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Curator: Bronwen Solyom
See also: The Jean Charlot Foundation
He has certainly been given ample adult recognition in the children's book field. Of the 27 books he illustrated there have been two winners and a runner-up of the Newbery Medal and two runners-up of the Caldecott Medal, among other awards. He was chosen unanimously as one of the half-century's ten best children's illustrators by a New York Times panel in 1950, when he had completed only ten of his books. (4) It is worth noting that nine of the 27 books are still in print in 1982.
Charlot's cardinal principle in book illustration was to have the printed picture approach his original idea as closely as possible. He knew reproduction processes intimately. This enabled him to select drawing t echniques that were designed for specific reproduction techniques. The multiplication of the image, he felt, should not dilute its impact on the viewer. For this reason, he associated book illustrations closely in his mind with original prints. "The United States," wrote in 1947, "witnesses a heartening revival of the use of hand-drawn prints pulled in unlimited editions . . . . They are illustrations for trade books, more often children's books." ( 5) Ann Carroll Moore especially noted the importance of technique in Charlot's work. Referring to A Hero By Mistake , she wrote: "I know of no living artist whose mastery of technique permits him to present such varied forms in harmonious relation and with such utter simplicity." (6)
Nowadays, if you go into a bookstore, you will see that almost all of the children's books are illustrated in four-color halftone process. Here the artist's color drawing, in whatever technique, is placed in a color separation camera. A series of filters breaks down the image into four primary colors: yellow, red, blue, and black. The color images are then passed through a halftone screen, which divides each picture into a regular pattern of tiny dots. The four screened color images are then transferred onto four printing plates. These are inked and printed successively in four standardized colors, called "process" colors, to imitate the color values of the artist's original. ( 7)
Charlot disliked four-color halftone process and never used it for any of his fifty-plus illustrated books. This antipathy applied to both aspects of the process: the halftone screen and the process colors. He avoided halftone screening for any purpose, including black-and-white work. (It is used in only one of his children's books, Martin de Porres, Hero, quite contrary to his intentions.) The pattern of dots, no matter how fine and well printed, turns a sharp drawing fuzzy. It places a gauze or scrim of printing technology between the artist and his audience. "Artist and child both agree," wrote Charlot, "that line-drawings read more easily than fuzzy renderings." (8) To avoid the halftone screen, Charlot drew for reproduction by line processes. In its simplest form, the term means a process that avoids the halftone screen. The printed picture, therefore, lacks the mechanical pattern of dots that makes a screened illustration so blurred. He avoided process colors for a more practical reason: they are difficult to use apart from the halftone screen for which they are designed. The palette is an extremely limited one for the artist to make his own choices from.
Back in the 1930s, when Charlot began to illustrate children's books, line reproduction techniques, allied with letterpress printing, were more limited than they later became. Then, they could reproduce mainly drawings with solid color areas, clear outlines, and no tonal values. Most of Charlot's first children's books (1931-1942) were drawn in this hard-edge, solid-color style (nos. 1 and 3- 7). A number of his later books were also done in this manner (nos. 9, 11, 14, 15, 19, 24, and 26). In pure line drawing, there are no areas of shading, no grays, no medium tones. The color is either present in full intensity or absent beyond a clearly defined edge. Charlot had learned to be comfortable with this technique in his youth, through his experience with the medium of woodcut. He made his first original woodcut in 1916, when he was 18 years old: a "Head of Christ." (9) By 1931, he had made 66 original woodcuts, several of them in more than one color. It is the nature of the woodcut medium to produce hard edges and solid colors. The same method of drawing translates easily into the line technique of book illustration.
The many line illustrations of Digging in Yucatan were drawn in black ink on paper. They could just as well have been cut on wood blocks. Charlot told an amusing story on himself, a young man newly arrived from Mexico, that shows his personal involvement with the whole printing process.
In 1931, I did end-papers for Digging in Yucatan , with my own color separations. I was not familiar with the way things were done in New York. I went to see the printer about some faults in the plates. 'That's easy,' I said. 'Give me a tool and I'll cut them out.' He put his hands up in the air and said, 'If you touch anything here, all my men would strike!' I realized I was not in Mexico. (10)
He used this knowledge of printing techniques to full advantage, even if he could not correct the plates with his own hand, and he always retained a sense of the artist's personal responsibility for the printing as well as the drawing of a picture.
