In the first of a new mini-series on visual literacy for Books for Keeps, Piet Grobler discusses the effects of colour, medium and format.
Alice’s irritation with books without pictures, at the start of Alice in Wonderland, has become a well-known tongue-in-cheek argument in favour of illustrations. I agree; perhaps I wouldn’t say that books without pictures have no use, but I believe illustrations can reveal so much about a narrative. In order to best appreciate pictures that join words to tell stories, visual literacy is imperative.
A visually literate person has developed the capacity to read pictures, make sense of them and negotiate their ‘meaning’. Contemporary theorists agree that creators – of a picture book in our case – no longer have ownership of its meaning once the book has been published, though readers can try to grasp the meaning that they believe the author and/or illustrator intended.
Illustrators are very aware of the content they are illustrating and they choose their medium, technique and subject accordingly. Even though they create meaning, the illustrator’s processes or decisions are not always calculated, but spontaneous or subconscious. This is possible, because they are – consciously or not – visually literate. How do readers go about making sense of illustrations?
To begin with, we should acknowledge that we are already ‘reading’ illustrations in a fairly informed manner on a daily basis – like when we interpret images in the media (television, film, magazines, books, internet). We can use the knowledge that we subconsciously apply in these cases, when we study a picture book. The ‘tools’ or ‘skills’ we use to read pictures, give us the language and, to a certain extent, a method, to talk about and share one or many more layers of meaning in picture books with children, students or other bibliophiles.
In this first of three articles on visual literacy, we look at the art elements that we consider when we read a picture book, like line, colour, texture and shape. They could also be called the ‘formal’ aspects. In the second article we’ll look at formal aspects of the book that lies within the design, like the emphasis or focus in the picture, balance, variety, movement, proportion, repetition, rhythm and sequence. In the third, we will consider other factors that may have an influence on both the illustrator and the reader, like their social critical perspectives: gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, ideology and iconology that may be determined by cultural characteristics. However, combinations of elements are at work in every case and so divisions like these are always going to artificial.
Colour (or the lack of it) could indicate the mood that illustrators want to create, or the emphasis they would like to place on certain elements. Le Colis Rouge (The Red Parcel), by Clotilde Perrin, a French illustrator, is a good example. Perrin uses a limited palette: a blue, a yellow and a red. These she mixes with each other or with black or white. The focus is on the main character who is running through the narrative (and the book) to deliver a red parcel that he was wrapping on the first page. The scenes include characters from fairy tales and other stories, and landscapes with references to artists like Picasso, Matisse and Da Vinci. On the end papers at the back, the illustrations show him falling through a hole to deliver the red parcel to a girl. She opens it and finds the book, Le Colis Rouge. This awareness of the book as an object and vehicle of narrative is emphasised brilliantly, as the book and the parcel are always red. The red becomes a little clue, and the limited palette is associated with more sophisticated illustration. The expectation is created that the narrative must be approached with caution and intelligence. Having said that, the book does not only function on a sophisticated and challenging level; on the surface is a wonderful story that entertains a young audience with its detail and references to well-known characters.
Even though colours contribute to meaning, the meaning of a colour is never fixed. Ali Boozari, Iranian illustrator of A Goat and a Wolf, also uses only a few colours. The antagonist is Wolf and his character is communicated as mischievous, mean and potentially dangerous, as he is coloured red. As a bright colour, red presents itself in the foreground of an image. We even see Wolf’s intestines depicted in red! Red can, therefore, not only add emphasis, like in Le Colis Rouge, but also suggest danger, energy and violence. But we also know, from our own visual intelligence and experience that red is the colour of love and Valentine’s day – or it could indicate hot, spicy food.
The medium can also be used to add meaning by association. Boozari illustrated A Goat and a Wolf using lino prints. Print is associated with repetition, as the same block results in more than one version of an image. I personally (negotiating meaning is personal) think of folk tales and legends as stories, often with morals or lessons, that have several versions as they are repeated through generations. Print making (stencils, wood block, lino and screen print) is often associated with folk art, with the images, patterns, fabric and handicrafts that ordinary people have been making for many years. The medium helps to indicate the nature of the story. Closely related to medium is technique The visual language (or technique used to apply the medium) in A Goat and a Wolf is stylised and bold, with little regard for true perspective. Content is much more important than reality, and pattern and decoration is integral to the design. All this reminds us of the child-like honesty of folk tales and folk art. There is also something old and classical about many print media: when reading this book, we are clearly entering the land of ‘Once upon a time’.
Dale Blankenaar from South Africa decided to tell the story Rhinocephants on the Roof by using textures and colours (either self-created or from objects he’d found) which he scanned or photographed and then applied digitally. This results in a magic-realistic appearance: somewhat true to life, but not fully. He introduces a feeling of eeriness. This is suited to the contemporary, real life adventure of a little boy who is afraid of ordinary things at bedtime at his grandparents’ house. His imagination gets the better of him and he experiences the ordinary as threatening. Digital illustration, using photography (fragments of ‘reality’) is clearly very suited to this story and it adds a contemporary, trendy feel. Also the format that Blankenaar chose for his book is not accidental. The book is thin and tall so that the entire house (with rhinocephants on the roof) can be shown, as well as peculiar angles that come across as threatening and unusual, especially when supported by a lot of black. Perrin and Boozari were equally conscious of format. Both their stories are told in landscape format, which supports the movement through various scenes and the outdoor settings and, in the Le Colis Rouge, emphasises the length of the protagonist’s journey through various ‘storyscapes’.
So much more could be said about the importance of technique, medium, format and colour. Pondering on the rationales for the use of scratchy drawing as opposed to naturalistic painting, or a lyrical colourful aquarelle instead of bold, black charcoal is like playing detective. Whether intentional or intuitive, the illustrator is giving us clues to become adventurous readers who can delve below the surface to discover additional layers of meaning.
Piet Grobler is Course Leader for Illustration at the University of Worcester, and an award winning illustrator. He is a member of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature, IBBY and the University of Worcester’s International Forum for Research in Children’s Literature. He is also a founder of the International Centre for the Picture Book in Society.
Le Colis Rouge by Clotilde Perrin is published by Éditions Rue
Rhinocephants on the Roof by Marita van der Vyver is published by Human & Rousseau
A Goat and a Wolf by Ali Boozari is not yet published.