Picture Book Basics - Pace, Drama, Action!

You've sharpened pencils, honed your story and are ready to begin sketching the pages of your dummy. How do you make your picture book stand out from others on the shelf? What ingredients can you add to the mix to lift your illustrations from the mundane to the sublime? In one word - Drama! 

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.

1. Character

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. 

Margaret Bloy Graham illustration from No Roses for Harry (Harper Collins 1958).
Curved, stylised lines in the characters emphasise lively movement, perfect for a little dog.
Notice too the limited palette of colours - Harry the Dirty Dog was first published in
black and white, colour being touched in much later.

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)

3. Narrative

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. 


Two spreads from Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls by Dave McKean that show
the build-up of tension really well. Four frames of dialogue, followed by an intimate
close-up, full page image that pulls the reader into the apprehension of Lucy. Then turn the page,
and WHAM! the delivery - double page monster spread. (© Bloomsbury 2003)

4. Movement

 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

6. Colour

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)

7. Texture

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)

8. Distortion

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?

Clever trickery in Jason Chapman's Stan and Mabel, splitting one scene into 2 frames and a black and white. Notice how the eye follows the characters off the bottom right corner, urging the reader to turn to the next page. Again, a restricted palette adds to the drama. (© Templar 2010).

10. Emotion

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


  1. Coincidentally chaps , today is the anniversary of the very first appearance of Tintin in "Le Petit Vingtieme", 1929.

  2. Brilliant post as usual, John. I need a way to collect all these posts in one place. Do you think one day there might be a John Shelley 'How To' book. I would buy it. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  3. Great post, and I'd buy a copy of that book as well!

  4. Great post, with so many useful details thank you! (I too would like to buy that book!)

  5. What a great post! Will bookmark it in my inspiration folder.

  6. Fantastic piece John. Thank you!

  7. Really useful points to consider John. Thanks so much for putting this article together. I'm sure many will refer to it time and time again.

  8. Thanks everyone, I hope you can follow my garbled headlong dash through ideas!

  9. Enjoy this post so much and loved all the illustration examples. Thank you!

  10. Hi John! One of my local illustrators shared this site, so fancy meeting you here. ;-) Great info, and of interest to picture book writers as well.

  11. Great advice John, there are some lovely illustrations here.

  12. This is such an good feature, John, as is the whole series, thank you.
    I love your last sentence, we're all, illustrators and writers, trying to 'reach silent communion with the reader through the dramatic power of the image' aren't we?

  13. Yes, it was a great sentence to end on!
    A Fab post. You've given us lots to think about!
    Also you've looked at a great bank of illustrators, some of which I don't know and who I will now enjoy researching…
    Thanks x

  14. This is simply the best picture book primer. Thank you!

  15. Great Article John thanks. Really useful links to that colour blog, shall be re-reading this in more detail. ta.

  16. This says it all John - brilliant! And I love your choice of example illustrations too - thanks! You should get some more workshops out of this, too.

  17. What a brilliant article, thanks John. And I agree with Maureen about the book idea.

  18. Great article John!
    Thanks for sharing your insights into how to make illustrations not only effectively enhance a story but also how to make them more powerful works of art in their own right.

  19. Adding in late; great article! Yep, I'd buy it too!

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