Tawnymore shows another aspect of line technique. Here it was used to produce coarse shading and tonal values without a halftone screen. The artist made crayon drawings on paper with a very rough-textured surface. These drawings were then photographed and the images transferred directly onto printing plates. (He even did it in multiple colors for endpapers and frontispiece.) In this case, the texture of the paper breaks up the crayon shading into separate dots of color. On the printing plate, these dots print individually as areas of solid colors. Combined with the white spaces between them, they give the printed picture the same granular tonal values as the original drawing. The important point is that the process does not impose a mechanical barrier -- the halftone screen between the artist and the viewer. Thus the artist's original idea comes through much more clearly. (11) The coarse grain of the shading was the best that could be produced by the letterpress methods in nearly universal use in the early 1930s. Later, as we shall see, much finer results could be attained with offset lithography.
Charlot's third children's book, The Sun, the Moon, and a Rabbit , uses still another variation of line technique. Here he made drawings in ink line, without shading and with few areas of solid color. In some cases, his lines were photographed directly, transferred to the plate, and printed as color lines. In other cases, a negative reversal was made before the images were placed on the printing plates. This resulted in a page of solid color with the drawing appearing in white line. (In either case, Charlot's original drawing was in black pen-and-ink on paper.) (12) Although five colors, including black, were used in the book, no more than two printed colors (black plus another) were used on any one page. Still, within these limited means -black plus one color plus white (by reversal) -- Charlot created a series of astonishing mythical designs. He brought to life the substance of Mexican Indian legends in a manner reminiscent of ancient Mayan murals, which he had studied at first hand. This book ought to be much better known than it is.
Tito's Hats is the first book in which Charlot makes color an integral part of the illustrations, not just an accent. (Its author, by the way, became much better known as an actor than as an author -- Mel Ferrer.) The budget apparently permitted the use of only two colors, including the text. Charlot chose brown and yellow. The bright yellow was reserved almost entirely for the straw hats that are the key feature of the story. All the rest -- people, landscapes, and text -- are in the soft brown of the Mexican earth. Charlot probably made his drawings (I have not seen the originals) in black ink on tracing paper. This would allow him to see through his second color to the first, so that the two remained in register with each other. Since there would have been no color "original," except in Charlot's mind, the printed picture represent the artist's idea exactly, without the intervention of any photomechanical process. This is the ideal towards which Charlot always strove in book illustrating. (Incidentally, this is the first of his books to be printed by offset, the process used for all the rest.)
El Indio and The Boy Who Could Do Anything are drawn and printed in the simpler line style of The Sun, the Moon, and a Rabbit. The second book, in particular has a strange and fantastic quality appropriate to legends.
The Story of Chan Yuc carries the color method one step further with the use of three colors. Again, there are broad areas of solid color: green, pink, and brown. But there are also areas where the green and pink are overprinted, creating a fourth color: olive. The brown remains without overprinting and is used for the text as well as in the illustrations.
Chan Yuc might seem only a cautious beginning in color overprinting if we did not know Charlot's history. He has told of having a neighbor, when he was a boy in France, who was a commercial printer. Sometimes the printer would visit, bringing a set of commercial color separations, a new thing at the time. The young Charlot was fascinated to see how the separate colors fit together to make a finished picture with an infinite range of colors. The experience made a lasting impression on him. (13)
Later, as a printmaker, he was remarkable for being able to make color separations entirely in his mind, with a clear idea of how the colors would combine in a complete printed picture. In the eight years before 1941, he made more than a hundred original color lithographs, most of them of remarkable complexity. For his famed Picture Book of 1933 he created 32 lithographs in six or seven colors each -- all the colors being hand-drawn on offset lithographic plates. (15) It is notable that no single plate of them carries a complete design. Only after all the colors had been locked together on the printed sheet did the whole picture emerge for the first time. This was followed by many more book illustrations (especially Characters of the Reformation and Carmen) (16 ) and single sheet prints as large as 26 x 18 inches, all in multicolor original lithography. He knew the effects of color printing and overprinting as well as any man alive.
All this experience was brought to bear on his next book: A Child's Good Night Book . Charlot felt strongly that this text, meant for the very young, ought to be illustrated in full color and with a full range of tonal values. It is a job, then as now, that would normally be done by four-color halftone process. Instead, since he was familiar with hand lithography, especially on offset plates, Charlot asked if he could make the Good Night Book illustrations as original lithographs. The publisher, William R. Scott, Inc., agreed.
