Oct 25, 2011

Weaving Pictures & Words: An Illustrator's Perspective on Writing

My name is Durga Yael Bernhard, and I am an illustrator and an author.  Why did I say "illustrator" first?  Usually the author writes a book first, and then it is illustrated.  If one person does both, he or she usually says they are an author and an illustrator, not the other way around. 

But for me, pictures have always come before words.  I've always “thought visually.”  From the age of thirteen, I knew I wanted to be a painter, and by the time I was sixteen, I knew children's books would be part of my career someday.  I was a visual arts major at SUNY Purchase, learned printmaking at the Art Students' League of NY, and studied illustration at the School of Visual Art in Manhattan.  My first job, while I was in college, was at a telephone publishing company, where I learned how to paste up galleys with the latest modern invention, a waxing machine.  I worked at a slanted drafting table with a t-square, a triangle, and razor blades.  I liked the work; it left my mind free to think and wander, to listen to the radio, and to enjoy conversations with my co-workers.  Later, I started working for a magazine publisher, where I was allowed to contribute “in-house” illustrations to a variety of specialty magazines.  I drew blacksmith bellows and chainsaw blades, passengers moving through turnstiles, rabbit cages on a forklift, and fingers punching a cash register – whatever was needed – and it was the best practice in the world for a young illustrator.  I learned to be flexible, to communicate visually, and to please the reader.  Most of all, I learned the first axiom of graphic design: how to work within limitations.  Designers do not get to set parameters; they work within them. 

In my late twenties, an opportunity came my way to meet the editor-in-chief at Holiday House.  Holiday House is among the last family-owned independent children's book publishing companies.  I took the train to Manhattan, and walked with my portfolio from Grand Central Station to 425 Madison Avenue.  The editor liked my artwork, but did not have a story for me to illustrate.  At her suggestion, I wrote my first book, What's Maggie Up To?, about a painting I had done for my son's bedroom.  The painting showed a stack of colorful windows in what appeared to be a white-walled Mediterranean villa.  Each window showed someone, and something, different.  The story was written around the art.  The apartment building became home to a cast of characters who together took care of a stray cat named Maggie.  For me, each window was a graphic opportunity.  I designed the whole book, with ten little kittens to count at the end.  It was a simple story, but a good beginning. 

Over thirty books later, I still write about pictures.  Even if the writing comes out on paper first, it begins with an image, and then another image, like a slide show on a screen.  If I am illustrating another author's writing, the words instantly form pictures in my mind.  Even the sound of a title forms a picture.  In a funny way, I don't even think of myself as a writer.  It's just part of my job, sometimes, to string images together with words. 

Green Bible Stories was both a challenge and an honor, because the classic stories from Torah that I illustrated are so well-known.  How could I do justice to these ancient stories which have already formed pictures in so many people's minds?  It was difficult to choose just one or two images per story.  But I was blessed with an unexpected trip to Israel just two days after the manuscript arrived in my inbox, and got to walk the land where some of the stories took place.  I went into the Judean Desert and sketched the date palms and mesas; no photograph could have conveyed the heat and spaciousness that I experienced there firsthand.  I visited Ne'ot Kedumim, the Biblical land reserve outside Jerusalem, and did several paintings there.  These studies helped me convey the local flora, and a more palpable sense of texture and light, in the illustrations.  When I came home, the rainy weather in New York made the Biblical terrain stand out even more by contrast as I worked on the final art. 

Making a book is like weaving a tapestry.  When all the strands come together, the result is like something both man-made and natural, with a richness all its own.  Pictures and words are like the many-colored threads of a weaving.  How they come together is up to you.
Durga Yael Bernhard is the illustrator of Green Bible Stories for Children, and these images are her studies of Israel's landscape.

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