ILLUSTRATION KNOWHOW Cons, Conjury and Concepts

Illustration Features Editor John Shelley considers visual tricks and double-takes in our work. 


I’ve always had a fondness for illustration that deliberately obfuscates reality - work that plays with symbolism, fools the eye, or has a double meaning. I think my attraction to this type of thing started with book covers and Radio Times illustrations by the likes of Tony Meeuwissen and Peter Brookes, then grew to embrace Escher and other cerebral graphic artists. At one time such work was the backbone of editorial and commercial illustration - how many Magritte-inspired posters have we seen where a double-meaning or visual gag is used to sell a product?

Katherine Briggs classic A Dictionary of Fairies - cover illustration by Tony Meeuwissen

Conceptual illustrations tend to be statements rather than narrative, so are more often seen on covers than within the inside pages of children's books, but, if subtly done, visual trickery can add an extra layer to unfolding drama, in picture books providing an additional unspoken comment on, or extra storyline to the flow of words. It's also the kind of thing I like to fool about with in the pages of sketchbooks - exploring the boundaries of shapes and symbolism.  

Here are three techniques I used to come up with ideas for a lot of my daily one-inch drawings last year:

 1 Word-play, puns and gags

Fair and Square (one-inch drawing)

Deliberately misinterpreting titles or other text can offer a springboard of material to illustrate. Literal rendering of common sayings, word twists etc. Simply making a list of figures of speech and imaging them literally can spark ideas. In picture books, passages in the text might offer prompts.


2 Pictures within pictures

Garden Party (one-inch drawing)

Double-takes, visual misunderstandings. Have you ever taken a quick glance at something and been fooled into thinking it's something different, perhaps more interesting, than closer inspection reveals? - sometimes it's good to fool the brain to misread things you see, look for visual confusion - the 'mistake' you thought you saw can form the basis of a double-take multiple level image. 


3 Visual patterns

Catosaurus (one-inch drawing)

Playing with shapes, shadows, negative space, juxtapositions. Turning things on their head - can a shape be adapted to represent something else? Does the design or composition offer resonance that can be repeated, reflected or expanded into a motif?

Using these kind of techniques to look for ideas helped to make the daily challenge of a drawing-a-day a fun sketchbook exercise. It's not always appropriate for picture books, but for the right stories a little surrealism can enrich and add multiple levels to narrative. For examples, I need go no further than recommending those giants of peculiar picture books Chris Van Allsburg, Anthony Browne and Shaun Tan - there are many more!

(Header illustration © John Shelley)


John Shelley
is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently The Boy in the Jam Jar for Bloomsbury. He's a four times nominee for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Instagram: @StudioNib  Twitter: @StudioNib

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