I know that I’ve previously talked about Chris Van Allsburg on here, and I wanted to do a follow-up post to talk more broadly about his work.

Van Allsburg studied sculpture at the University of Michigan and the Rhode Island School of Design. In order to make his time in the studio more efficient, he began to sketch his ideas, in particular for bronze casting, at home. His wife encouraged him to use these sketches for illustrations in children’s books, which eventually led to him publishing his first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, at the age of thirty-one.

His background as an established, talented sculptor who then became an illustrator perhaps explains his later work—specifically the spatial depth and realism his images evoke. Van Allsburg’s work shows close fidelity to perspective, shadow, weight, and momentum: all concepts crucial to depicting three-dimensional objects and space in a two-dimensional medium.

In The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, precise linear perspective combines with subtle shading to deepen every setting. Whether it’s the corridor of shrubs in the topiary garden, the rooms of Gasazi’s home, or the marble staircases— they all stretch away from the viewer like photos that have been traced.

Another signature aspect of this perspective is Van Allsburg’s characteristically low angle. Not only do the illustrations use a strong linear perspective, they also take the vertical position of a child’s eyes. We see the world as if we were a child actually in the home of Gasazi, not as an adult or some disembodied gaze.

But his real mastery lies in his subversion of that realism with surrealist stories and images—like a steam engine trudging down a suburban street or a stampede of rhinos barreling through a living room.

These images hold more power and intrigue precisely because they occur in environments that seem real. While the rhinos of Jumanji are surreal guests in the living room, they have weight and shadow and perspective like real rhinos. The image is striking because it’s exactly how we would imagine it to look, even though the situation is implausible.

From a bed suddenly caught in the branches of a tree to a house careening through outer space, we, as readers, have no trouble coming along for the ride because these images enchant us with a “realistic” surrealism.

The true brilliance of his work though, in my view, is Van Allsburg’s sense of subtle mystery. I distinguish this from his sense of surrealism because it’s a much more understated characteristic.

In almost every illustration, there is one element of the image that remains unseen to us. Faces are cast in shadows or cropped out of the frame, characters are turned away from us, you can see just the hint of a shape outside your view, and you almost want to tilt the book in hopes of getting just a little more of a look at whatever is obscured.

My favorite example of this secrecy and ambiguity comes in Van Allsburg’s alphabet book, The Z Was Zapped. For the letter B, which was “bitten,” a dog’s muzzle pants above a monument of the letter with a huge chunk missing. The minimal language is accompanied by an image that shows us who bit the letter (without actually telling us that it was “by the dog”) and yet keeps enough hidden for even this simple image to spark our imagination.

To look at the pages of Van Allsburg’s books to look through a window into a world simultaneously familiar and foreign, known and unknown—tinged with mystery.

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