How Pictures Work

Picture This, a book by Molly Bang was a recent discovery! Nicknamed the “Strunk and White of Visual Literacy,” Molly’s book celebrates its 20th year anniversary. I wondered why I had not read this book until now?

The illustrations are cut from construction paper, using a limited palette, focusing on reducing elements to their most basic shapes. She shows the importance of our emotional response to shape and color, brilliantly proving that we respond more to color than shape. A lot of what you read in her book is intuitive information for an artist, but by embracing the principals you can consciously use them as tools in your work. The book includes exercises in the back to be used in a group setting or for your own practice.

I got out the construction paper and set out to apply her principals to a current book project.  This book project is a graphic novel with an embedded story within a story. For this reason, the book is already tightly designed in the storyboarding phase. Already committed to four different background colors in the book’s design, I had to create four worlds for them to share but keep them connected in a relationship, in a sequence.

The images below represent the storyteller (an elder and her granddaughter) as they appear in the story. The goal of the cut paper exercise was to optimize the emotional impact in the composition using only shapes. Molly says, if one cannot solve the most basic issue in a picture first, which is the emotion, then no matter how detailed and colorful and beautiful you can render, there will be something missing.

1. These two figures are different in shape and size, the larger one closer to viewer (engages us), rounder and softer (approachable) and seated (stable) on the page. There is a connection between the two figures through the color black, they are somehow the same or connected. The child is of a different color, angular (not as approachable), off in the distance (removed), on the move (tension) and facing away from the elder (not engaged).

2. Now the figures are facing each other (engaged), the child on left now (new perspective) stepping up closer to reach the elder (the child has an interest now).

3. The two characters are on the same plane now, (on the “same level” or agreement) facing toward each other (engaged), child stays on left (comfortable in her place with the elder).

4. The figures are now the closest, united in the story and trust, as the child holds her position on the left, and heads lean toward each other.

I knew these principals to be true instinctively, yet I don’t know how conscious I was when sketching the figures into their composition. I was focusing on telling a story visually through the illustrations-maybe caught up in the details. After reading Molly’s book, I am convinced that the emotion of the composition is the most basic and important part of what I am trying to say. There should be something evident in the pictures, even without words or details. I used these rough guides for placement in the final sketches for the book in progress. I will post the sketches and the final watercolor illustrations to see how well it worked. Deadline is coming up.





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