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Tag Archives: inspiration for children’s book images
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?
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!
The color red has its literary roots. It’s blood and drama and passion. Red is the first color that Jonas sees in Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s no accident that Little Red Riding Hood wears scarlet or that Robbie Burns’s love is “like a red, red rose.”
Red shows up in literature in another funny way. I collect electronic images of books in art. Copies of illustrations, paintings and prints that feature books in some way. And I began to notice a lot of red books in art (* see my reader’s note below). Not just as a random spot of color, but as a color that makes a statement, suggests its own story:
You can escape from the everyday…
into an imagined passion
Or maybe it’s a real world passion
Or forbidden fruit
Or perhaps red, is after all, just a mystery
My favorite literary use of red is the William Carlos William poem, The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
So much depends on the red book, so much is suggested that is dark and forbidden, hinting at hidden depths beneath the most sedate appearances.
And isn’t that what reading is all about–that gateway into other selves. In this case, our red selves. Our read selves.
*Readers note: This is a reprint of a post I did in July 2014, but with some additional red book images.
Is there anything more luxurious than summertime reading. A long summer day, a world before you on the page; the time to look up, half seeing the world around you, half still in the dream. As a child it was easy to slip into that world for hours at a time. There was so much time and grown ups to make sure the world kept on spinning. It’s harder as an adult to experience the true luxury of summertime reading, but sometimes things fall in place.
Right now I’m at Long Beach, WA. The ocean is rolling in outside my window.
I have a well-stocked bookshelf. Someone else’s choices to explore, which I love to do.
Not to mention the three books I brought along with my Kindle.
It feels like the day can unfold at its leisure. I can read a bit, stare a bit, think a bit. Read some more. Perfect.
Here from my collection of images of books in art is how summertime reading feels.
Books and bad weather just seem to go together. It’s so enticing to settle in with a book in hand and snow, wind and rain at the window.
It can be a moment of solitude…
or a moment that unites us.
Sometimes you can create your own shelter.
In my collection of images of books in art, reading in a time of cold and dark is almost always a warm, safe moment.
But not always.
But let’s not end on this chilling note. Here’s the perfect image for cozy holiday reading.
Merry Christmas! Happy holidays! Season’s readings!
If you had to guess what kind of boat is most associated with books, what type do you think it would be?
Just like cats and books, birds and books, and rain and books go together, so do books and sailboats (although there are some rare exceptions to the sailboat).
For these summer days, I thought it would be fun to look at my collection of images of books in art for the theme of boat. I found quite a few.
Not only does the sailboat work conceptually since sailboats and books are both places of leisure, contemplation and escape:
It works artistically given how books and boats echo each other visually:
Sometimes the books and boat metaphor can feel a bit stretched:
I do like the idea of books as an ark to preserve knowledge–although I’m not sure what the cylinders on the roof are about.
Books and boats can also be seen as a metaphor for capturing knowledge:
Or maybe the appeal is that with both boats and book we are set a-sail on something vast and deep:
I bought a new book recently.
Pochoir is a technique for hand stenciling. I have been experimenting a lot with stenciling in my own work lately, but I had never heard the term Pochoir until a friend mentioned it a few months ago (thank you Jennifer).
Pochoir was used in the 1910s – 1920s in France as a way to colorize fashion plates in women’s magazines. By using rounded brushes, layers of watercolor or gouache paints are applied by hand through stencils, gradually building of layers of soft color. Usually the plates were printed with line art first.
I haven’t read much of the book yet, but I’ve spent plenty of time looking at the pictures.
The women all seem to be swooning or lounging.
Or smelling flowers.
Or in bad weather.
Their bodies are all long lines and arcs.
Many have very long necks.
They like birds.
Some are exotic.
Some possess mystery.
They have whimsy.
And a sly sense of humor.
What a wonderful era of illustration to peruse. Ooh la la.
Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.
Alfred North Whitehead
I collect images of books in art. And, just as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted, I love to find patterns and motifs among them. I imagine that’s the pleasure of most collections.
Recently I was looking at some of my images and noticed a type of illustration that is relatively unusual. I think of it as the surreal image.
There are tons of images focused on books and reading that are fanciful and unreal. They might be charming:
But they don’t quite have the quality I’m talking about. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the word is “unsettling.”
Perhaps the forest is a little too encroaching, a little too dark.
Or the vines too silently creeping.
With this one, I keep finding myself waiting uneasily for those eyes to open.
Although not all that is out of place is ominous.
The most classically surreal image I have (echoes of Magritte for sure) is mostly just amusing.
Maybe what’s holding these together for me is the thing unnoticed. Something’s odd. Something’s off, but it’s only we, the observers, who are noticing.
In fantasy literature, there’s a type of story that fantasy writer and academic Farah Mendelsohn calls liminal. It’s a type of fantasy that’s a little hard to define, but basically it involves a protagonist who doesn’t quite cross through the portal into fantasy, but stays on the border between the real world and the world of the fantastic. Perhaps these images aren’t so much surreal, as “liminal.”
To pull this post back into the world of writing children’s books, I’ll just add a couple links here. One of the questions that almost invariably comes up when I teach classes in writing fantasy and science fiction is where someone’s story “fits.” Like most of children’s literature, there are defined categories in fantasy that are good to at least be familiar with. As a writer you may choose to match those characteristics or violate them, but it’s good to know what rules you’re breaking.
Here’s a list of 10 good terms to be familiar with if you read or write fantasy. And the other is a link to a little information about Mendelsohn and her books. She’s good to know about if you’re going to go deeply into fantasy writing.
In the meantime, don’t turn too quickly to find out about the rustling from that bookshelf behind you. Perhaps it’s best not to know.
