A notebook these days may conjure up a digital device to log on to the Internet or bring to class for note-taking (or more likely, social networking), but originally, it wasn’t referring to a laptop. Usually a small book with blank pages, one would record their thoughts in it. For an artist, they would likely sketch a record of the world around them or what may be whirling around their inner psyche. A notebook for an artist can quite literally become a repository for ideas smoldering quietly or bin of concepts not meted out, or blooms ready to burst. Either way, once noted, the notetaker has it for later.
“The Bird King”’s time has come. Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, it notes a wonderful collection of illustrator Shaun Tan’s sketches. Known for books such as The Arrival and The Lost Thing we have a chance to peer in the mind of Tan’s process in the initial stages of his characters, building of fantastic scenes to come, or the visual grammar to be used in an upcoming work. “The Bird King” is sort of an all-access backstage pass to the craftsmanship of this well-respected, award-winning artist.
The book is sectioned into themes as a helpful guide into what we’re about to be introduced to. Each section’s passage is from the author himself to give some explanation, so one isn’t left wincing about. The first of these sections being “Untold Stories.” Tan’s images usually have no likely narrative unto themselves in this context, but all the more for you to investigate them in your own imagination and come up with a story. His work often starts as a small piece in which he will let what it is guide him into the possible next stage of its development.
You see in these pages references that capture the enticement of a story which begs to be told. As an imaginatively, wonderful illustrator, Tan can create scenes that tell whole stories without needing much more than what you see on the page. He’s worked with creative houses Blue Sky Studios and Pixar, being employed in a similar fashion as what Ralph McQuarrie when he did the early “Star Wars” movie. This makes for a lot of faith in people who’d hire him as, no doubt, he come up with something beautiful. There are many fantasy and sci-fi movies made that would never have gotten off the ground visually without the help of concept artists like Tan, who is chock-full of imagination.
The section, “Drawing from Life” is were we get to see more into the man himself. We see a different style and technique creating these images, his exploration at finding new ways of representing the world in line, form, color and light. Tan is so adept in using oil paints, pastel crayons, pencils and ballpoint pens, it’s easy to assume you know all he has to offer. The collection here breaks those assumptions.
“The Bird King” as a collection of sketches, drawings and paintings illuminates the inner constructs of Shaun Tan. The whimsy and dream-like illustrations don’t tell you who the Bird King may be, but the flight of fancy surely wraps your imagination into one of the most talented contemporary illustrators of today. This book is inclined to be an inspiration to budding artists or storybook tellers, and definitely exciting to his fans. There are few better expressions of the impulse to draw, an instinct that lingers from childhood, with all its absurdist daydreaming and playful seriousness. And with that, we take note of Tan’s wellspring of imagination.