Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Armadillo in Paris - A Picture Book Review

The picture book, An Armadillo in Paris by Julie Kraulis, is Tundra Books Reading Club's pick for the month of February. I was delighted to receive a free copy in the mail along with beautiful postcards and a reading guide.

First off, if you are like me who likes to scan through all the illustrations before reading a picture book, I'd recommend not doing it on this one or maybe stop before the last few pages. Part of the appeal of this book is the underlying mystery of who the Iron Lady is. Clues to her identity are peppered along the pages and there is a whole two page spread at the end for the great reveal. I think it's more fun to go in not knowing who she is and then re-reading it afterwards for further scrutiny.

While the quest for the Iron Lady is intriguing and definitely moves the story forward, my favorite part is in getting to discover the sights, history and delicacies of Paris. Although I could imagine the opposite may be true for children where finding out who the Iron Lady is, would probably be their main interest. The book does give a good balance between the two. And to explore this unique place through the eyes of Arlo, an equally exotic Armadillo from Brazil, is quite a brilliant combination. I found myself discovering new facts about an unfamiliar main character in an unfamiliar setting. For one, I didn't realize Armadillos have nine-bands. (Yes, as soon as the book mentioned it, I started counting Arlo's bands. And yes, there are exactly nine!)

Arlo's adventures in Paris included a visit to Arc De Triomphe, Cafe Gustave, Champs-Elysees, a local patisserie, the Louvre, the Seine, a bookstore in Rive Gauche, the Luxembourg Gardens and the Iron Lady of course. That is a lot of new places packed up in one book (and a mouthful of French words I had to learn to pronounce correctly)! I liked the fact page at the very end of the book which gave more details of the places Arlo had visited. It added a sense of history and authenticity to the story.

Arlo visiting the Seine.
The story is told with each page containing a journal entry written by Arlo's grandfather (Augustine)  and then just below it are Arlo's experience and thoughts of the same place. In a way, I am getting two perspectives for each adventure - an older and a younger one's. Augustine's presence, expressed through his journal entries, gives direction and assurance to young Arlo as he moves onwards on what would otherwise be a very lonely and possibly scary adventure for this solo traveller. Aside from Augustine, whose picture we only get to see on the first page and the Iron Lady, whom Arlo still have to meet at the last page, the only other fellow traveller who shares Arlo's adventures in between is the reader herself/himself. Having Augustine's voice tag along feels comforting.

The illustrations in the book are delightful and are all done by the author. Further googling Julie Kraulis revealed she is a freelance artist and illustrator. Her illustration style lends nicely to the picture book. It has a light feel to it with rich textures and delicate details done in graphite pencil. She uses a limited colour palette mainly based on France's tricolor flag with shades of ochre and light blue added. The effect gives a certain sophistication much like what one would associate with Paris.

I love the texture of the graphite. It seems like the use of graphite pencils with touches of color added through digital colouring or over layers of watercolour, gouache, or oil in this case is becoming a popular picture book illustration style. Artists who use similar techniques include Isabelle Arsenault and Beatrice Alemagna.

I would have preferred to see a bit more facial expression reflected on Arlo's face. With the absence of a mouth, it's a bit challenging to discern what he is feeling without reading the text. However, this is a matter of preference. Jon Klassen for one, doesn't like to show facial expressions on his picture book characters and draws them with no visible mouths. I must say, Arlo's eyes are very adorable. Just look at him!

One thing I found curious is the absence of a map illustration. Given that this is a travel adventure picture book, a simple map illustration stuck somewhere as a visual reference on where those places are relative to each other would have been helpful.

All in all, I find the book quite an enjoyable read and pretty educational too. For someone who dreams of visiting Paris someday (and who doesn't?), reading the book felt like a mini-adventure prelude to the real thing. Arlo is certainly an interesting companion to travel with. And it looks like we would be seeing him in some more adventures in the future, judging from the pile of grandpa Augustine's journals on the shelf. Hmmm...I wonder where he would be off to next.

