ILLUSTRATION KNOW-HOW Creating visual narrative settings

Anne-Marie Perks takes a look at setting in children's books, with some tips on filling out the world of characters.

A common area that many book illustrators feel they lack is visual or narrative settings. Like many illustrators who spoke to me about this, I had the same issue of spending all my time designing and evolving characters and very little time building up the basics about their ‘world’ and the ‘things’ around them. Narrative settings are considered carefully in film, animation and games under the heading of narrative environments or world building. In this ‘KnowHow’, I’ll present a few ideas on how to develop your skill in building visual narrative settings and what questions to ask yourself as you create them.

Looking out my studio window to practice drawing roof tops.

Questions I begin with are: What would the viewer learn about the character when looking into their bedroom, home, landscape, without the character present? What hints about their desires, hopes and fears, how old they are, how they live and current or past life are visually evident?

Lists are part of my process. Lists on the history of the house, the things in the room, and the neighbourhood the property is in, as well as the history and current state of the family, and how that is shown in the setting. What visual evidence is there on whether the character has a pet, siblings or best friend? One parent or two? What visual hints are there to tell us about the time in history: contemporary, way in the past or way into the undetermined future? There may be a special item central to the story that needs a visual introduction. Perhaps something magical or practical which will have its own history, ownership and timeline too.

After I’ve done several lists, I like to begin with a simple ‘top down’ map in which I figure out where everything is. Very useful in terms of figuring out what direction the viewer is looking and assigning points of view later on when working on page compositions. These maps will have a graphic, almost abstract look to them which is great for layout and composition design.

Two sister, one pet and one space. What’s the story?

Use references! There are nuances and added information that can only be gleaned from good references that add so much to setting design. Colours, patterns, objects, flora, fauna and animals that may exist in your time or another, or in another culture or place. Consider creating mood boards for these. Take your own photographs whenever possible.

In order to build your narrative setting or world-building library, get into the practice of sketching thumbnails (always put your thumbnails in a frame) from the world around you. Add in lighting through value studies pointing at times of day, weather or maybe hints towards internal thoughts and feelings of the character. The ‘world’ you are creating is actually a supporting character.

Here are a few teachers I’d like to give credit to for influencing me in this important area of visual storytelling: Christ Oatley, character designer and story artist from Disney and founder and teacher for the Oatley Academy; Tonko House (Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo) and their must see beautiful animation The Dam Keeper, followed with a graphic novel of the same name, and author illustrator, Pam Smy, for her teaching and critique and her book Thornhill, shortlisted for the CILIP Greenaway Award. There are more I can name but this is a great start.

(Header illustration: @Anne-Marie Perks)
Anne-Marie Perks has illustrated picture books, book covers, older fiction and non-fiction books for US and UK publishers. Also an animator who teaches illustration and animation at Buckinghamshire New University, recent books include the wordless   When Dad Hurts Mum, and A Safe Place from Domestic Abuse (Books Beyond Words Publishing, London). The Silkie (Clucket Press) a middle grade novel, is now available.

Anne-Marie’s most recent personal project (hasn’t found a publisher yet) is a graphic novel called, Wolf Girl.

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