March 2, 2012

Illustrations by Krommes

        Beth Krommes is an illustrator of children's books who works in scratchboard.  Although physically unlike carving wood or rubber blocks, the thought process of scratchboard, and the resultant image, have a lot in common with relief printing.  Both are subtractive, in that you work by removing the areas that are to be white and leaving behind the areas that are to be black.  Both media have that strong black and white, where shading is achieved not with grey but with crosshatching or other textures of white removed from black.  So scratchboard results in a look that appeals to me in much the same way block prints do.
        (Scratchboard, of course, doesn't leave you with a printable block for making multiples, but nowadays in the world of computer scanning and printing from jpgs, that's just fine for book illustration.  You need only one copy of the original image anyway.  For some more scratchboard illustration, check out a post on Mikhail Belomlinsky.)
        I'm featuring here illustrations from two books illustrated by Beth Krommes.  The first book is fantasy, and Krommes's illustrations are depictions of various magical people.  Although the tales these pieces illustrate do reveal the darker, more dangerous side of fairy folk, the illustrations are more sweet than otherworldly.  With the bright, rich watercolor over the scratchboard they evoke more delight than awe.  I like the way
Krommes provides lots of detail, sometimes whimsical, as in the image of the selkies in their underwater home, where, according to the story, they have human shape.  I also like that Krommes leaves us lots of black, especially in the castle under the starry night sky.  After all, black is one of the things the subtractive process of scratchboard and relief prints does best.
        The second book is especially rich in black.  The entire book is set at night, and these illustrations, too, have a fantastical element as the child in the verse is shown in a dreamlike nighttime flight on a bird's back.  I love this book, especially the nighttime scenery - both the bird's eye views of the town and the ant's eye view of the flowers.  I love that Krommes shows the glorious beauty of flowers without any color at all.
        But although I think this book, The House in the Night, is beautiful, it brings up an interesting side note.  P and T's school librarian runs a mock Caldecott project each year.  All the students in the school examine a number of picture books and rate them on the quality of the illustrations.  The librarian, Ms M, compiles the data and determines the recipient of the school's award.  She was mentioning to me how seldom the students end up awarding their top honor to the actual Caldecott winner.  In other words, the Caldecott award goes to the books the grown-up judges like best, not the one children like best.  When I saw The House in the Night in the school library and picked it up, Ms M told me that the year this book was awarded the real Caldecott Medal, only one child in the school had voted for it in the mock awards.  And to confirm this difference in taste, my daughter T says she really dislikes the book.  It's too dark and boring, says she.  (And this from the daughter of a block printer, who's had plenty of exposure to plain black and white pictures.)  Of course I could claim that T's taste just isn't sophisticated enough yet, and that eventually she'll come to appreciate the richness and beauty of
Krommes's illustrations…  And since I tend to agree with the Caldecott judges in their assessment of this book, I hardly want to say they're wrong…  But it's an interesting question to keep in mind: how much should adults be enforcing their own tastes on children in order to stretch and educate them, and how much should we be responding to their tastes and natural impulses?
         Whatever the answer, I can say at least that I like Krommes's illustrations, and the more black they have the more I like them!

[Pictures: "…song in the bird…" scratchboard and watercolor by Beth Krommes;
Hidden folk, scratchboard and watercolor by Krommes;
The Wedding Feast, scratchboard and watercolor by Krommes;
Selkies in their underwater world, scratchboard and watercolor by Krommes;
"Through the dark glows the moon," scratchboard and watercolor by Krommes;
"…all about the starry dark,"  scratchboard and watercolor by Krommes.
Pictures scanned from
The Hidden Folk: Stories of Fairies, Dwarves, Selkies, and Other Secret Beings, by Lise Lunge-Larsen, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004;
The House in the Night, by Susan Marie Swanson, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008.]


Nan said...

These are just wonderful. I am introduced to so many new artists and art ideas browsing around here. Makes me wish I made block prints!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Mwa ha ha! You have discovered my secret plan - to convert the entire world into block printers!

Nan said...

I always suspected there was a plan for world domination hidden under your charming demeanor.

(It must be working. I bought Golden's Open Medium so I can convert my paints and non-waterproof printing inks into waterproof ones. Haven't done it yet, but it's on the list.)