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David Wiesner’s Spot

The American illustrator David Wiesner held a master class in October at the Gobelins School in Paris, two sessions during which he spoke about his inspirations, work methods, picture books and his application Spot.

A meticulous artist, David Wiesner controls every detail in each step of the creative process. A children’s picture book can require 1 to 3 years of work. At the beginning of his career, he wanted to work in animation, but the idea of ​​submitting his illustrations to others - the animators - and of losing control over his drawings quickly redirected him towards children books, where he could be the only one in command. This method seems to have worked out well for him since he won the Caldecott Medal Prize three times and was among the 5 finalists of the Hans Christian Andersen Prize in 2008.

With flying colours, the American goes in depth into his obsessions and recurring themes. Animals, with a predilection for marine animals, vegetables, nature, architecture or the mise en abyme are subjects that he keeps reinventing. Among his inspirations, the author is fascinated by comic books (particularly Moebius), the book on the Hitchcock / Truffaut (Gallimard) exchange, the surrealist movement - with its tendency to accumulate nightmarish elements with no obvious connection -, Kubrick’s films, Max Ernst’s collages, Frans Massereel’s woodcuts, Otto Nückel’s illustrations… These eclectic universes often inspire him to create wordless books in which the strength of the illustration gives rise to the narrative tension.


The art of the picture book according to David Wiesner

To design a picture book, David Wiesner begins with pencil sketches that help him to build his stories. At this stage, he carries out studies: reproduction of animals’ skeletons - in order to understand the anatomy and the movement -, of characters or buildings’ sculptures - to be closer to reality-, or of historical photographs. He completes the narrative spine by deploying the storyboard on a page, then draws each page of the book in pencil with as much detail as possible. Once the pencil draft is completely finished, he recreates the book again in painting, page after page.

In the United States, picture books are systematically 32 pages. With this limited format, David Wiesner is seeking to unsettle the reader by offering him an amazing visual experience, as in Tuesday or Flotsam. For him, there is no message, it’s the imagination that prevails, addressing children as much as adults, who each find their own level of reading.

During this solitary work phase, David Wiesner does not feel the need to test his album with children, but exchanges with three key people: his publisher, whose pertinent remarks help him to perfect his story; the designer who is among other things responsible for the typography, the layout and the front cover; the production manager who deals with the technical aspects, the choice of paper, the printer, the printing techniques and the adjustment of production costs.

Zoom on Spot

The idea of ​​Spot came to him when he was in art school, but his first attempts were no match to the conceptual and visual impact he had hoped for. Before the arrival of digital tablets, David Wiesner had already tried his hand at digital creation with The Day the World Broke on CD Rom at a time when that medium was already in decline. One day, when someone showed him the iPad with the “pinch-to-zoom” function, he realized he was holding the exact tool he lacked in order to create his concept of exploring new worlds.

It took a year to complete the application and about ten people were needed to develop the technical aspect. As with his picture books, David Wiesner managed to control the entire creative process: design, lighting, colours - for which he made colorimetric studies -, the way to move from one world to another... The creation was done on a just-in-time basis, an idea led to another, with frequent back-and-forths between the artist and the developers. This process required a great ability to improvise.

David Wiesner approached the project in two ways: illustrating the worlds and the transitions between the worlds. The five worlds of the application were painted and scanned on large formats for a better resolution, so that all the details could be seen by zooming in. On another hand, each transition required a dozen paintings, which were digitally assembled. The same method was used for some autonomous elements designed in 3D, like the sets or the characters.

While digital technology provides yet-to-be-explored new forms of narrative, there are some limits that were very quickly identified. Because of the development cost in particular, the team had to limit the number of worlds and to give up the idea of ​​developing other worlds – which were to be purchased afterwards, once the application is already marketed. David Wiesner also regretted the impossibility of scanning very large illustrations, which required too high of a resolution, slowing the loading of the image and the browser fluidity. Nevertheless, these constraints did not discourage the artist, who is ready to test new forms of writing such as augmented or virtual reality.