ILLUSTRATOR’S STUDIO: KAREN PATKAU
CCBC October 2014 News by Stephanie Dror
photo by Bill Bernstein
Karen Patkau has loved books since she was just 10 months old, and her passion for the arts was firmly established in public school when she became the “class artist.” Reading through the many books that Karen has written and/or illustrated I found myself completely mesmerized by her unique illustration style. Using a mostly digital platform, backed up by extensive research and a passion for nature and animals, Karen brings whole ecosystems to life in her books. Her new books Who Needs a Desert?, Who Needs a Prairie? and Who Needs a Reef? use vivid colour, wonderful detail and fun facts about interesting creatures to explore and bring to life the natural world. A big thank you to Karen who agreed to collect her thoughts and answer our questions about writing and illustrating children’s non-fiction books.
Tell us a little about your story, your unique style and how you became a children’s book illustrator.
I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and started drawing at age three. I graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours degree, and became interested in visual storytelling while studying for my Master of Visual Arts degree at the University of Alberta.
Fascinated with bold shapes and the textures, patterns and colours of different materials including papers, fabrics and pressed plants; I developed a mixed-media collage technique. I moved to Toronto in 1981 to teach at York University and practice graphic design. I took my illustration portfolio to publishers.
At Oxford University Press, William Toye (Elizabeth Cleaver’s editor) loved paper collage. He liked my style, my sense of humour and gave me a manuscript to illustrate. Don’t Eat Spiders by Robert Heidbreder was my first picture book. It received an Ezra Jack Keats Memorial Medal for illustration. Published in 1986, it is still in print today. I continued to work in mixed-media collage until 2000. When asked to illustrate Sir Cassie to the Rescue by Linda Smith, I decided to try something new and go digital.
It was a steep learning curve. Working by computer takes as much time and skill as traditional illustration does. It requires expensive equipment and complicated software. Once mastered though, it is much easier to experiment and make changes digitally. Besides, you don’t have to clean up messy materials at the end of the day.
You are primarily an author/illustrator who focuses on non-fiction, and in particular the science of nature. What draws you to both writing and illustrating this subject matter?
I’ve always loved animals and nature. A telling note is written by my mother, on the back of a photo of me at 10 months old – “Here is Karen looking at a book. She enjoys books, especially those with pictures of animals in them.”
A tiny fruit fly landing on a picture of a giant beetle inspired my first non-fiction book – Creatures Great and Small. Published by Tundra Books in 2006, it is about diversity in size and shape among species of the same animal group. Creatures Yesterday and Today, about living species of animals and their prehistoric ancestors, followed in 2008.
In 2009, I submitted a proposal to Tundra for Who Needs a Swamp? A Wetland Ecosystem. I wanted to foster an awareness and understanding of nature in children. For many of us, the natural world seems separate from our everyday lives. I want to show children how interconnected, diverse and vulnerable, life on Earth is.
Tundra then asked me to do a series. Who Needs a Swamp? A Wetland Ecosystem, Who Needs a Jungle? A Rainforest Ecosystem and Who Needs an Iceberg? An Arctic Ecosystem were published in 2012. Who Needs a Desert? A Desert Ecosystem, Who Needs a Prairie? A Grassland Ecosystem and Who Needs a Reef? A Coral Reef Ecosystem were published this September.
These books are an introduction to ecosystems for young children. I’ve made them as informative, entertaining and beautiful as I could, so that readers will make a positive emotional connection with nature. I hope children will gain a basic understanding and appreciation of these different areas. I hope they will learn the important roles ecosystems play in the well-being of the planet and how we all need to take part in protecting them.
When creating information books, research is critical. Fortunately, I love doing it. For all facts, I use at least two sources of information from scientific expertise. For each illustration, I gather and organize a variety of visual references. I take photographs, search the Internet, study nature programs and books. I visit zoos, aquariums, and refuges dedicated to animal conservation and care. For the Ecosystem Series, I tried to visit the places I described. Being surrounded by my subject matter helps me understand it better.
How do you imagine that your illustrations of animals and nature, apart from or with their texts, might be both enjoyable and educational in the classroom? Do you have any fun suggestions for teachers or parents?
