The Colour Purple Symbolism

Before the concept for ‘blue’ existed, Homer wrote famously in The Odyssey of the “wine-dark sea.” Sure, it might’ve looked purple even to a contemporary audience, but we know from other writings around the world that the concept of ‘blue’ was late to enter human consciousness. “The Odyssey” suggests that blue was included the concept of purple.

Continue reading “The Colour Purple Symbolism”

Depicting Motion In Illustration

How do illustrators convey motion when creating static images?

As a case study, we can’t go past Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. Others have analysed her illustrations in depth. Although soft watercolours aren’t the usual medium for high action, life-or-death picture books these days, Potter successfully used soft watercolours to create excitement. It’s deceptive. Impressively, she created high action illustrations even without the comic book flourishes, without the slashes of primary colour, without the art noir techniques.


Building a field of unified motion has been an artist’s tool for attracting the viewer’s attention. A unified field of motion keeps the image coherent, sustains the attention of the viewer and, invests the image with an enlivening spirit, “its Alive!” We pay more attention to active than inert subjects.

J.M.W. Turner took pride in his ability to suggest motion. He invested so much motion in his later works that viewers complained he sacrificed legibility. But, motion is more evocative of vitality than objects delineated in stasis. Turner’s fascination with motion inspired him to create his famous early 1844 locomotive painting, “Rain Steam and Speed”. The entire surface roils with clouds of movement.

David Dunlop

In his post, David Dunlop also talks about Degas and Van Gogh, and points out how natural weather events contribute to motion. Wind is one such event.

Rain is another, creating a natural sense of vertical motion, except of course when it’s accompanied by wind.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite 1888 - 1960 The Storm
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite 1888 – 1960 The Storm

Back to children’s books, Blinky Bill is another interesting case study into motion, partly because koalas are famous for doing nothing all day (or appearing to). Yet Dorothy Wall created a story full of action. For young readers who knew koalas, this in itself would have functioned as a comic paradox.

By 1933, the comic book conventions are established. Notice the motion lines of the kangaroo, of the items flying off the desk, and of Blinky Bill’s slingshot. The image of Madam Hare reprimanding Brer Rabbit is more interesting, because Wall has used a motion flourish behind the onlookers, who are still, to suggest drama. The black flourish itself looks like a massive motion line. Wall reuses this technique in the final blow, where Madam Hare delivers a parting kick. This time, Wall makes use of ‘pow!’ lines as well as that black, background flourish.

More modern children’s book illustrators also use comic book flourishes to suggest motion. In full colour illustration, the white brush stroke is aesthetically pleasing.

The troll from the Three Billy Goats Gruff flies through the air. Illustration by Robert Lumley.

Chris Van Dusen also uses the interesting technique of bordering his characters in a thin corona of white aand/or yellow, to help them stand out against his beautifully detailed backgrounds. (Basically this is his way of dealing with aerial perspective.)

Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

Mo speed, mo lines. The entire road in this poster comprises motion lines.

Le Mans 1954 poster by Charles Avalon motion
Le Mans 1954 poster by Charles Avalon motion
Illustrator unknown, circa 1920
Grant Haffner
Grant Haffner
Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman for the Pontiac Bonneville Vista, 1960.  Less lean and sway on turns, corners, curves. motion
Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman for the Pontiac Bonneville Vista, 1960. Less lean and sway on turns, corners, curves.

Back to Billy Goats Gruff and Robert Lumley. No motion lines here, but we do have a visual depiction of sound, which coincides with the goat trip-trapping across that bridge. This technique is especially widespread throughout manga, which originate in Japan — a language rich in onomatopoeia and mimesis.

Robert Lumley illustrates the billy goat trotting across the bridge.

The Art Deco poster below uses decoration to double-duty as the motion of ringing bells and a visual representation of the ringing coming out of them.

Certain objects lend themselves to motion, and in this case the motion of the lasso provides a ‘grid’ for the entire composition. This is an excellent case of typography helping out with the sense of motion.

