Most often white space, sometimes negative space comprises another colour such as black. In many ways, picturebooks are like film, but negative space is not an option in most kinds of films, where there has to be some kind of backdrop.
Negative space is advantageous because lack of setting means a story may not date so much. Although crisp white backdrops in picture books feel contemporary, we can find many examples which are really pretty old.
Below is a motley collection of illustrations but I feel they share something in common: They seem to have started from an assemblage of large shapes of colour. On top of those shapes, some are rendered and shaded while others aren’t.
The peak example of what I’m talking about is the illustration below.
Artists have various ways of deliberately distorting naturalistic perspective to achieve a certain mood, for example, a cosy little world.
A common feature in children’s book illustration is the curved horizon. An exaggerated and curved horizon gives the impression that the child lives on a very small planet, and mirrors the experience of early childhood. The young child’s arena is small compared to that of an adult, both physically and imaginatively.
Humans have the tendency to populate every sparse area with fairies. We historically consider small protrusions in land (knolls and hills) magical in some way. Here’s an illustration of a fairy hill, with tiny people coming out of a trap door. (Similar imagery can be seen in “The Legend Of The Pied Piper“.
And here’s an Arthur Rackham illustration of a magic hill:
I believe the concept of the fairy hill has something to do with the tendency to depict horizons as curves in illustrations for children.
Peephole: a small hole that may be looked through, especially one in a door through which callers may be identified before the door is opened.
Though the graphic art below focuses on peepholes — from literal holes in walls to views through trees in a forest — in literature there are established terms for describing the unsettled feeling you get when you look through something to something else.
It goes back to Freud, of course. Freud and the uncanny, or unheimlich.
Freud described the uncanny as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar”. The uncanny represents the liminal space between what is capable of being understood as outward in the world and what is hidden. Though we may get a sense of the familiarity, its true connection to the past is never quite in our reach. Through repression or burying, the uncanny is never able to be fully comprehended — it can, however, be sensed or felt.
The word ‘unheimlich’ is the opposite of ‘heimlich’, which has various definitions, all related to ‘the home’ e.g. ‘belonging to the home’. The home is (hopefully) where we experience peaceful pleasure and security.
Some writers are well-known for their ability to evoke a sense of the uncanny in readers. One standout example: Shirley Jackson.
A knock on her door was a strange thing to her as the fact of the door itself… as she looked at the inside, and meant to mark the next day whether the panels outside were the same as those inside; off, she thought, that someone standing outside could look at the door, straight ahead, seeing the white paint and the wood, and I inside looking at the door and the white paint and the wood should look straight also, and we two looking should not see each other because there is something in the way…
Hangsaman, Shirley Jackson
Below is an analysis of this passage. Before reading, know that lonely college freshman Natalie Waite is the main character and she has created this imaginary friend she calls Tony. (Many readers don’t pick up that Tony is imaginary, instead coding Tony as a same-sex romantic object.)
The knocking figure lurking behind the door, somatically signaling its presence but unknowable until the door is opened, is exactly the fear Freud describes in the uncanny. Natalie’s attempts to understand the odd situation relies her ability to “look” at the inside, to “mark” the day, to observe panels from various angles, to “see” the paint, wood, and otherwise normal harbingers of reality.
To decipher what is happening, Natalie attempts to reassert the concreteness of her room and the door. Jackson’s paragraph instills the fear in not knowing where the boundary between the real and the unreal lays, and leaving the uncertainty open after establishing the obvious.
The “we two looking” are Natalie and Tony, not yet able to meet due to that “something in the way,” whether it be logic, reasoning, perception, or simply, a locked door.
Beyond the locked door is the distance between two selves and mental activities. To look at each other would be to finally confront the shadowy other, an act that Natalie cannot fully confront.
What is beginning to emerge in this passage, though, is an inability to separate the real world self from the non reality. It is unclear who the “I” in the passage is, whether Natalie or Tony, real self or shadowed visage.
“Homespun” Horror: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Doubling by Hannah Phillips
Useful words from that analysis:
Somatic psychology: The study of the mind/body interface, the relationship between our physical matter and our energy; the interaction of our body structures with our thoughts and actions.
