SCBWI Metro NY newsletter Spring 1998.
HIDDEN MESSAGES: The Strategic Use of Visual Elements to Tell a Better Story
As visual people, we artists respond intrinsically to the visual stimuli the world presents to us daily. We need to be aware that everyone responds to this stimuli on some level. Consciousness of these responses is very important when creating illustrations for picture book stories. You need to know the subtle, and not so subtle, messages you send to the viewer. The choices you make, instinctively or with careful consideration, can actually determine whether or not a particular piece, or a whole book, works or doesnt work. The more awareness you put into each choice of shape, size, placement and color the more easily your story will be "read." The strategic use of these visual elements can take the reader or listener further than words could ever do alone that is exactly the point of a picturebook experience.
A decade ago, while studying art therapy at the graduate level, I became re-sensitized to the psychology of art with its hidden messages and personal responses. All artists apply their emotionality to shape, size, placement and color to evoke the viewers understanding of their personal views and messages. Whether the image is highly realistic, completely abstract, or any where in between, these same basic elements are used to capture attention and cause a reactive response.
To illustrate this point, Id like to suggest studying a book I happily discovered years ago and just pulled out again. PICTURE THIS by Molly Bang (Little Brown, though it is out of print now library!) is a wonderful study of the visual perceptions and the abstract elements of composition that artists can use and manipulate to better tell a story. The book is full of simple and effective examples about the "message" differences that placement, colors and the size of shapes can exploit. The book, filled with "tricks of the trade", is an interesting study of how a picture works.