Dušan Pavlić’s Style Games: Original and unconventional strategies of illustration in the market of children’s books

Symposium of the 26th Biennial of Illustration in Bratislava, Slovakia
Topic: Art versus commerce. The role of artistic illustration in the contemporary world of commerce. Original and unconventional illustration strategies.

M.A. Senka Vlahović
Banat Cultural Center, Novo Miloševo
Dušan Pavlić’s Style Games
Original and unconventional strategies of
illustration in the market of children’s books


The books Style Games 1 and Style Games 2 by authors Simeon Marinković, the writer, and Dušan Pavlić, the illustrator, published by Kreativni centar (Belgrade, Serbia) emerge as: a specific original and unconventional unity of words and images; a superb example of an intertextual intertwining of messages originating from two communication codes – the verbal and the visual code; an example of how multiple variations of the same narrative matrix, in different style forms, both in images and in text, encourage and induce the imagination of gifted creators to upgrade the basic narrative matrix and testify to the immense field of creativity; they appear as an example of leaning on the post-modern domination of form over content, this time in creativity intended for children (which is a rarity) but at a time of contemporary art, which has surpassed post-modernism, at a time of global capitalism and neoliberalism, of extensive networking and new digital technologies and media.

Illustration, as a carrier of a powerful communication code in the contemporary context of art, the market and society in general, represents an area that is experiencing a unique renaissance, as witnessed by Style Games 1 and 2. At a time of development of creative economy, original creativity and richness of the human spirit represent not only a permanent spiritual value but also a potential competitive advantage. Kreativni centar, as a leading children`s publisher in Serbia, with an international reputation and numerous publishing rights sold and publications translated abroad, recognized this moment in the book market and dared to publish something seemingly completely non-commercial, hiring one of the best illustrators in Serbia to first illustrate the book Style Games 1 and then, as this book achieved a surprising success by receiving multiple prestigious awards in Serbia, the  second, even more extensive and richer venture – Style Games 2. As the second part also reaped the awards, exhibitions of book illustrations and an increased media interest followed. The exhibition has even given rise to an expert panel discussion The importance of illustration in children`s books. Illustration, as applied art conditionally speaking, originated from a book as a market product and found itself on the walls of non-commercial galleries testifying to the continuous circle of art and everyday life, which confirms the value of illustration as equal to that of fine art, but also the possibility of cutting-edge visual art to be mass-reproduced in thousands of copies in books.

Style Games of images and text

What kind of Style Games has led the author of this text to write this type of introduction? It is the Style Games involving the fable of the raven and the fox. The famous story speaks about a fox who tricked the raven, who stood high up on a tree branch, and stole a piece of cheese from him by utilizing its cunningness and the raven`s vanity. This well-known narrative was told by the writer in more than 150 ways, by changing the form and style: the form of a poem, prose text, comic, text message, letter, newspaper article, as a hymn, ode, lullaby, elegy, toast, love poem, sonnet wreath, comedy, tragedy, or through examples of numerous literary figures of speech and manners of storytelling and singing. This manual on literary forms and styles also contains explanations on the forms and styles used in telling the story which provides it with an educational tone. In each of these literary texts the foundation is the fable of the raven and the fox told in a different way. The raven and the fox are illustrated in the same number of ways. It sounds unlikely to someone who has not seen the books Style Games 1 and 2 that interesting works can be created by drawing the same topic over a hundred times.

The duo Marinković – Pavlić has succeeded in producing stylistic variations of the same narrative in an interesting fashion, still holding on to the thread that connects them in this imaginative upgrade – i.e. to the intertextual relationship with the fable – but also in offering the reader with a multitude of new information, details, descriptions, characters, incidental stories and events. What personifies the quality and value of the relationship between word and image in these books is their mutual synergy. The illustrator made an effort not to repeat what the writer had already said (only to a necessary extent) but to add to the unsaid via the images. This way, both the pictures and the text in these books comprise an inseparable entity, it could be said that one is incomplete without the other and that they are what they are exclusively when together.

When it comes to illustrated books “we are in a situation in which we have to read two works of art – the illustration and the literary text, which are mutually interacting or represent a context for one another, but certainly co-create, perhaps it can be said, a third mutual text, a text that unifies them and refers to the overall impression which the book, as a whole, has on the reader” (Vlahović Filipov 2015: 63). Therefore, in the books Style Games 1 and 2, the word represents a context for the image and the image represents a context for the word and together they create a hybrid, multi-layered work whose elements form a symbiosis with a multitude of intertextual relationships. These characteristics will certainly not be important nor recognizable to children, or even to average adult readers, but they represent those invisible ties between the codes of the book as an artistic whole which allow the reader to enjoy, learn, have fun, time and again waiting to see what type of textual/visual whole will be used in telling/depicting the well-known fable. It is important to emphasize that the book as an art object comprised of words and images is unified here by professional design, graphic equipment and printing.

