Play a game with me: imagine a pirate.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Got a picture of your pirate in your head?
You’re imagining a Howard Pyle pirate. Yes, this definitely includes Jack Sparrow. In a previous post, I mentioned a centuries-old book about art criticism, and how even now, the ideas in it shape our perception of what art even is. This time, it’s about the illustrations themselves. Illustrations to books have a profound impact on the popular imagination, and yet they’re rarely given as much weight as the words on the page. You probably don’t know who Howard Pyle was, yet, he’s in your head right now, painting your pirates on the canvas of your imagination, with an army of other illustrators, costume designers, and film directors doing his bidding, and has been completely dominating the entire perception of what pirates were for the last century. Now that’s raw power.
Introducing (Officially) Pyle’s Pirates
Although you’re already subconsciously familiar with them, all of the following scurvy sea dogs are from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1903). This gorgeously illustrated book is full of illustrations of pirates. Pyle’s pirates are grubby, scruffy, and rough-looking, yet arrogant and roguishly fashionable. The artist uses red as a highlight to draw and hold the eye. As usual, click on pictures to embiggen!
Pirates divvy up the loot.
Is a fancy red sash really practical for people who have to climb rigging and fight with cutlasses? No. Did real pirates – even European ones of the Caribbean – actually dress like that? Probably not. Do they look great? Heck yes.
I’m just going to go ahead and call this guy Captain Sparrow. Nice pose and red cloak.
This pirate even has earrings, and scraggly hair, and possibly even eyeliner. He might be Johnny Depp. He’s also an illustration that’s over 100 years old. Generations of kids have grown up on Howard Pyle pirates, at this point. By now, this is just what pirates look like.
I love basically everything about this picture. The composition, the colors, the anatomy, and how straightforward the storytelling is. What’s going on? Pirates knife-fighting over their share of the booty, obviously. Yarrrr mateys.
Howard Pyle had students, who went on to paint their own Pyle-style pirates. Pylerates, if you will. This group of massively influential illustrators became known as the Brandywine School – including, most famously, N. C. Wyeth. The techniques of the school, and the means of storytelling through art would go on to shape illustrations in books for decades to come, and even eventually mutate into comic books as we know it. How do we get to comic books from here? Let’s look at Wyeth, for a bit.
N. C. Wyeth
What are illustrations actually for? Seriously. It’s not just pictures to decorate books. Illustrations go with the text. Sometimes, a good illustration even adds to the storytelling even more nuance than was in the text to begin with. The story itself even happens in the pictures. Look at this N. C. Wyeth illustration from The Boy’s King Arthur (1922):
There’s a lot going on here. Choice of what to illustrate, motion – splinters of lance in the air – reaction – the rearing horse – everything adds to the story, and makes it exciting.
Fancy expensive books need illustrations, but so do cheap dime novels, too – so do magazines, and newspapers. Soon, newspapers and magazines were paying authors to write short stories or continuing storylines – serials – for publication, to draw in an audience. All of these need illustrators. It wasn’t long before these illustrated serials got their own section, and became standard features. Some magazines specialized in publishing these picture stories.
You know what this character is like, even if you haven’t read Treasure Island at all. It’s the attitude and the cape. Instead of a cliff above the sea, imagine a skyscraper above Gotham City. That’s how these techniques transfer to comic books.
Next time you read a picture book, or any book with illustrations, think of how different it would be without them. Yet, we give less weight to the pictures, or even scorn books that have illustrations. Consider the case of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. These books have been on the American Library Association’s most challenged book list for decades. Top of the list, for 1990 to 1999, even. Dropped lower afterwards, though – and why? Because in the meantime the publisher totally caved to pressure from pearl-clutching parents, and changed the bone-chilling original illustrations which is why they were so frequently challenged.
People would be up in arms if the opposite happened, and a challenged book “just” had all the text changed, but the illustrations left alone. But Scary Stories was mutilated, and hardly anybody but the fans of the original illustrations noticed. Stick up for illustrations, and artists. Pictures are important. Read the original versions of the Scary Stories books in protest, if you want.
N. C. Wyeth did great Pylerates, too! You also owe it to yourself to read the original Treasure Island, unabridged.
The library has lots of books about Pyle, Wyeth (both of them) and the Brandywine School. They’re gorgeous.