Children's Book Illustration Technique, Part One: It's In the Eyes | Jon Klassen

They say the eyes are the window to the soul. We say they are the window to the story. Part of our jobs as art curators is finding personality and perspective in our artists’ characters. A huge chunk of that personality and perspective is found in the character’s gaze. The intricacies with which artists are able to convey emotion and intent through slight subtlety in their character’s features is fascinating!

Part of what makes a successful picture book is a 50/50 partnership between words and illustration. Words tell half of the story, while the illustration tells the other half. Sometimes, these halves conflict in their truths…and that’s when things get really exciting! When you start to focus on these tiny details in a picture book’s illustration, it’s amazing what layers you can find.

It’s no secret that we are huge JON KLASSEN fans. Celebrated author, illustrator and Caldecott award winner (not to mention Red Cap Cards artist), Jon is a master at creating tension and story arcs with very subtle details in his art work. Look below for some fascinating examples from several of his books.

THIS IS NOT MY HAT
by Jon Klassen

This one tells the story of a tiny, mischievous fish who has stolen a hat (quite stupidly) from a much bigger fish. He is sly and aware of his surroundings until he gets a little bit too comfortable. We love the facial expressions on both fish (and a few other characters) as the story emerges, showing complex emotions in a battle of wits.

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I WANT MY HAT BACK
by Jon Klassen

In this story, a much-too-trusting bear goes on the hunt for his missing hat, until he ultimately finds it, much to the dismay of the thief. The range of emotion in this one is perfect! Trust to deception, realization, intent, surprise, and ultimately, satisfaction. The illustration is able to stand completely alone in its story.

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SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE
Words by Mac Barnett, illustration by Jon Klassen

This one is magical and has new layers that are discoverable with each reading. Sam and Dave do simply that–they dig a hole. Their trusty dog is there to attempt to steer them in the right direction, but ultimately, they wrap up the day’s work and head home…or do they? The very subtle inconsistencies in the two home settings create a story within a story. The look between the cat and the dog tells us there’s more to this narrative that we are invited to put together on our own after the book is closed.

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WE FOUND A HAT
by Jon Klassen

Jon’s newest addition to the “hat” trilogy tells the story of two turtles in a desert who have found a hat. Who will claim the hat? They both like it, and it looks good on them both. The internal struggle of one of the turtles is hidden from the text, but is given away in the eyes of the character illustration. See the images below:

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How many characters are completely recognizable by their eyes? We wanted to touch on Jon’s characters to get you on the lookout–who are your favorite characters with stories told through their expressions? We will be back with some more illustrative techniques for telling a complete story through illustration. Keep your eyes peeled!