Saturday, May 22, 2021

Picture book master studies

Master Studies. 

As artists, I think most of us have heard the term “master studies” used to train and develop budding artists in different mediums. For those who don’t know, the concept is going to a museum (or studying a high resolution reproduction/digital image) and trying to recreate a painting of a historical artist who was well into their established technique--a master of their painting style. We can learn different things from doing this: composition, color palette, how to use color and dark/light to focus the eye, how they apply the paint, etc. In some museums, there would be days where you could set up your canvas IN the museum and paint/recreate the artwork en plein air.

But how does one do a master study of picture books? I decided to try and find out. 

First, I had to establish parameters. How do I find books to read? How do I find artists? What types of books am I reviewing? I knew that I was specifically interested in studying INTERNATIONAL picture books as opposed to just books in the American market. I started with two books that I purchased when I traveled internationally: one purchased in Italy, one purchased in Japan. Researching these illustrators led me to looking at blogs, international picture book conferences, international picture book journals, and, more specifically, awards and lifetime achievement lists created by these organizations. While awards can be both very politicized and very subjective, most tend to include a jury of peers or industry professionals. I figured this was a good baseline for trying to determine and define a MASTER picture book creator. 

Here’s a selection of sources that I have or will source names of authors/illustrators from:

Second, build a list. You will probably grow your list faster than you are able to research/read books created by these authors or artists. I have a Google Keep list I started to specifically track award-winning international illustrators.

Google keep list of picture book creators

Third, research. This takes a lot of time, but can also be a lot of fun when you go down the rabbit hole. The type of research also comes in multiple forms. When I find an artist I want to study, I first go and see which of their titles are available to be checked out through my local library. Alternatively, if you want to own the books you study, you can see what is available for purchase in your country by that creator. I also try to research the artist online, reading wikipedia entries, interviews, and occasionally stumbling upon a video about the artist and their creations, such as this interview with Satoe Tone.

Fourth, acquire your source material to study. I usually try to check out 2-3 books from an artist if they are available to get a sense of the type of books the author/illustrator creates and just in case the book(s) they are known for are illustrated books that do not fall within my self-determined parameters of “picture book.” I decided that I would focus on books that fell within the parameters of a traditional/classic picture book: larger format with minimal words; approximately 32-48 pages, occasionally slightly longer; not a graphic novel/comic book format; not a board book aimed towards the youngest age range (0-2 years); not a chapter book with illustrations. 

Cover image for La Carota Gigante by Satoe Tone
Cover of La Carota Gigante by Satoe Tone

one interior spread of La Carota Gigante showing rabbits carrying a giant carrot, with handwritten notes below book.
interior spread for La Carota Gigante with my notes in progress

Fifth, study your source material. Read. Read it again. And again. Study it. Thoroughly. This stage loops back to how you define your original parameters: WHAT are you studying within this book? HOW are you tracking what you are studying? 

Cover for Ojos by Iwona Chmielewska
Cover for Ojos by Iwona Chmielewska

Studying the role of die cuts and page turns in the picture book Ojos. The book is open to a spread with one line of text on the lower left hand page and two eyes staring at you from the right hand page.
Studying the role of die cuts and page turns in the picture book, Ojos

The same spread as the previous image, this time with a hand lifting the page and poking a finger through the hole to show the eye shapes cut out of the page on the right hand side.
As you turn the physical page, the die cuts become apparent

The following spread in the book Ojos that reveals a present on the left hand side and two flowers on the right hand side. The center of the two flowers made up the pupils of the original eye image.
Layers unfold in the story when the eyes are revealed to be more than what is expected at first glance.

I originally defined my research project as studying “international picture books” and then my coworker sent me a digital picture book from India. I read it, it was a beautiful book, but in doing so, I realized there was something missing in this book: what I REALLY wanted to study was “international picture books in their tangible, printed format.” I was curious about the decisions on trim size, paper stock, binding types, typefaces and sizes, color palettes, special finishes, and the physical page turn effect of the book. You know, all the geeky, design-oriented decisions that were made in producing the physical product that is a picture book. Just the thing that this geeky graphic designer and illustrator loves. 

I began to document my research in what will probably be my one-and-only meticulously organized sketchbook. I wanted each book study to fill a single page and I broke down my categories to fill in on each page as follows:

  • Sketch of cover art

  • Color palette: what 6(ish) colors were the most dominant in this book?

  • Title: In both original language and English, if possible

  • Author: Who wrote the book?

