’s multicultural illustration. The steady march of ‘photo-drawing’ gradually reached every corner of illustration. It is easy to see why. On the surface of things, photography is a short cut to something very difficult to achieve: good drawing.
But there is a price for pursuing the icing rather than the cake, form before content, and that price is the potential loss of a skill which is the foundation of visual imagination. The frightening thing is that it is happening by stealth. There has not, so far as I know, been any serious discussion of how photo technologies are affecting not just children’s book imagery, but the very nature of drawing itself – how this skill is taught and nurtured.
Arguably, drawing is one of the purest forms of visual expression – the shortest route between the eye and the paper. To be able to draw freely means to give form not only to what we see around us, but also to what we cannot see… the depiction of the imaginary.
By its very nature, the photograph is bound to what already exists. In my view, the most excruciating examples of photo illustration are when the artist does attempt fantasy and cobbles together incongruous, photo-derived images such as a girl sitting on a flying tiger or such like, with structural conventions such as viewpoint, perspective and harmonious detailing thrown to the winds. The best photo-illustrators often spend much of their time and money setting-up their photos. This can mean dressing and posing models, lighting, travelling to the locations, and sometimes expensive equipment to ensure quality transference of their photos onto canvas, paper or computer disk. Many photo-illustrators are talented photographers and do an excellent job – but why bother to make a drawing of a photograph? Has it become so important to be ‘real’ because we are losing the skills which gave us the freedom to be unreal? And what makes people think that a photo is so real anyway?
Eye to hand drawing is a means of communication, ‘acting on paper’, as I often tell school children. It is often the flaws that give a drawing life, movement and character. Sometimes accidental perspective or detail also emphasises the spirit as well as the form of the subject.
A photograph is an instantaneous, two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object. As the camera only has one ‘eye’, it already sees the world in a very different way from us. Make a drawing from this photograph, and we move yet another step away from the life and dynamics of the original subject. Thus many ‘photo drawings’ are curiously static and dead, their subjects frozen in an instant rather than expressing their true nature. It is a process which often cuts the heart and life out of an image. For instance, tracing the photograph of an African person is not the same thing as drawing an African person. One is a simple mechanical activity and the other requires a profound understanding of form and character. Yet there is intense pressure on artists today to produce drawings with photo accuracy. Even illustrators known for their free drawing and fantasy succumb at times to the ‘quick fix’ of photo aids.
The role of picture book prizes
This trend is reinforced by the number of prestigious prizes awarded to photo-derived books. Perhaps those who award such prizes know little of the techniques involved? However, the message this sends to young artists is clear: learning how to draw does not matter.
This is not a good message even if some people prefer the style of photo-illustration to free drawn images. Certainly illustrators who can draw use photographs much more creatively and successfully than those who cannot and it is immediately obvious to an educated eye which is which. Some artists use limited photo-aids very imaginatively. Cartoonists and comic artists are the least likely to use photo-aids which is probably why much of their work is still so individually creative. People who draw with a mix of realism, fantasy and cartoon fall between two stools.
I believe it is important to understand the difference between something that has been created by the skill and imagination of the artist or as a piece of photographic sleight of hand. Perhaps to help with visual awareness, photo-illustration should be described as such on book jackets. But you can also educate yourself. The next time you pick up your favourite picture book look at the shading, the details, the way the hands, hair and clothing are drawn. Are some things drawn in a different style? (Sometimes the artist cannot get photo reference and has to draw one piece of artwork freehand.) Does the picture have accurate perspective or have backgrounds been removed and replaced with something that does not quite fit? Then observe the ‘feel’. Is there movement of line and composition? Do the characters have warmth and personality … do they live on the page? If you look carefully, you will be able to tell if phototechnology was used. If the artwork looks like a photograph, it probably is. This will not necessarily stop you enjoying the book but you will have a better understanding of which skills were employed in its making.
Over the last 150 years the photograph has often been seen as the benchmark of reality, but before (and after) photography arrived on the scene, artists were creating their own realities through the sheer skill of their observation and mechanical ability. The realities of Rackham and Shepard transcend the mere representational. They glow with character and the inner qualities of that which they represent. Even if our drawing abilities are less breathtaking we should, I believe, still have the same ultimate objective. We must carefully guard and preserve the skill of drawing for the future, or we risk losing its value for ever.
Lisa Kopper explains how it is done
In order to demonstrate some standard photo-techniques, Books for Keeps helped me set up some simple experiments. Three of us participated: 8-year-old Selda Ramadan, BfK editor Rosemary Stones and me. We invited two children, Jessica and Amy Linch, to pose for us. My dog, Dolly, insisted on posing as well. We had ten minutes to draw our models freehand then we each took a photograph of them to use in a photo-technique experiment.
Selda Ramadan – photocopy and light box
I liked Selda’s freehand drawing. She got everything in and was especially interested in the models’ clothes. We enlarged her photograph on a photocopier. We then put it on a light box and Selda traced her image onto drawing paper. The most interesting thing for me was the way Selda left out the bits she could not see very well like one of the children’s faces. She clearly did not fully grasp the content of what she was tracing. Selda said she preferred her tracing to her drawing because it was easier. The tracing took approximately 20 minutes. Since then Selda has asked if she could do this again using pictures of horses. Her recent tracings have been more proficient and I have noticed her mother praising her for them which was not the case with her drawing. I have noticed in general in schools that copies are also being praised by teachers and original work not considered as good.
Rosemary Stones – overhead projector
Many artists, particularly those who work on canvas, use an overhead projector. Rosemary is not without skill which was obvious from her freehand drawing which was well observed. She later told me that she had considered studying art when she was young. Rosemary’s photograph was projected onto drawing paper. She used her photo-image very freely and unless you compared it to her original drawing, you would not know she had used a photo-aid. But observe the accuracy of the proportions in her projected drawing as compared with her freehand work, also the hands. Rosemary’s photo-picture took ten minutes.
Partly in jest, Rosemary said that with some practice using this technique, she thought she might be able to illustrate her own books in future.
Lisa Kopper – computer
I had never worked on a computer before but I had seen demonstrations of what it could do. With the help of a designer friend, I scanned my photo into the computer. We then worked with the Photoshop progamme of software. I discovered that by simply pressing certain windows i.e. ‘fresco’, the entire image would change. Sometimes the distortion would give my photo a drawn look. I then took the background out of my picture and worked creatively with some of the computer tools on the image. I found that by using some of the ‘tools’ creatively, I could quite successfully create a hand-drawn effect that was also an appealing style. The more I enlarged the image, the better the result, so I ended up mostly working on one of the faces. My photo-drawing took two hours from learning to use machine in an elementary way to final drawing. It was so good it almost looked like a drawing!
The computer is a seductive tool. My friend said that I would be really good at it because I used the machine like an artist, not a technician. However, I soon got bored with the endless process of lassooing bits and filling them in. I quickly realised that if I were going to use the style I created for a whole book, the photo-derived compositions would give it away and soon it would have that ‘photo’ look. I could, however, see from my short experience, that the computer could be a useful tool for producing or enhancing creative and original work. I would like to experiment more using my drawings as the starting point rather than a photo.
Lisa Kopper has been an illustrator working in the children’s book industry for 18 years. She is best known for her multi-cultural work (eg Jafta: The Homecoming, Puffin, 0 14 054467 4, £4.99) and her Daisy books (eg Daisy Thinks She is a Baby, Puffin, 0 14 054826 2, £4.99). As she says, ‘No photos used. Honest!’
Photographs by Richard Mewton.