Cover by N. Zimelli, 1931 motion
Cover by N. Zimelli, 1931 motion

As Beatrix Potter knew, watercolour, in the hands of a master painter, is excellent for depicting motion. Even in the hands of a master painter, it always does its own thing, and this unpredictability is felt by the viewer.

Janusz Grabianski (1929-1976), Polish children’s book illustrator. This fox in motion is from The Big Book of Animal Stories, 1961
A cover of Japanese publication Shukan Shincho shows a magical hovering insect human chimera inside concentric circles. I can almost hear the hum.
A cover of Japanese publication Shukan Shincho shows a magical hovering insect human chimera inside concentric circles. I can almost hear the hum.
Dugald Stewart Walker illustrator, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) writer, ‘Rainbow gold; poems old and new selected for boys and girls’ 1922-6
Harry Beckhoff (1901–1979) Reader's Digest illustration from the 1950s, train, motion
Harry Beckhoff (1901–1979) Reader’s Digest illustration from the 1950s
In The Snowman, Raymond Briggs demonstrates that colour pencil/pastel is also pretty good for motion lines, too.
In The Snowman, Raymond Briggs demonstrates that colour pencil/pastel is also pretty good for motion lines, too.
Dan May moth
Dan May


Distortion of bodies and even of objects is a…conventional means by which pictures convey motion. As Peter runs from Mr. McGregor in another picture in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, his head seems almost bullet-shaped, his ears apparently held down by air resistance, his body at an impossible slant that conveys great speed.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
stop thief peter rabbit

Below are more exaggerated examples of the same technique.


Where characters wear loose clothing with billowing potential, illustrators can easily convey motion by simply billowing the fabric. (Actually drawing fabric in motion is an art in itself, however!)

Where the fabric is not particularly billowy (ie. most clothing worn by masculo-coded characters), leaping and jumping is conveyed by inserting some space between the feet and the ground. It’s not entirely clear how high this guy is jumping as there’s no grounding shadow. (I conclude he’s flying more than jumping.)

RENE BULL (1845 - 1942) Leaping Warrior based on Ballets Russes, Polovtsian Dances by Michel Fokine
RENE BULL (1845 – 1942) Leaping Warrior based on Ballets Russes, Polovtsian Dances by Michel Fokine

Long hair is as useful as fabric in the motion department. Birds are clearly necessary to the story in The Great Sea Horse illustration below, but birds in flight come in handy more generally for conveying a sense that the static world illustrated before us is alive. A bird with its wings in ‘m’ position cannot exist without constant motion. Ditto for humans in mid stride, and so on.

The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson 4
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson

Skies, especially stormy skies, can be utilised to convey a sense of motion on the ground. This pretty much always results in a dramatic scene. Notice too how Alexander Zick makes use of birds in flight to indicate the motion and direction of the ship.

Alexander Zick (1845-1907) 1892 illustration called ′The Viking’s Funeral’

A fight scene, on a ship, during a storm. Peak motion. Notice that Amos Sewell also makes use of static onlookers (proxy for us). These static viewers serve to emphasise the motion they perceive (as well as lead our eyes to the fighting characters).

Amos Sewell fight on deck during a storm


I’m not talking in this case about houses on legs, Baba Yaga style, though that’s one way of moving a building!

Is the building moving in each image below, or does motion solely derive from the movement of the viewer? It doesn’t matter, and in fact I think it’s both, in which case art does something everyday vision cannot achieve: a melding between object and perceiver.

First we have an example of a music theatre from Gaston and Josephine, a French children’s book from the mid 20th century, illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky.

In this double spread illustration, we can clearly tell the music has begun, because the interior itself appears to be in motion, with the people in the gallery dangerously tapering away, their seats sliding far to the right (at least they would be if this illustration conformed to the laws of perspective and physics).

