How Pictures Work

Once upon a time, the children’s book illustrator, Molly
Bang, was told she really didn’t understand how pictures worked. Bang agreed and set out to learn more.
She took classes, read books and went to art museums. Eventually she set out to create a composition with emotional resonance from the most basic elements–simple geometric forms and a palette limited to four colors: red, black, white and lavender.
She decided to see how this all worked with the story Little Red Riding Hood beginning with the idea of the girl as red triangle.
Of course, this choice echos the idea of a hood and the color is obvious, but beyond that, she asked herself, “Do I feel anything about this shape.” Although it wasn’t exactly fraught with emotion, she knew she felt some things about it.
How about you?
Here’s what Bang came up with: it isn’t huggable because it has points. It feels stable because of its flat bottom and equal sides. And red makes it feel bold, flashy–a good color for a main character. Molly also felt danger, vitality, passion. She felt that added up to the feeling of a warm, alert, stable, strong, balanced character. It did more than simply echoing the name of the story.
Then she set about making the forest. She tried triangles for the trees…
…but eventually settled on rectangles.
She liked how you can’t see the tops of the trees, suggesting how tall they are and how she could create a sense of depth. Now to put Little Red Riding Hood into the scene…
…but this wasn’t as as menacing as Bang wanted.
So she made Red much smaller. And she needed room for the wolf.
But before introducing the wolf, she knew she could create even more sense of danger.
Diagonals create a sense of instability, so now she had Red out in an older, more primal forest, a less certain place, and it was time to bring in the wolf.
It’s obvious why she would choose sharp triangles and to bring him into the forefront. Even so, she thought she’d experiment with what happened if she changed various elements.
How about if she made him smaller?
Or softened the triangles?
Or changed his color?
She went back to her first instincts. And set out to make him even scarier.
What big teeth he has.
What big eyes. But let’s make them more menacing.
Nothing has changed but the color. Not only is red–the color of blood and fire–more threatening than lavender, it links the wolf with his prey.
What if you changed the eye shape?
I was surprised how much difference it made. He looks slightly goofy. Maybe this would be the way to go if you wanted to do a Little Red Riding Hood spoof of some sort.
But Bang wanted to push the menace.
So more “blood”.
And finally she made it a gloomier day and, just for the fun of it, added even more focus on those sharp, sharp triangles of teeth.
This is how Molly Bang’s classic book, “Picture This. How Pictures Work” begins. The rest of her book talks more about basic composition and how it works. What horizontals do. What verticals do. How to make things look stable and unstable. How to create momentum and depth, chaos, calm and drama simply by compositional elements.
She talks about her theories as to why these elements work the way they do, often linking back to primal instincts–such as pointed shapes feeling scarier than rounded shapes or curves. One can hurt you, the other is less likely to.
It’s fun to think of these same principles and how you might apply them to writing. For example, I’m thinking of the sense of character created by a plump woman with sharp eyes. After all, we writers are in the business of creating pictures, too.
I would highly recommend “Picture This: How Pictures Work” for anyone interested in art or picture books. Or just for the fun of it!

13 responses to “How Pictures Work

  1. Hi Bonny! This was a great article. How do you feel about sharing?


    On Fri, Jan 10, 2020 at 11:58 AM Books Around The Table wrote:

    > Bonny Becker posted: ” Once upon a time, the children’s book illustrator, > Molly Bang, was told she really didn’t understand how pictures worked. Bang > agreed and set out to learn more. She took classes, read books and went to > art museums. Eventually she set out to create a” >

  2. Sure, Terri. No problem. Just please give me credit and a link to the blog. 🙂 By the way, something went wrong with my formatting. This should have spaces between the paragraphs, so you might want to re-format a bit. I think it was more readable with the line spacing.

  3. This book was one of the most useful studies I’ve ever come across in terms of reviewing picture books. She really made me aware of composition.

  4. molly bang did such a cool inquiry. interesting how limiting perameters led to real insight. thanks for making this part of our blog.

  5. I can see why it’s a classic.

  6. This is my absolute GO TO text when teaching basic composition to illustrators. It seems that anyone can understand these principles and replicate the exercises. Brava for recognizing this excellent book.

  7. Thanks, Ashley. I just discovered it recently and was a bit chagrined to see that it was first published in 1991. Better late than never!

  8. I was especially surprised by the difference made by the shape of the eye. Time to go read this book again. Thanks, Bonny!

  9. Wow! This is fantastic. I am not an artist, but it is so interesting to see how changing the shape of an eye changes the feel of the entire picture. Gotta find this book!

  10. Mine’s from the public library, Jilanne. They issued a new 25 year anniversary edition in 2016 that I think was updated a bit.

  11. Pingback: Our Brains are Story-Making Machines | Books Around The Table

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