Style Games of illustrator Dušan Pavlić

This creative challenge can only be overcome by formed, skilled and experienced illustrators who mastered the skills and techniques of drawing but also possess a liberated unconscious creative part of their creative being, providing the illustrator with the possibility to deliver an imaginative addition to the text, to enrich it, make it come to life, complete it… The repetition of the same narrative matrix, in different forms or style, has made it possible for the illustrator to manifest the richness of his talent in its entirety and to offer multiple variations, approaches, illustration techniques pertaining to the same topic. As the end of the second book draws near, the illustrator’s imagination appears to grow in its magnitude and freedom, the characters, events and scenes become more and more unusual and original, which is necessary, because the same stereotypical image cannot be repeated so many times in two books: the raven sitting on a branch with the cheese, and the fox sitting under a tree.

The illustrator implements his Style Games with the visual story about the raven and the fox in a number of ways, always accompanying the writer’s text in a fair co-authorial manner by enriching it and emphasizing it without suffocating it. Hence, this is achieved in the following ways:
- through motifs: by adding characters, motifs or actions which do not exist in the text; in this sense, the illustrator’s imagination is very rich and makes the writer’s work unimaginable without illustrations done by this author in particular.
-  through characterization of the major and minor story actors: sometimes they are in the real form of animals, sometimes they are walking on two legs like humans, sometimes the fox/raven is male and sometimes female, various emotions of characters are highly emphasized.
- through technique, apparently always using computer technique (the author perhaps only initiated some illustrations on paper): pale coloured hatched drawing; two-dimensional illustrations without shadowing or hatching, coloured in a simple fashion in clear shades; richly depicted, saturated in colour, nuanced by details, shadows, illustration colour shades etc.
- through the artistic expression: by alternating the approaches to combining colours, textures, compositions; some illustrations are done in extremely contrasting colour combinations, others are monochromatic or done in harmonious colour combinations, some are pale in colour, some are almost black and white, some are done in extremely dark non-contrasting colour combinations, others in extremely bright colour tones, in some places the characters are completely stylized, almost as if on posters, in a designer fashion, in other places they are richly depicted, in some places there is a spatial dimension which is lacking in others…
- by relying on the style and form of the writer’s work (e.g. the haiku form of the fable of the raven and the fox leads the illustrator to draw the raven and the fox in a seated position, meditating). 
-  by relying on the time, space and context i.e. on some peculiarity of the writer’s text (e.g. the epic poem Bugarštica which has a medieval theme is represented by the illustrator by presenting the fox as a lady and the raven as a knight in armour, in accordance with the time period to which the form and content of the song relate to).

If we think about it more carefully, the raven and the fox are animals that are not generally liked; children’s books are full of bears, rabbits, kittens, puppies, domestic and for the most part lovely and beautiful animals, or others that are dangerous, fearless, fantastic, mythological. How can these animals be made interesting and appealing to children with the book having a certain value both from the literary and the visual standpoint? Certainly, through an artistic upgrade. Partly owing to the writer and partly to the illustrator, the fox and the raven make an unusual combination. Sometimes they are a male-female couple whose love sparks. The struggle over the cheese turns into a kind of seduction game. Often the fox is depicted as a lovely lady and the raven as a charming man. The characterization of story actors is extremely important here, which is something the illustrator is successful at – evoking the fox’s cunningness, deceitfulness, the care of the fox as a mother for its offspring, or the raven’s vanity, disappointment, its attitude the old man, the female raven, the fox…

We are familiar with the famous saying Couples who fight together, stay together. On the front page of Style Games 2 an odd couple – the fox and the raven, dance almost as if they were in love. Who would say that these are the characters from the fable whose struggle for survival and over a piece of cheese reminds us of cunningness and vanity? Yes, it is exactly them in one of the illustration style games of Dušan Pavlić.

What makes this book unconventional and original in the illustration sense? The same characters depicted in various ways, the richness of artistic expression and techniques, because we are accustomed to books being consistently illustrated in the same manner, that one character has the same appearance from the beginning to the end of the book and not a different one on every illustration. Still, despite these differences, as readers we never lose the feeling that these are the same characters, that we are in a world of two books which are, despite all stylistic variations, coherent and compact as a whole. This is ensured by the witty, informal, relaxed, but still consistently professionally serious and committed illustration approach of Dušan Pavlić.

In his interview for the newspaper Danas, the illustrator has attempted to fathom the secret of the emergence of such unusual books. „Both of the Style Games books were created in a specific way. Rarely have I had so much freedom in my work until now. The writer simply handed me the text with a lot of confidence. I was lucky, so I was able to start and complete the illustrations without much hassle. Maybe that is where the secret lies “. The illustrator has, it seems, like a child, freed his creative potential and produced a rich and original result. In the rationale behind the prestigious Serbian prize – Neven, which was awarded for the book Style Games, both his talent and achievement are confirmed: „Dušan easily performs upgrades by using his drawing skills. The likable, skilful, diverse, fun, warm drawings once again demonstrate great knowledge and one of the already confirmed best Serbian illustrators Dušan Pavlić“ (Marković 2017: 14).