Non reality: A place, situation, etc. that is not reality.
Visage: A person’s face or facial expression, with reference to the form or proportions of the features. And here it means the manifestation, image, or aspect of something. (A metaphorical face, for things which don’t normally have faces e.g. buildings or parts of architecture.)
One way to add depth to an illustration: Plonk something big and interesting into the foreground. Extend the picture as far back as the situation allows, all the way back to the hills, with detail in the middle distance. Utilise aerial perspective.
This illustration of a sleeping cat is a perfect example:
Crafters sometimes talk about ‘collage sheets’ and we can use this term to describe a certain type of picture book illustration. Basically, I’m talking about a piece of art which looks a lot like a sticker sheet, or, if you’re a generation older than modern adhesive, like a sheet of paper dolls, yet to be cut out. Think also of a page in a stamp collector’s album.
Technically, a ‘collage’ is a piece of art made by sticking various different materials such as photographs and pieces of paper or fabric on to a backing. But when talking about illustration, a ‘collage’ work can give the appearance of having been made in this way, even when there’s no ‘sticking’ involved.
I first saw the following image described as a ‘collage sheet’. Clearly, someone has used a two different coloured pens to create this artwork. No glue. No sticking. There’s an expanded use of the word ‘collage’ to mean ‘a collection or combination of various things’. Let’s go with that.
Images like this go back as far as cave paintings, which we might also describe as ‘collage sheets’. It seems we’ve always like to create images with animals that are important to us. These sheets have very little visually discernible organisation unless the viewer is acquainted with the story it tells. There’s an emphasis on repeatable patterns. They are examples of simultaneous narrative art.
Kenneth Mahood’s New Yorker cover below is a more contemporary example, with drawn dogs (instead of chickens). This could almost be a sticker sheet.
You’re likely familiar with The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Note that Carle’s collage style is very well suited to the close ups required by that story. But take a look at the range of illustrations below. Carle’s style was suited to everything from close ups to long shots.
Alice and Martin Provensen created picture books with this sheet collage look on a white background. Notice how ‘stage perspective’ rather than ‘cinematic perspective’ is possible with this style. The limited poses of folkart characters are a feature. (Front, back and sides.)
Collage gives a flatness to the image that draws attention to its constructedness.
Dahlov Ipcar is another sheet collage illustrator who liked a background starting with black. She is best known for her vibrant collage-style paintings of jungle and farm animals. Like many animal artists such as Beatrix Potter, Ipcar’s love of animals is partly due to the summers she spent with her family in Maine. Ipcar’s parents were also famous artists: William and Marguerite Zorach. In 1923 the Zorach family bought a farm at Robinhood Cove in Georgetown, Maine. It was during a Maine summer that Dahlov met her future husband Adolph Ipcar.
Another artist to mention here is Brian Wildsmith. His white backgrounds make his collage-y illustrations seem more similar to Carle’s than to Ipcar’s.
Brian Wildsmith’s website
JOANNE AND DAVID WILEY
Ivan Gantschev (1925 – 2014) was a Bulgarian-German illustrator and author of more than 70 children’s books. He created a lot of full bleed paintings but below is an excample reminiscent of the collage sheet/dye technique which, in the West, we tend to associate with Eric Carle.
Gantschev’s work is especially well-suited to the highly metaphorical genre of fairytale, because the positioning of the elements lends itself to the Surreal. The huge advantage to this style: the artist can wreak havoc with the laws of physics. There are no laws of physics.
Interestingly for this style of art, he has included shadows in the image below. Shadows stand out all the more when the viewer has no real insight into how they would come to be.
Takahashi Shu and Fujita Sakura were artists who married each other in Setagaya (Japan) and then moved to Italy for 41 years. The couple achieved international recognition for their art before eventually returning to Japan where they chose to make their home in Okayama Prefecture in the beach town of Sami.
Polish graphic artist Zbigniew Rychlicki (1922 – 1989) had a number of techniques, including a woodcut style, but here is an example of the ‘painted and textured shapes’ style of collage.
