If feeling stressed, one of my favourite YouTube videos to watch is Dick Bruna at work in his studio. Completely silent throughout, apart from the narration of a children’s TV presenter, the short runs through the meticulous process of creating his most beloved character: Nijntje if you’re Dutch, or to the rest of the world, Miffy.
At first, the artist draws out the famously rounded cheeks of this little rabbit onto a piece of tracing paper, neatly placed on top of a white sheet. Pressing hard, his drawing is indented in the paper below, invisible until carefully outlined with black ink, which he keeps in an ashtray, balancing a paintbrush where a cigarette would sit. Once this is drawn, the narrator explains that Bruna could spend days considering colour combinations, despite the fact he only ever worked in red, blue, green, yellow, and sometimes brown if an animal’s character required it. Then, seemingly by eye, he cuts out the shape required from specifically printed sheets of coloured paper and builds a collage. Transferring his ink drawing to a piece of transparency (like you would find for an overhead projector), and taping this delicately on top of the collage, the scene of a Miffy page appears – always perfect in its simplicity.
A Dutch artist who spent the majority of his life in the Netherlands, Dick Bruna was born in 1927, coincidentally the Chinese zodiac year of the rabbit, and passed away in 2017. His legacy, however, has been cemented in the hearts of children and parents for years. But despite his 124 picture books in over 50 languages, there was little information available about the man himself, particularly in English, until the recent publication of Dick Bruna, the latest edition of Thames & Hudson’s series The Illustrators.
“How long did it take him to achieve the simplicity? How did he manage to make them simultaneously so familiar and yet so distinctive?”Bruce Ingman
Written by illustrator and children’s book author Bruce Ingman, who prior to writing the book describes himself as a Bruna fan – “I don’t know anyone who isn’t” – the title was an opportunity to gather a deeper understanding of Bruna’s illustration approach, partly out of intrigue. “As an illustrator, you always look at the work of artists you love and think, how did he manage to achieve that?” Bruce recalls to us about the beginnings of the book. “Before our research, his art intrigued me. How long did it take him to achieve the simplicity? How did he manage to make them simultaneously so familiar and yet so distinctive?” Investigating these questions by carefully tracing the illustrator’s entire life, Bruce was keen to embed the emotional attachment readers have to Bruna in the book too. In the case of his own family, “We’ve been marking our Miffy height chart for well over ten years now.”
Travelling to Amsterdam and Utrecht to research the book, Bruce collaborated with children’s book editor Ramona Reihill closely throughout the process, together sifting through a “vast archive containing published and unpublished work, including personal drawings and ephemera from his studio,” explains the author. “This was so inspiring and made the task of compiling and writing much easier,” he says. “The most difficult task was having to limit our selection; we could have filled several books!”
In turn, Dick Bruna is a chronological journey through the artist’s immense creativity, touching on his battles with his father over his career and his wide artistic influences, distilling the heartwarming care Bruna had for his own family which ultimately inspired Miffy. The son in a long line of publishing executives (his great grandfather founded A.W Bruna and Zoon in 1868), the title begins by outlining the life Bruna was expected to step quietly into. Yet over the course of his childhood the possibility of a career creating, rather than just publishing, continually developed.
Born with clubfoot, the book details how as a child Bruna learned how to entertain himself, “reading quietly and daydreaming, a talent he would proudly never lose”. Throughout the book, Bruce explains that this came to fruition in his teenage years, and Bruna’s creative development was surprisingly helped by the second world war.
Due to his then age of 16, and his father still being only 40, the Brunas retreated into hiding to avoid forced labour when Nazi Germany launched its attack on the Netherlands and Belgium in 1943. This lengthy period of retreat “was no imposed hardship,” writes Bruce, “rather, it provided extended hours of solitude for writing, drawing, painting, composing songs, playing his accordion and, best of all, dreaming.”
Following the war, Bruna was forced to travel to Europe on work experience ahead of joining his family’s business, spending two years in London at WHSmith, and a further two at Plon, a publisher in Paris. This experience had less than the desired effect, however, with the artist finding new inspiration in artists such as Picasso, and describing the instant he saw Matisse’s collages as the moment “he became the most important man in my life”.
After a brief stint at the Rijksakaddemie Academy of Visual Art in Amsterdam, the stars aligned when Bruna dropped out and moved back with his parents to Utrecht in 1951. Living across the road was Irene de Jongh, a woman Bruna seemed to fall in love with instantly, even buying a dog so the shy artist could bump into her as she walked on her own. Eventually asking her to marry him, twice, the condition from Irene’s family was that the marriage could only go ahead once Bruna got a “real” job – his father’s wish for him to join A.W Bruna and Zoon was serendipitously granted.
