Back at the end of 2015 I was invited to publish an article on Illustrator Tips for the SCBWI members only Illinois Prairie Wind, located on the SCBWI website in the Illinois Region. And while they did want an exclusive at the time, I can freely share after three months (long since past) as long as I give credit to the original source located here:
Download my formatted pdf:
SCBWI Illinois, Prairie Wind, January 2016
"Digging for Design Bones"
By Kathryn Ault Noble
THE PRACTICE OF THUMBNAILING PUBLISHED BOOKS
To start I will review my practice of "thumbnailing" published picture books which I shared in my interview with Sylvia Lui over at Kidlit411:
"What I find most interesting is while I taught the basic three part story template in my Introduction to Animation classes, there are devices I’ve seen children’s books illustrators using that are a particularly unique way to layout the story. For instance, the use of page bleeds which does not come into play with an animation. Some illustrators use bleeds only on pages which need extra emphasis, such as a peak in the story.
Author/Illustrator Uri Shulivetz used particularly interesting page graphics to enhance the visual pacing in his books “One Monday Morning” and “The Treasure”. I would love to think I could simply read through a book and pick up on the graphic devices he used, but I find actually sketching out the book quickens my eye to what should be obvious page gestalt."
-Kathryn Ault Noble, Kidlit411, 2014
Having assigned thumbnailing and other research techniques to classes over the years, I still have to remind myself to “thumbnail out” picture books from time to time so as to keep my own eye keen. I am prone as the next person towards joyfully falling into the story world, forgetting to take note of the visual design devices at work.
DESIGNER EYES VS CONSUMER EYES
Building on those thoughts, I would like to describe another form of “practice” I use with movies and animations; making “screen shots” of the main storytelling frames and analyzing the compositions. Recently I went through an episode of Dr Who, in which the characters have been shrunk to fit inside the antagonist’s robotic framework. Because of the specific and limited environment, the use of color and composition to enhance storytelling were clearly evident. For instance a character wears a red-orange shirt in an overall muted blue-green mechanical environment, a basic complementary color scheme.
Obviously I don’t have time to do this often, but some Friday nights after watching a movie or animation, I take a couple of hours afterwards to identify how the directors have used the Elements of Design and the Principles of Organization to advance their storytelling. I tend to take screen shots of the first frames of a camera or scene change as well as the last, what I call the digital “page turns” or the storyboarding key frames.
This technique is something I used in the animation classes in particular. As I told the students, it takes an extra effort to go from seeing an animation with entertainment eyes (what they entered the school with) to the more critical eye of a visual designer or director. Over time it becomes second nature, but requires a rather time consuming effort up front to train your brain to see it. In the classroom I showed animations without sound (shutting off the storytelling) to instill this practice in the students. As we went frame by frame through whole sequences we were able to name the camera moves and compositions in action.
This process works well for any design product with sequential narrative imagery, from opera and theatre staging, to animation and film, from comics and graphic novels, to children’s picture books. The psychology of Page Gestalt, Composition, and Color Theory was taught in some form in all of my classes due to my belief they are more important than crafting, style, or even character development in good visual storytelling. Although I taught over 20 subjects throughout the years from 2D Design, Computer Graphics, and Media Arts Typography in the Graphic Design Program, to Digital Painting, Interior Spaces and Worlds, Concept Art, and Portfolio for the Games Arts Program, I considered them all to be essentially DESIGN classes.
THE VISUAL LANGUAGE
It is not a bad idea to keep a list of the Design Elements and Principals available as prompters, even for the most seasoned designers/illustrators. Off the top of my head I would describe the Elements and Principles thusly:
The Elements of Design: Point, Line, Plane/Shape, Color, Value, Texture, and Space.
The Principles of Organization: Gestalt Grouping Principles to form Harmony vs Variety through Repetition and Rhythm, Proportion, Balance and Weight in Symmetry vs Asymmetry, Hierarchy created by size, color, and eye movement, Focal Point created by Dominance of size, position, color, style or shape, and Contrast. Types of Contrast include contrast of: Shape- Curvilinear vs Rectilinear, Size- Large vs Small, Value- Light vs Dark, and the list goes on.
