12 July 2006

Chris Van Allsburg is not a prolific author/ illustrator of children's books, but he is among the very best. His career started with a Caldecott Honor award in 1980, for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, which was followed with a Caldecott Medal in 1982 for his second book, Jumanji. Four years later, he won again with The Polar Express. Now the author of fifteen picture books, Van Allsburg has a distinctive style which blends magic and reality in everyday events. Whether working in color or black and white, his work shows characteristics of his training as a sculptor, with strong, solid forms that withstand a variety of viewing perspectives. While the architectural qualities of his drawing are technically interesting, Van Allsburg's experiments keep his work constantly fresh.

Van Allsburg's early work is simple, even crudely drawn, in black and white. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi is very pointillistic; objects have a three-dimensional solidity, but looking too closely at the dots which make up each figure induces the feeling that nothing is solid, even the line separating a clean edge. This causes a haziness and sense of un-reality which is characteristic to Van Allsburg's work. While he quickly added color to his available tools, using sepia tones for The Widow's Broom and full color for Wreck of the Zephyr before producing the richly-colored The Polar Express, it does take until the fifth book for color to appear. Van Allsburg explains the development in his art on his website:

I did not study painting or drawing when I was in college learning about art. . . . When I was 29 years old and wrote my first book, making pictures with a charcoal pencil was all I really knew how to do. I didn't feel bad that my pictures were not in color because I like black and white pictures, as well as black and white photographs and movies.
As time went by, I became more interested in picture making and taught myself to use different material to make color pictures. Materials like dry and oil pastels, craypas, crayons, colored pencils, and paint. Now I decide if a book should be black and white or color as a result of a how I imagine the story while I am thinking about it.

Even now, his work is still almost perfectly divided between books in black and white and in color. Yet it takes only a moment with a book to recognize that it is Van Allsburg, whatever the media.

Van Allsburg's style has three outstanding characteristics; first among them is the hazy sense of fantasy or dreaminess his images evoke. Yet all of his wild tales are set in the context of a very normal, recognizable world. As he tells Silvey, "I think fantasy is more provocative when it happens in the context of ordinariness, or things that you recognize." His evocation of magic in the everyday world often leads him to shorten the depth of field in his images, as a photographer would, to focus on a nearby subject. This leaves his backgrounds hazy, creating a dream-like quality that matches his subject. In another, undated interview, he says, "the style I use allows me to make a drawing that has a little mystery to it, even if the actual things I am drawing are not strange or mysterious. To get this effect, I rely on certain artistic strategies. I use perspective, light and point of view to give the drawing a kind of portentous quality".

Van Allsburg's second outstanding marker is the architectural quality of the strongly solid, three-dimensional forms he creates. This aspect of his work probably results from the close study of objects, from all angles, that sculpture requires. From his earliest work, Van Allsburg has drawn with depth, using shadow, light, and perspective not only to elicit amazement and wonder, but also to demonstrate the reality of his world. In Ben's Dream, for example, Ben sees several of the world's great monuments. They are all mostly under water and none is presented in photo-realism, but each is easily recognizable in spite of the perceptual strains the strange circumstances cause. Van Allsburg tells how he makes the pictures so realistic on his website: "I do this by using real people as models of the characters in my books and by using the laws of perspective and lighting to make the places shown in the pictures appear as if they really exist". Shadows fall as they always do; buildings take up space and block light; noses stick out—especially Monsieur Bibot's nose in The Sweetest Fig. Even when it does not feel solid, Van Allsburg's world feels real.

The final visually identifiable element of Van Allsburg's work is his use of unusual perspectives. In Ben's Dream, as noted above, many of the world's monuments are largely submerged. He sees the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and the Sphinx from eye level, while floating past. In The Widow's Broom, Earth is seen from a falling witch's perspective as the broom gives out, and in Zathura it is seen from outer space. This might arise from Van Allsburg's method of story development, as he explains in his 1986 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech: "I see the story unfold as if it were on film, the challenge is deciding precisely which moment should be illustrated and from which point of view." This vision, combined with his sculptural sense of space, allows him to explore interesting angles and present the view of his scene that best creates the desired impact. Visual characteristics are not the only identifiable element of Van Allsburg's work, though. He returns, in book after book, to a handful of recurring themes: the environment, dreams, and magic. Ben's Dream and Just a Dream demonstrate both the importance of environmental issues and dreams in Van Allsburg's work, while The Polar Express, The Widow's Broom, Jumanji, Zathura, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, and Wreck of the Zepher all rely on other forms of magic or, as he puts it, "fantasy. . . in the context of ordinariness". Additionally, each story has a moral element. As he states in an interview, "a good story must contain a psychological, emotional, or moral premise. I never set out to establish this when I begin a story, but it's always there when I end". Personal responsibility, as seen in Just a Dream; kindness to others, illustrated in The Stranger and by Bibot's mistreatment of Marcel in The Sweetest Fig; and faith or belief are very important themes across Van Allsburg's writing. As he notes, "The Polar Express is about faith, and the power of imagination to sustain faith. It's also about the desire to reside in a world where magic can happen, the kind of world we all believed in as children, but one that disappears as we grow older". The magic and mystery of Van Allsburg's art simply reflects themes that he returns to repeatedly.

