The Mind of an Illustrator

The Mind of an Illustrator:
illustrating Nina and Little Duck
by Marjorie van Heerden

Talk delivered by Marjorie at the AGM of IBBY SA - 7th August 2008

Nina and Little Duck - 2008 M-Net/Via Afrika Literary Award Winner!
In June 2008 the M.E.R Prize for best illustrated children’s book was awarded to Wendy Hartmann (author) and Marjorie van Heerden (illustrator) for Nina and Little Duck published by Human & Rousseau (SA) in 2007 (also available in Afrikaans as Nina en Eendjie)
As a child I was fascinated to read how animators look into a mirror and then proceed to draw characters that look completely different to them! Only much later, when I started to illustrate children’s books myself, and had to visually develop the characters that appear in the story, in words only, I understood how those animators’ minds work...
You have to work like a actor, for a while you must become the character you draw – you have to feel as if their body is part of you; feel what their muscles do... Whether it is a cat, a small child, an elephant, an old man or a duck – your body must transform for a while. That animator did not see his own face in the mirror... What he did see, was the character behind the face in the mirror.
In writing this, it dawns on me why I cannot work when someone is watching me. Subconsciously I probably know that I look very strange while drawing, because I’m continually acting out the movements, feeling the muscles move, pulling faces to see what muscles are being used. I probably looked very silly being this little duck.
Many years ago I attended a workshop given by Marcel Marceau, the brilliant French mime artist. He told us that every movement he makes starts in the pit of his stomach. Even when he simply points with his finger, the gesture starts in his stomach and behind the finger he points with every muscle in his body. Since that day I have used that same approach in my drawing, always conscious of what every muscle is doing behind every movement of the character’s body and behind every expression on his or her face.
Before I start with my rough drawings (and I go through many different stages with those) I sketch a lot of character studies. I make the character do all kinds of stuff so that I can discover their unusual, eccentric, individual personality – visual as well as mental. And no character is let off! Even a spider in the background has to be analyzed to discover its specific and unique personality. In this way I work out exactly what things the character carries with him – how he or she or it interacts with things and other individuals. And so on...
To be able to do this, I read the text over and over and over again... And then I make lists of specific words used in the text, words that become clues, indications and even subtle suggestions (sometimes not obvious at all!) to the character’s appearance and personality. What was in the back of the author’s mind... even subconsciously? Where and how does the character interact with the other characters in the story? And how does he or she or it react to the situation? Going through this process the people and the animals portrayed in a story become real to me. And then they climb out of my head, walk around the studio and peep over my shoulder while I work! And they are quick to tell me when I get something wrong: “Hoi! I would not do that! And my nose is not that big!”
There are of course certain things that I love to draw... like hair! Hair is a wonderful visual feature of a character (...even of a Little Duck!). Hair is something that says a lot... and that is lots of fun to draw... and to go wild with!

And then there are hands! Hands are almost like the character’s antennae... They reach out. They defend. They show assertiveness. They show shyness, fear, excitement, happiness, love. They can even be used simply as hands, to pick things up, and to write and to draw! I love drawing hands.
Then there is the space around the characters. And I don’t only mean the physical or visual space, the background. I mean what one could call an aura, an atmosphere. Often I use colour and fine lines to show that energy around a person or an animal.
Sometimes, if the story allows it, I also like to include in my illustrations characters that are not specifically mentioned in the text. That can be great fun! For me, and for the readers. These are mostly animal characters. In one book I created a tiny little mouse, that had nothing to do with the story or the characters at all. It appeared in every illustration, somewhere, unobtrusively in the background or hidden behind something. While reading the book for the second or third time, the kids love looking for the mouse and discovering it with great joy! In Nina and Little Duck I added a frog!
In every book I also try to add a little bit of magic. After all, why do we read books? In Nina and Little Duck I added the butterflies and dragonflies that escape from the fabric of Nina’s T-shirt, and then fly away!

And then: how do I choose those specific moments in the story that I will illustrate visually? This is critical to my visual interpretation of the author’s imagination and it is fundamental to the rhythm and the pacing of the book as it will be read or read aloud. And here I do not mean the story, I literally mean the book, the illustrated book. I find that I often take that moment just before or just after the one described in the text. This gives a kind of an energy to the rhythms and the pacing of the book.
Every single book is a journey for me. And, even though I’ve done it so many times, I love that journey every single time. Every time feels like the first time and every time I learn new things. This book was such a journey.
I say thank you to you, Wendy, and to Aldré for inviting me to illustrate Nina and Little Duck. I really enjoyed it.