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A history of busy scenes

When you hear expressions like “search and find illustration”, “wimmelbilder”, “seek and find”, “hidden picture book”, “hidden object game” and so on, what might come first to your head is the beloved Where’s Wally (or Waldo) book series. And although it is an incredible series, it is far from being the first take at this kind of image.

We can actually go back quite a long time, which is what we’ll do for this introduction post. Have a look at this painting made by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch between 1490 and 1510.





The depiction of these densely populated scenes featuring lots of characters and symbolic elements was not standard for that time and can be considered an important source of inspiration for current illustrations in the Wimmelbild style. Although his themes were very specific – the artist was a Christian and depicted lots of elements that represented a life of sin and its consequences – I find it interesting that the fantastical, whimsical quality that is present in many modern “search and find” illustrations was already there in its origins.

 

Another artist from that era that’s worth mentioning here is Pieter Bruegel, who even came to be known at the time as “second Bosch”.

Here the themes come much closer to what we see today - he is usually considered a pioneer of genre paintings, depicting aspects of everyday life. To accomplish this idea of showing ordinary people doing their daily activities (which became an important record of social, political, and cultural nuances of the time), he sometimes resorted to busy scenes with lots of things going on at the same time. Children’s Games, from 1560, is a great example (and a direct inspiration for my Outdoor Games illustration!)





The whimsical aspect also appears on some of his works, like in “Netherlandish proverbs”, where more than 100 proverbs gain a literal, visual interpretation, as in the man “swimming against the tide”.




 

The mix of mundane and fantastical in his work is best described later, when the artist was ‘rediscovered’ in the 19th century. Baudelaire, in 1868, argued “these works display a certain element of system, a deliberate eccentricity, a technique of the bizarre” and James Ensor, 1924, noted “he predicted it all: light, atmosphere, mysterious life between beings and things.”

 

The third artist I want to highlight here is Peeter Baltens, a contemporary of Bruegels – he was first believed to be one of his followers, but it seems they actually drew inspiration from each other’s works, even collaborating on a piece. Although Baltens does not have a large production, he is definitely worth mentioning for having an important part in the creation of this kind of busy scenes, and also for the comical aspect he included in his paintings, such as Een cluyte van Plaeyerwater, where in the center you can see a theatrical play of a farce where a husband catches his wife cheating.




Pretty interesting to know the kinds of pictures we see today have their origins way back, even including those whimsical elements that make it so enticing to wander around the image. I’ll later explore some more recent history, when wimmelbilder illustrations were incorporated in popular media with a clearer “find the hidden object” aspect.


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