A different aspect of this repetition can be seen in recurring motifs within the illustrations across books. The most obvious example of this is the bull terrier dog that first appears as Fritz in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. Fritz was modeled on Van Allsburg's brother-in-law's dog. When the dog died, Van Allsburg decided to memorialize him in each future book. Sometimes the dog is a character, as in The Garden or The Sweetest Fig; in The Polar Express, however, the dog is a puppet on the boy's bedpost, while in Ben's Dream he is in a picture on the wall and Just a Dream only shows him as a hood ornament. Van Allsburg may not have been entirely consistent in this, as The Wretched Stone and The Stranger do not seem to include the little white dog at all. Another example of recurring motif is his occasional illustration of people without faces. In Wreck of the Zephyr, for instance, we never see either character's face. When Walter's face, in Just a Dream, is exposed to focus, it is still partially obscured either by position or by haze and distance. It is not that Van Allsburg cannot draw a convincing, realistic face; rather, this reflects reality: people do not worry about facing a camera when busy going about their lives. Van Allsburg often presents a view from behind his characters, or over the shoulder, which obscures the face but shares what the character sees and thus better illuminates the text than a view of the character's facial features could. These experiments with perspective are part of what makes his work so interesting.

Experimentation is a constant in Van Allsburg's work. Not only did his move from black and white into color require teaching himself to use new materials, but his use of color also depends upon the mood or tone of the work at hand. The Widow's Broom, for instance, uses deep autumnal sepia tones, rather than simple black and white, to convey the fullness of harvest time and the mystery of the Halloween season. Wreck of the Zephyr uses bright, primary colors and relies on changes in cloud color to convey a sense of danger to the reader, while the dark, muted colors of The Polar Express make it feel like a gloomy winter outside, yet snug and cozy in the indoor scenes.

Likewise, Van Allsburg does not limit himself to a single style. While all of his illustrations are representational, he creates them using a variety of techniques. From the early pointillism of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, which reappears in The Polar Express, The Sweetest Fig and Zathura, to the smooth, painterly stroke of The Wretched Stone and The Stranger, no two books look exactly the same. Ben's Dream even looks like a scratchboard or woodcut, though they are still simple pen-and-ink images.

Framing is another device Van Allsburg uses to achieve different effects. He has no discernable pattern across books, using a full spread with text boxes for some books, text and facing images for others, and often sizing images to indicate their importance in the story. The Wretched Stone, for instance, makes use of the full page spread for each image—yet the image is split into two panels, one on each side of the gutter and both framed in white, with the text always appearing in a box centered on the left side. The Sweetest Fig, on the other hand, uses full-color cross-gutter images framed in white, with text confined to a small box in a corner of the image; while The Polar Express borders text and image in black framed with white, using a cross-gutter image that consumes most of the spread and a column for text. The most striking use of image size to advance the story occurs in Just a Dream, which uses a full-size image over text on each page when Walter is awake, a small picture facing text when his dream is changing location, and full-spread cross-gutter illustrations of what he dreams.

Whatever the experiment, Van Allsburg's work retains his distinctive sense of mystery, 3-D solidity, and odd perspectives. These can challenge the reader, but also makes the work engaging. Add to this the fact that he writes stories with pictures, rather than stories for children, as he states: "I do create books for adults. My books are picture books, so they are thought of as books for children. But when I make them, I think of the books for everybody—for all ages". Van Allsburg's work not only delights children, but also captivates adult readers. This has garnered him great critical acclaim, and will keep his outstanding work in print for a very long time.


Blogger BikeMe said...

Mr. Wiggins, what a great article. Finding good material on Mr. Van Allsburg's style was difficult. Ever considered posting it to "The Incredible Art Department?" Your article would provide a good deal of material for high school teachers in particular to help students see what the artist saw.

Thanks again,
Elizabeth Semple

6:53 PM  
Blogger Wendy Porter said...

Fritz does make an appearance in The Stranger as a sheep in the field, you just have to look closely! 😉

8:09 PM  
Blogger ECB said...

Fritz also appears in The Wretched Stone! On the page where all the monkeys are watching the stone, you can see a white dog's tail near the bottom of the illustration! My students and I have so much fun searching for Fritz in all of Van Allsburg's books!

1:35 PM  

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