The Green Ship

okt 22, 2018

In this blog I will discuss ’the Green Ship’ by Quentin Blake and how the illustrator captures the essence of the story in his drawings. Quentin Blake always knows how to move me with his drawings; the way he handles serious and difficult themes (for instance, in the Green ship, how to live on after your loved one has died – and how to come to terms with the changeability of life in general) with a playfulness and lightness that seem very truthful to me.

The spontaneous quality of his drawing has often been discussed. One way he achieves this is with his ‘lightbox technique’, which he has explained in several interviews and videos:

Quentin Blake, 2014, Ten minutes of illustration part 2

So what he tells us is, that he does not transfer his sketch to the final drawing by tracing on the lightbox. He draws it again, as if drawing for the first time. The lightbox just guarantees that he can use what he already knows about character and composition; he makes sure that he can see the underlying sketch well enough to use it as a guideline, but not too clearly – so as to allow for spontaneity in making it new. This new-ness seems to me to be an important element: because essence can only be captured in the ‘here and now’, connecting to it at the moment you are drawing, not letting your knowledge of how it ‘should be’ get in the way.


This spontaneity results in drawings that are sketch-like: the lines vary in thickness and are open in places, deliberately unprecise. They serve to bring across gestures and movement more than precise, realistic forms. As art historian and picture book specialist Jane Doonan tells us: ‘Blake generally focuses on his characters’ actions and gestures, giving only as much background as is needed to suggest the physical and emotional setting.’ (Doonan 2000, p.55)


Let’s look at this example from ’the Green Ship’:

Quentin Blake, 1998, The Green Ship

The gesture in this illustration is very clear: the children have explored through dense foliage and now push aside ‘a screen of branches and saw something absolutely astonishing’ (Blake 1998). The way their arms and faces and bodies are positioned suggests their reaction to the open space they are seeing, and makes you anticipate the next page where indeed a wide open space with something remarkable is seen (picture below). But the hands, the foliage, the arms, the clothing: it is all drawn with quite a lot of tempo, not worrying about the ‘correctness’ of it. In this way Quentin Blake captures essence very well and has inspired many illustrators.

And can an illustrator also capture the essence of a complete story in his illustrations? The story of ’the Green Ship’ is about a brother and a sister who accidently find the garden of the older widow Mrs. Tredegar. It is told by the adult voice of the brother, looking back on his childhood. They discover a big ship made out of plants and trees. By navigating this ship, Mrs.Tredegar remembers her husband, who was a sea captain. The children play with Mrs.Tredegar on the ship, sailing it in their fantasy. On the last day of their holiday, the children spend the night on the ship, when a big storm hits it… Mrs. Tredegar sails the ship through the night, safely landing it in port, while the children sleep.

…..”From the children’s perspective this is all that happens. But of course it is not a child’s voice that speaks to us. On the opening that describes the aftermath of the storm, we are told: ‘And then Mrs. Tredegar walked out across the grass and with a long trail of ivy tied up the battered ship as if she had come into port at last.’ There is an ambiguity as to whether ‘she’ refers to the ship, the widow, or both.” (Doonan 2000, p.65)

So the essence of the story is the mourning process of the widow, but also the creative play with the children; how everything always changes and how we can still ‘play on’ even through loss and change. How do we see this in the pictures?

Jane Doonan analyzes this picture by noting how the perspective distances the viewer and inspires a ‘reflective response’, and how the distance between the children and Mrs. Tredegar symbolizes the end of their summer together, now the need to re-create the past is over. She also mentions that the trail of ivy linking the widow to the ship might symbolize her sustained bond with the children; in the story the children visit Mrs.Tredegar every year, even into adulthood (Doonan, 2000).

While I am hesitant to overthink the meaning of a drawing, it is indeed quite beautiful how the children respectfully watch the widow and how she literally has space to come to terms with her journey. The bond between the widow and the children becomes very visible in this picture – mainly because their surroundings are without detail. So composition also plays an important part in capturing essence, as does colour: it is all green around them, simple and quiet, with the morning sun glowing warmly, depicted with a simple suggestion of orange. The children have helped the widow to ‘steer into the eye of the storm’ and to ‘come through’, by just being there with their innocence, imagination and playfulness. They are the only colourful elements in all the greenness besides the widow and the morning sun.


The colours are not always neatly ‘between borders’, and you can see some white patches in the green left open by the chance of the brush moving. It’s the not-perfectness of it all that makes the drawings very open and playful.

Then the final pictures of the book:

In the first picture, we see the ship starting to lose shape, because the gardener says ‘he’s getting too stiff to climb up and trim the masts and that Mrs.Tredegar doesn’t seem to mind’. In the second picture, this process is rapidly accelerating. On the right, the two children (now adults), walk away from their yearly visit to Mrs. Tredegar and her gardener. The accompanying text is this: ‘And so gradually, year by year, the trees are growing back into their old shape; they are becoming ordinary trees, and soon there will be no longer any way at all of knowing that they were once the Green Ship.’ (Blake, 1998).

This really moved me. The big green shape of the boat, filling two pages, making you see and feel that in a while no boat will be visible at all, just nature changing; and the two figures, tiny on the right, having moved on to adulthood and maybe forgetting about childlike wonder.

They go their own way, talking, living, which is emphasized by the greyness of their silhouettes in the pink setting sun, and the gesture of the woman talking, or waving goodbye. But in their memory always this big ship, the bond with the old lady and what it meant to them. The last picture also resonates with the first, in which the children are also tiny in the whole of nature, moving toward their adventure with curiosity and openness:


So Quentin Blake captures essence like this: through his sketch-like use of line, his use of composition where large areas are just suggested and others are detailed, his emphasizing of gesture and movement, and his loose use of transparant color to suggest shapes and moods.

But that is not really an answer at all. I could go on with his use of shape, of characterization, of EVERYTHING! What brings these things together in a coherent story about essence? The search goes on in my next blogs…


Blake, Q. (1998) The Green Ship. London: Jonathan Cape

Blake, Q. (2014) Ten minutes of illustration part 2. Available at: (accessed: nov.11, 2018)

Doonan, J. (2000) ‘Quentin Blake, The Children’s Laureate: Selected Picture Books‘, Children’s Literature in Education, Vol. 31, No. 2, 2000, p.55/63-65