Anja's Artblog

Sunday, 8 December 2013

H.C. Andersen's Fairy Tales - Picture Book

For the latest university project we were asked to produce a cover and 2 double pages for 4 different tales by Hans Christian Andersen.
Fairy Tales have always been a huge inspiration to me and my work so I loved every second of working on this project. Even though I would have enjoyed it more to focus completely on one tale and illustrate the whole thing instead of just interpreting certain parts of four different ones...
Anyway, I learned a whole lot during working on these and am now more certain than ever before that picture books really are what I want to create as an artist. They offer so much expressive freedom and creative choices - it's wonderful.
I'll show you some of the work in progress and also include extracts from the evaluation I had to write, which maybe shed some light onto the thoughts that went into every single illustration.
(For this evaluation we had to write about our own work in the third person so don't wonder why it sounds so stiff now and then..)

     Quite like picture books themselves, the tales of Hans Christian Andersen also suffer from the common misunderstanding that they are aimed at young children and in fact, have become very “simple children's fables (…) in all too many translated editions, retellings, and media adaptations.” (Feng, 2009). In their original Danish versions they are “far more sophisticated and multi-layered” (Ibid.), which is something the illustrations created for this brief were also supposed to be, in order to add more depth to the English translation and to create another layer on which to find clues for interpreting the tales. 

(...) Words and images in most successful contemporary picture books work actively together to create the book's impact - they collaborate by “filling each other's gaps, or, of even greater significance, compensating for each other's insufficiencies” and therefore presenting a ”unique challenge and opportunity in their treatment of spatiality and temporality.” (Nikolajeva and Scott, 2001, p.139). The text no longer serves an “auxiliary role” (Shulevitz, 1985, p.15) but is equally important as the image and should make as little sense read without the illustrations as those should make without the text. On top of that “the best, most lasting books seem to be the ones where the picture book maker (…) leaves space between word and image for the imagination to roam.” (Salisbury, cited in Klanten and Hellige, 2012, p.158).


Unfortunately this was an area unable to explore further within the constrains of this project, since Andersen's tales are so very descriptive and detailed on their own and do not require illustrations to fill in any gaps. It was, however, attempted to create visuals which are not merely decorative or repetitive of the text, rather adding a new dimension to it that might not be necessary to understand the narrative but that encourages another interpretation of the seemingly obvious actions. 


For the second double spread illustrating 'The Snow Queen' for instance, the abduction of little Kay by the Snow Queen's majestic sledge, as it is described in the narrative, was not chosen to be depicted on the accompanying illustration. Instead the image shows a boy setting out on a quest for knowledge by himself. He is leaving his home and family behind, while the 'Snow Queen' is only a part of his subconscious, created by a monotonous day to day routine, which is symbolized by her consisting of the smoke – the 'refuse' - rising from his home town's chimneys. While this is only the visual interpretation of the illustrator, it is supposed to challenge the reader/viewer to look at the written word from a different perspective in order to find their very own interpretation in-between the lines of the text. 

(...) The illustrations created for this project make conscious use of the elements the picture book as a medium provides. One of them is the “superior ability” pictures naturally have to “convey the spatial position of the character, and especially the mutual spacial relationship of two or more characters, which often reveals their psychological relationship and relative status.” (Nikolajeva and Scott, 2001, p.83).

 The first double spread for 'The Snow Queen' exemplifies this. The boy Kay is moving away from his once beloved friend Gerda who, in turn, almost appears to be 'dragged' in the opposite direction. He is literally walking out of their intimate, shared world on the roof top by leaving the framed image and moving inside the white margin of the page. 
Another device this double page makes use of is the relationship between the facing pages, which is an important compositional detail. “In a good picture book, the creator uses the tension between verso and recto to imply movements as well as temporal and causal relations.” (Nikolajeva and Scott, 2001, p.150). They can either cooperate or contradict each other, in this case they do the latter by illustrating the different perspectives from which both children view the world around them. The gutter of the spread almost aligns with the gutter between the two touching roofs – we find the same elements on both sides but on the boy's these are distorted due to the splinter he received in his eye.


