my favorite illustrators series: shirley hughes

I am beginning a little sketchbook series where I will be sharing a handful of my favorite illustrators. The order in which I post about them is not correlated with any ranking system. I’d rather not choose one favorite because they are all too good. But in case you, my reader, do not know these illustrators, I want to introduce you to them. Each of them have played significant roles in shaping my imagination and influencing my own artwork. First off is Shirley Hughes, the creator of the darling character “Alfie.” Shirley Hugh’s stories and illustrated characters might be absolutely charming, but so is she (as depicted in these photos below).

British author and illustrator Shirley Hughes was born in 1927 and recently died in 2022. I am terribly sad I never wrote her a letter. She’s the type of person that I think would have responded. In one article from The Guardian, she stated, “At weekends I spend quite a lot of time answering children’s letters. It is heart-warming and reassuring that children are still being encouraged by their teachers to master this art. They know how to put the address and date at the top. The spelling may sometimes be a bit dodgy, but they nearly always include a drawing.” I love that despite her fame and busyness, she still found time to respond so genuinely to her audience of children.

While Hughes illustrated over two hundred books, she also wrote (and illustrated) over fifty herself. She won the Kate Greenaway Medal for children’s books in 1977 and 2003. She worked in gouache and I believe she also used some crayon.

Allegedly, I forced my parents to read Dogger over and over in one sitting when I was little. It was my favorite book growing up, and I highly recommend it. Hughes’s books reflect her acute understanding of children. Such an understanding is expressed through her artistic renderings in paints and crayons but also in the way she portrays their unique outlook on the world. Behind each illustration in her books, lies an impressive knowledge of artistic technique but also human behavior which makes the drawings exquisite and magnetic.

I return to these illustrations constantly in my mind, even years after reading them. I hope that one day I can have a hospitable kitchen with a green table and never ending pots of tea just like in her books. The pictures capture everything that is cozy, homey and endearing while still representing reality as it truly is. Shirley Hughes’s illustrations reconcile quaint idealism with messy realism. The homes in her books are so believable with shoes, grocery bags, toys and laundry strewn about. Often when I encounter an untidy room I find myself viewing it as a Shirley Hughes room full of her colors, line work and whimsy. The untidiness becomes almost quaint when I see it this way.

I want to share this lovely video which gives you a peek into Hughes’ process and imagination. When I first found it, I hunted down all the other videos of her because I couldn’t stop listening to her voice and artistic insight! She just seems like someone that would have been so lovely to sit down to a chat and a cup of tea with.

What I love most about this video, is the vision she casts for sketching. She shares that she does not use a camera, but goes and sits at parks and sketches. This way she captures the movement of children as the run around or squat down to look at something on the ground. I’ve carried these remarks with me for years now and continue to be inspired by the way she draws from life. You can see it in her illustrations. They possess an alive-ness that many picture books do not.

I hope you enjoy discovering this illustrator as much as I have!

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mamie gillian

copyright 2024