Illustrating Picture Books: Book Reviews

This is a review of three books which together will help you build your illustrations. Molly Bang’s Picture This: How Pictures Work illuminates the core principles of all visual design, especially children’s books. SCBWI’s The Book is a compendium of a broad range of topics for picture book people, including how to sell your work, and is updated regularly. And Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication by Martin Salisbury is a profusely illustrated skills text for picture book artists.

Picture This: How Pictures Work

“The Strunk and White of visual literacy” – Brian Selznick

Original edition was Picture This: Perception and Composition by Molly Bang

The twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of Molly Bang’s book Picture This: How Pictures Work, a seminal treatise on the core principles of good design was reissued in 2016 by Chronicle Books. The book’s heart is a design exercise based on a story familiar to us all – Little Red Riding Hood.

Ms. Bang starts with a red triangle to represent the main character. The shape is angular with pointy tips, stable, and its stop sign red is the color of passion, warmth, and even blood. This simple shape shows us the protagonist’s confidence, bravery, loving nature, and the risk to her safety as she goes through the woods that the wolf inhabits.

The author keeps every aspect to the simplest shapes possible and tells of Red Riding Hood’s travails using only four colors: red, white, black and violet.

If the little girl is pictured as a red triangle, how should her mother be shown? A larger red triangle? No, because she then dominates the story, and Mother is not so mischievous as to earn a triangle’s sharpness. Maybe a more rounded blob, still flat on the bottom? She is now warm, stable, and soft, an appropriate mother figure to Red Riding Hood. However, she still dominates the scene. Ms. Bang changes her color to violet, which is still warm but not such a saturated color. To depict the forest, she tries stacking a few triangles, which look like Christmas trees, not the right kind of scary deep forest. Instead, she uses tall horizontal stripes of various sizes. Now the trees are tall enough that we do not see their tops and the different widths and where they begin relative to the “ground” suggests the depth of the forest, yet being perfectly vertical, they are stable. If some are tilted, though, the forest suddenly seems more dangerous.

Art from Picture This by Molly Bang

Using simple concepts to show each visual choice’s power, the author goes on through the whole story, fox and all. In this notable exercise, the principles of shape, color, position, visual weight, perspective, balance and more are made clear. The updated edition expands the author’s principles of visual perception from 10 to 12. It adds a new section, “From Intent to Execution”, in which she uses examples from her own picture books to demonstrate the ideas she conveys.

The Book

The Book is the most useful tool any creator of children’s books could ever have. It will become your best friend as you pursue your career in publishing.” – Lin Oliver, Executive Editor, and Stephen Mooser, President, SCBWI

Everyone striving to be a published illustrator of children’s books should become a member of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators and download or purchase a copy of SCBWI’s publication, The Book: The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children.

This three hundred page manual, free to download for members or $6.50 plus shipping for a hard copy, includes how to prepare, market and promote your work. There are sections on what styles are acceptable, how many pages are in a typical book dummy, how to approach editors and what kinds of royalties or fees to expect. There is a section specifically for illustrators that includes hints on portfolios and tips on meeting with Editors and Art Directors in New York. This text is not illustrated but lists a multitude of simple answers to the essential questions you most likely have.

The Book is a comprehensive resource.

Illustrating Children’s Books

Martin Salisbury’s Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication is a profusely illustrated 101 manual for children’s book artists. Chapters on drawing children and animals or exploring materials, and techniques demonstrate possibilities in traditional media like watercolor gouache, acrylics, ink, oils, pastels, printmaking and collage. If you choose to use animals or inanimate objects as characters, you will find tips here too. Age range is considered, with sections dedicated to picture books, books for older children and non-fiction books.

Planning picture books as works of sequential images with minimal text involves creating a storyboard or thumbnails followed by a 32-page dummy. This involves a strategy for dividing the text and controlling the pacing. As will a movie, the illustrator chooses the angle of view, whether to zoom in or out from a scene and whether illustrations will be single page or double page spreads.

The sections on books for older readers touches on how to choose which sections of a longer text to illustrate, how to maintain the pacing of the story, and setting the scene. For young adult novels, often the cover is the only art in the book and if your style is appropriate for covers, there is good money to be made. Non-fiction illustration may require research and posing models to draw from. As elsewhere in the book, many illustrative examples and case studies of specific illustrators’ work help the reader visualize what is being conveyed.

Originally published in 2004, Mr. Salisbury’s book has gone out of print, however it is still available as a used book or from libraries. Some passages are dated, but the bulk of the book stands as a good basic how-to text. The final chapter on getting published is out of date, but that information is covered in the SCBWI’s The Book. Here is a review by Editor Harold Underdown.

These three books together make a good starter library to launch inventive illustrators.

Do you have suggestions for helpful resources on children’s book illustration?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s