The Fine Art of Watercolor Illustration

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On a recent trip to the public library, I was scanning the shelves of used books for sale. I randomly picked up a children’s book called The Worry Stone written by Marianna Dengler and illustrated by Sybil Graber Gerig (1996). I opened it and gasped. The illustrations are gorgeous, richly colored, light-filled watercolors. Gerig appears to expertly control the paint, and yet she has the courage to allow the paints to take control as well, letting colors to bleed into one another. Layers of colors are apparent and there is a light throughout each of the illustrations that shows she understands how to manipulate the medium’s transparent nature. Gerig has created page after page of a beautiful work of art.

There seems to be a distinction between fine art and what may be referred to as commercial or applied art. But which category do illustrations such as Gerig’s fall into? Must it be one or the other? The Oxford Dictionary defines fine art as “creative art, especially visual art, whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content” (Oxford University Press, 2013). By comparison, illustrators and designers are often contracted to create their art for a practical purpose. These artists receive monetary compensation for their work – so their work is not “solely” appreciated for its content, but also for its function. In my experience as an artist and educator, I have found many perceive this type of work as a lower art form, a form not worthy of the term “fine art”.

Because Gerig’s watercolors serve the practical function of illustrating a children’s story, does that mean these beautiful rich paintings have less value? Should they be distinguished from fine art? The illustrations in The Worry Stone do more than simply accompany a story. They add another dimension to the story. They elicit a sensual and emotional response in the viewer. Isn’t that what art is meant to do? Provoke a response in the viewer?

The line between fine art and - whatever you want to call it - commercial art, applied art, or practical art – continues to blur. In a recent exhibit at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC), I was drawn to one of Charles Burchfield’s delicate watercolor sketches of flowers. Burchfield deftly evoked the graceful simplicity of the flowers and the piece demonstrated the artist’s clear love of nature.

Burchfield created the flower sketch in preparation for a wallpaper design - wallpaper that would be reproduced, given a monetary value, and sold in order for the public to decorate their homes. An artwork cannot become much more commercial than that. And yet, now that same wallpaper is part of BPAC’s permanent collection. When the wallpaper was first created, perhaps it was not particularly valued as anything more than something to cover a wall - a little color, a little decoration in one’s home. But decades later, I found value in that quiet moment with Burchfield’s flowers. Regardless of the piece’s inception or intended use, I believe it is art. Because the piece was included at a BPAC exhibit, one would presume the curators feel the same way.

Are children’s book illustrations worthy of the title of fine art? Some of today’s children’s books illustrators delve into working with models, lighting, costumes, and historical research to create glorious works of art to be reproduced and bound in children’s picture books. Among these illustrators are some of the most gifted contemporary watercolor artists whose work is rarely, if ever, seen in a museum setting.

Jerry Pinkney, who once taught at the University at Buffalo, has illustrated numerous children’s books. Like Burchfield, Pinkney demonstrates knowledge and love of natural forms. In his book, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (2011), his fluid lines and brush strokes, as well as his attention to detail, transport the reader to a mystical world where a spiders’ web is jeweled with dew, the moon takes on the form of a feathery swan, and layers upon layers of a deep blue watercolor wash create an unending night sky.

Another one of my favorite illustrators is David Wiesner. In his book, Tuesday (1991) frogs on lily pads mysteriously levitate and fly throughout a sleeping town. Wiesner expertly controls the watercolor. He creates misty pond scenes, animated animals, and astonished humans with tight, but dream-like rendering. The action takes place across an inky night sky, with figures outlined by an eerie light. Throughout the course of the book, the light undergoes subtle changes as the dim night transitions into bright daylight.

An illustrator whose work I have only recently discovered is Amy Bates. In

Minette's Feast (Reich, 2012), Bates beautifully captures the gestures of Julia Child and her cat in Paris. Bates seems to apply watercolor in brisk strokes to capture the movements of the expert chef and her cat. The energy of the two main characters leaps off the page, as does the aroma from the food Julia is preparing.

Each of these artists has his or her unique style, but all have mastered the difficulties of watercolor. Their work demonstrates an understanding and appreciation of this challenging medium. The illustrations evoke a sensual response. Is the work of any less value because the art was created in response to a children’s story? Or because it is available in a mass-produced glossy format? Not for me. In fact, when I snuggle with my children in a cozy spot at bedtime and together we share a story and pore over beautiful imagery, the work only increases in value.

This is fine art. I am sure of it. Perhaps decades or centuries from now, someone will preserve the original paintings and place them in a museum’s collection. Until then, I am glad I can appreciate their beauty by grabbing them off of my bookshelf.

 - Minna Kempf

Dengler, M. (1996). The Worry Stone. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing. Oxford University Press (2013). “Fine Art”. Retrieved on March 4, 2013 from
Pinkney, J. (2011). Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. New York: Little, Brown & Company.
Reich, S. (2012). Minette’s Feast. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers.
Wiesner, D. (1991). Tuesday. New York: Clarion Books.


Minna Kempf is an art educator and children’s book illustrator. She is a graduate student at Buffalo State, enrolled in Kathy Gaye Shiroki’s Fundamentals of Educational Programming for Museums.