Panoptic refers to ‘showing or seeing the whole at one view’. Panoptic narrative art is often a bird’s eye view. The ‘camera’ is above. This is the art world’s equivalent of an all-seeing (omniscient) narrator.
The art itself isn’t necessarily three dimensional: Illustrators can create panoptic artwork in 2D if they’re after a more folk artsy style.
You will also hear the term ‘panoramic narrative. This describes a narrative image that depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Actions may be in a sequence or represent simultaneous actions during an event. Whereas the word ‘panoptic’ is generally used to describe aerial views, ‘panoramic’ is used to describe a ‘camera’ closer to the ground.
Panoptic and panoramic art was popular in the medieval era, where it most often depicts a myth.
(The term has nothing to do with Foucault’s panopticism — I believe it is made up of ‘pan’ + ‘optics’ as in ‘all-seeing’.)
In modern picture books, there is a gradation of activity in a scene. Often, there is way more going on in a single picture book illustration than would ever be happening in a real life photograph. For example, in the scene of the school fair from Shirley Hughes’s Dogger, below, we can see sorts of things going on — all of which would have happened at the fair — but all of the individual actions are meaningful and it’s unlikely they were all going on at the same time. The work is therefore on the panoptic continuum.
Film makers, too, often need to arrange characters within scenes in a way that wouldn’t naturally occur. But we accept these film conventions to a large degree, even when realism is the aim.
What if it’s clear from the context of the story that multiple actions in a single scene are definitely not going on at the same time? This is called Progressive narrative art, in which actions displayed by characters compact present and future action into a single image.
I believe Progressive narrative art is a subcategory of Panoptic art, and in picture books and film the two terms merge, for the simple fact that we in stories, characters live in ‘storybook worlds’, in which it’s perfectly possible all of these things are going on at once. We can’t possibly distinguish between the two states unless we were to know the ‘real events’. But these aren’t wars we’re describing — they are made up from the get-go; there is no basic ‘reality’.
Australian artist Roland Harvey is an expert at busy, detailed landscapes and has created a whole series of books with massive panoptic scenes: In The Bush, At The Beach, In The City and panoptic scenes occurring throughout his others.
Where’s Wally was created by Martin Handford, English illustrator. These books make the most of that wish to hunt and search, linger and examine.
Migrant by Jose Manuel Mateo
This book uses a single vertical illustration and brief text. It folds up accordion-style and recounts the story of a young family who immigrate illegally to Los Angeles, one huge image that is slowly unveiled over the course of the story.