Cutaway illustrations are described by engineers and architects as ‘sectional axonometric’ drawings. They exist to show the viewer the inside of an object, with emphasis on its parts. In picture books for children, the cutaway illustration is quite often educational in its intent, for example to show the reader the inside of an object of building.
For example, the image below is a cutaway image of an insect nest, designed to show the viewer what it looks like on the inside — novel exposure of an otherwise secret space.
There was a time when cutaway illustrations were very popular for child consumption, and I guess that’s because they were so new and therefore impressive. You see them a lot in early to mid 20th century advertisements.
Popular computer games are all about the cutaway, normalising it, removing the ‘wow’. The Sims is all about the cutaway houses.
I also associate ‘cutaway’ views in games as necessary but bug-like features, for example when a character in a first person game approaches a wall, then partially enters the wall. This also happens in 3D architectural software when moving the camera about. It’s called ‘glitching through walls’. This game phenomenon is visually unappealing and I think it removes some of the romance of the cutaway house.
Though the golden age of the picture book cutaway seems to have passed (for now), it’s much easier for illustrators to create these images, even with no formal design training. A familiarity with popular 3D design software affords anyone the reference material to go to town with cutaways. But perhaps this is precisely why the cutaway is less utilised now; because it is less special? Or perhaps the proliferation of images in our culture has stripped away the feeling that we are afforded a glimpse into a secret world.
In any case, I remain in awe of a good cutaway illustration. The most simple and therefore the most suited to a retro style are these one point perspective dollhouse cutaways:
The illustration below is created in two point perspective, which lends a modern complexity.
Modern software allows designers to create the ‘exploded axon‘. In these exploded diagrams, not only do we get a cutaway, detailed and 3D view, but each item is separated out. In the fascinating image below, Chris Ware has taken elements of exploded axons and applied a comic book style. These images are from a graphic novel called Building Stories (2012).
And here is a three point perspective example.
Various “Picture Book” Cutaway Houses
It’s not easy to find the original creators of the images below, but each of them might easily appear in a children’s book. Some of them might just as easily have appeared in 20th century advertisements.
Victorians loved to make miniatures, and rich houses often commissioned miniature replicas of their own homes. These now look like ‘doll houses’ though they were not used for play.
The intrigue for miniature houses has not gone away. Though they have a retro vibe — or precisely because of this — look on any craft website and you’ll soon find embroidery patterns of cutaway houses (a.k.a dollhouses).
THE LIVING CITY EXHIBITION
Below is a well-known image of a cutaway building. Aerial perspective is achieved by rendering the background in sepia tones, and the people outside the building as grey silhouettes. This image is my favourite cutaway illustration.
There is apparently an Inn like this the Siebel illustration below located in upstate New York. It’s called “The Bull and Garland“.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
A Slice of Spitlefields by Ben Rea
Adam Simpson has made updated posters for Hitchcock’s film Rear Window. By using the cutaway technique reminiscent of yesteryear, these new posters take the audience right back to the 20th century. The designs are beautiful.
In Gaston Bachelard’s Symbolic Dream House, you probably shouldn’t go down to the basement, ever. I mean it. Nothing good ever happens down there. The basement is the house version of a fairytale forest — a descent into the subconscious. We can’t control our subconscious. That’s what makes it scary.
EXAMPLE ONE: BASEMENTS AND BEREAVEMENT
The older woman character in Alice Munro’s “Free Radicals” has recently lost her husband. It’s scary to live alone. The reader is never entirely sure if she really had an intruder, or if she sort of hallucinated him, inspired by a visit from the meter reader, who goes down to that dreaded basement.
First she must deal with her dead husband’s things. That’s when the reader is introduced to the basement. Or, shall we say, ‘cellar’. (Cellar sounds way less scary.)
This is also the bit where Munro introduces the fuse switches —a soft Chekov’s Gun. (Munro is generally expert at depicting places in a realistic way.) I mean, this is what a real cellar looks like, right? Important: Detail is multivalent in Munro’s fiction — it works at both literal and symbolic levels.)
