|Copyright 2016, 2PR Chicks, LLC. All rights reserved
|"To Picture The Story"
Judith Gwyn Brown
As soon as I began to read, at the age of five or so, I knew I wanted to be an illustrator. At that time,
stories and the images they create in the mind – the images that can be put down on paper – became
what I valued most… and I still do.
My world was then divided into the deepest shadows of an only child with unhappy parents and the
world of light, a circle of imagination that kept out the darkness. I sat in my room alone, and thought
of things, and put them down with crayons on paper.
Even now when I return home with a pad of new paper and a fresh set of paints, I feel the same
mystery I did at an early age when I opened a new box of crayons, and smelled the wax, and put out
the sticks of color on the table. Then as now there seems to be a radiance or nimbus of light around the
colors: rose madder, Naples yellow, sap green, cerulean blue – in tubes or jars or pencils, it is the
same. I think that glow, that radiance, is a sign of the possibilities of creation locked into the
materials. And even though I am continually aware of the limitations of my own abilities, the
potential – though it be felt for a brief moment – is overwhelming and thrilling. Nothing else feels
like it, and I know that making things up is the only work I have ever been able to take seriously.
When I was a child, I drew on paper the characters of the books I read. I built houses of cardboard and
painted designs on the furniture in my room: the tables, chairs, and chest of drawers. And when I
finished doing this, I painted the walls in watercolor showing ancient halls and great vistas dissolving
into space. The designs were crude, but it was a continuous and unsupervised effort.
At that time, being alone was a matter of circumstance, but was reinforced by temperament. I shut
the door and put my back hard against it with the sort of determination not found generally agreeable
in any child. Though I did not comprehend it fully then, the working out of art, even on a beginning
level, takes so much time: the thinking, planning, changing, doing of it, that it was inevitable for life
to be just as it was – as it is.
In an essential way I live now as I did then. The room has changed, but it is also the same – a castle, a
tower, a dungeon, depending on how work for the day progresses. And despite the obvious fact that I
have grown in the craft, drawing is not easier now – and only different in scope; and the mental
perplexities never end.
I suspect that if one wishes to do art, it is best not to be too cheerful or desirous of society. And for that
keen extra energy that permits one to work over and over a drawing and to do so far into the night,
mindless of time and fatigue, it helps to sense some potent and hostile ghost against whom one works.
Some spirit shaking his head, that you must put to flight. Facing these apparitions of the soul, one
does the best one can, always aware that it is very little. Of course it was necessary to go to school, and
I attended the High School of Music and Art in New York; but I felt as if, in doing so, I was simply
working out what was inevitable – working out a kind of faithfulness that was given from the
When I was eighteen I left home to be married and to go to college. My husband and I lived in
Greenwich Village and we were caught up in the last vestiges of a self-consciously intellectual and
feverish time that used to be called bohemian life. We certainly wanted freedom, and in practical
terms this meant disengaging ourselves from family ties and living as cheaply as we could. It was
possible to do that then. Apartments were uncomfortable, but students could afford them; the bathtub
was in the kitchen, and the rooms were warmed by small gas heaters. Close by, the restaurants and
cafes were Italian, Spanish, and Armenian where the food was good and astonishingly inexpensive.
Greenwich Village had charm and the cafes imitated the European ones where you could read a
newspaper attached to a stick or play chess for hours. Coffee and tea as well as the pastry were exotic,
and we all discovered foreign movies. These things so common now were fresh then and extremely
I took a liberal arts course at New York University which meant four years away from doing art
seriously; and although I had to catch up later, I feel strongly that a great deal of reading is an
important background for interpreting the word. My major subjects were Fine Arts History and
English Literature which was not remarkable. What was remarkable was that for a short time I was
intensely social in a way I have not been before or since.
Friends were made easily then, and our cold-water flat was the place to meet. In recollection it seemed
we were always many at table on the weekends when the same menu prevailed: hot sausage and
ravioli or spaghetti baked in large casseroles. We drank red chianti wine that came in raffia wrapped
bottles – bottles that subsequently were used to hold the candles that lighted our talk.
We talked endlessly and presumptuously. We smoked French cigarettes at each other and went on in
our authoritative way about abstract painting, existential philosophy, the works of Beckett, Camus,
Brecht. We talked about the photographic exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the silent
movies shown there. We were concerned with scientific research, chess, romantic passion, and
inevitably The Bomb. We were experimental, gossiping, aesthetic, opinionated, and argumentative.
But we did ponder the great questions and since great questions have no simple answers, they kept us
up all night and enhanced our seductions.