Thank you Tundra Books, for giving me the opportunity to review the book. All illustrations on this post are by Julie Kraulis.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reflections on "The Imitation Game"

A few weeks ago I've watched the movie, "The Imitation Game" and the story had stayed with me for sometime. It was about how Alan Turing was able to beat the "Enigma", the Nazi encrypting machine which was considered uncrackable at that time. Alan Turing invented the "logical computing machine" to decrypt messages sent through Enigma. It turned out to be instrumental in defeating the Germans and ending the war. Alan Turing is now considered, the intellectual father of the modern computer. His was a story of ultimate human achievement. But he was far from being a hero.
He wasn't particularly good with people, was treated as an outcast due to his gender preference and died alone by his own hands.

Such a tragic story jars my mind somehow. It goes against the stories I've grown up with, that after a good battle against the mighty evil, I'd have my happy ending. If Alan Turing's story had stopped at that moment of celebration after the war, it would have been a very happy ending. But life continued, just like children will move on, grow up, become adults and forget all the magic that they had seen, imagined and lived. Memories become hazy and triumphs become rare. Maybe this is why children's books always end in happy endings, to remind us of who we used to be, fighters fighting the good fight. Dreamers who dare to hope.

What I admire most in Alan Turing is his strong unbending belief that he could solve the most difficult puzzle of all. That his machine will beat Enigma. And even when faced with all the obstacles, he never lost hope. He most likely was narcissistic but to err towards a bit of narcissism is probably better than to waddle in self-doubt. I think about this as I face my own challenges. It feels like I have an Enigma machine of my own to decipher. Life is one big Enigma. It takes an unbending belief, hard work, creativity and buckets of hope to figure it out. If, I ever figure it out (even Alan Turing wasn't able to beat his own Enigma in the end). And even then, I'm not guaranteed a happy ending. But it probably wouldn't matter because by then I would have already lived.

Monday, December 15, 2014

All About Ink (Part 2)

I've read somewhere that an artist's style is not something one has to learn from the outside to figure out. The flow of the process isn't about absorbing what is out there and finding which ones fit us but rather the opposite, letting what is in us come out for the outside world to absorb. The article said it in a simpler way but this is how it got stuck on my head. And for me, it is a source of inspiration - the thought that it (my artistic style, in this case) is already in me and all I needed to do was to let it out. And, this is the best part, because it is in me, try as I might, I cannot escape it. So no matter how much I try to draw or paint or copy an object or someone's work, it would never come out the same as the object being copied. It will always come out in the style that is inherently mine. Now, isn't that a great and inspiring thought?

My work therefore isn't on "finding" what my style is, as if it is lost out there wandering in the deep artistic woods, but is on me allowing that part of myself to be released and expressed. It is already here, within me. All I need to do is clear the way. This way of thinking had profoundly changed the way I see my creative journey.

Before I joined inktober, I admit, I wasn't a big fan of pen and ink. Mainly because I love colors and black and white felt too constrained for me. However, participating in inktober have definitely changed that. I now see pen and ink as an ideal medium for exploring the essential elements and foundations of an artist's style. Because it is a very simple medium, only a paper and black ink to work with, I was forced to work at the other elements in my drawings that otherwise I wouldn't have thought much about.

Black ink has a very fixed characteristic in that it is always black. There is no grey with black ink, so how do I create texture and tonal values with it? I found myself simplifying my drawings and putting in a greater focus on my line work. It made me consciously think about my shadows and lights and the negative and the positive ways of making an image. And because I could no longer hide behind vibrant colors or under the inherent water textures of my watercolors, my linework, composition and harmony in shapes needed to be brought to a higher level. Things needed to be simplified even as the expectations of producing a dynamic and expressive artwork remains the same.

The below inktober drawings are my favorites. In each drawing, I could see a part of my style starting to come out in different ways. I usually mull over an idea the moment I wake up every morning and by the time I need to execute it in the evening (with much trepidation), the idea and its elements are already stuck on my mind. It is then just a matter of copying the picture in my head. Not having worked with pen and ink before, I was surprised at how the medium could quickly render an idea into something that looks quite definite like it just came out from the printing press (after hours and hours of hard labour). Pen and ink, in my opinion, is one of the easiest and fulfilling mediums I've gotten to work with.