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A few weeks ago my seven-year-old nephew Cuan had an accident involving a golf club, which is odd since he's never actually played golf. Happily, while he was mending up, he poured his energies into another, somewhat safer pastime – drawing.
Days after his accident, I paid Cuan a visit to see how he was doing. I found him sitting at a very chaotic kitchen table, busily working away on a collection of original character illustrations. The more I watched him at work, the more I came to suspect that a child’s brain is like some kind of portal into other dimensions. And as we got chatting about his drawings, so it proved to be.
Cuan had already started on the Masked Feline before he asked me for any ideas. He was doing just fine without my input anyway. All I suggested really was a tail. ‘Cats use them for balance’, I told him. ‘And a cat is stealthy too, so if it had a weapon it’d probably be something like a sword, or maybe a sai [an ancient Japanese knife-type device – I know because my favourite Ninja Turtle from when I was a child carried two of them]. ‘I’m going to give it a hammer’, he said. An interesting choice.
Masked Feline with Hammer
I imagine the Masked Feline to be like one of those rare, exotic animals living in remote jungles that only a handful of photographers ever manage to actually capture on film. And if they do so, their work gets published, celebrated and forever preserved in a National Geographic feature spread. But until then the animal is merely a myth kept alive by undocumented sightings reported by unreliable locals.
Yet here is the Masked Feline in all its glory as it fleet-footedly dashes across the page, Thor-hammer in hand. What kind of sound would an animal like that make I wonder? What would it eat? Might it use sunlight for energy instead? And why the mask? Why the hammer? While its surprised expression seems to suggest that it has been caught unawares in a moment of urgency, the Masked Feline's motives, habits and origins remain shrouded in mystery.
Pay close attention
The mask, which beautifully renders contrasts between positive and negative elements. Also worth a mention is the way the orange inside the ears, on the tummy, paws and tail compliment the character’s vibrant, yellow pelt. Note too the orange rectangle on the bottom left of the image. ‘That’s his colour code’, Cuan told me. ‘Green means it’s not that rare, yellow means it’s kind of rare and orange means it’s really rare.’ So that confirms my suspicions: the Masked Feline is really rare.
‘What will I draw next?’ he asked as soon as he'd finished, so I began making suggestions and he began to put them on paper. ‘How about a planet where there are only rocks’, I said. ‘But there are people living there too. And maybe there’s hardly any gravity on the planet so the people there are really tall. They might even look like plants’. He listened closely, and this is what he came up with:
Alien Lifeforms atop a Rocky Hill
At first, Alien Lifeforms Atop a Rocky Hill made me feel a bit sad. It looks so lonely there on their barren planet, surrounded by all that empty white space. It’s almost like a lost page from The Little Prince. Then I look a little deeper and notice how happy the Alien Lifeforms seem to be. Notice how they hover above the ground – is it the low levels of gravity on the planet or are they leaping for joy? Maybe they’ve received good news? Or they might be simply overjoyed to have the viewer pay them a visit? The truth is out there...somewhere.
Pay close attention
I’m convinced that they key to unlocking the picture’s secrets lies in the thick outlines around the rocks. The solid black lines suggest that the planet and its rocks are real and fixed in place; but the Alien Lifeforms themselves have no outlines. Why? I think it’s because we’re looking at multi-dimensional beings that shape-shift their way in and out of time and space, and maybe even thought itself. Somewhat surprisingly, I see that the colour code to the lower-right of the image suggests that the Alien Lifeforms are only in the ‘kind of rare’ category. Thankfully, they look like a peaceful lot.
‘Now what will I draw?’, Cuan asked me again, as he quickly tore off another sheet of paper from his little notepad. ‘Okay, how about this time it’s a man who lives at the centre of the earth’, I began. ‘But because it’s so hot down there he has to wear a suit of armour that protects him from all the lava down there.’ And within minutes the Subterranean Armoured Man was before us, comfortably relaxing on a sun-hot bed of lava.
Subterranean Armoured Man
I look at the Subterranean Armoured Man and he looks back at me. What does he do all day there deep down under the ground? ‘Why do you resist my understanding, Armoured Man? Reveal to me your secrets’ I demand of him. And there is silence, until at last I hear his voice, muffled by his lava-proof helmet. ‘My secrets?’, he asks, sounding a little confused, and then is silent once again.
Pay close attention
All that lovely white space. See how it draws the eye to the thick band of dominating red? How it’s used to frame the figure of the Armoured Man, who lies perfectly at the centre of the page? Observe how the strong black lines are used to distinguish the Armoured Man from the bed of lava behind him. It’s amazingly simple, yet at the same time, simply amazing.
When he was finished drawing, Cuan gathered up his three illustrations and handed them to me. 'You can keep them if you like', he said. I was so delighted I actually got him to sign the back of each one. So after no more than twenty minutes of frenetic illustration, I returned home from my short visit with three amazing snapshots into the active imagination of a seven-year-old.
For those who have children, or nephews or nieces, or even friends with kids, try take some time out just to observe how and what they draw. You’ll be all the richer for seeing what they can create. Just be sure to give their creations the attention they deserve, remembering that this is imagination in its purest form. This is where illustration begins.
To fire up your own imagination, have a look through our huge collection of classic and contemporary children's book illustrations right here.