Otar Imerlishvili is ‘known for his whimsical scenes that depict daily life through the colored lens of innocence and wonder.’ This fantasy piano house is another good example of an illustration of music. You wouldn’t think it possible to illustrate music, which is an auditory experience rather than a visual one, but the magic of music seems to morph the visual world in synesthesic fashion.

Otar Imerlishvili piano motion
Otar Imerlishvili

Below are more examples of the ‘liquify filter’, applied long before Photoshop existed. In all cases, the buildings and background seem to be in motion.

Cover art for House Beautiful by Marjory C. Woodbury [1891-1964]
Cover art for House Beautiful by Marjory C. Woodbury [1891-1964]
Tumble Timbers (study drawing), around 1925–26, by Wanda Gág
Tumble Timbers (study drawing), around 1925–26, by Wanda Gág
Sidney Walter Stanley for The Willows and Other Queer Tales by Algernon Blackwood 1932
Sidney Walter Stanley for The Willows and Other Queer Tales by Algernon Blackwood 1932

The ‘liquify filter’ on the house below is more subtle. The scrubby brush strokes on the trees work harder to convey a sense of motion. But the wavy lines and slightly off-kilter perspective on the house is still there, aided by the unlikely height of the building.

The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
Cyril Power, 1934 train movement
Cyril Power, 1934 train movement


The poster below works a little like the continuous narrative art technique utilised by picture book artists to suggest a sequence of activities, only in this case it depicts speed.

Motorcycle Rally Poster – Italian – art by Lucio Venna – 1927 motion
Zbigniew Rychlicki train
Zbigniew Rychlicki


Sometimes there’s little you can do to make the moving object itself look like it’s moving. In the illustration of a moving vehicle below, Anton Pieck includes exhaust fumes coming from the rear of the vehicle, which is a cue that the car is moving rather than parked. However, it’s not quite enough. He includes the boy running alongside the car to show us that the car is in motion.

Anton Pieck (1895-1987), Dutch painter and illustrator
Anton Pieck (1895-1987), Dutch painter and illustrator


This illustration technique works especially well for ships. In the work below, the ‘horizon’ of the ship is tilted, but the actual horizon remains horizontal. It’s the mismatch which conveys the motion. I almost feel sick.

Jean Emile LABORER (1877-1943) Transatlantic, 1907 transatlantic steamboat

In Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustration below, the horizon itself has shifted. We view the ship from a distance, not as a passenger.

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ illustration by Bernie Wrightson (1976)

Below we have a non-seascape example of a tilted horizon. Storms and titled horizons go hand in hand. This comes in handy even if your ‘storm’ is pathetic (inducing pathos) rather than literal.

The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime

Contrast with the painting below, in which the artist aims for absolute stillness (and achieves it admirably) with a horizontal horizon, water almost like a mirror and a collection of three artfully arranged ships, differing in distance but nonetheless evenly spaced from the viewer’s perspective.

Carl Brandt (1871 - 1930) After the Storm, 1914
Carl Brandt (1871 – 1930) After the Storm, 1914

In Ronald Searle’s illustration below, ‘motion lines’ suggest the big stack of books has been plonked onto the table, In fact that stack of books is probably the only thing not moving. However, those scribbly lines give the illustration an overall sense of motion. ‘Motion lines’ aren’t always attached to the item that’s meant to be moving.

from 'Slightly Foxed - but still desirable - Ronald Searle's wicked world of Book Collecting' Souvenir Press 1989
from ‘Slightly Foxed – but still desirable – Ronald Searle’s wicked world of Book Collecting’ Souvenir Press 1989


Victor Ambrus
Victor Ambrus


Does this horse have two heads, or is it quickly looking backwards then forwards?

André François, 1972
André François, 1972

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

Father Christmas Raymond Briggs

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story.  Earlier in the month I looked at a wordless picture book, The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Father Christmas, a seasonal picture book by the same author-illustrator. It’s not Christmas here, but it’s never wintry at Christmas Down Under. I prefer to read wintry books in our actual winter. This is just as much a winter tale as it is a Christmas one. Father Christmas is also a very British tale. You’ll soon see why.