Charlot received four large zinc offset plates (35" x 22") with a grained surface (also called "wipe-on" plates). He drew his designs directly on the plates with black lithographic crayon. One plate was used for each color: yellow, red, blue, and gray. All twelve pictures, including the cover and dust jacket, were on the same set of plates. The artist, as with his other original lithographs, made the color separations in his head and never saw the full-color pictures until the plates were printed. The result, however, is that the viewer sees the picture exactly as the artist intended it to appear. The illustrations are just as original, just as first-hand, as if the artist had hand-drawn them on the pages of the book. A Child's Good Night Book comes closer than any other of Charlot's children's books to achieving his ideal of a one-to- one communication between artist and child. There is no camera, no halftone screen, no commercial color separation placed between the two. (17)
The directness and impact of the illustrations undoubtedly contribute to the remarkable success of the book. Fifteen thousand copies were printed from the original plates before they were accidentally destroyed by the printer, and many more could have been. After that edition was exhausted, there was still a demand for the book. Scott asked Charlot to redo it in a new and larger format.
By this time, 1949, a new process had been developed, generally known as the acetate process. (18) The artist was given sheets of clear acetate with a grained or "mat" surface on one side. He then drew on the roughened acetate with crayon, pen, or even pencil. If he planned more than one color, he would draw separate acetates for each, laying them on top of each other so that the other colors would show through. The finished acetates were then laid onto a photosensitized offset printing plate and exposed to light. The image was thus transferred directly to the plate, without the intervention of a camera or a halftone screen. It is, of course, necessary for the artist to draw at the same size as the printed illustration, a procedure that Charlot preferred to follow in any case. The resulting pictures are very difficult to distinguish from original lithographs. Indeed, Charlot felt that his acetate process illustrations were just as "original" as his artistic prints.
I have always had the idea of multiplication about prints. It is associated also with commercial reproduction. The print is a means to an end, and the end is to multiply images . . . .The illustrations done on acetate, for instance, are for me just as 'original' as any other technique of multiplication." (19)
It is only a "split-hair" ruling -- that they were not personally drawn on the plates by the artist -- that excludes them from the catalog of his original prints. (20) The acetate method has had a regrettably short life span as an illustration technique. By the 1970s, it had already dropped low in the favor of artists and publishers. (21)
To introduce him to the new process, the publisher, Scott, asked Charlot to make a trial picture with it. He drew a Mexican "malinche," a young girl in festive costume, using four acetate sheers, one each for yellow, red, blue, and brown.(22) The resulting picture (which has never before been published) satisfied Charlot that the acetate process could approach hand-drawn lithography as an illustration technique. It was also an advantage to the artist that he was paid the fee for color separations in addition to that for his drawings.
The 1950s were Charlot's most productive period in children's books. During this decade, he did 16 of his 27 books in the field. It was an apt time in his own life for such work, for in 1950, his four children ranged in age from 4 to 10. There were many times when they were called upon to act as critics of their father's work.
Most of Charlot's subsequent children's books were done by the acetate process, using colors of his own choosing. First was the new version of A Child's Good Night Book. The enlarged size fit a new uniform format that Scott was developing for its children's picture books. (It is also possible that the small-sized first version was subject to shoplifting.) The new drawings have the same general subject matter, to fit the same text, but are quite different in detail. The major loss, it seems to me, is in the intimacy of the small original. (23)
A Child's Good Morning uses the larger format to much better advantage, blazing out with warm morning colors: brilliant yellow, orange, and green, contrasted with dark blue. If the book received less attention than it deserved, it is no fault of the illustrations. Rather, it is the simple fact that many more parents read to small children at bedtime than in the morning.
In the meantime, there came Two Little Trains, one of the best known books of both the artist and the author. Though the Illustrations are in a simple hard-edge line technique, they are highly sophisticated in their color overprinting. Indeed, Charlot uses his three basic colors (apart from black) to produce five additional colors. As Maurice Sendak noted, "His choice of colors is a breathing into life of the very color of Miss Brown's words." (24) Yet this chromatic range is all achieved with pink, blue, brown, and black.
Fox Eyes uses only two colors, and its impact depends on its bold forms rather than on color variety. Years later, the publisher asked Charlot if he would redo it in a more painterly technique, but he wasn't interested. He had already gotten just the result he wanted.
The single double-page illustration in Secret of the Andes undoubtedly contributed to its winning the Newbery Award for 1952, as the author graciously acknowledged. (25) Charlot's three sensitive portraits allow us to visualize the main protagonists of the story in a way no words can accomplish.
