12 May 2011

Designs on Illustrating The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

A British website called Blank Pages is inviting artists to collaborate in illustrating L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, each piece of art inspired by one page of the novel.

Obviously, the organizers chose that book because it’s in the public domain around the world, and conjures up a lot of striking visual images. However, many of those images come from the 1939 Technicolor movie rather than the text of the book. Thus, Baum’s Dorothy wears silver shoes, but one artist has contributed a couple of images of ruby slippers. (At least I think both come from the same artist; it’s definitely the same slippers.)

A more striking visual problem with the project is that the text itself is obviously a Project Gutenberg transcription laid out in an ugly, hard-to-read design. Much more attention is going to the art and user interface than to the words that started it all.

That’s a sad irony because W. W. Denslow’s design for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900 was a masterpiece of the book art. In addition to four-color plates, Denslow created two-color illustrations throughout the book, with the second color spreading behind the black text. The tints in those drawings reflected Dorothy’s progress through the color-coded land of Oz. In the spread above, for example, the green signals that she has come close to the Emerald City.

The Blank Pages format can’t replicate that overlapping effect, but it could do much better on the design side.


Chaucerian said...

I remember as a child noticing the green color in the illustrations that you mention. Never did I think of printers, inkers, designers, layout artists -- I just thought it was natural that the pages would become green as they approached the Emerald City. (This is probably related to my still thinking, many decades later, that Oz is real.)

J. L. Bell said...

Color was a big part of the Oz books as originally published. They had color plates, color printing on the pages, or (in the case of The Road to Oz) colored paper.

But my generation grew up mostly with the “white cover” editions, issued without color illustrations on bright white paper. Baum’s texts still emphasized the colors of Oz, but we had to imagine it from black and white.