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  • "...and he planted a vineyard"The Art of Peter Spier
  • Patricia Dooley

In the early ninth century artists working at Rheims produced a new style of drawing that was to influence the appearance not only of Continental book art but of English manuscripts two hundred years later. The line drawings in the Utrecht Psalter were not confined by frames but moved restlessly across the page between the lines of the text. The small figures and their surroundings were depicted in outlines that seemed to shiver and vibrate. A frenetic liveliness still emanates from every detail of the vigorously expressive compositions. [End Page 1]

It is instructive to recall this tradition in appreciating the vivacious and animated style of Peter Spier's illustrations. The connection is particularly interesting in the case of a book like Noah's Ark,1 which shares with its Carolingian predecessors a Biblical period and incident; but even without a common subject area the agitated gestures, urgent movement of line, and complex but delicate composition of Spier's work connects it to the Psalter and its descendants.

Peter Spier was raised not far from Utrecht. Born (1927) and educated in Amsterdam, he lived with his family in "the small romantic village" of Broek, familiar to us (though not, Spier claims, to the inhabitants) as the birthplace of Hans Brinker. His own account of childhood journeys to school in the city makes quotidien commuting sound like a diverting adventure, enlivened by vivid sights, sound, and smells;2 clearly, Spier's eye (and ear and nose) for detail developed early, and from the first he found means of expression. "I cannot remember a time when I did not dabble with clay, draw, or see someone draw, for my father, the illustrator and journalist Jo Spier, worked at home. So I grew up with it all." 3

After art school, the army, and newspaper work in Paris and Houston (Texas), Spier came to New York, in the early '50's. Here he began to illustrate children's books (and later to write his own texts for illustration), and here it must have been that a major element differentiating his art from that of the Utrecht Psalter and from newspaper work entered indissolubly into his style. Color is ineed such an intrinsic part; of Spier's illustrations that the line-drawing tradition is all but submerged by it.

Among his enormous output are a number "idea" books, like Crash! Bang! Boom, Gobble, Growl, Grunt, and Fast-Slow, High-Low, where [End Page 30] concepts are presented with humor and spirit in candy-stick colors. But most readers reserve their greatest enthusiasm for his renderings of nursery rhymes and narratives. In addition to Spier's delicate, lively and expressive style, the appeal of these books rests on the charm of their period settings, their local color, and a sometimes thin but always freshly imaged story line.

Spier recognizes that the source of his success is this quality of "first-hand" observation and authenticity. "I first find out as much as possible about subject or region. Then I go there, sketchbook in hand, to collect the hundreds of details, that go into the making of these books."4 Static sources cannot convey the feeling of movement and spirit he seeks. "I cannot make things come alive from photographs, travel posters, or from looking at National Geographic. I must become a part of the location I am to draw!"5

On the technical side, Spier has said that he strives "to retain the effect of a colored pen drawing," using only blue, red, and yellow watercolor in the color separation process, so that "there is no black halftone in the books at all, which I believe helps the impression of crispness."6

But the liveliness on Spier's pages is not empty or unthinking. Behind the superficial confusion there lies a wealth of information. The eye is drawn again and again over the details while the data they convey sink in. Who could fail to be absorbed by the endpapers cataloguing Tin Lizzie's parts, or the census map of New Amsterdam in his most recent book? Whether the subject is a nursery rhyme...