Critical Review of the Illustrations in The BFG (video #2)
Quentin Blake uses a painterly technique where he combines ink and water colour. His process is somewhat unique, as he uses a light box to help him create his finished illustrations, something that used to be looked down upon by other artists. He describes the process like this:
“I do a free-wheeling sort of drawing that looks as if it has been done on the spur of the moment, although in reality it's not quite like that. I start with lots of roughs - some of which turn out to be quite close to the finished drawing, and some of which are discarded . . . For about twenty years I've used a lightbox, which I find really useful. On the light box I put the rough drawing I'm going to work from, and on top of that, a sheet of watercolour paper. Ready to hand is a bottle of waterproof black ink and a lot of scruffy looking dip pens. What happens next is not tracing; in fact it's important that I can't see the rough drawing underneath too clearly, because when I draw I try to draw as if for the first time; but I can do it with increased concentration, because the drawing underneath lets me know all the elements that have to appear and exactly where they have to be placed,” (Blake, 2008, Illustrating a Book, ¶ 5 & 6).
Blake uses this light box method to both apply his water proof ink and his water colour paint. If you’d like to learn more about his technique or see him in action I would encourage you to click on the link “Quentin Blake in Action!” at the bottom of this Glogster poster (or go directly there by clicking here).
It is Blake’s style of “free-wheeling” drawing with ink and then soft overlays of watercolour that make his illustrations so utterly unique, being instantly recognizable to most people who have only read a single children’s book illustrated by him.
When analysing Blake’s work for the elements and principles of art, it is easy enough to pick out the two strongest: that of line and texture. Blake uses line to convey movement and whimsy as well as spontaneity and drama. About his own drawing he says,
“What I want to convey is movement and gesture and atmosphere. I like drawing anything that is doing something . . . I don’t draw from life. I draw as though I’m trying to capture something that isn’t there,” (Jefferies, 2008), and “I came upon the possibilities of spontaneity . . . That kind of drawing is the basic act that for me makes illustration so attractive,” (Rose, 2002, p. 50).
This spontaneity is evident in his illustrations and helps to shape the feelings of whimsy and movement from his characters. There are two wonderful examples of how he uses line to portray these elements he sees as vital. The first is the drawing that shows the BFG eating a snozzcumber on page 52. You can actually visualize the movement of the BFG as he convulses and gags. The lines on his face clearly illustrate his disgust for the vile vegetable and the fact that his body is leaning back gives one the impression that he is about to spit the morsel out with a violent hack. The minute details of the tiny bits of spittle and Sophie’s petite body running for cover add to the hilarity of the illustration and support the text in a magical way. The second example of Blake’s use of line is the illustration showing the BFG catching dreams on page 83. The very idea of catching dreams brings to mind a whimsical and light-hearted activity, which Blake easily portrays with squiggly lightly drawn and thin barely there lines. It is clear that when Blake needs to portray a light mood, he relies on line to do most of the work. This is in contrast to his use of shading with gray scale water colours which he uses to portray more serious and scary moods and moments.
Since most of his illustrations for The BFG are black and white, colour plays only a significant role in the cover illustration (seen on the right side of this Glogster poster). However the translation of watercolours to black and white adds a beautiful gray scale depth to the texture of the illustrations. When one looks at the cover art for The BFG, one realizes that, as in most of his other coloured artwork, Blake seems to be intuitively good at knowing just where to make the colours darker or more faint adding to the sense of texture that many other more classically famous water colour artists achieve. Shadows and shading are well placed; there are appropriate shadows of the rocks and of Sophie on the BFG’s hand and the light airy pink of the background gives the scene depth and the reader a sense that the BFG is friendly and kind. It should be noted that colour does play quite a significant role in many other works by Quentin Blake, even though his use of colour is limited in this book.
As I said a moment ago, the shading effect of the water colours when translated into black and white provides a unique texture and strength to the illustrations. One specific example s of this is when Sophie first sees the BFG in the shadows on page 14. Sophie’s first glimpse of the BFG is while he is skulking about. The illustration is dark and the reader can barely make out a figure standing in the shadows. This is exactly how Sophie is described as seeing the being and by incorporating the dark shadows into this illustration, the reader is directly transported into the narrative and begins to experience the book from within, with a front row seat, as Sophie does. Another example of this texture in Blake’s work is when the helicopters are lowering Fleshlumpeater into the pit on page 200. This is interesting not just for the shading in the pit, getting ever darker as the pit gets deeper, but more so for the illusion of movement the water colour shadow gives to the helicopter blades.
