Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Storytelling in Words and Pictures

This year, I took some time to analyse my fictional stories. I did a lot of research while writing my MA dissertation about biographical impact on picturebook artists, such as Maurice Sendak, Raymond Briggs and Shaun Tan. These great artists influenced my creative career and encouraged to experiment with my projects. I spent the last three years learning about storytelling, storytelling with images and words to be exact. All of my stories were influenced by personal experiences, including moving, searching for identity and exploring new places. They were all visualized as picturebooks, but differ in their usage of word and image. Telling stories in both pictures and words is a great challenge. Sometimes you don't need any words at all and a single drawing can tell a whole story. Something is left unsaid and the reader has to find out the rest of the story. I have tried different ways of telling a story. My visual language changed along the way. Below is a short analysis of each project, starting with the oldest.

1. "About Spider in a Block of Flats" was created at Vilnius Academy of Arts in 2011 and was my first venture into children's book illustration. The story was dedicated to a real spider with five legs, which was living in my room at that time. I was living on the top floor and imagined how this little spider had gone through all the flats to reach my place. I created a fully painted illustration for each imaginary flat and a short poem, which explains the character's struggles of settling down. Each floor is numbered and has a different colour palette. At this stage, I knew nothing about picturebooks and story pacing. I envisioned this project as an interactive counting book, where the reader had to match the numbered lines of text on a separate flap with the right illustrations, e.g. "A strange snake tried to swallow me up too" related to the picture below.

2. "Little Frog from Trash Kingdom" was my first attempt at making a picturebook dummy during the Children's Book Illustration summer course at Cambridge School of Art. The story originated in Lithuania, when I was cycling on a road full of tiny frogs after a rainy summer day. So small, yet so persistent and adventurous. Where did they come from? Will they reach their destination safely? Such  thoughts inspired my environmental adventure story about a curious little frog. It was the first time I used a standard 32-page picturebook format. I had to shorten my text and reduce the number of characters. It was challenging working with both words and illustrations and also the design of the book. The use of white space in images was unusual for me, but it added clarity and focus on the characters. The result for a week's work was quite pleasing and gave me confidence to continue creating books.

3. "A Book about…" was part of the collaborative picturebook "TWO", which was created for a French picture book competition and was later selected to be exhibited during the Children's Book Fair in Montreuil. It was based on my struggles of working together with my twin sister. The book was unique as it revealed the differences of twins rather than their similarities. I was telling my story as a dialogue between twins, who decided to make a book together. The text was designed to contrast the two characters. The bright colours emphasize the main figures while bold black brushstrokes add tension and drama.

4. "Main Character Wanted" was my final project at Vilnius Academy of Arts. The story reflected my creative process of making this specific book. The author was looking for the main character and also for his own identity. I shared my journey on this blog and analyzed it along the way. I continued experimenting with the text until I found balance and unity in this book. The white of the page was the setting for the bright and imaginative characters, which all wanted to be the main character of the story. Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things” indirectly influenced this project, which also depicts emotions as mysterious monsters.

5. "Mysterious Book" was my first book created for MA Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art in 2013. Unlike my previous projects, this one was influenced by direct observation and that is why place plays an important role in the story. I challenged myself to draw people and backgrounds using monochromatic tone, which allowed me to create a spooky museum atmosphere. Technically, it was very different from my previous work, although it retains the same picturebook format, consisting of twelve double-page spreads. The narrative sequence was wordless but playful and dynamic as the previous ones. I focused on the image sequence and body language. The main character was unique because he paid no interest in his surroundings. Since the story is wordless, the reader is left wondering about this mysterious book, which raises many questions.

6. Winter Ghost was created during the second semester of the MA Children’s Book Illustration course. After drawing people interacting with their environment in this course, I became interested in human reactions and their psychological world. My own narratives gradually became more complex. For this project, I revisited my text, written during the first few winters spent in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. It was influenced by the freezing cold, snow and the experience of living on the top floor of a high building. I had no plot in the beginning except for the characters, a girl and her friend, the ghost dog. The development of the characters and their interaction was my main focus during this project. The dog character changed a lot during the process and from a cute imaginary friend turned into a scary winter ghost. The story was based on my memories of the bleak winter environment and depressive moods. The lonely main character is waiting for spring in her little roof flat. Winter ghost pays her an unexpected visit and makes a mess. By chasing it away, she brings the spring back. I started using vignettes in the latter book, which changes the story’s rhythm and pacing. I experimented with soft pastels for this project to combine tone with colour and painting with drawing. It was difficult, but suitable for this poetic story.

Overviewing these stories, I see some similarities in the plots. The first two projects are about animal escapes, the third and fourth focus on the creative process and the latest two stories explore childhood fantasies and imagination. The main character is always being attacked by someone. Fight and struggle add drama to the plot, but in the future I'll be searching for other alternatives in storytelling, something more subtle. Some of my characters survive by running away while those in "Main Character Wanted" and "Winter Ghost" fight back. In my latest book, the main character attacked the ghost dog by chasing him away. The story is told through the interaction of these two characters, just like the twins in "A Book about" but without a dialogue. I explored different characters in my stories - from kids to animals and even invisible characters and imaginary creatures. Narrator is the main character in three cases, but Little Frog's journey is told from a third person's perspective and the twins engage in a dialogue without any narrator at all.

Place is important in most of my narratives. The first and the latest story are very different but related by place - a block of flats. Only one story took place outdoors, "Little Frog", but it doesn't mean that home is a safe place either as can be seen in my first or the latest story. Shaun Tan’s and Raymond Briggs’s surreal worlds inspired my two projects at the Cambridge School of Art, the wordless museum story "Mysterious Book" and the poetic "Winter Ghost". Place enhances these two stories in contrast to the previous two projects, which had a white background and focused on the playful shapes of characters. The visual aesthetics of my earlier works were inspired by Asian ink paintings and Western graphic designers and illustrators, such as Bruno Munari, Eric Carle and Lane Smith.

My stories focus on themes such as home, journey, identity search and loneliness. My last two BA projects, about twins and my creative process, were experimental and conceptual. I did not rely on observational drawing or research. I combined spontaneous emotional sketches with playful text on white background. Without words, the stories could not be understood. I base the main characters of my picturebooks on real people or animals. However, stories about my own experiences, like the collaboration with my twin or winter isolation, are more personal to me.

These books are visually quite different. For the first three, I chose a square format while the last three had portrait and landscape formats. The first four were painted in ink, while the last two were drawn with charcoal and pastel. The tools should help tell the story, whether it is drawn or painted. All of them were action based and dynamic, intended for younger children. The bright colours add playfulness too. White background emphasizes characters while tone adds depth. I will seek to balance these two aspects by varying the sizes of my illustrations and their arrangement in a book. I am starting to use vignettes, but still need to work on using white space around illustrations. I am learning a lot and becoming more confident with each book. I realized the importance of observational drawing and research of the subject matter. I have a lot left to learn and explore, including different book formats and storytelling techniques. The most important thing is to know yourself and be true to yourself.