  • Illustrator: who illustrated the book? Is this the same as the author?

  • Publisher(s): more than one if it’s a translation; you can often find the original publisher name on the copyright page

  • Country/Countries: Where did this book originate and/or where was this creator from and/or where was this translation from? Sometimes they are not the same.

  • Theme: VERY brief summary of what the book is about

  • Pages: length of book

  • Cover: is there a dust jacket? Is there a printed illustration on the case bound books that differs from the dust jacket? Special finishes? 

  • Endsheets: Are these just plain pages of a contrasting color/stock? Are there illustrations on the endsheets that expand on the story?

  • Text: font choice(s)? Font size? Font color? specific/repeating placement on the pages? Are the lines of text broken into poetic stanzas? Are there varying sizes/colors/fonts to emphasize or represent different things?

  • Illustrations: what materials do they use? Is there a recurring pattern to how the illustrations are presented? How many are double-page spreads, single pages, vignettes? 

  • Other: a little information about the artist or awards this book won

  • Translation format: If not printed in English, I typically used Google Translate to comprehend the text well enough to get a sense of the book as a whole. While there is definitely an elegance of words and cadence lost in translation, my primary focus is from the visual/artistic standpoint of the book including how the text VISUALLY appears on a page. 

  • Origin of book: usually checked out from LAPL, but occasionally a purchased title

Image of sketchbook with handwritten notes analyzing the book Little Bird by Germano Zullo, illustrated by Albertine. On top of the notebook rests an issue of Bookbird journal. Listed on the cover is "2020 Hans Christian Anderson Award Winners
Using the journal Bookbird to discover creators, specifically their annual issue highlighting Hans Christian Andersen Award Winners and Finalists. Underneath sits my handwritten notes documenting my research of a book illustrated by Albertine, one of the creators interviewed in this issue

Close up of the title of an article within Bookbird 2020 vol. 58 no. 3, entitled "I am an author who draws: an interview with Albertine, Winner of the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration" side by side with my handwritten analysis of Albertine's artwork in Little Bird by Germano Zullo. The notes include a thumbnail sketch of the cover, 6 circles of color showing the main color palette and detailed notes about the book.
An article on Albertine lead to my reading Little Bird by Germano Zullo and illustrated by Albertine. These articles can give you more insight into the breadth of a creator's work and some of their thought process that goes into each creation. 

Below are some of my single page research notes for each book.
 *** WARNING: May contain spoilers ***

My notes on the picture book Ojos by Iwona Chmielewska, including a sketch of the cover, the very soft color palette used in the book and how text and die cuts are used throughout the book.

Notes on the book Japanese Maple or Momiji no Tegami by Chiki Kikuchi including a color palette of red, green, yellow, black, white, brown.

My handwritten notes on La Carota Gigante by Satoe Tone

A closeup angled shot of my notes on Jerome by Heart by Olivier Tallec.

Closeup of my unfinished notes on the book Paws and Edward. The sketched image of the cover and the color palette circles are empty.


In some ways this is a failed project. This started out as an exploration of research in preparation for a presentation for an artist residency in Iceland that was supposed to happen in 2020. I started my research in September of 2019, requesting and checking picture books out of my local library in the Los Angeles Public Library system, which has a surprisingly wide selection of international picture books (or translations of international picture books) available. And then March 2020 happened and the world shut down. Libraries closed. My research came to a screeching halt. I will pick it up again at some point because while it was time consuming, I also loved the research. But in other ways this is the start of a resounding success. I have filled in or partially filled in notes for 13 picture books. This is not a large enough quantitative sampling to establish any sort of baseline conclusion regarding the relationship of type of book or theme or color palette with specific countries in the world, or to even begin to reflect on their population's likes and dislikes. If I were to analyze one picture book like this every day, I would still not even begin to delve into the quantity of picture books published worldwide in a single year. And yet. Yet I feel that even studying these few books leads me to make some conclusions: a lot of thought, skill, craft, wit, and intent goes into each and every book created. They are all incredible works of art regardless of style, theme, or art technique. They are all glorious, magnificent creations and, naturally, I want to add MY glorious, magnificent creations to the world to join them. They all inspire. Now it's time to go find your own Master Studies to use as inspirations and then go create YOUR creations.


© Cole Montgomery 
Gail Buschman is a graphic designer and children's book creator who loves to travel and explore new places.

More about Gail at her websiteinstagramtwitter, and facebook.

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