How children’s picture books grow from sketch to story

The Story Museum in Oxford is holding an exhibition looking at how illustrators including Quentin Blake and Emily Gravett create their work. We talk to the show’s curator about the insights she got when putting it together.

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The Story Museum in Oxford is holding an exhibition of children’s picture books, featuring work by six illustrators: Quentin Blake, Emily Gravett, Korky Paul, Mini Grey, Nick Sharratt and Yasmeen Ismail.

The Draw Me a Story exhibition aims to outline the process of creating a picture book, and will display original artwork, prints and sketchbooks by the illustrators.

We talk to the exhibition’s curator, illustrator Sarah Garson, about the importance of children’s picture books and how she put on the show.

Curator Sarah Garson setting up the show
Curator Sarah Garson setting up the show

Design Week: What is the aim of the Draw Me a Story exhibition?

Sarah Garson: We wanted to put picture books on a pedestal for a number of reasons. Firstly because they are the often the first experience we, as readers, have of books and this makes them so very important – exposure to good picture books can ignite a life-long love of books. Secondly, because they are exquisite pieces of art in their own right, and very often overlooked in the art world. Because the art-work is created for children it is often regarded as juvenile or lacking the skill or credibility that other artistic genres may gain. But you can see from the art-work on our walls that these are artists of immense talent who have created stunning pieces of art that appeal on a number of levels to a number of audiences, full of depth, wit and warmth. Draw me a Story is also a chance to take a behind-the-scenes peek at the craft of creating an illustration for a picture book. We asked the illustrators for preparatory work as well as the final illustrations so we have sketch books; dummy books; layout sheets; doodles, thumbnails, and so on. Visitors are able to trace the process from the seed of an idea through discarded sketches to final illustration. And we have our very own Illustrator Zoo, which will be occupied (at different times) by some of our exhibiting illustrators and also artists from the wider illustration community. There is a strict no feeding policy though!


DW: How have you made the exhibition appealing to younger visitors?

SG: We wanted to give younger visitors an exhibition experience without making it dry or inaccessible. Draw me a Story is very interactive with many activities and trails that encourage young visitors to really engage with what is on the walls, in a very fun way. We also think it very important that they can actually see the art-work (sounds like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how often exhibitions overlook this), so we have hung the frames at child height which makes a huge difference to the experience for both child and accompanying adult.

DW: When you were looking at the submissions from artists, did you see any similarities or differences in the way people work? 

SG: We have selected six illustrators who represent not only the high quality of illustrators working in the picture book industry but also the diverse approaches to illustration, from the more traditional pen, ink and watercolour, through to digital illustrators. There is no right way to illustrate, which is a very refreshing and liberating thought.

Work by Yasmeen Ismail
Work by Yasmeen Ismail

DW: Did you as an illustrator learn anything from seeing these works in progress?

SG: I was very lucky to have first peek behind the scenes while curating Draw me a Story. I had the great treat of visiting some of our illustrators’ studios where I was able to see what brand of liquid watercolours Mini Grey uses to create such depth of colour, and what size nib Korky Paul uses to create such expressive lines. But I couldn’t in good conscience keep all this to myself, so we commissioned films of the illustrators working in their studios and talking about their working techniques. Visitors to Draw me a Story can watch clips of each of our exhibiting illustrators and learn as much as I have (I’ve already placed an order for those liquid watercolours!)

Emily Gravett's chewed-up sketchbook
Emily Gravett’s chewed-up sketchbook

DW: What was the most surprising or unusual submission you saw?

SG: One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is from Emily Gravett. At the end of her book, Wolves, the reader can see that the red cloth-bound library book that the rabbit has been reading has met with a rather violent end (and, in this, it is inferred that so too has the rabbit). We have the ripped and chewed red cloth-bound book on display with a little note from Emily: ‘I tried to get my dog to do the chewing but he refused, so I had to do it!’”

DW: What is your favourite piece in the exhibition?

SG: I couldn’t possibly choose! And that is not diplomacy, just that they are all incredibly accomplished pieces of art. Whittling the list down to six illustrators was quite a tough process because there are many more wonderful artists than we had room for on the walls. I think we started with 20 and letting them go one by one was a wrench. My favourite piece is whatever I happen to be looking at. I find myself spoiled for choice, and hope our visitors feel the same way.

Work by Korky Paul
Work by Korky Paul
Work by Emily Gravett
Work by Emily Gravett

Draw Me a Story is at the Story Museum, Rochester House, 42 Pembroke Street, Oxford OX1 until the end of September.

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