Analysis of individual illustrations

The illustration for the poem Lullaby for little foxes. The poem is the fox’s lullaby for her children. From the poem we cannot learn most of the things that can be seen on the illustration, apart from the fact that it is evening and that the fox is putting them to bed. The entire scene is the illustrator’s upgrade: the fox’s lair in between the roots of a tree, the details of a warm home, a new moon, three little foxes, an owl on a branch… The illustrator has conveyed the warmth of a mother’s love and care for her offspring from the poem onto the image. The illustration is rich in detail, nuances, shades and texture (Style Games, pp.42).

The illustration of the poem The raven’s pantum to his female. The poem in the form of a pantum is the raven’s cry to the female raven over the cheese that was taken from him by the fox. However, in the image we can only see a raven in flight as he is tearing off a piece of cheese. The illustration is maximally reduced, two-dimensional, with no colour shades, shadows, hatching, details, in two colours with an emphasized complementary contrast. It reminds of a designer or poster solution. The bird is, also, very reduced and almost grotesque in shape, stylized (Style Games 2, pp. 72).

The illustration of the poem Chorus represents the communication between the fox and the raven after the event with the cheese. The depiction shows a scene that does not appear in the text, apart from the word trap – which probably prompted the illustrator to draw the event from the fable differently this time: the fox has made a trap with an intention to trip the raven up in order to snatch his cheese. The characters are walking on two legs as people, which is not always the case in this book (Style Games 2, pp. 122).

The fable of the raven and the fox told in the form of a haiku poem. The illustrator communicates with the origin of the haiku form related to the Far East, in a nice way with his characters meditating under the cherry blossom with the cheese between them as if it was not the object of their quarrel. The simple artistic expression, in bright colours, without too many details, without the dimension of space, without shadows, colour nuances. It possesses a certain amount of humour (Style Games 1, pp. 62).

The fable told in a nervous manner in the story Nervous prompted the illustrator to reinvent the entire context in which the story is told. The content of the depiction does not exist in the story. The story is, of course, about the raven and the fox, and here their forest friends are nervously discussing the event of the cheese snatching. The emphasized line drawing, pale in colours, an artistic expression entirely different from previous examples. Without strong contrasts and colour saturation (Style Games 1, pp. 24).

The illustration of the poem Bugarštica whose title represents a form of an epic heroic poem, which is the style that it is written in, speaks about the courageous behaviour of the raven and about the lady fox who got the cheese. The illustrator presents the characters as belonging to the Middle Ages. The raven, the hero in armour, drops the cheese when he sees the beauty of the lady fox… A stylized background, without the spatial dimension, an image frame in shapes resembling heraldic items. The fox is sophisticated and pretty. The colours are dimmed, with a contrast of reddish-brown and green tones. The form is somewhat reduced but the foreground is still three-dimensional while the background is flat and decorative (Style Games 2, pp. 10, 11).


The richness of the illustration expressions in symbiosis with the writer’s work has made the books Style Games 1 and Style Games 2 challenging and interesting both for reading and for viewing. At the present moment they represent an exception in the illustration and publishing arena of commercially illustrated children’s books which are, as instant products of the consumer society, quickly forgotten and spent. The originality of illustrations and their visual richness make the books Style Games 1 and 2 stand out in the book market, even though conditionally speaking they are non-commercial, precisely because of their unusualness and impressiveness. This is evidenced by numerous awards, media book reports and illustration exhibitions.

Whether the market competition game in Serbia can take this type of a publishing venture, even though the attention of the media and the professional public is noticeable, or whether it is the publisher’s social responsibility, is an issue open for debate. In any case it is a bold move by the publisher and a grand effort by the writer and illustrator, which will surely leave a mark in the cultural sense, both from the standpoint of children’s literature and the standpoint of illustration.

Illustration as an art discipline, in circumstances such as the publication of the books Style Games 1 and Style Games 2, gains an opportunity to show itself in its full glory as a carrier of a powerful visual communication code, aesthetic and cultural values in the context of the galaxy of images and intensive and rapid visual communications in the time that we live in. Illustrations such as these in Style Games 1 and 2 enrich our visual culture and readership and represent, with their originality and imaginative playing, a wall of defence from mediocrity, plagiarism and the banal sentimentality in the market of children’s books.

Marinković, Simeon, Pavlić, Dušan, Style Games, Belgrade, Kreativni centar, 2014.
Marinković, Simeon, Pavlić, Dušan, Style Games 2, Belgrade, Kreativni centar, 2016.
Marković, Slavica, Style Games : exhibition of illustrations by Dušan Pavlić : Atrium Gallery, The Library of the City of Belgrade, from March 28th until April 19th 2017, Belgrade, Kreativni centar, 2017.
Tasić, Jelena, Dušan Pavlić: Good publishers possess a small spark of childhood in them, In: Danas, http://www.danas.rs/kultura.11.html?news_id=342275&title=Du%C5%A1an+Pavli%C4%87%3a+Dobri+urednici+u+sebi+%C4%8Duvaju+malu+iskru+deteta (1st May 2017)
Vlahović Filipov, Senka, Video-illustration of a Book: A New Look at Illustration and Creating the Image of Books in Public, Belgrade, The Academy of Arts, Novo Miloševo, Banat Cultural centre, 2015.