Behind-the-Scenes of the Big Picture Story Bible and the ESV Big Picture Bible

Valuable Resources for Connecting Children with Scripture

Since 2004, the Big Picture Story Bible has helped parents, churches, and ministries teach children that the Bible is more than just a collection of stories. Rather, all of these individual stories fit together to tell the overarching story of God's love for the world. Simple words and striking illustrations unfold the storyline of God's Word from Genesis to Revelation.

The ESV Big Picture Bible (July 2015) carries on this legacy, but with an eye toward reaching children ages 5–8 as they transition from a storybook Bible to a full-text Bible. In addition to over 90 beautiful, child-friendly illustrations adapted from the Big Picture Story Bible, 225 brand-new illustrations created specifically for this new edition are included and interspersed throughout the full Bible text.

In the following interview, illustrator Gail Schoonmaker gives us a behind-the-scenes look at her work illustrating both the Big Picture Story Bible and the ESV Big Picture Bible.

How did you originally get involved with the Big Picture Story Bible?

The Big Picture Story Bible by David Helm grew out of a family devotional project created by members of Chicago’s Holy Trinity Church (HTC), to supplement and reinforce Sunday School lessons that traced the plotline of the Bible. At the time when David showed me his wonderful manuscript, I simply happened to be the only visual artist attending HTC. He asked me to consider painting twelve illustrations that we could photocopy and distribute to our families along with the story, and I thought we could use a few more. When I finished about twenty paintings for the first three chapters, David was persuaded to show the project to Crossway. The Design team was gracious, had me start over with a change of materials and some excellent pointers, and patiently coached me through the long endeavor. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to be part of such a meaningful project.

How did you decide what Bible scenes to illustrate for the new ESV Big Picture Bible?

Crossway commissioned 226 original illustrations for the ESV Big Picture Bible, to be mingled with existing illustrations from the Big Picture Story Bible. Sixty-six of the new paintings were to introduce each book of the Bible, but the placement and subjects of the other 160 were left up to me.

I wanted to spread the illustrations out more or less evenly, hoping to place one every few pages. I plotted where we might place the Big Picture Story Bible pictures, marked the sixty-six book introductions, and literally counted the pages between these to determine possible locations for the other 160 new illustrations. In narrative passages, it was easy to find topic scenes for their corresponding illustrations. In non-narrative passages, it was sometimes a challenge to figure out what to paint—in which case I searched surrounding pages for inspiration, moving the illustration forward or back a bit when necessary.

The illustrations for the beginning of each book often depict an early scene in that book, especially if the book contains several other illustrations. For books short enough to only require a single illustration for the introduction, I often painted a collage of scenes or themes from the book. I’d like to think that readers will discover meaning in the illustrations as they read through the book itself. For example, below are the introductory illustrations for 2 Corinthians (left) and Habakkuk (right):

What was your process for actually creating the illustrations? What materials did you use? Where did you start?

I began each illustration by reading the passage or book in which it appears, and then jotting down notes about what to include. I read study notes and looked up terms I wasn't familiar with (acacia, yoke, jackal, myrtle, hyssop, flax, lyre, etc.). Here are some pages from my sketchbook, drawn with an ordinary mechanical pencil:

Rather than starting in Genesis and moving through the Bible to Revelation, I worked my way through several books in sequence, then I skipped to another section and genre. This kept the long project fresh, and it didn’t leave all the difficult parts for the end.

When I was satisfied with a drawing, I photocopied it, resizing it to 110% of the size in which it was to appear in print. I used a light box to trace the photocopy of my drawing onto watercolor paper (Arches 140# hot press), using various sizes of waterproof India Ink pens (PITT artist pens by Faber Castell). Then I painted my drawings with a very bright variety of watercolor paints called Dr. Ph Martin’s Radiant Concentrated Water Color.

I began four paintings simultaneously and rotated through them, letting each one dry while I worked on the others. I have learned to do this because if I work on only one painting at a time, I am far too impatient to wait for each section to dry completely, and I end up running colors together just like I did in elementary school! Water and paint warp the paper a bit, so I pressed finished paintings flat overnight. Then they were ready to be scanned and placed with text by the fantastic team at Crossway.

You tackled quite a few Bible stories that are rarely illustrated in children's Bibles. Can you tell us about your decision to illustrate these stories and a bit about your approach?

Because the Big Picture Story Bible is not your typical collection of discrete Bible stories, it is unusual both in the stories it omits (fiery furnace) and in those it includes (Elijah vs. Baal). It was the author, David Helm, who chose which stories to incorporate into the larger single narrative. But it was my job to illustrate both the text (“Noah, his family, and the animals on the boat were saved . . .”) and the context (God will judge everyone who rejects him). A painting of smiling animals on a cute tugboat might illustrate a line of text, but it would misrepresent the context of catastrophic judgment.

Likewise, the devastating plagues were not about cute frogs and grasshoppers. Most children’s story Bibles understandably concentrate on Old Testament stories of triumph or deliverance, and New Testament stories about Jesus’ power and love. I love those stories! But what might be omitted there is an understanding of our big problem: our sinful, rebellious nature, the judgment we justly deserve, and our need to be saved from this judgment. It is this bad news that makes the good news of God’s rescue plan through Jesus so exquisitely good. And it is the bad news along with the good news, that I found myself illustrating at each stage of redemptive history explained in the Big Picture Story Bible—something that might make my approach seem a bit unique.

While the Big Picture Story Bible did not provide an opportunity to paint several well-known favorites, such as Samson, Jonah, or Daniel and the lions, it was a pleasure to illustrate these and many other classic stories in the ESV Big Picture Bible. In many narrative passages like those found in the Gospels, it was disappointing to leave dozens of great passages untouched. However, in many other places, I found myself drawing scenes, proverbs, laws, warnings, and encouragements I’ve never seen illustrated before, and even some I’d never read before.

It was interesting to imagine what it might look like to “put off the old self” described in Colossians 3 and “put on the new self” offered by Christ. The figure I drew (pictured below) is, without a backward glance, casting away a gray cloak depicting slavery to sin, death, anger, malice, slander, and covetousness. The figure’s attention is focused enthusiastically on Jesus, who is offering a colorful cloak depicting joy, humility, forgiveness given and received, love, peace, thankfulness, spiritual songs, growth, purity, harmony, and submission to Christ. Now if only I could perpetually keep in mind which self I have put on!

Another illustration I enjoyed designing was the introductory piece for the Book of Proverbs, where I chose to contrast Wisdom and Folly. The fool stands with his arms crossed and nose in the air, amid dark images of him shaking his fist and plugging his ears, linking arms with men of violence and drunkenness, cowering in fear, and chasing after a seductive woman. Wisdom, often personified in Proverbs with feminine pronouns, stands in an attitude of praise. She is surrounded by light images of herself reading and praying, listening to an elderly couple, working hard, and sharing her bread with others. All of the images—dark and light—were gleaned from repeated phrases throughout the Proverbs.

Discussing this process really makes me miss it! It was such a delight to develop ideas for the Big Picture Story Bible and the ESV Big Picture Bible, and it has always been my prayer that they will bless others as much as they have blessed me while working on them.

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