November 26, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #125: Piet Grobler

I have been a fan of Piet Grobler's work since I first studied his 2005 picture book Today Is My Day in graduate school. So it goes without saying that I've been waiting quite some time to find the right book to talk to him about his process. Enter The Playgrounds of Babel, written by JonArno Lawson. Piet truly has a chance to shine and flex his artistic muscles with different media in this book, and I was so glad to talk to him about how he created it. Enjoy!

About the book:
This unusual, thought-provoking story begins with an old woman telling a tale to a group of children in a playground. One of the boys can't understand what she is saying, so another offers to translate. The old woman's tale is inspired by the Tower of Babel story: In the days when everyone spoke the same language, the people built a tower to reach God. But God was annoyed and sent a dragon to destroy the tower, then created new languages for everyone so that they couldn't understand each other. Fortunately, two little girls find a way to communicate through song.

Let's talk Piet Grobler!

LTPB: The story of Babel has been depicted many times and in many ways, so did you do a lot of research to create the illustrations in The Playgrounds of Babel? What challenges did you encounter?

PG: I knew the story fairly well, but this one has a twist. Since it deviates quite a bit from the Biblical version, I did not find it necessary to research other illustrated versions of it.  It was more important to think how the story within the story could be told and how I could address it in a contemporary way as a contemporary narrative.

LTPB: You’ve created a lot of children’s books, so how do you feel like your process has changed over the years?

PG: The strange thing (but of course understandable) is that a publisher does not really want one to change too much. I think they invest in an illustrator and, if the collaboration seems to be successful, they assume that readers would expect ‘more of the same’ from the specific illustrator. It is however possible to do different things for different publishers. I try to think what visual language would be appropriate to the said text … and then try to work accordingly. My ‘default’ is to make very fine line drawings (with a Rotring graphic pen) and colour it with water-colour washes. I have once tried a book or two with heavier acrylics, but I am not sure that was my best move. I did love making etchings (in 1998) for Carnival of the Animals, and I would love to do that again one day. Lately I fell in love with collage combined with drawing. This happened almost by accident. When I taught illustration at the University of Worcester in the UK, I one day helped cleaning the print studio. The lovely leftovers after the students have made monotypes, caught my eye. I collected the rubbish and started using it. Later I created my own sheets of black textured paper with the printing roller. The unexpected textures and marks work lovely. It is almost as if they bring a memory of previous contexts with them.

So when I planned The Playgrounds of Babel, which is a rather experimental picture book text, I realized this was a perfect opportunity to work with the more experimental visual language that collage can offer. Even more so, since I had to consider how I would portray two storylines on one double page spread without confusing the reader.

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you receive a new project? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript?

PG: I read the text several times. Then I think about it for a long time before I really start… Pondering on all the possible approaches. I do believe that one should really consider what the text is asking for (according to my understanding of it, of course). I often find the claim by some illustrators that they imagine themselves as young children and then approach the characters and narrative accordingly, strange. Is it really possible? I think not. We have lost our innocence, to name but one reason. I would like to think that I try to think what the text is asking for (rather than illustrating for myself … or for the reader)…. Who is this ‘reader’ after all? We do not know and the matter is much more complex than the marketing section of publishing houses would pretend it is. Once cannot ‘categorize’ a book according to the age of the supposed reader. I suppose it is a handy way for them to ‘place’ a book in the market and on the library shelf …. But it is also rather ridiculous, I think. One ridiculous comment on this book (somewhere online) one person said she would not order the book because it is hard or impossible to place it. She does not know if this is really a picture book …bible story it is not …So she’ll rather just dump it if she cannot put it in a box or a category!


Once I have sort of decided about the visual language and technique, I start playing with the materials. Mostly by depictions of some of the characters. Once you start making the illustrations, they even get a life of their own …. And you may even change your mind yet again once the practical work has started.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

PG: I am working on a rather tricky, though playful book. It is a poem by John Agard for Lantana Books (UK). I cannot show the work on that project publicly yet, but I can say that I am working with collage again, but combining it with inks, colouring pencils and gouache. Much more colourful than Playgrounds, but, as the limited colour was right for that book, the much brighter colours are relevant here: It involves jungles, animals and earth goddesses. The story is really about the eco-crisis in the world, but told in a playful and humorous manner.

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

PG: This is a tricky one. My favourite illustrator is Wolf Erlbruch, but he might depict me more edgy and weird than I actually am! Hmm … let’s say Kitty Crowther, Victoria Semykina or Jesus Cisneros!

A million thanks to Piet for taking time to answers some questions! The Playground of Babel published from Groundwood Books earlier this year.

Special thanks to Piet and Groundwood for use of these images!

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1 comment:

  1. Well of course I love him... because he has illustrated three of my books. The most recent is PARIS CAT which came out this year... done in a similar feel to 'Playgrounds of Babel' with monotype, collage and drawing. Great quirky energised work that seems to contain all the immediacy one gets in the first rough of a book.