This is a style seen in contemporary illustrators such as Jon Klassen, who himself is said to be much emulated.
James Flora (1914-1998) was a prolific commercial illustrator from the 1940s to the 1970s and the author/illustrator of 17 popular children’s books.
But Jim Flora was probably best known for his distinctive and idiosyncratic album cover art for RCA Victor and Columbia Records during the 1940s and 1950s. In contrast to a children’s book illustrator such as Gomi Taro, using the collage sheet style he achieves for his album covers a sense of diabolical chaos and disorder. That’s a feature of this collage sheet style: It can be extremely ordered (lined up like a stamp album) or all over the place.
Many illustrators have been influenced by Jim Flora.
Antoni Boratyński was a Polish illustrator who trained during the 1950s and created many illustrations in the second half of the 20th century. He is well-known for illustrating The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende.
The background below has aged to yellow, but he was working on white.
This style of art isn’t limited to children’s illustration. Like graphic novels, when pitched at an older audience, there tends to be more on the page. But not always. Dahlov Ipcar’s dual audience popularity and her complicated collages are one example of a collage-style illustrator working with great complexity.
The illustrations below are interesting because they make unusual use of borders. Some of the illustrations expand through borders like diptych, but these are basically separate images colocated on the same page, collage sheet style.
If your house were on fire, what one thing would you save? Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park explores different answers to this provocative question in linked poems that capture the diverse voices of a middle school class. Illustrated with black-and-white art.
When a teacher asks her class what one thing they would save in an emergency, some students know the answer right away. Others come to their decisions more slowly. And some change their minds when they hear their classmates’ responses. A lively dialog ignites as the students discover unexpected facets of one another—and themselves. With her ear for authentic dialog and knowledge of tweens’ priorities and emotions, Linda Sue Park brings the varied voices of an inclusive classroom to life through carefully honed, engaging, and instantly accessible verse.
In the tradition of Anne of Green Gables and Pippi Longstocking comes a heart-warming novel about love, family, grief, joy and the power of laughter and imagination.
When Inge Maria arrives on the tiny island of Bornholm in Denmark to live with her grandmother, she’s not sure what to expect. Her grandmother is stern, the people on the island are strange, and children are supposed to be seen and not heard. But no matter how hard Inge tries to be good, mischief has a way of finding her. Could it be that a bit of mischief is exactly what Grandmother and the people of Bornholm need?
Symmetry is one of those words whose everyday usage is a little different from the scientific meaning.
a sense of harmonious and most appealing proportion and balance
In biology, the repetition of the parts in an animal or plant in an orderly fashion. Specifically, symmetry refers to a correspondence of body parts, in size, shape, and relative position, on opposite sides of a dividing line or distributed around a central point or axis.
SYMMETRY IN PROSE
The collection of images below are examples of symmetry and off-kilter symmetry. Images which are almost symmetrical — but not quite — can take readers into the realm of the uncanny. A standout text example comes from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Sundial.
The Halloran estate’s plans and set up are meant to be symmetrical, but the badly placed sundial disrupts this sense of stability. Like the door symbol in Hangsaman, the sundial is an inescapable presence: “Intruding purposefully upon the entire scene, an inevitable focus, was the sundial, set badly off center and reading “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?”
“Homespun” Horror: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Doubling by Hannah Phillips
Artists and illustrators use tricks which tell the viewer where to look. Since humans tend to naturally follow the gaze of others, one focusing trick is to create eye lines all pointing to the focus of the work.
In the Norman Rockwell image below, the viewer’s eye is drawn straight to the dog. Notice how Rockwell does this. Almost every single character is looking at the dog, except for one guy who is looking at us and pointing to the dog. The characters looking at the dog also form a circle arond the dog, placing the dog at centre of that circle, though not at the mathematical circle of the artwork. (Compositionally, that wouldn’t look good.)
Rockwell has also utilised various examples of ‘pointing’. A boy’s violin case also seems to point towards the dog. An artist uses his paintbrush. Even the postie is holding something that seems to point to the dog. (I can’t work out exactly what it is, but that doesn’t matter.)