Picture books also are “different from works of art in their composition, since every picture in a picturebook (except perhaps the last one) is supposed to encourage the viewer to go on reading.” (Nodelman, cited in Nikolajeva and Scott, 2001, p.152). A good way to achieve this is by including a so-called 'page turner' – a detail, verbal or visual, that encourages the viewer to turn the page and find out what happens next.

 In the first double spread for 'The Red Shoes' we find such a page turner in the feet that are seen on the far right side of the recto, literally leaving this page and intriguing the viewer to follow them.


We also find 'simultaneous succession' on both double page illustrations for 'The Red Shoes', which is the depiction of the same character several times on the same page, suggesting a sequence of separate moments and conveying movement and thus the flow of time. “Like blurs and motion lines, simultaneous succession is a narrative convention that has to be decoded by the viewer” (Nikolajeva and Scott, 2001, p.140) and can create different effects. In these cases, it helps to give an impression of uncontrolled movement. The character is shifted from one position into the next, performing a bizarre dance she is not able to stop.



The best device to draw a viewer inside a book is the cover itself. It was decided upon a circular composition since the nature of the square format supports this. Andersen's Tales are very close to nature and many of them feature talking plants and animals. Therefore, an enchanted forest surrounds the circle containing the typographic elements. 
The colour palette is deliberately limited, to make sure the visual details do not overwhelm the written information. You have to look carefully to make out all the little faces and creatures hidden in the composition, which hopefully creates interest and serves as a first interactive viewing experience to draw in the attention of the viewer. This also is in keeping with the very nature of Andersen's tales, that challenge you to look closer for hidden meanings and symbols within them.

The consideration of the font used for the cover was also very important since it “occasionally can affect our understanding of the book.” (Nikolajeva and Scott, 2001, p.245). Twisted, interwoven vines and twigs were chosen to form the title 'Fairy Stories' and evoke the overall forest theme of the cover as well as the twisted fates of most stories characters and therefore help to enhance the book's message.

 I hope I was able to give you a little insight in how I work. If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to ask!

All the best, Anja


Feng, R. (2009). Contradiction Leads to a Miracle - A Rethinking of Hans Christian Anderson and His Fairy Tales [online]. 2009. Available from: [Accessed November 2013]
Klanten, R. and Hellige, H. (2012). Little Big Books: Illustrations for Children's Picture Books. Berlin: Die Gestalten Verlag GmbH & Co.

Nikolajeva, M. and Scott, C. (2001). How Picturebooks work. Oxon: Routledge.

Shulewitz, U. (1985). Writing with Pictures – how to write and illustrate children's books. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.


  1. wonderful anja! you did fantastic work!
    i love the cover too!

  2. Wow, it is all beautiful! I especially love the Snow queen.

    1. Thank you very much Nina! The Snow Queen is one of my all time favourite stories too. So magical and multi-layered..

  3. The evaluation was an interesting read, while looking at the WIP-pictures and final ones. Thinking about it, I also read, that many stories, which are aimed at kids today, originally weren't written for that target group. As the time went by, some were also changed to be "more kids friendly". "The little mermaid" is a good example, I guess, even though I would compare it to the animated version from Disney. The differences are quite huge.

    I like the illustrations to "The red shoes" very much. My personal favorite. : 3

    1. You're right, there actually is the term 'disneyfication' for this sort of 'dumbing down' of traditional tales in order to make them more 'attractive' to children. I personally think kids are far more sophisticated and capable of dealing with and understanding a whole lot more than most members of the society think they can. It's a topic I am very interested in and one I would like to address with the books I create in the future. :)

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I'm glad you like the illlustrations!

  4. Your pictures are absolutely stunning! My favorite has to be the Rose Elf one with the head in the bucket - so eery but incredible! Also the dancing shoes ones. Oh god screw it, I love them all!

  5. Wirst du die Bilder auch noch einzeln verkaufen? Das wäre soooooooo oberhammermegatoll *__* Die sind nämlich alle wunderschön!

  6. Wow, I love your work, you are fantastically talented.