Occasionally, children’s picture book art takes a left turn from traditional paint and pencil illustration into the somewhat sterile world of computer-generated imagery. Perhaps this is a moot point…it’s either good, or it’s not. Graphic imagery within a design context can be quite pleasing, but in general, I’m not a fan of digitalized art for picture books. Nevertheless, I suspect I am viewing it more often than I think I am. In fact, a few of my favourite artists use computers to augment their ‘old style’ illustrations, including Emily Gravett and Poly Bernatene, and I have to assume there are others. For what it’s worth, knowing that at some point an artist’s hands got messy is important to me. It’s like eating those perfectly peeled, tube-shaped baby carrots from the grocery store; they are so far removed from the dirt they are grown in, it’s hard to appreciate them as carrots.
But then…along comes Along a Long Road, a beautifully illustrated, completely charming picture book executed entirely on Adobe Illustrator. I can’t say whether or not Frank Viva’s hands got dirty making this book, but he was most certainly engaged in very detailed, creative work. And the medium, in this particular case, is perfect for the story. A digitalized palette is still a palette, even if nothing gets squeezed out of a tube.
Along a Long Road is one continuous panel depicting a bike ride on a strip of yellow roadway, running parallel to a body of water which may in fact be an ocean, judging by the appearance of a whale and an oil tanker. Chunky shapes, minimal colour, and a few well-chosen lines suggest the passing landscape and man-made structures like bridges and power-lines rather than depicting them realistically. The ebullient fellow riding the bike is also heavily stylized and comically flexible, with an apparent extra vertebrae or two; his body curling around the wheels and bars of his bike as if the bicycle itself was something strangely organic, a hybrid of spokes and limbs.
The simplicity of the imagery is quite lovely, especially the chipped reflections of the moon on the ocean, and the shop windows selling everything from shoes and dog bones, to ice cream. The through-line of the yellow road, the only colour printed in gloss in an otherwise matte landscape, pulls the rider (and the reader) along the long road. It’s a panorama of sea and city life viewed from the seat of a bicycle.
The story is simple as well, with just a few words and very little ‘drama.’ No run-ins with hostile motorists or helmet bylaw enforcement officers…just a minor apple incident, quickly resolved. The narrative is driven entirely by the visuals, and the perspective shifts continually, allowing the stunning background to come into play, or in close-up, as the cyclist passes through a tunnel or picks up speed on the road. Viva uses just four colours in addition to the white of the page: dark blue, grey blue, red and yellow ochre. It’s extremely effective, bringing a real vibrancy to the story as well as a hint of fifties and sixties graphic design and illustration. Although one would assume that a book with such strong graphics and flat areas of colour would be a perfect match for e-book technology. Just the opposite. The exquisite production of Along a Long Road is significant factor in it’s charm. It feels good. It even smells good. The heavy-weight paper, the deeply saturated colours in varying gloss and matte finishes…none of the sensual qualities of Along a Long Road could be transferred to an electronic format without sacrificing something essential. Interesting that a picture book produced on a computer is an argument against the digitalization of picture books. (In my humble and slightly threatened opinion.)
Toronto artist and designer Frank Viva has worked for Time, Esquire, The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and was the president of The Advertising & Design Club of Canada. He is a frequent cover artist for The New Yorker magazine, and is passionate about cooking, wine and his daily bike ride to the office. According to the book jacket, Mr Viva has ‘cycled his way along the streets of New York, through the desert of India, up the hills of Ireland, under the Moroccan stars, and around the vineyards of France and Italy.’ As far as I know, he does not have extra vertebrae.
Along a Long Road by Frank Viva. Published by HarperCollins, 2011. ISBN: 978-1443406208
This book even has its own website, which you can visit here!