Arnaud Boutin has a tale to tell. In fact, he has several. And, in multitudinous ways, the repertoire of this Parisian born, Williamsburg-based illustrator, children’s book author and video director is autobiographical – reflecting his own journey from childhood to adolescence into adulthood.
Fans of Boutin’s smile-inducing and witty works adore them, in all their expressions, as much for their detail as for their simplicity. The encyclopedic retro-doodle inspired activity books for preschoolers manage not only to catch but also to hold the attention – and even the delight – of this rather distractible group.
A more sophisticated crowd, including musician Lilly Allen and cult-fashion franchise Opening Ceremony, commission Boutin’s same off-the-wall sensibility and slick attention to detail for video work via the Director’s Collective ABCDCD, of which Boutin is a founding member.
We spoke to Boutin fresh off the release his latest title What’s New, What’s different, What’s Missing (Blue Apple Books), about his ongoing search for a way to transform personal experiences and abstract impressions into viable narrative.
Do you come from an artistic background?
My parents really love the arts and design. They wanted to study these fields when young but it was not so developed then. They encouraged my sister (who is a fashion designer) and I to go to art school – coming with us to visit all potential ones. I attended different schools in Paris, L’ENSAAMA – Olivier de Serres, Le lycée de Sèvres and Les Gobelins. I studied Space Design, Set Design and Packaging to continue in Visual Art and Digital Design.
What encouraged you the most?
My mother! She always organized art activities at home and during vacations. We spent a lot of time making pottery, creating costumes, drawing with her, and she takes part in art associations herself. Maybe it’s why my sister and I wanted to continue in this direction.
How does childhood inform your illustration?
My art is really a mix of my childhood, teenage years and now.
I mix a lot of things. I like the ‘craziness’ of childhood and I incorporate all the time memories of my childhood and some anecdotes. I listen a lot when children speak. But at the same time, I like to play with the contradictions of grown ups, to observe them as well. I have a concept I am developing: playing on children vs. adult expressions and behavior, but it’s still in notebooks.
What artists first stood out to you as a child/youth?
I was hypnotized by a few picture books as a child: all the Dina Kathelyn Marmouset books – a series with a small red-haired character. I spent lot of time to look how Kathelyn drew cakes and various objects. I remember a dictionary illustrated by Hilary Knight (Eloise) called Mon Premier Dictionnaire. The cover is very ugly but inside the book is wonderful! Full of details.
Another book I still love – I took it all the time at the library – is Porculus by Arnold Lobel. The story is still contemporary; I like the contrast between the country and city. But I think when I was young I loved this book for the pig’s face, is so funny, the best pig illustration!
How did you discover illustration?
I wanted to be an industrial designer, to draw and create objects. I discovered in illustration class, though, that it was possible to draw without having to think about the technical side. Just for the pleasure. I really liked the feeling to escape the reality, to work without constraints. It’s the same now when I draw. I feel that time stops and I forget reality and enter into my characters and the story.
And, how did you become an illustrator?
After school I worked with the directors Kuntzel+Deygas who use a lot of illustrations and animations. I designed backgrounds for their characters and animations, working to develop their visual identity for different brands or personal projects. I spent two years designing objects – elements for them, using Adobe Illustrator, but still making sketches by hand. I learned a lot with them about composition and the importance of the narration.
I compiled lot of sketches and wanted to use these to develop my own work. I started to make patterns with them for stationery brands, notebooks covers, cards, etc. Some publishers offered me some text to illustrate when they saw this.
How do these varying experiences interact with your work with directors’ collective ABCDCD?
I improved my way of working and my narrative ability since I started to work as a director myself.
I developed more my desire to tell my own stories, to draw human characters and to develop the narration – not just the graphic composition. For the past few months, I’ve been evolving stylistically, trying to draw faster and to have something more sketch-like in appearance, but It’s not so easy to radically change.
And yet the Monster book for example take a less narrative and more activity-oriented approach. Why?
The monster book is an activities book, like a gallery of portraits that kids can play and have fun with. It’s for little children and the idea was to make something easy, just to unwind, to express themselves with a funny theme – the monsters.
What is it like, penning as well as illustrating for kids?
I have a lot of stories in my sketchbooks that I never finish. I start one idea and jump all the time to another. It’s really hard to find the good way of writing, the tone and the conclusion. I always re-work the text and I’m never happy. Strange, I’m finding it easier to develop and write for children in English (I speak only basic English).
It’s a more simple language, perhaps, than French. Is there research involved in writing your kids books?
Not really research, but time spent observing people, kids, animals and architecture, and reading books and magazines. Some days I don’t even draw but I spend time to walk in the streets, parks, to enter a shop to observe and to have material to draw from. I’ve some sketchbooks too. I sit in a coffee place and start to draw, not what is around me, but I take influences from around me to create my own characters or to find ideas.
What do you think makes a great kid’s book and why?
I think there is no recipe to make a great kid’s book. It’s impossible to know why kids prefer one book to another, because for example, illustrations can be bad or the story really simple but kids love them!
I can only remember what I liked when I was young and try to make a book with my memories of this. The dictionary, Eloise – I really liked books with a lot of details and objects. I could spend hours just on one page.
Can you tell me something about your newly released book?
This one is entitled What’s New, What’s Different, What’s Missing? (Blue Apple Books). It’s an activities book, too. But I wanted this time to develop a slightly stronger narrative. You have a few characters interacting with their city at different times. What they can do during their vacations or at school – exactly what kids can do in reality, but here with activities.
Readers can create their own story and take part in the book; complete or find solutions. When I was young I really liked the books You are the Hero. You read a story but you also have to answer questions or achieve things. You can arrive at different endings or solve some puzzle – you can be a detective! I wanted to make something similar but easier for young children, using illustration.
Considering your work with film/video, have you entertained the idea of utilizing that medium for narration for children?
I mentioned already that, because of my work in video, my drawings evolved. I draw more human characters. Lately, I’ve been interested to develop the story, the narrative, more than when I first started illustration.
So, maybe one day I’ll incorporate short animations. This might help develop the personalities or expressions. It could be a TV show opening-sequence or movie titles. I think it could be a good way to mix both. Something really simple, like Gif animations. As inspiration, I really like Charlie Brown or Mafalda. I already started to work on such ideas, but everything takes time.
To enjoy more of Boutin’s work: www.arnaudboutin.com