Illustrator Ruth de Vos on how she made the reality of caring for kids into shiny new artworks for her picture book with Danny Parker

In this article, Ruth de Vos takes you behind the scenes to share how the illustrations for her new picture book with Danny Parker, Shine, developed from idea to gorgeous finished artwork.

Shine is a beautiful love song between a parent and a child. The text is poetic and the illustrations had the potential to take any number of directions. Sweet? Soulful? One family? Many families? Human characters? Animals? Aliens?

In my textile art I love celebrating the ordinary everyday things and moments, so that’s the way I went with this project too. I knew almost immediately that I didn’t want to make the illustrations too sweet. I wanted to celebrate the beauty of parenthood and childhood and the connection between a parent and a child, without sugar-coating it, or ignoring the mess and chaos. Parenthood is incredibly challenging and incredibly beautiful all at the same time. Thankfully my editor, Cate, was thinking along the same wavelength!

Creating a cast of characters, each with their own interests and personalities, is always a blast. This family has five children, because the more the merrier. It was also a big job, as there were really seven equally important characters to develop, rather than just one or two main ones.

Coming up with scenarios to match with Danny’s fun love notes was so enjoyable. Like all the very best creative projects, Danny’s words gave me some clear boundaries but still left so much creative freedom, and little chance of getting bored. By way of example, ‘In my hopeful, you’re the hope’ shows the end-of-day ruckus of Dad romping through the house with the children on his back, with Mum looking on while she straightens up the room – her desperate hope is that it doesn’t end in tears.

We decided portray the family throughout a typical day. This meant shuffling sentences from one end of the book to the other, adding new rhymes, (thankfully Danny was on board with that!) and removing multiple illustrations (my editor helped with that – it’s so hard to ‘kill your own darlings’!). Crafting a story as a team in this way was such a fulfilling experience.

The final colour illustrations are created with mixed media. Characters and vignettes were painted with gouache and enriched with colour pencil. These were then edited and collated digitally. The illustrations also incorporate screen-printed fabric and paper stencils from my textile art.

One of my big challenges was leaving quiet space in my illustrations. There were so many more details and little stories that I wanted to include! I would have loved to include a family dinnertime, with all its mess, tears and chatter. Or more of the wonderful make-believe world that children live in. I love to include all the little details that turn a house into the familiar space we call home. This leads to visual overwhelm, so we had to leave so much of this out. The other challenge was capturing the changing light from morning through to night. I certainly learned a few things along the way!

As a mother of six children, I have spent so much time over the years observing and enjoying how children learn and grow and enjoy the world in which they live. I have filled many sketchbooks with quick captures of children playing, and love the challenge of capturing the various postures and expressions that show up over and over again in children everywhere. (When I have conveyed some of these in my textile art, I regularly hear viewers say something like, ‘Oh, that looks exactly like my grandson.’) This book gave me the perfect opportunity to capture and illustrate some more of those typical childhood actions and poses.

 I found a lot of joy in making the various characters interact with each other, and in showing their connection through illustrations. Posture and eye contact can show us so much about how two people are engaged with each other! I certainly hope that this book reminds us all to celebrate the moments of connection that we have with our parents or our children.

Shine by Danny Parker and Ruth de Vos is a picture book for children ages zero to six years. It’s available in all good bookstores and online.

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