April 7, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #139: Sassafras De Bruyn

I caught up with Dutch illustrator Sassafras De Bruyn about her most recent book to publish in English, The Hunter and His Dog. As a long-time fan, it was great to talk to Sassafrass about her work and how it has evolved over the years. Take a closer look below!

About the book:
Spotting a bird in the distance, the hunter and his dog begin a madcap chase across the world of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. They stumble into some of the artist's most famous scenes: wedding dances, snowy villages, even the winding stairs of the Tower of Babel. Will they ever find the place where they belong?

This wordless book introduces young readers to the Flemish Renaissance artist and his most beloved works.

Let's talk Sassafras De Bruyn!

LTPB: What inspired this book? Why did you choose to tell a story using Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings?

SDB: 2019 was a special year: ‘Bruegel year’. It was the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death, so Lannoo Publishing asked me to make a children’s book about him. I have always been a big fan of Bruegel’s magnificent paintings. His playful and bizarre imagination, with rich colors and never-ending details, the expressions on the faces, the monsters and humorous creatures, the many layers of meaning… You’re just never finished with his world.

LTPB: How did you create two characters who fit seamlessly into every painting? Did they evolve much from how they started? And how did you choose which paintings to include?

SDB: I did a lot of research for this picture book and ended up making up a story about two characters from the painting ‘Hunters in the snow.’ I’ve always liked the idea of characters leaving their story/painting/ world and getting lost. So that’s what I did with the poor hunter and his dog. I like the idea of a human with an animal companion. As they are standing in an empty page, they are trying to get back to their familiar place. And so their adventurous search for their own painting begins, traveling through well known scenes from Bruegel’s paintings. They start out as two characters who have perhaps never seen much of the world, but as they journey on the experiences change them. They are thrown from confusion into fear, into elation, into relief, experiencing the world as never before. When they finally arrive, I think they have a deeper appreciation for their own place. 

I chose which painting to include based on the structure of the narrative I wanted to tell. I selected those images that had the right atmosphere at the right time. That’s why ‘Dulle Griet’ appears when the hunter is in danger, and why he escapes from her en finds relief in scenes from ‘The wedding dance’. Of course, I wanted to include some of the most famous of his paintings, so people would recognize things they have seen before. As you link the paintings to one another, you can make up a million stories. This book could have been a hundred pages!

LTPB: Was it a conscious decision to have the book be wordless? 

SDB: Yes, it absolutely was. One time while making it, it was actually suggested to guide the reader with a few words in the book, but I was very sure it would be more powerful without them. It suits Bruegel’s paintings: they’re layered and tell a hundred stories all at once, without revealing their exact meaning. I wanted the same for my book. I wanted readers to be able to create their own narrative. That way the book comes to live in a different manner for every reader, and will not once tell the same story. That’s the kind of stories I have always liked myself.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

SDB: First of all: I love drawing with pencil. The simplest yet most beautiful material of all, at least for me. When I’m drawing with a pencil, I feel like I’m in my natural habitat. Further on, I used acrylic paint, aquarelle paint and pieces of collage. These are the things I use most of the time. In this book especially I felt like I had to use paint to achieve bright and warm colors with lots of nuance, to evoke the world of Bruegel. 

But the process does change from book to book. Different types of books and stories ask for different processes. When I do a humorous book, I tend to use more color and roughly cut pieces of collage. When it’s a sensitive, fragile story I tend to make fragile pencil drawings with just a few, delicate colors.

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

SDB: I’m busy with a huge project (hopefully it will be translated in English!) about metamorphosis in myths and folk tales around the world. It’s especially exciting because not only will I illustrate this book, I’m also writing it. I’m still writing at the moment, so I can’t really show you anything yet. It will be published at the end of 2021.

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

SDB: Can I name a painter? I would choose Pieter Bruegel the Elder. As I have made a book about his work, it seems only fair he should return the favor :) I’m not sure how he would do it, but I’m already excited about the creatures and absurdities he would undoubtedly sneak into my life.

Thank you so much to Sassafras for talking to me about this book and her work in general! The Hunter and His Dog published earlier this year from Eerdman's Books For Young Readers!

Special thanks to Sassafras and Eerdman's Books for Young Readers for use of these images!

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