Perspective In Art and Picture Books

We can divide picture books roughly into two types:

  1. Stage Perspective
  2. Cinematic Perspective

The Stage Perspective books look almost as if we are looking at a story acted out on a stage. Cinematic picture books are influenced by film, and make use of various camera angles: high angle, low angle, worm’s eye view, establishing shot and so on.

Stage perspective is more common in picture books, I think. The art styles loved in picture books is well-suited to stage perspective: naïve, collage-y, folk arty.

Below, Perry Nodelman summarises the psychological effects of some common cinematic shots and also reminds us that the busyness of the background works in tandem with ‘camera angle’ to convey power, status and control:

Generally speaking, figures seen from below and against less patterned backgrounds stand out and seem isolated from their environment and in control of it; figures seen from above become part of an environment, either secure in it or constrained by it. Also generally speaking, illustrators who make significant use of changing angles tend to be those who emphasize the intense drama of the stories their depict; Van Allsburg and Trina Schart Hyman, both of whom tend to depict highly charged emotions, use extreme views from above and from below in book after book…

As well as viewing their characters from varying angles, picture-book artists can place them against differing sizes of backgrounds, much as movie directors do, in order to focus our attention on specific aspects of their behaviour.

Long shots, which show characters surrounded by a lot of background, imply objectivity and distance; they tell us about how a character’s actions influence his environment, or vice versa.

Middle-distance shots, which show characters filling most of the space from the top to the bottom of a picture, tend to emphasize the relationships between characters.

Close-ups generate involvement with characters by showing us their facial expressions and, presumably, communicating the way they feel…In picture books, close-ups are rare—not surprisingly, for the width of most picture books makes it difficult to show a face without any background behind it. In any case, this is a literature of action rather than of character, and the emphasis is on events and relationships rather than on subtleties of feeling. If close-ups are used at all in picture books, they tend to be on the front cover or dust jacket and to operate more as an introduction to a character’s appearance than as a way of revealing character.

Words About Pictures, Perry Nodelman

Examples Of Stage Perspective In Picture Books

Although stage perspective is common in picture books, even stage perspective picture books quite often open with a high angle establishing shot such as this one by Trina Schart Hyman.

Examples of Cinematic Perspective

The picture book oft credited for bringing cinematic perspective to picture books is Ferdinand The Bull.

But I think we can find older picture books with cinematic perspective. Check out H.C. Andersen’s “The Farmyard and the Weathercock” below, from Twee Haven, illustrated by Theo van Hoytema in 1898.

Low Angle Perspective

Jumanji Van Allsburg
from Jumanji by Van Allsburg
Austin Briggs (1908 - 1973) 1964 illustration for The Victim by John O'Hara
Austin Briggs (1908 – 1973) 1964 illustration for The Victim by John O’Hara
Roberto Innocenti (born 1940) 1980s illustration for Pinocchio
Roberto Innocenti (born 1940) 1980s illustration for Pinocchio
Robert E. Schulz (1928-1978) 1950s pulp paperback illustration cigarette
Robert E. Schulz (1928-1978) 1950s pulp paperback illustration
Engraving of the Frankenstein Trestle in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, around 1900, artist unknown
Engraving of the Frankenstein Trestle in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, around 1900, artist unknown. Frankenstein Cliff was named after Godfrey Frankenstein (1820-1873), a German immigrant landscape artist who painted scenes of the White Mountains.
1932 August, cover by Paolo Garretto
1932 August, cover by Paolo Garretto
1937 January, cover by Antonio Petruccell
1937 January, cover by Antonio Petruccell. Low angle plus close up.
Smokey Face by N. C. Wyeth
A Fool's Life by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke illustrated by Tanaka Ryohei, 1970 low angle
A Fool’s Life by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke illustrated by Tanaka Ryohei, 1970
Leonid Zolotarev - The Snow Queen
Leonid Zolotarev – The Snow Queen
Douglas Crockwell
Douglas Crockwell

Worm’s Eye View

It’s worth making a distinction between ‘low angle’ and ‘worm’s eye’, but the worm’s eye shot is a type of low angle. This is when the narrative camera is right down on the ground. (I mean, the name says it all.) This perspective is often pretty ominous.

Worm's Eye View from Unhinged
Worm’s Eye View from Unhinged

High Angle Perspective

from Zathura by Van Allsburg
from Zathura by Van Allsburg
Let's take a trip up the Nile, McCauley Conner, 1950
Let’s take a trip up the Nile, McCauley Conner, 1950

Shirley Hughes (almost?) always includes a high angle panoramic shot somewhere in her picturebooks, though not as establishing shots. They usually appear part way through the story.

Out and About by Shirley Hughes spring
Out and About by Shirley Hughes
Out and About by Shirley Hughes

Images below, from Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet (1989) show a number of various heights of ‘high angle’. The camera moves up and down, but we are always getting a high angle shot, unusually for a picture book.

Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet, 1989 cover
Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet, 1989
Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet, 1989
Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet, 1989
Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet, 1989
Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet, 1989 birds eye view of city street
Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet, 1989
Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet, 1989 kitchen
Henri, Schlitzohr written and illustrated by Eve Tharet, 1989

Below, an extreme example of ‘high angle’, looking straight down.

Background paintings by Bob Inman for Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962), dir. Abe Levitow, UPA overhead
Background paintings by Bob Inman for Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), dir. Abe Levitow, UPA.
DER REGENBOGEN (1972) Marie Sarraz
DER REGENBOGEN (1972) Marie Sarraz

Over-The-Shoulder

A Child's Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman
A Child’s Christmas In Wales Schart Hyman – over-the-shoulder view of an empathetic character
Pax cover illustration by Jon Klassen
Wait for me Princess and Frog
Wait for Me, The Princess and The Frog Ladybird illustration

Height Of The Child

This is not a term you hear film directors use, though it’s used in What Maisie Knew — a story from the perspective of a child. This is quite a common view in children’s books — a variation on the low angle that is clearly from the eye-height of a child.

The Kitchen Knight Trina Schart Hyman
The Kitchen Knight Trina Schart Hyman – drawn from the height of a child reader looking on

Close-Up

FRATS DE CLOWN (1963) Writer Warrior Annet, Illustrator Cornelius van Velsen, A Lantern Book
FRATS DE CLOWN (1963) Writer Warrior Annet, Illustrator Cornelius van Velsen, A Lantern Book
Burkert's Snow White - an example of a close up of a face on a front cover
Burkert’s Snow White – an example of a close up of a face on a front cover

Extreme Close-up

MITKEY ASTROMOUSE (1971) Heinz Edelmann
MITKEY ASTROMOUSE (1971) Heinz Edelmann
Lemon girl young adult novella

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