An Open Letter to Those Who Illustrate Picture Books Digitally

h1 October 10th, 2006 by eisha

Dear T.W.I.P.B.D.,

Please. Just stop it. Your friends and family are too nice to tell you, and your editors and publishers are deluded. But seriously… it looks like ass.

22 comments to “An Open Letter to Those Who Illustrate Picture Books Digitally”

  1. Thank you. And thank you.

  2. Okay, you’ve got me wondering now, are there any that I’ve liked? I thought that I just remembered one, Barry Downard’s ‘Little Red Hen’ (so funny), but I looked it up again and he was “inspired by the storytelling possibilities of digital photograph manipulation,” and that’s an altogether different thing. (I just thought “digital” when I remembered that book, but it’s really photo-illustration)…I believe ‘AlphaOops’ that I reviewed fairly recently was digitally illustrated, but I didn’t get that close up to the book during that story time surprise (my review was focused on the text and the story-time experience as a whole)…. Anyway, good food-for-thought.

  3. you could make an argument for david kirk’s Miss Spider books. but even those i think i’d like better if he just painted them. the technology may get there, eventually, but right now any time digital artists try to represent living things with cgi it just looks phony.

  4. Jules, First time to review your blog. Well, well done and refreshingly direct and honest. See you soon.

  5. ugh, let’s not make arguments for miss spider. gives me the shivers.

  6. Aw, what the heck. I’ll play devil’s advocate. What about Andre Carrilho’s work on “Porch Lies” by Patricia McKissack? Or the simplified beauty of Antoinette Portis’s, “Not a Box”? After all, not all computer illustrations are created equal here.

  7. ooh, bring it, fuse #8! i love a good devil’s advocate!

    you’re right, not all cgi illustrations are created equal. and i wrote that post after spending an afternoon at work going through a preview box of books, of which roughly 2/3 were cgi, and all of those were on the lower end of the spectrum.

    but… what if carrilho and portis had used cut-paper collage or paint instead? wouldn’t the actual bonafide texture of brushstrokes or paperweave add to the aesthetic experience? eh?

  8. Ah. But here’s where it gets even more confusing. For all I know Carrilho and Portis DID use collage and paint and then popped those puppies in the old computer and mucked with them that way. There’s really no way to tell. And in the case of Carrilho, anyway, I can’t imagine lovelier computer art. The curves and surreal folds of the images seem simultaneously generated and pleasant in a surreal way.

    Hmmm. This deserves further posting, methinks. Off to my blog!

  9. I spoke to an youngish illustrator who told me that working digitally allowed her to explore different media without the expense of purchasing all the supplies.

    An interesting thought. It is hard to make a living at this unless one is at the tippy top of the pyramid.


  10. ooh, fuse #8, thanks for that link. gotta dig carillho’s caricature (or whatever he’d call it) of tom waits. — jules

  11. I’m an illustrator and a convert to the digital world. If I had to make a commercial for computer-generated images, this is what it would say:

    Love the look of watercolor, but manage to kill any and all luminosity with real watercolors? Try Photoshop! You can add and remove layers! A godsend for the ham-fisted!

  12. Okay, okay, I was too harsh. There are advantages to using digital art, and reasons to use it in conjunction with traditional methods. But this is the kind of stuff I was criticizing:

  13. I recently finished illustrating the fifth book in a series (written by David Adler) that I do for Viking. I did this latest one digitally. I used the same “media” in PAINTER that I used for those first four done with real paint. The difference is that I was able to zoom in to paint detail– a big help for close work and getting nice details for chapter book spot art. This technique also allowed me to more closely control the printed outcome. I have been disappointed many times by weird things that can happen in color separation or while at press.

    My next picture book is conventional paint. I like that, too. Both have real value.

    What makes digital really successful is when one is able to see the artist’s “hand” in the process. The problem with a great deal of computer generated artwork is that it can create lines and forms not found in nature–and so it comes across cold and distant. A little “imperfection” goes a long way.

