In the beginning was the picture. That was the thought-provoking message delivered to an audience of illustrators, librarians, and industry professionals who gathered for a November 14 event, “Reading Pictures: The Artist’s Voice and Vocabulary in Picture Books.” The event, which took place at the Society of Illustrators in New York City, was held in conjunction with the 31st annual Original Art Exhibition, which acknowledges and celebrates children’s book illustrations beyond the immediate context of the books in which they appear. The three guest speakers, Paul O. Zelinsky, Marla Frazee, and Stephen Savage, treated the audience to a surprising, intimate, and informative morning, focusing on art interpretation and the creative process.

Moderator Cecilia Yung, v-p and art director at Penguin Books for Young Readers, kicked off the program by speaking about the power of the picture. She pointed out that infants connect to the world visually before they do linguistically by noticing the “minute, subliminal details...recurring themes, and inconsistencies” that are present in their environments. But as they grow older and develop expectations and preconceptions, Yung said, they stop seeing the world in the same free and inchoate way. By continually exposing ourselves and our children to great art, she stated, we can hope to become “more fluent speakers and careful readers of visual language.”

Paul O. Zelinsky greeted the audience by saying, “I’ve been asked to let you inside my head.” After a beat, he pointed to a conspicuously blank overhead screen, remarking how it looks like that most of the time. On a serious note, Zelinsky reflected how when he was in art school, he struggled to get inside his teachers’ heads in order to understand their criticisms of his art. Through his early work with his mentors—most of whom were Abstract Expressionists—and his own creative experiences, he learned to think about a picture less as a complete representation of the world, but rather as a collection of individual forms and configurations.

Zelinsky suggested that it might help to “pretend that you are a Martian” when approaching a piece of artwork. Introducing a cartoon alien on the overhead screen, he discussed how by removing word associations and experiences with particular images, viewers can perceive art in novel ways. To demonstrate his point, Zelinsky showed the audience a picture of a mountain vista, and then replaced the scene’s recognizable physical features with mere descriptions of its essential characteristics—for example: point, zig-zag, sweep, overlap, and fuzzy randomness. A picture is a “dance of shapes, patterns, and balances,” he said.

Zelinsky then shared his own preliminary art for picture books, including The Shivers in the Fridge (Dutton) and Toys Come Home (Random/Schwartz and Wade), focusing specifically on choices he made concerning the relationship between background and foreground, angle, and movement. He concluded by explaining how the physical shapes in a picture can be designed to mimic the themes, emotions, and words present within a story.

Next to speak was Marla Frazee, who shared the “behind-the-scenes” decisions involved with illustrating Stars (S&S/Beach Lane), written by Mary Lyn Ray. Frazee detailed the book’s path to completion by telling a warm and humorous narrative about the relationship she formed with Ray (and her dog, Biscuit, too). Frazee was initially introduced to Ray by her editor, Allyn Johnston, when they took a trip to her New Hampshire farm. With its pristine antique furniture and 19th-century pastoral setting, Ray’s home gave Frazee the impression that she’d traveled back in time—and it sort of freaked her out. She described using her cell phone light to locate the bathroom, where she had a panic attack and called her husband. During a second visit to Ray’s home, Frazee, Johnston, and Ray discussed the possibility of Frazee illustrating Stars; when a shooting star streaked across the sky, Frazee took it as an undeniable sign that she should get to work.

Frazee explained how she prefers to embark upon a new illustrating project by feeling challenged, overwhelmed, and “almost afraid” of it, so her memorable experiences at Ray’s New Hampshire farm may have been just what the doctor ordered—although, being bitten on the behind by Biscuit during a subsequent visit was a little more than she’d bargained for.

Battle scars aside, Frazee went on to share her preliminary art for Stars, revealing that before she knows her characters, her early work can be “generic and stereotypical.” Thinking of each new project as a “puzzle,” Frazee spoke about the difficulties she experienced as she worked on creating the sky for Stars. The meticulous nature of her methods became clear as she described individually painting the distinctive snowflakes that appear in one of the book’s spreads. Arriving at the decision to use fireworks as a way to echo the text’s suggestion that stars are always there, but not always visible, she then struggled with how to render the scene. She shared the trade secret that she discovered with the audience: “gel pens.”

Frazee concluded by underscoring the importance of experimentation and being willing to create flawed work on the road to a finished product. Referencing her many discarded early illustrations for Stars, she said “you have to take it all the way” before knowing what works.

Stephen Savage took the stage, showing a short film in which Walrus, from Savage’s Where’s Walrus? (Scholastic Press), escapes from Savage’s illustration while he’s grabbing coffee, and ambles his way through New York City sights, arriving at the New York Public Library to claim a copy of Where’s Walrus? from the shelf.

Next, Savage informed the audience that “we’re going to pretend that we’re three-year-olds.” Projecting the book’s illustrations on the screen, he read the story aloud, prompting the crowd for sound effects and posing such questions as: “How do we know which one is the walrus?”

Savage remarked that each story he creates begins with a “what if” question. For example, he developed the idea for Where’s Walrus? by contemplating: “What if a hat falls on a walrus’s head and everyone thinks he’s a man?” He also spoke about the importance of well-designed images, the challenges of sequencing pictures in a wordless book, and his process of whittling a particular composition down to its fundamental aspects.

Referencing his early interest in naval and mid-century design, Savage showed the audience a series of vintage logos for familiar brands like Wonder Bread, LEGO, and 7-Up, before comparing them to illustrations from Where’s Walrus? He explained that, in a sense, he had intended to create a branded image in the character of Walrus through the use of color contrast, repetition, and carefully positioned shapes and angles.

Savage also explained how his work pays homage to other illustrations (Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks influenced an image in Where’s Walrus?) and how he sometimes finds on-screen inspiration, for example, Hitchcock’s use of angle in the crop-dusting scene from North by Northwest.

Savage concluded by centering on Walrus himself, comparing him to figures like Buster Keaton and Babar. “He’s just walking through life,” he said. In a brief slideshow he displayed some of the New York landmarks that Walrus explores in the book, citing how his book also demonstrates his love for New York City.

Before breaking for tours of The Original Art Exhibition, Yung encouraged the audience to note the sheer variety of voices represented within the illustrations on display, reinforcing how picture book illustrations serve as perhaps the only pure and “unfiltered” early language for children, working both collaboratively with words, and as independent, vitally important narrative vehicles.

The 31st Annual Original Art Exhibition is on display at Society of Illustrators at 128 E. 63rd St. in New York City; the exhibition is open to the public through the end of December.