She would deal with the cellar first. It really was a cellar, not a basement. Planks made walkways over the dirt floor, and the small high windows were hung with dirty cobwebs. There was nothing down there that she ever needed. Just Rich’s half-filled paint tins, boards of various lengths, tools that were either usable or ready to be discarded. She had opened the door and gone down the steps just once since Rich had died, to see that no lights had been left on, and to assure herself that the fuse switches were there, with labels written beside them to tell her which controlled what. When she came up, she had bolted the door as usual, on the kitchen side. Rich used to laugh about that habit of hers, asking what she thought might get in, through the stone walls and elf-size windows, to menace them.Alice Munro, “Free Radicals“
EXAMPLE TWO: BASEMENT AS COSY PRISON
Another example from Alice Munro.
Basements are not always scary, spooky places, especially in a city like Vancouver, where a basement may simply be another ordinary level of a house, set up accordingly. In “Cortes Island“, the newly married 1950s bride feels both cocooned and stifled by her marital home. Here we have the cosy description:
There were two and a half rooms in our apartment. It was rented furnished, and in the way of such places it was half furnished, with things that would otherwise have been thrown away. I remember the floor of the living room, which was covered with leftover squares and rectangles of linoleum—all the different colors and patterns fitted together and stitched like a crazy quilt with strips of metal. And the gas stove in the kitchen, which was fed with quarters. Our bed was in an alcove off the kitchen—it fitted into the alcove so snugly that you had to climb into bed from the bottom. Chess had read that this was the way the harem girls had to enter the bed of the sultan, first adoring his feet, then crawling upward paying homage to his other parts. So we sometimes played this game.Alice Munro, “Cortes Island“
When the couple move out into a third floor apartment, the narrator has got herself a job and become less of a shadowy, peripheral figure in the world. She has been relegated to ‘married woman’ status — newly invisible. She is inclined to retreat further into her comfortable, introverted state.
This means leaving the cosy comfort — but also the prison — of her basement.
MORE ON BASEMENTS AND CELLARS
Basements are secret places — what we do down there is often against the rules. In Adventureland, teenagers have sex in their parents’ basements rather than in their own bedrooms. In the popular imagination, young adults remain in their parents’ basements if they fail to launch into the responsible world of adulthood.
You might try writing a scary basement scene using the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s IT as inspiration. Notice how the camera moves as if it’s a fish in the ocean, about to gobble you up. Stephen King as well as the filmmakers fully get that symbolic association between City and Ocean, underscored by the dialogue “You’ll float too!”
How to recreate this ominous floating on the page? Well, it’s all in your choice of detail. Try starting with a wide-angle description, zooming in, lowering your ‘camera’ by describing feet and stairs… and so on.
A Quiet Place is another film in which a basement fills with water. (Ridiculously quickly, but acceptable within the world of the film.)
Stephen King loves his basements. In Carrie, Mrs White is destroyed while taking refuge in the basement.
Basements are pretty much mandatory in gothic children’s horror, and have made me wish many times we had basements here in Australia. Lemony Snicket and Courage the Cowardly Dog stories make heavy symbolic use of basements. Mercy Watson’s family has a basement, and those are cosy picture books, with just a hint of danger.
But in funny children’s stories, the basement can be a carnivalesque setting. Jeff Kinney’s Greg has a basement. That’s where sleepovers happen, among other hijinx. The basement of an office block is used to similar effect in The I.T. Crowd.
Silence of the Lambs turns the ground level of a house into something way more reminiscent of a basement, then we realise there’s a deeper layer — a deep hole, where the baddie keeps his skin prisoners. All of this is highly symbolic, of course: This guy lives among us (at ground level) but has hidden, evil depths in his twisted psychology.
As far as fairytale basements go, Bluebeard depicts your archetypal horror basement.
The Utopian Basement
In Arcadia, the basement is a storehouse, full of things you may need in times of famine.
Header image The Blind Fiddler 1806 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826