“Without this technique to show emotions, Miffy could not have communicated so successfully to her audience. It is a kind of magic.”Bruce Ingman
It’s at this point in Bruce’s investigation to Bruna that his working processes are detailed and come to life. A huge duty to chronicle the life and process of an artist so beloved, “the responsibility was a good one,” says the author. “There is so little information available on Bruna that it was very exciting to be involved, to open the world of Dick Bruna to fellow enthusiasts.”
As a result, the artist’s ability to create an atmosphere in his books is shone a much-appreciated light upon. Creating his first children’s book in 1953, the creation of Miffy came in 1955 as Bruna, Irene and their first son Sierk took a trip to the seaside. Spotting a rabbit hopping over the sand dunes, the sighting became an impromptu bedtime story the artist told his son, later drawing the character to bring it to life. Creating these scenes for his family was also a heartwarming habit of Bruna’s it turns out, with Bruce explaining in the book how each morning Bruna would wake at 5.30 am, squeeze a glass of orange juice for Irene to have at breakfast and draw her something, either relating to her explanation of the day before, or something she had to look forward during the day ahead. He’d then head to the studio by bike for the day, six or seven days a week.
Despite also creating a few children’s books ahead of Miffy, and creating the covers for a hugely popular crime series published by A.W Bruna and Zoon, it’s always Miffy that comes to mind when thinking of Bruna’s career. Morphing into the character we know it as after a few iterations, in terms of illustration skill, the rabbit’s character is the ideal example of Bruna’s ability to emulate personality in just a few brush marks. As the artist himself put it, “Because there is so little, that which is there needs to be perfect,” and as Bruce so beautifully describes in Dick Bruna: “With Miffy’s face, in particular, he was able to convey so much from the slightest change in the two dots and cross for her eyes and mouth. Without this technique to show emotions, Miffy could not have communicated so successfully to her audience. It is a kind of magic.”
Due to this “magic” Bruce describes, since that holiday in 1955, Miffy’s character has popped up in all corners of culture, some more surprising than others. At the Tate for example, visitors are able to pick up Miffy greeting cards, and the design of a Miffy-shaped night light has also proved hugely popular. Her distinctive shape and illustrative temperament has inspired a whole host of characters, with Bruna himself commenting in an interview with The Telegraph that “Hello Kitty is a copy of Miffy. I don’t like that at all.”
“There is always a sense that she is special, something above the fray.”Samuel Valenti IV
There have also been several collaborations of note over the years, with brands seeing the endless appeal of Miffy, from handbags made by leather brand Strathberry, a collection with Uniqlo, a stationery set with Papier, and in contemporary fashion contexts such as a collaboration with Pop Trading Company. A more recent example is a Miffy collection made with Ghostly International, a record label and art company based in New York, more regularly known for working with artists like Matthew Dear, HTRK or Tobacco. Samuel Valenti IV, the founder of Ghostly, knows the familiar feeling of Miffy’s omnipresence: “I can’t recall the first time I saw Miffy but I know she pops up in the most interesting places: museum stores, mom and pop toy stores, etc. There is always a sense that she is special, something above the fray.” He adds that a want to collaborate with the character, made 65 years ago now, is simply because she’s “beguiling and leaves an impression… There’s something going on that isn’t dumbed down, the simplicity and sincerity is a form of respect.”
This love audiences hold for Miffy is one channelled into Bruce’s book format, a result of his belief that “a book like this should be captivating to look at and fascinating to read,” he tells It’s Nice That. “The colour, the images; it should be a joy to have it in your hands.” Made with as much care as Bruna poured into his own works, the book is one made for fans of Miffy that attempts “to reveal the sheer scale of Bruna’s output throughout a lifetime of drawing, painting, designing; to look at his influences, work methods and to go some way to explaining his success.”
In turn, it’s a title to be handled just as thoughtfully and carefully as Bruna made his works, with the “sloth-like, steady, assiduous” temperament he had, as Bruce describes. There are few better examples of Bruna’s dedication to his art than his heartbreaking reaction to finding out that his heart was growing weaker, detailed in a moving section of the book. “After that, he determined to stop going to his studio. Despite the cajoling of his family, surprised at his abrupt decision, he would not be persuaded,” writes Bruce. “His mind was made up; he didn’t want to work if he couldn’t give it his all.”
Dick Bruna at work, photographs by Ferry André de la Porte (© copyright Mercis bv studio photo © copyright Mercis bv)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.