The next year, And Now Miguel was also a Newbery winner. The New York Herald Tribune reviewer gave credit to Charlot: "Fully half of our pleasure in the book lay in the superb Chariot drawings." (26)
When Will the World Be Mine? uses the same two colors as Fox Eyes, with an utterly different result. Here the forms are softly drawn in crayon on acetate, with great areas of white giving brilliance to the pages. There is little or no overprinting. The printing process faithfully preserves the tranquility of the rabbits' world.
Martin de Porres, Hero is clearly an aberration -- the fault being the publisher's, not Charlot's. The artist drew his 36 black-and-white illustrations with crayon and ink on acetate. Obviously, they were intended for direct transfer to the printing plates, as had been done with the illustrations for Scott and Viking. This time, however, the publisher had the drawings photographed and passed onto the plates with a halftone screen. It is instructive to place these pictures alongside those from Sneakers , done at the same time and In the same manner. The Martin de Porres illustrations, strong as the designs are, appear blurry and remote, whereas the Sneakers pictures seem to have been drawn right an the page by the artist's own hand.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is probably Charlot's masterpiece of children's book illustration. His publisher, for once, permitted him five separate colors for printing his illustrations. He chose four rich dark colors: yellow, red, green, and mauve, along with black. These are far from a standard palette and bear no relation to "process" colors. The acetate technique allowed Charlot to avoid the halftone screen and the separation camera. The book opens with a crayon line drawing in the full five colors on the title page. This is followed by a single-color vignette, a full-page crayon line drawing in three colors, leading up the first of six double-page pictures without text. These illustrations dominate the book like panels of a huge fresco mural. The analogy is apt, for Charlot's, fame as an artist today rests most securely on his 65 murals in Mexico and the United States. The technique of fresco, too, is analogous to that of the acetate process. In both the artist lays pure colors one at a time on his working surface, whether they be paints on wet plaster or inks printed on paper. There is no advance mixing of colors on a palette. The blends come entirely from the superimposed transparent colors. In Our Lady of Guadalupe, Charlot began with his four basic colors (yellow, green, red, mauve) and then created three more (purple, brown, orange) through overprinting. He planned his drawings carefully so that no more than two colors are blended together. He contrasts solidly inked areas of color with passages of light crayon shading, and he holds them all together with a network of black ink lines. Like a mural, these illustrations are monumental in scale. They read well at a considerable distance, and yet they have enough detail to satisfy a child's close inspection. It is also worth noting Charlot's strong personal interest in the miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He had studied many accounts of it, both in Spanish and the original Nahuatl, which he spoke well. He gave the event considerable attention in his scholarly study, Mary in Art, which remained unpublished at his death. Thus, Charlot's personal interest, his experience with mural painting, and his deep knowledge of printing techniques all came together in this book to produce the best he could give.
Hester and the Gnomes, also from 1955, uses the line method in an entirely different way. For the first and only time, Charlot created areas of tone and shading, not by fine crayon work, but by spatter technique, probably originated by Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890s. The artist would put ink on a stiff paintbrush (or a toothbrush) and then make a fine spray of ink on his paper by running his finger or a piece of window screen across the bristles. It is a difficult method to control, but it is eminently suited to reproduction in black-and-white line. It also was most appropriate to the dark world of Miss Hunt's gnomes. The dots of ink in this technique might almost be considered a hand-made halftone screen.
A Hero By Mistake, Poppy Seeds, and Dumb Juan and the Bandits continue Charlot's practice of using broad areas of solid color and hard-edged lines to depict children's stories of Mexico. ( Julio, with similar subject matter, is done in black-and-white process, using crayon on acetate.) Poppy Seeds is perhaps the most successful because the publisher allowed four colors for the illustrations instead of only tow. The Corn Grows Ripe, also a Mexican Indian story, might have been as striking as Our Lady of Guadalupe, if only the publisher had budgeted it for five colors instead of just two.
Kittens, Cubs, and Babies carries two-color printing to an extreme. Charlot divided his illustrations into two alternating color groups, one of cool blue and green, the other of warm yellow and red. The impact of the solid colors, undiluted by halftone or color separation, might have been too strong for the young audience for whom it was intended. Even Charlot considered it "somewhat heavy." (27) He was, however, annoyed that the publisher removed his final picture of a serene grandmother, in the cool blue-green color combination, intended to show that every baby ultimately grew old.
