Books·How I Wrote It

Why Barbara Reid made the background the star of Picture the Sky

Award winning plasticine artist Barbara Reid invites young readers to look up — way up — in Picture the Sky.
Barbara Reid is an award-winning author and illustrator of children's books. (Ian Chrysler)

Picture the Sky is the latest release from celebrated Canadian plasticine artist Barbara Reid, whose earlier book Picture a Tree was nominated for a Governor General's Literary Award in 2011. 

Picture the Sky was shortlisted for the 2018 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award and was chosen by readers to win CBC's Fan Choice Contest

In her own words, Reid tells CBC Books about the process of creating Picture the Sky

Starting with the background

"Once you spend a lot of time looking at trees, it's hard not to notice the sky. Over time, I started paying attention and noticing how much the light in the sky made a difference to a scene. With Picture a Tree, the sky was the background so often. Because of the process with plasticine, you start with the background and build forward. When kids are building art that way, they go crazy with the sky. They experiment and make streaky clouds and sunsets. Whereas when they're just colouring — especially young kids — they tend to make a blue stripe and it's like 'Oh yeah, and the sky.'

"I started to look at kids' art and plasticine art and I thought, 'There's something here.'"

An interior shot from Picture the Sky by Barbara Reid. (North Winds Press)

Sky-gazing in the name of research

"Once I started researching the book and looking at a lot of paintings and painters that I love, I realized how often you look at the subject matter and you don't realize how much is set up by the sky. Looking at the Group of Seven and not looking at the trees changed everything. You realize they knew what they were doing.

"Every time you're out you find yourself thinking, 'What about this? What about that?' I'd see a kid on a ferris wheel and think, 'Oh that's when you're in the sky.' I did a lot of research that way — just by noticing." 

An interior shot from Picture the Sky by Barbara Reid. (North Winds Press )

Celebrating the science of sky-gazing

"I think there's a crossover that often gets overlooked between art and science. They are both about observing something and then trying to understand it — whether you're trying to understand the mechanics of it, or how it's affecting your mood, or how colours get built up. All those directions begin with observing something and being curious about it. An artist will respond differently than a scientist than a musician, but it's all related to observation to me — and the actual, physical world. 

"I think with everything I do I hope it might make people think, 'Oh, I know that feeling!' or 'Yeah, I've seen that too!' It's accessible. Children can see a sky and whatever they're going through, it's continuity. It's something." 

Barbara Reid's comments have been edited for length and clarity.