Students could do an environmental project, based on one of the ecosystem books. The class would paint the background scene for a mural. Each student would choose a plant or animal to research and write a paragraph or poem about. Then everyone would illustrate his or her species and paste it into the mural.
I do a PowerPoint Presentation for Grades 2 to 5: “WHO NEEDS AN ECOSYSTEM?” … And take students on an illustrated journey to discover how every remarkable ecosystem is a community of living things interacting with their environment; a habitat for unique plants and animals; a provider of food and shelter for residents and a contributor of life-sustaining services for the whole planet.
I’ve made a student activity sheet for each book. Curriculum links are available for teachers.
I’ve also developed an “Ecosystem Survival Game.” Students enter an imaginary ecosystem and become a herbivore, omnivore or carnivore. Always searching for “food and water,” each animal must struggle to stay alive in its treacherous home environment.
For more information about my school presentations, please visit karenpatkau.com.
Kari-Lynn Winters, PhD lead a session teaching librarians strategies for book talks in schools. Creatures Great and Small and Creatures Yesterday and Today were used for her “Sculpting Hand Charades. ” A librarian, teacher, or student stands up front and becomes the “magic hand” leader, who sculpts a movement. Another student becomes “clay.” This child allows him/herself to be shaped by the magic hand. For example, the magic hand positions the child’s hand and then moves another body part. Once the student’s body is sculpted, the audience guesses the creature. The librarian or teacher then reads details about that creature from the book.
This strategy was linked to learning styles: bodily/kinaesthetic, visual, interpersonal and spatial/mathematical.
What projects are you working on now? Anything you are particularly excited about?
For the past few years, I’ve been busy writing and illustrating my ecosystem books. I’ve also illustrated several other books including One Hungry Heron by Carolyn Beck, Fitzhenry & Whiteside – a wetland counting book due for publication in November 2014. Now, like a squirrel with nuts stored up for winter, I have a stockpile of ideas for new projects I can’t wait to sink my teeth into.
Karen very kindly shared the images below, showing her illustration process from Creatures Yesterday and Today (Tundra Books, 2008).
Stephanie Dror has a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature. She is the Membership Secretary for IBBY Canada, a founder and blogger at The Book Wars and a book reviewer for CM: Canadian Review of Materials and The Ottawa Review of Books.
FIRST-CLASS NON-FICTION FOR THE YOUNGER GRADES
by Carol-Ann Hoyte / Spring 2013 Canadian Children’s Book News
Karen Patkau has written and illustrated five works of nonfiction for children in recent years. What draws her to and keeps her writing in this genre? “I love learning about animals and nature, and I also love studying the colours, shapes, textures and patterns found in the natural world. Sharing these passions with children, through the structure and format of non-fiction picture books, is another thing I love to do.”
In discussing her books, CREATURES Yesterday and Today and CREATURES Great and Small, the author-illustrator explains the reasoning behind the perspective and language used in these companion titles. She wrote in the first-person perspective to enable youngsters to view the featured animals as fellow living things. By employing whimsical language, she hoped to engage kids and make diversity among species in different animal groups, a potentially dry scientific topic, fun to read about and make them curious to discover more about animals.
An illustrator who turned to digital art after working in painstaking layered collage, Patkau follows several key steps to create the illustrations for her books. She researches, gathers, and organizes visual reference material. Next, she determines what must be included in the artwork to help explain the text and what can be included to visually expand on it. She then digitally draws rough black-and-white compositions and positions the text for each illustration. Once the drawings receive approval from the editor and designer, she creates the final colour digital illustrations. To make sure all is as it should be, she provides printed colour proofs to the publisher before submitting files of the final artwork.
Patkau relies on multiple varied sources for her text and illustration research. For her Ecosystem series (Who Needs a Swamp?, Who Needs a Jungle?, and Who Needs an Iceberg?), she enjoys visiting locales depicted in the books: “Becoming immersed in the different environments helps me write about and illustrate them in a more authentic way.”
