By D.B. Johnson, Author and Illustrator

Creating Palazzo Inverso was a challenging, exhilarating, mind-crazy experience that began when I saw M.C. Escher’s lithograph, Cycle (1938). In it, Escher depicted a joyful boy rushing down the entry stairs of a beautifully stuccoed Italian villa (a palazzo) and disappearing into a maze of boy-shaped black, white and gray tessellated tiles on the terrace floor below. The art was gorgeous in its geometric simplicity and seeming realism, but at the same time it vibrated with contradiction. Flat floors rose up in three dimensions while the boy flattened into a jumble of abstract shapes. While I’ve always loved Escher’s art—those impossible buildings with stairways looping endlessly in every direction or the hand drawing a hand that’s drawing itself—I realized for the first time that his playfulness meshed perfectly with my desire to write a kids’ book you could read to the end, turn upside-down and read back to the beginning. I hoped to create mind-stretching optical illusions to inspire kids. I named the joyful boy Mauk (Escher’s boyhood nickname) and began
my sketches.

My very first picture book, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, introduced the ideas of my favorite writer Henry David Thoreau through the character of a kid-friendly bear. Since then I have been intent on capturing the spirit of great writers and artists for kids. Instead of biographies with timelines, I write stories to stimulate kids’ imaginations. Palazzo Inverso captures the spirit of Escher in a mischievous boy apprenticed to the builder of a grand palazzo. It reveals an upside-down world full of surprising impossibilities in which kids might feel the power and exhilaration of running on a ceiling and knowing that all things are still possible.

Artist's Sketch

I made a book-dummy complete with sketches that suggested Escher’s optical illusions and his intertwined images, called tessellations. I tried to capture the magic of his stairs that both ascend and descend, and those impossible upside-down rooms. I reveled in the little deceptions necessary for the art to make sense when turned on its head, and I played with perceptions of positive and negative space. My greatest challenge was to create Escher-like images without inviting a comparison I could not possibly match.

For the final art work, I drew each image right-side up, then turned it over and redrew it, adding Mauk’s figure right-side up. Or I drew him from above so that he would look right no matter how the picture was turned. To re-create the warm tones of Escher’s lithographs, I made a sepia-colored underpainting on coquille board. That surface has a “lithograph-like” texture that is my signature style. Finally I added an overlay of Prismacolor pencils in grays, browns and black. 

While I think of Palazzo Inverso as a celebration of Escher’s work, I also see its higher purpose: to celebrate the genius of the bound book in the face of digital ubiquity. On the last page, Mauk’s adventure turns upside down along with the book, as he races back to the beginning where “every day was the same.” Like the analog clock that shows time in all its roundness, Palazzo Inverso is circular, the sort of endless loop Escher would love. As a final touch, I decided to make it possible to turn each two-page spread, allowing the last word on the bottom of the page to smoothly connect with the first word in the upside-down text at the top. I drove myself crazy for several weeks getting it all to work as imagined…until at last, my palazzo was finished.

Meet D.B. Johnson at the Currier Museum of Art’s November 8, 2014 Escher Super Saturday. He will be talking about his process, doing an illustration demonstration, and signing copies of Palazzo Inverso.