If one quarrels with one’s parents at an early age, there is a price; and during each summer to earn
my tuition I worked as a draftsman, doing electrical circuit drawing for blueprints. On the day I
received my BA degree, I realized with a sinking feeling that I was no closer to being an artist than I
had been four years before. I enrolled at the Parsons School of Design with a sense of duty; and after a
year of classes, I was determined to strike out on my own to see what would happen.
Beginning in any field is difficult; and in art particularly there is no guarantee of success. The year of
the art school was not enough training. I did not have proper samples for an illustrator’s job, and
there was no way to measure my ability. I was suddenly very frightened. I began making up a
portfolio of drawings. I took these drawings to show to book editors; and because I was young, hesitant,
and inexperienced, they did what was most natural: they said “No”.
I wrote a children’s story and sent it to publishers without benefit of recommendation. It was rejected
again and again, sometimes with letters of encouragement, but rejection all the same. I wrote
another story. With each rejection pangs of terror swept over me, harsh and cumulative. But what
was most terrible was that there was no way to change course. I wanted to be a working artist, and
could think of nothing else.
One day in desperation I answered an ad for a person to paste up type for a commercial lithographer.
This was in that section of New York that houses the printing industry: a few streets in lower
Manhattan of huge office buildings that shake day and night with the sound and motion of the great
printing presses. The office I entered was in the tradition of the trade – grimy, smelling of ink and
solvents, with strips of type, negatives, and galley sheets tacked upon the walls everywhere. I opened
my portfolio and spread out my drawings before the man who acted as art director.
In addition to printing commercial catalogues and brochures, this company also published books that
were subsidized by the author: war memoirs, sermons, and novels no one else would publish. All of
these books needed jackets and the printer wanted them done as cheaply as possible. I was still in my
early twenties; and although I was going to be paid very little, I was immensely excited. I worked on
type design and layouts; I answered the telephone and did drawings for book jackets while the
rhythmic thrumming of the presses sounded all about me. I saw the type I chose return from the
compositor in reproduction proofs, and the drawings for the jackets photographed and put on metal
Every evening I checked the schedule to see when a book jacket would be printed. I would leave and
then return, sometimes late at night, to watch the pressmen attach the plates to the press and mix the
thick colored inks with a knife on a stone. When the ink was mixed the press was put in motion there
would be a color test, and when it matched my specification, I would initial the sheet. The paper
would go through the press for the final run, and again and again for each separate color.
In the early morning, reeling with the smell of ink and fatigue and in a state of absolute joy, I cut and
folded the sheets, wrapped the new jacket around a book, and placed it high upon a shelf to gaze upon
In the next two years I learned a great deal about the printing process, worked briefly for a magazine,
went to Europe, and took my now-printed illustrations about to the trade publishers once more. It felt
like an apprenticeship – and it was. One day the children’s book editor Jean Karl took a chance on me,
and I illustrated my first long book of pictures. Although I have done drawings for many other
publishers through the years, I have continued to work with Jean Karl since that time.
When I illustrate a book, I consider each particular text as a complete world. The characters and
settings for the illustrations come from this concern rather than from a conscious effort to draw in a
given mode or style.
After reading the manuscript, I do sketches quite freely – and only for myself—of the people in the
story. Sometimes as I work I think of other literary or pictoral connections – that is, the manuscript
before me will bring to mind a line or verse or a descriptive passage from another book I have read.
Or, in my mind’s eye I will have a glimpse of a picture I have seen at some past time. The two merge;
the text on which I am working and the remembered passage or image I recall. In this way something
more dramatic, more amusing, or more deeply felt can be brought to the illustrations, and the new
picture has an added dimension.
The next stage is the process of figuring out composition and the more careful drawing of the
characters in the setting. At this point I do research in the Picture Collection of the New York Public
Library for historic or architectural background and for costumes and such.
The final putting together of the elements is almost like the first impulse and has to do with getting on
paper in ink or paint the air and light, the emotion of the situation portrayed. The idea is to make the
finished picture correspond as much as possible with the image as originally perceived.
As I work I sometimes listen to music or recordings of poetry being read and, of course, because I am so
much alone I recollect past events in my life and ‘play them back’ in the light of what appear to be
more subtle revelations.
After a day at the drawing table it seems important to go out. I wash the brushes, put the painting
away, leash up the dog, and run down the stairs.
Suddenly the city with all its possibilities and complications presents itself. I call a friend and we meet
to have something to eat or to go to the museum. Mostly I want to listen to someone else, to talk to
someone else; in imagination to be someone else.
For awhile, it is necessary to break the silence, and also to put into my consciousness new images from
which to draw in order to picture the story on the following day.