Patkau’s research involves, but is not limited to, reading scientific publications, watching nature television programming,visiting museums and science centres, and looking at images found in books and online. Visiting zoos, aquariums and animal refuges also make up her research. Acknowledging that the existence of places that keep animals in captivity is contentious, she notes their value by paraphrasing Dr. Jane Goodall: “They let us experience the ‘beingness’ of animals we might not otherwise know.” To ensure accuracy and validity of her written content, Patkau makes sure to have at least two credible sources to back up each fact she wishes to include in her books.
When it comes to using digital media to write and illustrate children’s non-fiction, Patkau says: “One of the biggest joys… is the easy access to information and reference material. The challenge is in making sure that information and images are accurate.” The other challenges involved in creating digital artwork are expensive software and computer equipment plus a steep learning curve. However, she also notes, “It is much easier to experiment and make changes, and you don’t have to clean up and put away messy materials at the end of the day.”
In discussing ideas for her books to come, Patkau says that, fortunately, nature is an endless provider of topics. She lists paleobotany and worms as future subjects she’s interested in exploring and sharing with readers.
BOOK ILLUSTRATING NATURE NON FICTION
Posted on Sunday, February 17, 2013 by Loreen Leedy, nature, science
How do artists go about envisioning the natural world for their books? This month’s post again features some of my colleagues from the Picture Book Artists Association.
Author-illustrator Karen Patkau’s CREATURES Yesterday and Today pairs prehistoric animals with their modern descendants. For a view of a spread that shows the vibrant artwork, visit Karen’s website. As can be true of many ideas, it was easier said than done. She found that it became more like “The History of LIfe on Earth in 32 Pages”… a challenge indeed. For example, soft-bodied jellyfish did not much fossil evidence behind, so it was hard to find a reliable specimen to include (she chose Rhizostomites.) She consulted experts, who didn’t agree about whether Anomalocaris was truly a crustacean, which forced her to find a different animal. Other issues that arose included how to render the scales, feathers, or fur that a critter may have worn. Karen asks, “Did saber-toothed cat Smilodon have striped or spotted fur for camouflage? Did ‘terror bird’ Phorusrhacos blend in with the background or sport colorful plumage to attract a mate? Decisions to portray animal coverings in a certain way were a blend of research, common sense, and artistic license.” The settings were important, too, which required an education in paleobotany. Readers will certainly enjoy seeing how ancient creatures match up with their living relatives.
INTERVIEW WITH KAREN PATKAU
Posted on October 1st, 2012 by pajamapress
Karen Patkau is an award-winning artist and illustrator of children’s books. Written by Alma Fullerton, A Good Trade is a deceptively simple story about a special day in the life of a little boy growing up in Uganda. Karen joins us today to answer some questions about her work on the book.
The text of A Good Trade is very brief, even minimalist. Do you find that an advantage as an illustrator, because it gives you a lot of room for interpretation, or is it easier when more of the story is fleshed out in the text?
I loved the brief, but powerful text of A Good Trade. Rather than giving me a lot of room for interpretation, it clearly defined what content had to be included in each illustration to tell the story. I was allowed more freedom when visually embellishing the story.
What was your favourite part about illustrating Kato’s story?
I tried to echo the message of this story with simple and bold illustrations. I developed a digital collage technique for the text that I really like. I used to do traditional collage and still like the strong use of colour, shape, texture, and pattern. Illustrating Kato’s story, in this way, was a very fulfilling experience.
What was your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge was keeping the children, especially Kato, slightly abstract yet recognizable throughout the illustrations.
A Good Trade is a story of hope and gratitude, but it doesn’t ignore the realities of civil war and hardship in Uganda. How did you approach this balance in your art?
I approached the contrasts in this story in a straightforward way. I needed to show the magnificence of the African landscape, as well as the hardships of poverty and horrible reminders of war. I needed to show the exuberance of the Ugandan children and Kato’s beautiful spirit—his hope, joy, resourcefulness, and gratitude; despite their daily struggles.
Digital art is still a fairly new medium, especially in literary picture books. How do you find people respond to this style of art? Do you think it will one day be as mainstream as, say, watercolour illustrations?
I think the quality of picture book art is determined by the creativity and skill of the illustrator rather than the medium. During picture book presentations that I give, both young and old are very curious about my digital technique and process. Digital imaging is now an established method for anyone studying illustration. So yes, I do think it will become as mainstream as traditional mediums such as watercolour.