When analysing Blake’s illustrations in The BFG it’s easy to think about composition because of Blake and Dahl’s attention to the details of layout, design and placement of the illustrations within the text. This is done so well in the book, that one forgets that the text and illustrations are actually separate. The effect is that the reader feels these illustrations are a part of the story rather than about the story. Quentin Blake talks of tirelessly planning the layouts of book illustrations so that this very effect is achieved saying
“I like organising a book, which means that I often have to reconcile spontaneous drawing with quite a high level of planning . . . disposing the pictures properly so that they can help each other and make a sequence,” (Rose, 2002, p. 50) and “I try to get as close to what the writer intended as possible - to get on their wavelength. The text, not the pictures, must lead the way. Sometimes, though, the pictures come first. Often, in fact, the shrewd writer has already incorporated moments which ask to be illustrated,” (Blake, 2008, Illustrating a Book, ¶ 2 & 3).
There are actually many excellent examples of how composition is used in The BFG, if you take a moment to really look and think about the drawings and text and how they interact. The book includes full page illustrations such as those on pages 27, 56, 167 and 169, half page illustrations such as those on pages 49 and 185, small vignettes scattered throughout the text, a great example of which is when Sophie is reading the labels on all the dream jars on pages 110 and 111, and illustrations that spread across two pages.
Often the full page illustrations complement or belong together with another half page illustration on the facing page, as if they really make up different components of a single illustration and the text was simply put into the intervening spaces. This use of composition gives the reader a sense of moving the story along from page to page. One specific examples of this includes when Sophie first meets The Queen on pages 152 and 153. On the first page’s illustration located at the top of the page, Sophie sits on the window sill as a maid looks astonished to find her there. On the facing page’s illustration located at the bottom of the page The Queen looks up towards the illustration of Sophie and it is not hard to imagine that you are seeing two things that are happening at once during the same “scene” in the book. Interestingly, Blake manages to draw in his distinct style, yet still make The Queen appear regal and distinguished in every appearance. Another fantastic example of this interplay between illustrations is when The Queen has breakfast with Sophie and the BFG on pages 168 and 169. Again the two illustrations play off of each other as the Queen and Sophie look up towards the BFG and he looks down towards them. Finally a third example of this is when the BFG is giving advice to the ‘Head of the Army’ and the ‘Head of the Air Force’ about how to capture the mean giants on pages 178 and 179. The BFG sits atop the right page waving his hands about while the army and air force men stand with the Queen on the bottom of the left page looking up at the BFG with a look of bewilderment. These last two examples also show the size difference between the BFG and the people, since they are always looking up at him from below, thus enforcing the physical characteristics of the BFG throughout the novel.
Many of the illustrations that are spread out over two pages (two pages one drawing) give the reader a sense of moving along through the story, of quickening the pace or of the action of the moment. This is especially evident when the BFG has just snatched Sophie and he is running home. We don’t know if he is good or bad and the illustration across pages 18 and 19 shows him bounding over land as though flying through the air with his cape flowing behind. Blake also uses colour and texture here to show the situation is potentially ominous. The character is coloured darkly and there is a stern look upon his face. This illustration adds much to the tension of the moment and in my opinion persuades the reader to read on to find out what happens next. This illustration is an excellent “hook” into the meat of the novel. Another example of this sense of moving the story along through double page illustrations appears when the BFG is caught by the other giants. They bully the BFG and the illustration that is spread across these pages gives the reader the distinct impression that the poor BFG has been tossed from page 74 to page 75 and that he is about to be tossed back again. This illustration cleverly shows a tossing motion from left to right, encouraging the reader to turn the page and continue on to find out what happens.
In my opinion the illustrations of Quentin Blake are what made The BFG the classic it is today. His ingenuity at depicting the quirky fanciful characters of Roald Dahl’s through his use of line, texture and shading and his composition talent in putting the pictures just where they need to be add to the enjoyment of the novel and enhance the reading experience. Quentin Blake’s illustrations of Dahl’s work flawlessly depict both the whimsical aspects of Dahl’s characters and the hilarity and absurdity of the narrative. In fact, I feel that Dahl’s eccentric narrative could not have been more aptly captured by anyone other than Quentin Blake.
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