Last week died Bohdan Butenko, one of the great Polish illustrators. His work was truly unique. It was one of the staples of our childhood reading experience because he created and illustrated so many books (allegedly over 200). The Polish People’s Republic was not a great time in Polish history in many ways but the talented illustrators who worked then certainly made it a little brighter, Butenko being one of the most joyful of them.
His style is very easy to spot, with several characteristic features:
- Simplicity. The simplicity is often deceptive because frequently finding the kind of shortcut he was so good at is the hardest thing to do. But his drawings are certainly recognizable by the scarcity of details. (It is also tempting to try to copy this if you’re the kind of kid who spends their days with crayons and pencils.)
- Bold lines. His drawings were always executed in thick, black lines which enclosed the forms.
- Flat colors. He often created in black and white but when he used colors, he did it confidently.
- Humor. One of the most endearing qualities of his work, he always tried to make the subject matter funny and lighthearted.
- Text interpretation. Rather than drawing literally what the text said, Butenko usually added a little story to it in his illustration, often making it funnier.
- Hand-written words. He had a nice way with letters, too. He often used comic book balloons and combinations of various lettering styles (always pretty simple, though).
- Good sense for layout. He wasn’t the kind of illustrator who leaves the picture for someone else to fit into the text. Instead, he often designed the whole arrangement of the elements on the page, usually drawing inspiration from comic books. Some of our favorite of his books include layout design which sort of comicsifies the text. (Not a word, I know.)
We have photographed Butenko books from our collection to illustrates the points above but mainly to share his work with you and maybe to inspire you to dig further.
This is our childhood fave, Butenko’s interpretation of classic children’s poems by Jan Brzechwa. He takes the already fun poems and makes them so much more exciting, particularly by turning them into a sort of comic but also by his visual interpretation of some of the stories.
Title page. (The cover went missing many years back.)
“How to Talk to a Dog”
“Ram” and “A Hole in the Bridge”
Sometimes Butenko illustrated for adults, too, This is his version of Philip Zimbardo’s classic on shyness, with the humorous illustrations making the theme much lighter. A hand-written cover is also a Butenko thing.
“Get a very becoming haircut…”
A children’s book about two cars dancing together. Pretty much a comic. (A favorite from my brother’s childhood, he was always into cars.)
A book on geometry for children, notice how Butenko handles the page layouts.
An interpretation of Kipling’s story about the domestication of a cat. This is a little bizarre but very interesting in its combination of the slightly somber, old-fashioned fairy tale with Butenko’s visual wit and energy. Also, the pagination is awesome.
This is an example of his work for small children, telling stories without words through one of the classic characters he invented.
And one more Brzechwa poem, this time laid out into an entire cardboard book.
This is his work for older children, with black and white illustrations, a sort of action adventure tale.
Do you have a favorite Butenko book? Or a favorite childhood illustrator?