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Universal appeal

Olympia Shilpa Gerald
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FACE-TO-FACE Children’s illustrator Olivier Tallec tells Olympia Shilpa Gerald why illustrations must tell a story of their own

Remember the time when you bought a book only because you liked to look at the pictures? Or flipped through the illustrations, making up a story of your own?

Illustrated books are very much part of the narrative of growing up. Probably if you had come across some good pictures back then, the chances are you were hooked to reading quicker.

Creating colourful worlds

Illustrations speak a universal language. Ask Olivier Tallec, children’s books illustrator whose popular works have been translated into a dozen languages, including English. The French illustrator has created colourfully detailed worlds for children to inhabit in over 60 books.

But the illustrator does not believe that text and images should run on the same track. “The text and illustration work separately. It is important for the illustration to capture what is missing in the text,” he says, in an interview to MetroPlus at Alliance Francaise in Puducherry. “Which is why I choose texts that do not describe much,” he explains. Clearly, Tallec relishes the freedom to plumb his creative depths and let his pencil tell half the story — a reason why he says working with familiar authors makes his job more interesting. Tallec has also illustrated comics, magazines and newspapers. But publishers are often prejudiced that children's book illustrators can only work with children’s books, he says. Giving an insight into his creative process, Tallec says, “I read the text more than once. Then I put it at the back of my mind. I try to forget the details, except for the most important ones. It is only then that I think about what I want to draw.”

Tallec confesses he has been bowled over by the creative ways teachers use his illustrations in a classroom. In his books, he wordlessly captures friendship, school life, the joys and disappointments of childhood. Sometimes, these books can help teachers and parents talk about subjects they may be hesitant to broach. One of his books, Scar, meant for kids around four, deals with death.

A knot of children bring some of his popular books Big Wolf and Little Wolf and Waterloo and Trafalgar . He takes out a couple of pencils swiftly. As the kids eagerly peep over his shoulder, he sets to doodle. Under a minute, each cover leaf has a vivid pencil drawing.

But Tallec never planned to become an illustrator. “It was purely accidental,” he quips. A publisher sent a text which he tried out (“that one was very bad,” he confesses). A second one followed and so on. After 15 years, his work has evolved to become simpler with the use of fewer colours.

Illustration as a full-time profession may not be lucrative today, he admits. “It was easier to start ten years ago than today. You need to be very patient,” he warns. More competition, lesser volume of prints, higher prices have taken a toll on illustrators. The rising popularity of e-books may be a game-changer, but not yet, says Tallec. “It will change a lot of things and the way we work. But illustrated paper books will exist in the future, though fewer in number.”

For someone who started out as a graphic designer, ironically, Tallec does his illustrations by hand. Drawing and scanning is faster than designing on a computer for him. Though when the publisher is not too happy with the colours, the work on paper is more. “True, I know a lot of designers who work on the computer. But then, doing it this way, I think I get to retain my own style,” he smiles.

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