The Timid Ghost is the fourth in a series of Mexican folk tales written by Anita Brenner and illustrated by Charlot. Like the others, it has pictures drawn in strong lines and broad areas of color, without shading. Charlot's design for the book is unusual and striking. Some pages have an illustration at the center, surrounded by a frame line. Others have the text within the frame and pictures spreading around the margin to the edge of the paper.
Charlot insisted throughout on the importance of gold ink as one of his colors gold being the most important point in the story. There were numerous difficulties, and the publisher tried hard to get him to agree to yellow instead of gold. "I am enclosing the gold samples. . .as a discouraging prospect even if there were a possibility. Can you pick what you like least worse or argue further, but do it quickly." (28) It is tribute to both the artist and his editor, John McCullough, that gold was finally printed in all its splendor.
After The Timid Ghost, there was a long hiatus in Charlot's children's book illustrations. When I asked him one time why he had done no more, he shrugged and said: "No one asked me." A more important fact may have been the rapid changes in printing technology. Up through the 1950s, four-color halftone separation was as much an art as a mechanical process. It demanded much expensive time and personal judgment by the printer to achieve a color balance that mirrored the artist's original color drawing. Then in the 1960s, computers came into general use in the printing industry. Now, in effect, one needs only to insert an artist's drawing at the beginning of a computer-controlled process and receive four balance halftone color plates at the end. Furthermore, printers have become accustomed to running the same four "process" colors on their presses. They charge a great deal e xtra for cleaning out their color fountains for special inks selected by the artist, and they are then faced with balancing colors by eye instead of by computer. Today, acetate has disappeared entirely from use, as has nearly every sort of line printing technique and all artist-selected colors. Charlot had no particular interest in doing illustrations purely for mechanical reproduction by four-color halftone. He never once used the process, either for children's or adult books.
In his last years, he took up a new project: the illustration of a children's text by his wife, Zohmah Charlot. A First Book is a delightful narrative of two children discovering the uses to which a book may be put. He began sketching in 1976, hoping to do the book in original lithography, in the manner of A Child's Good Night Book . His old friend, Lynton R. Kistler, the lithographic printer, prepared some offset plates, and Charlot drew his outlines directly on them. He also drew color plates for four of the eighteen subjects. When these were printed, he tried to interest various publishers in the book, but none wanted it. (One publisher expressed interest in the text but not the illustrations, which were not "in the fashion." Charlot quickly assured them they were "most welcome to treat directly with the author," but nothing came of it.) The project was shelved for lack of a publisher. Interestingly, Charlot at one point decided to investigate the possibility of reproducing the illustration by four-color halftone process. The printer who was consulted declared that he could not make printing plates from Charlot's originals because the colors were too pale, and his computer-controlled machinery interpreted all the colors as yellow. Charlot was bemused by the fact that his lithographed illustrations intrinsically resisted process reproduction. Finally, a month before his death in 1979, he decided to complete A First Book and publish it himself in a limited edition. He set to work with great energy, despite his illness, but death overtook him before he had progressed far. In 1980, his son, Martin Charlot, a noted children's book illustrator in his own right, drew colors for the unfinished plates. He kept strictly to his father's directions, imposing none of his own style. Kistler did the printing. A First Book was finally published as a limited edition a most inappropriate form for its children's subject matter. (29) It is still available for any commercial publisher who might be interested.
"Somewhere along the road," wrote John Lewis in 1954, "the essential qualities of
printing were lost or mislaid in the demand for speed, quantity and the seductive use
of the process camera. The most pressing and immediate problem of the designer is to
restore to modern commercial printing something of this lost quality." (30) Charlot, a
bove all artists, was aware of quality in children's book illustrations. His techniques were
important to him and vital to the success of his books. There are lessons here for publishers
and artists both. Publishers should consider commissioning and paying for the printing of illustrations
in line techniques, particularly the acetate process, and using artist-selected colors. Artists would be
well advised to learn about printing processes in detail, in order to take full advantage of
their inherent possibilities. Jean Charlot showed that there is a different way to illustrate books
than our modern bland four-color halftone--if anyone cares to follow his example.
About the Author
Peter Morse [1936-1993] was a consultant to the Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawaii, Associate Curator of Graphic Arts, Smithsonian Institution and Reseach Associate, Honolulu Academy of Arts. He authored Jean Charlot's Prints: A Catalog Raisonne, John Sloan's Prints, and numerous other writings on the graphic arts.
All images and texts by Jean Charlot copyright the Jean Charlot Estate