Picture books communicate with both words and with pictures, one of the key ways to enhance illustration for children is an understanding of how to dramatise your artwork. This list is by no means comprehensive, but here are ten things to ponder.
The way you depict body proportions and physical features can be developed to compliment the tone of the text, the setting and the mood of the story, resulting in a book that works visually on several levels. Sometimes a strong character alone can establish the narrative and tie the pages together. Expression and body language can emphasise emotional states and the connection between characters on a page. Think of details of dress and appearance as the credentials of the character, their properties or history. Do they interact with the surroundings? Characters may be the core of the story with the background sketched in, or they can appear as players in a landscape, intimately part of the world around them. Sub-characters can be great for secondary plots, little extra visual stories running alongside the main narrative.
2. Scene Composition
Viewpoint, composition and the arrangement of space can powerfully enhance the message of an image. Be a film director, think of the scene as a stage or through a camera lens, consider how it would look as a panorama / from a high angle / low angle / close up / pan back. Each viewpoint creates a different dynamism, carries a different message. Consider compositional rhythms and focal points. What geometric shapes naturally appear in the image? Can these shapes be emphasised to create compositional structure for greater effect? Design the pictures so that you control how the viewer's eye wanders across the image. Where should the eye rest? think of the page corners - they are the gateways to the next page.
|A spread from Sam Lloyd's Mr Pusskins, showing how a reversed 'S' composition|
leads the eye across the image and off the bottom right corner onto the next page. (© Orchard Books 2006)
Sometimes you don’t need to show everything. Areas left blank on the page may resonate with areas of detail or give a sense of lightness to the page (quite apart from providing space for text!). In picture books, as in comics, you can have very minimal settings, provided the character and key story elements are clear. Tension is created from what you show, but also sometimes what you don’t show (what’s left to the imagination).
|A classic Hergé illustration from the 1973 edition of Tintin in America.|
It's unnecessary to show the street below, the reader's imagination
fills in the vertigo! (© Castermann)
As storytellers know, the journey is often more compelling than the resolution. Expectation is more powerful than delivery, the pursuit of something more satisfying than the final reward.
Think how you might be able to use details and elements in a picture to enrich that journey and push forward the narrative. Consider the time of day, the weather and other supplemental details. Think of how visual clues can add depth to the narrative - symbolism, surrealism, sub-plot details that may add an extra element to the story, or offer small visual comments that run parallel with it. Use these details to push the narrative forward to the next page or conversely introduce a contrast that forces a pause. When planning a series of spreads create waves and crescendos through the book - fast paced images, then sudden stops at showpiece spreads. Use small panels for detailed text and conversation, larger panels for tension build-up, full page bleed for shock and resolution.
Movement is one of the best ways to establish narrative flow. Body language can show action, even if the character is not actually moving! Even small things like a hand gesture adds dynamism. If you’ve a completely static image then consider introducing a supplementary detail that might animate the scene - a bird in the sky, a cat walking across the background, a breeze that bends grass, lifts a few strands of hair or a curtain, even slight movement instils a sense of time and action.
|Käthi Bhend illustration to A Tale of Two Brothers. What could have been a very|
static image is turned into a riot of movement using falling leaves (© Nord-Süd 2006)
5. Lighting and Tone
Use light and shadow or pale vs strong colours to create mood, depth and dynamism. Sketch your image in black and white, establish tonal contrast. Look at the image through half-closed eyes, does it still resonate? Think of the picture as a theatre stage with spotlights and shadows. Characters can be highlighted by contrasting against darker shadows, which in turn can hide suggested detail and mysteries. Consider background, mid-ground and foreground, and how contrasting tones can add depth to the image. Mood is created by the weight of the air in your image. Shadows work on the imagination of the viewer, and can also create patterns, texture, and provide form for potent compositions.
|A classic illustration by master of the mysterious Sidney Sime,|
showing how light and shadow can create mood
Astute use of colour is a great way to create resonance in illustration. Think of complementary colours - search for combinations of colours that correlate together and anchor your image on those colours.
Try using a limited palette - choosing a narrow range of colours can produce dynamic and harmonious illustrations. If you have access to Photoshop or similar graphic software, try loading an illustration file and playing with the Hue/Saturation tool and the channels mixer to explore different colour scheme possibilities. Here's a useful colour chart that might be helpful in considering limited colour schemes, and also a very good article on choosing harmonious colour.
|Limited palette used to spectacular effect by Michael Foreman|
in Fairy Tales by Terry Jones (© Andersen Press 1981)
Texture can create depth and anchor characters and backgrounds to a believable world, as well as establishing mood and setting. Texture can be minimal, geometric, a few simple pen or brush strokes, or a heavily decorated, detailed image, or a rough tactile surface with lots of grainy ‘noise’. An image filled with a “wallpaper” of fine details and repeated patterns can add story elements unspoken in the text, populate a scene, make the world more of a reality and attractive to the eye. Pared down simplicity with broad expanses of empty space can establish a world with minimal expression, the reader fills in the blanks. Contrasting areas of localised texture with open or flat space can be dynamic.
|A colourful 'wallpaper' backdrop of texture by Lane Smith|
from Pinocchio: The Boy (© Viking 2002)
Twist elements of the image to enhance the flow and movement or emphasise a point. Distorted architecture and landscapes can suggest confusion or reinforce a compositional pattern. Distortion of figures can accentuate emotion and character. Also think of distorted colour. Skies do not necessarily have to be blue!
|One of my favorite illustrators Errol le Cain using distortion to enhance the drama in Growltiger's Last Stand (© Faber & Faber 1986)|
9. Design and layout
Experiment with graphic devices like having elements that break out of the frame as in the Käthi Bhend illustration above, combine frames with vignettes on the same spread, try mixing coloured images with black and white. Use the gutter as a compositional dividing line. Consider how the placing of type, it’s size and font affect the page design. Can type be used to enhance the dynamism of the image?
Pathos, humour, fear, joy, excitement - this is what makes a powerful image. So identify what kind of sentiment you want to convey in the image and use all the elements - pose, setting, layout, details, mood and colour to work together towards this. Don't be afraid of melodrama and pathos. Building emotion into pictures is like a cook seasoning a dish, think of the aroma of the story, how do details in the image harmonise to convey the flavour? How does the colour, size and texture affect the way we perceive the world of the picture. If your illustration was food, how would it taste?
When you contemplate a story to illustrate for the first time, jot down the strongest first impressions on paper, immediately. The most dramatic place is your imagination, first impressions can be powerful. If you have an idea, sketch it quickly with a tiny thumbnail, capture the initial emotion, build details within the picture to enhance that first impression.
Keeping with the food analogy, it's very easy to "over-egg" an illustration, throw in too many ingredients, to go too far. But used adroitly, adding some of these elements can enhance the storytelling experience, and reach silent communion with the reader through the dramatic power of the image!
All images © the artists and publishers
John Shelley is the Illustration Feature Editor of Words & Pictures and current Central East Network coordinator.
He's illustrated over 40 books for children, many of them published in Japan where he lived for many years. His latest title The Stone Giant is out in Japan now, and will be released in English by Charlesbridge in the US in Spring 2014. www.jshelley.com