This morning, a moving company loaded our London belongings into a shipping container. For the next month we will be traveling while our stuff makes it’s way to our home in Seattle.
Since we decided to move back to Seattle from London, my sightseeing to-do list has become an imperative. At the top of the list has been scheduling a date at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.
The Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design (V&A) is a monument to humanity’s creative efforts, and for nearly two years it has been a short tube ride from my home. I have gone there numerous times, but never feel I have seen all that is on display. I always look forward to discovering something new.
Scheduling an appointment was much easier (and less intimidating) than I expected. Rather than surly guardians of culture, the staff are like friendly librarians. I was afraid that I had waited too long and there would be no sessions available for months, but I got an appointment for the following week. The hardest part was deciding what to request out of the some 750,000 objects in the museum’s prints and drawings collection.
There were five of us waiting at the assigned meeting point outside the V&A National Art Library entrance that morning. We were led by a museum guard through a cordon into a wing of the museum usually closed to the general public.
We trailed behind the guard through hallways lined with boxes and filing cabinets, past offices and copy machines. We rode an elevator and climbed three flights of winding stone steps worn down to a curve from decades of traffic. The old plaster walls were chipped where displays had once hung.
The circuitous journey seemed designed to make sure we could never find our way back. One of the others in the group said something about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.
The study room itself is large and bright with several long tables. We checked our belongings into lockers before entering. Pencils, paper, computers, phones and cameras are allowed. NO pens.
The first item I had requested was waiting for me. The staff demonstrated how to properly handle the artwork. At first I was afraid to touch anything, but they assured me that the items could withstand my gentle examination.
Thus began one of the highlights of my time in London.
I spent the morning looking at an original textile design by C.F.A. Voysey,
a box and sketchbook of Randolph Caldecott drawings,
and an incredibly beautiful pencil and watercolor “dummy” for A Baby’s Bouquet by Walter Crane.
I refreshed myself with lunch in the William Morris room in the museum café
and repeated the convoluted journey back to the study rooms to continue with sketches for Winnie The Pooh by E. H. Shepard,
and drawings by Arthur Rackham.
Whenever I go to the V&A, I feel happy and excited, but this day was special. This was a Thrill. I couldn’t get over the fact that, not only did I have the opportunity to look closely at drawings by some of my illustrative heroes that are rarely seen, but I could actually touch their work. It was amazing. I was on a high. For the next three days, anyone I spoke to heard all about it.
But that is all I will tell you for now. This is a teaser of sorts. I will continue this post in five weeks when it’s my turn again. By then I will be back in Seattle (just barely). In the meantime, you can peruse the 1,165,712 objects and 624,590 images from the V&A’s full collection online. Have fun!
While researching for my last post, Gwen White’s Pictorial Perspective, I discovered that she had written and illustrated other books as well. That led to research into whether I could buy any of them. Most were not available or beyond my budget, but I did find one copy of White’s A Book of Toys that was affordable. Gwen White and toys. I bought it based on that combination, and the cover, without knowing anything about the interior contents.
I am happy to report that the book is as wonderful as I’d hoped. The images are simple and grand at the same time. The writing is straightforward yet playful. This is part of our heritage as children’s book illustrators and authors.
I want to share it with you here and I couldn’t decide what to leave out so I have scanned the entire book. It feels an appropriate companion piece to my earlier posts on A Book of Pictorial Perspective and Folk Toys -les jouets populaires.
I may have to go back to the London Museum and Kensington palace to see if any of the toys White has illustrated are still on exhibit. The museum at Bethnal Green is now the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood which I wrote about here.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this little book as much as I have.
(Maybe you figured this out already, but the Penguins on the cover aren’t just toys. The publisher is Penguin and the book is part of a King Penguin Books series)
My favorite books to find in used book shops are those that are fun to look through, useful, and not easily available. Gwen White’s A Pictorial Perspective is that kind of book. I found it at Foster’s Bookshop (actually a visiting friend found it but didn’t buy it – thank you, Rachel!). It was published by William Morrow and Company in Great Britain in the 1950s. According to the jacket copy, “Miss White” presents all the fascinating tricks of Perspective “in the pleasantest possible way.”
Perspective has never been my strong suit. I learned only the barest basics when studying art in college. I think the style of my work has evolved to avoid perspective. It is still evolving in that direction.
However, sometimes I can’t avoid perspective. This book will be excellent reference.
At first glance, I thought the book was a children’s picture book. The images are colorful and charming, although they did seem oddly placed on the page.
But then I realized their placement wasn’t arbitrary. It corresponded to the line art on the opposite side.
So if you hold the image up against a light source, (like my window), it shows the perspective used to create it.
Each concept has a diagram and explanation,
and an illustration demonstrating its usage,
which you can hold to the light from either side to see how the perspective works.
Gwen White writes in her introduction to the book:
Just as a study of verbs is necessary in order to speak a language, … so is a knowledge of Perspective helpful if you wish to convey a feeling of depth. It is not concerned with Flat Design or Decoration, but it enters into outdoor sketching, scenery, film backgrounds, dioramas, and many book illustrations.
For example, if you wanted to illustrate a book about rabbits in moonlight…
or pigs in sunshine…
Or mice playing…
or a variety of other scenes, Pictorial Perspective will help you.
She called this technique of holding the pages to the light her “lift up” idea.
Even the endpapers are explanatory.
I tried to find out more about Gwen White, but there doesn’t seem to be much on her that is easily accessed. She did illustrate children’s books, and authored a book about patterns as well as others about dolls and toys. She was also a painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy and was ARCA (Associate Royal Cambrian Academy). She dedicates this book to her three sons. I hope to find out more with continued research.
In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy learning perspective in the pleasantest possible way.