At first glance, this picture book also seems to break the main rules of storytelling. It works because it is short. Father Christmas is partly making use of a comedic structure rather than classic dramatic structure.

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs 1978



Father Christmas.

What’s wrong with him?

Sometimes the foreign translations of a picture book give you extra clues about the story. The Japanese title means ‘Father Christmas The Cold-blooded Creature’ (or ‘Person who feels the cold easily’). The Japanese publishers put the thing that’s wrong with him right there in the title. More specifically, this is his shortcoming. He doesn’t like the cold. But I’d say his shortcoming is a little different.This is not your usual Jolly Santa, the guy most kids are exposed to — the man who lives to give. This Father Christmas’s shortcoming is that he’s grumpy by nature.  Or is it really a shortcoming? Is he really that grumpy?

This is a comment on a specific cultural milieu — this old man is proficient in the art of grumbling. He is cranky as a matter of habit, not because he has all that much to complain about. This is grumbling almost as a mantra to self, a reminded that although things may be terrible now, they may get better later. Father Christmas is grumbling to no one in particular, but he is drawing us in with his grumbling. We are invited to grumble along with him as a form of phatic communion. At the end of the story he has broken the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader, so we know we were supposed to hear him grumbling. He was inviting us to feel the cold with him, creating the weather as the mutual enemy to bring two characters (him and us) closer together.

This feels very British to me.


Father Christmas wakes up dreaming of a summer beach so we know right away that he wants to be on holiday somewhere. Sure enough, in another book in the series, Raymond Briggs takes him off on holiday. I haven’t read that one, though I’ve no doubt he grumbles about everything while on holiday, too.


Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs 1978

His opponent is the cold weather. Father Christmas expends a lot of energy just keeping warm — tending to the fire, looking after the animals (who can’t be out in the elements), filling his belly with hot cups of tea.


goodbye cat goodbye dog

We already know what Father Christmas does at Christmas time because this is a well-known cultural narrative. He delivers presents to children all around the world. We watch him do this, but Raymond Briggs’ new spin on it: Father Christmas considers this work, just like anyone else doing shift work on a freezing cold night would feel like they are doing work.


As you can see already, this is another mythic structure, in which the main character goes on a journey. This is not your classic mythic structure, however. Father Christmas is a modified version of that — known as a home-away-home story. A character leaves home, has an adventure, then returns home again. This home-away-home story usually takes place over a single day, and the child (or childlike) character usually goes to sleep at the end.

In general, a series of minor big struggles end in a big one. But sometimes, when there’s no fight or argument or near-death experience, the story includes something that stands-in for a big struggle.

In Diary of a Wombat, Jackie French used the ‘accumulation’ technique, where several objects pile up/come together.

Raymond Briggs uses a variation on that. After visiting a number of ordinary houses to deliver presents, including a caravan which he has trouble getting into, Father Christmas visits the Palace of Westminster, presumably to deliver presents to the most important children in the land. We have an accumulation effect going on, but it isn’t a piling up of objects. Instead, it goes from ‘ordinary to extraordinary’, or ‘ordinary to grand’. This stands in for the big struggle scene, which exists to let us know the journey is coming to an end.


Nothing. Because this story is comedic, not dramatic. Father Christmas is the ultimate recurring character. He appears year after year and never changes. Therefore it makes sense if he doesn’t change. It also makes sense if he’s a bit grumpy about that. Which is the gag.

However, the story still works as a complete story. Why?

In lieu of a character arc, in which Father Christmas learns something, we see Father Christmas on an emotional arc. When Santa gets up he’s grumpy because there’s so much work ahead of him. But over the course of his day he overcomes many small hardships, stopping in between to enjoy his snacks. Finally at the end he is happy to be home, but before bed he’s unhappy again, because he knows he’ll have to do it all again next year. The unrelenting nature of work would appeal to adults more than to children, I’m guessing. This story therefore appeals to a dual audience. Young readers also know what it’s like to do something they don’t want to do, and everyone (in most parts of the world) knows what it feels like to be uncomfortably cold.