The importance of utilizing a variety of sources for understanding the roles of composition and camera placement in sequential storytelling cannot be overstated. Scott McCloud’s books, such as “Making Comics” and “Understanding Comics” were required textbooks in my animation classes.
And of course the indispensable “Writing with Pictures” by Uri Shulevitz belongs on every kidlit illustrator’s reference shelf. It was the wonderful pacing in one of his picture books that caught my eye and enticed me to thumbnail it out, even before I had heard he had written a book on pacing. By thumbnailing each page I could identify and “name” each graphic device he used to speed up or slow down the forward motion or accentuate a climax.
THE GOLDEN RATIO AND RULE OF THIRDS
Let’s look at a couple of frames that hold to the basic design language starting with dividing the view screen into thirds as well as the use of the Golden Ratio/Rectangle and the Fibonacci Spiral. I usually drop both in layers over the screen shot I am analyzing and generally speaking the Rule of Thirds tends to be most used. Recently I made a pdf questioning how “golden” the golden ratio actually is, based on findings of modern researchers. They have not been able to prove that test subjects respond to the golden ratio more preferentially than other composition devices.
THEATRICAL DIRECTORIAL THEORY
Next let’s look at how these film characters move through the “page”, which surprisingly is similar to picture books in that the flow moves from left to right, specifically in “action/adventure” types of storytelling. Of course this idea is specific to Western readers who read from left to right, so moving to the right “feels like” moving forward in the storyline or towards the end of the story. While perhaps not a common thought in staging, I tend to think in terms of “exit stage left” (the audience’s right) as being more congruent with the idea of continuance versus termination. Whereas “exit stage right” can signify a character heading the wrong way in life, or terminating. This viewpoint has been formed by breaking down the compositions of many theatrical movies, films of stage plays, or Shakespearean films over the years. I was not sure my interpretations were shared by anyone else, so went digging around on the internet as I wrote this article. And while I could not get my hands on the Didascalia of Citizen Kane, I did find the following quote about Theatrical Directorial Theory which supported with my own observations:
“Much of this sort of directorial theory is used in staging classical theatre up through Shakespeare or so, and has sort of fallen off in modern times.
So if I had attended directing school, I might have learned this philosophy, but hours of observations have fortunately clued me in to this particular device. These ideas can be applied to camera movement terms as well, such as “zooming” in on a character’s face during a moment of strength or excitement to an “extreme close up”. As to page composition, any character in the midst of their most powerful climatic moment is positioned in the center, often as a close up in what we would label the moment of “standing up” if breaking the story into it’s basic arcs.
For example, in the particular episode of Dr Who I was working with, I observed soldiers who were leaders (and assumed would survive) were often placed with their backs to the left edge, facing the right during a battle, especially if the opposing forces were more powerful. But they were placed in the center when conquering the enemy. However, soldiers with their backs against the right edge generally went the way of the dodo.
Certainly there are numerous exceptions to these “rules”, and while not all directors use them it is my belief that knowing these design devices provides foundational knowledge for illustrators. From comics and graphic novels, to opera and theater or animation and movies, we are provided with many examples of using composition and camera moves to help us create strong visual pacing in picture books. However simply viewing does not generally embed the knowledge as solidly as actually doing the “copywork”, a time honored practice in all art schools.
Practice, practice, practice. So don’t forget to take off those consumer glasses and study your favorite books with your powerful designer eyes!
Kathryn Ault Noble is currently the Co-Network Representative for the SCBWI Near Normal Writers and Illustrators in Bloomington/Normal, IL, and Winner of the Portfolio Mentorship Award at the SCBWI Summer Conference in LA, 2014
Here are the thumbnailed picture books mentioned in the article, at a larger size:
I thumbnailed these out when I was first starting out in kidlit because I felt the pacing so strongly as I flipped the pages. The funny thing is I did not even know Uri Shulivetz had written a book on Pacing in Picture Books, which of course I now own. Obviously he practiced what he preached, as they say.
The follow images appeared in the original article or were part of my process:
Long Thoughts =
Observations, Step by Step PDFs, General Pontifications.
What's cookin' in the
To Short Thoughts