Artist illustrations help explain climate change to children

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Climate change can be a troubling subject for anyone, but it can be downright scary for children. To explain the topic to young people, the New York Times climate bureau published a guide, “Bad Future, Better Future,” which explains how they can help the environment.

To make the subject matter a bit more accessible, Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, a visual journalist in the graphics office, created hand-painted illustrations using a type of watercolor called gouache. In an interview, she discussed the inspiration and intention behind the images. His slightly edited answers are below.

How did this story come about?
I worked on a very illustrated play that showed kids returning to school with masks and all the ways the classrooms were going to change. The visual style was different, and Hannah Fairfield, chief climate editor, reached out, saying she was interested in doing something similar to explain climate change to children. We started to brainstorm a few ideas, trying to figure out what would work well in this format. We stumbled upon this idea: What would the future look like if we did nothing and continue on the path we are now taking? And what would it look like if we made all of these changes? Basically we ended up with a children’s book.

How did you try to make art accessible to children?
We really wanted the visuals to stay warmer, friendlier, and more playful, and to make it a fantasy world, while still illustrating serious concepts.

As a news agency, we wanted to stay true to the reality of things. Working with watercolors gave us the freedom to make fun illustrations. We worked with our wonderful journalist Julia Rosen, who created the language inviting the age group we are targeting, which is between 8 and 14 years old. Claire O’Neill, visual editor for the Climate Desk, shaped the visual and written content, and Aliza Aufrichtig, digital designer, built a unique interactive scrolling frame that made this format possible.

Are you an illustrator in addition to being a designer?
I’m actually more of a 3D animator, and I’ve been involved with a lot of emerging technologies over the years. But in my spare time I’m more of a traditional animator and illustrator – that’s what I do for fun when the kids go to sleep. I haven’t been able to do this for my New York Times job until now.

I understand that in order to create these illustrations, you painted every part of the body – head, arms, legs – then digitized and pieced them together.

Although I love to illustrate, personally I am not the strongest illustrator. In fact, I find it difficult to draw a figure and imagine how they will all look together. I paint on watercolor paper, with gouache. Then I scan it and build it in Photoshop. I’m going to cut off the head, I’m going to cut off the body, and I’m going to put them together. They are just little Frankensteins.

Was this an exciting project for you?

Much of my personal work is in the land of fairy tales. I am obsessed with folklore, so a lot of the things I draw are related to folklore or women’s issues. It’s a bit like another world. It is definitely a work of passion. The number of hours I devote to it exceeds anything I have worked on. It kind of built up in the background while I was working on more serious pieces related to Covid. Although climate change is frightening, it is a visually happy place.


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