    And, in the end, I think old style animation is much better than computer animation for the same reason. Until they learn to make it look more “drawn” it will never be quite as inviting.

  14. Another good point.

    But, I’ve been thinking about what Julie (not our own Julie, the illustrator one from a couple of comments ago) said about using Photoshop instead of watercolors. And… I mean this totally respectfully, because I’m not an artist at all and that’s part of why I have so much admiration for artists… but, isn’t part of the point of good art that it’s really hard to do, and not everyone is able to do it well?

  15. i’m compelled to say all facilitator-like (as blog co-creator) that Fuse #8 has continued this interesting discussion at if anyone is following it with interest. even Adam Rex, whose recent poetry anthology i raved about if you’ve been paying attention, added some insightful commentary, including the useful phrase “shiny turd.”

  16. I think good art will always be hard to make. But it might be created in unexpected ways.

    Would you think less of a compelling woodcut-type illustration if you found out that it was made on the computer?

    You might have such respect for the skill required to carve a good woodcut that you’d feel conned. (I’m not aware of any soulful woodcut-looking digital illustrations, but they’re probably out there.)

  17. If it’s represented as one thing when it’s another, then it’s a problem, of course. Or when it’s a picture & has been digitally tweaked (larger pupils, longer legs, etc. being SO common).

    The original discussion was whether digital illustration “looks like ass” … and to weigh in with a wee opinion: it’s merely different, and a matter of preference. If we tolerate “modern art” then we cannot but tolerate this. Of course, I believe that “modern art” often “looks like ass” as well, but that’s just me. And modern musical composition… and the list goes on.

    The real question is: how can we get rid of it if we don’t like it? The follow-on question is: does the target audience like it?

  18. Eh… I think it’s a little more complicated than that. I mean, yes, it is a purely aesthetic opinion of mine that a LOT of the digital art that I’ve been seeing recently (not just in the early days) just looks… boring. And sometimes ugly. But some of it is good, too, especially when it’s used along with more traditional illustration methods… I think that, like Adam Rex said on Fuse #8’s blog, maybe digital tools are making it easier for mediocre artists to get into published illustration. I also think it’s turning up a lot in the sort of mass-produced (often t.v.-based) picture books that barely seem to have any author or illustrator names attached to them. Or some of them aren’t part of a t.v. or movie franchise, but they have a very specific didactic or educational purpose for which they’ve been commissioned. Have you seen these? Maybe it’s just me… I get preview boxes from certain publishers (won’t name names) that are just full of them – they aren’t the sort of books you’ll find reviewed in journals, so maybe other librarians/bookish types aren’t seeing them as much. If you haven’t… well, all I can say is, IN MY OPINION, they really do look like ass.

  19. Hi Eisha–I was going to suggest “My Two Hands My Two Feet,” but then I looked it up and it’s really an “airbrushed acrylic” that looks digital.

    The first couple of times I really hated the illustrations, but after several hundred readings I’m beginning to dig them.

  20. well, that is a whole other issue – hand-made art that looks digital. i don’t think i’ve encountered that. hmm. i will look for that one.

  21. Oooh, my first encounter with your blog — was just going to simply put it in my favorites folder (I have an assignment due today) and look more later, but I couldn’t pass up this thread as I am a traditionally trained picture book author and illustrator who now draws/paints 95% of my art digitally by choice.

    Wacom tablets and styluses are nothing more than choice of tool. Like picking up a pastel instead of a watercolor brush. A friend of mine pointed out, “there was probably un uproar when artists first began using acrylic as well.” It’s the hand that draws, not the choice of tool!

    (And by the way, lot of the art you see and mentally place in the good (traditional) catagory may very well actually BE digital!)


  22. thanks for chiming in! and with another good point, too. my husband (who is a set designer) said more or less the same thing when i tried to explain this thread.

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