It won’t, but Father Christmas is home safe in bed, which is enough to close the story on. It’s not original, but it works, time and time again.


Did you pick up the main ways in which this story is not typical dramatic structure?

  1. The only opponent is the weather. Usually there is a human opponent, or a monster as well.
  2. The main character doesn’t learn anything.
  3. His life won’t be any different from before. He’s basically an automaton.

This is because the story is a comedy. Here’s the thing about comedic structure: It only sustains its audience for 5-10 minutes before we tire of it. That’s why comedic structure can work in picture books. They’re short. When Father Christmas was adapted into a short film, and by short I mean over 20 minutes, the script writers wisely decided to combine two of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas books. There is simply not enough in this picture book to sustain 20 minutes’ worth of entertainment.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.

The Snowman is another carnivalesque tale, in which the ‘classic story structure’ needs a little reinterpretation.


The Snowman Raymond Briggs Better Book Cover
from the Better Book Covers blog. A sure way to parody book covers is to put the climax in the title!


A boy. Illustrated in generic style, with dots for eyes, this boy is supposed to represent the Every Child. (White boys often do. Anything extra on the White boy is interpreted to be a meaningful embellishment.)

What is wrong with him?

This is the question you should always ask of a main character. Unless there’s some psychological shortcoming, there’s no room for the character to grow. But sometimes, especially when you get a story about an Every Child, there’s nothing really wrong with them at all — we don’t know enough about them. Usually, in that case, their youth is their biggest problem. Childhood is restrictive. You don’t get to make your own decisions. The boy has to ask his mother before going out to build a snowman. He has to ask her again if he can dress the snowman in clothes. This is symbolic of how the boy lives his life — he craves more freedom, and he does get it, only for one night, and it may have been a dream.


Surface level desire: When he sees it is snowing outside he wants to build a snowman.

Deeper desire: As I mentioned above, he is restricted, so he craves freedom and adventure, and probably also a friend. He seems to be an only child, and in stories, only children are presumed to be lonely.


This is a carnivalesque story, so the character who turns up can exist at anywhere on the spectrum between opponent and best friend. The Cat In The Hat messes up the house, so is an opponent. But the Snowman in this tale is very much a friend.

Opposition in carnivalesque stories can come from the fact that the new friend has to eventually leave.


The boy introduces the Snowman to his world. He shows him the TV, how to punch the punching bag, and eventually they have a midnight feast together in the house. But this is not quite enough. The boy has already been shown to gaze wistfully out the window, so any lover of picture books should expect the child to go beyond the house. And so they do. They go flying.


The ‘Big Battle’ in a carnivalesque tale is often no such thing. Consider it simply an ultimate escalation of fun. Just when you thought the characters couldn’t have any more fun (a midnight feast is pretty fun, right?) they go further.

In this story the boy flies through the air. They go on a ship across the sea. Consider this ultimate fun.

Flying is common and also highly symbolic in children’s literature. It can symbolise a bunch of different things. (Not just freedom.)


I’ve heard it said that although children share the same emotions as adults, and we should respect that, the one thing children can’t relate to is nostalgia. Children have simply not spent enough time on earth to have seen good things (or bad things) come to an end, and though some things have ended (the toddler years etc) they haven’t yet had time to separate themselves from those experiences. It generally takes seven years before we can look back on a past event with a clear view.

But when the snowman melts, that’s pretty close to nostalgia. The boy has learnt that even wonderful things must come to an end, and there’s not a single thing you can do to stop the passage of time.

I think this is a book which appeals to adults just as much as it appeals to kids, if not more so. Adults can look at that snowman and think of all the wonderful things that have come and gone in their lives.


The boy has now experienced something wonderful, even if it was all a dream. Now he knows what it is to fly through the air and have a companion, and not be the naive one in the partnership.

In these types of plots it’s not clear how life will be different exactly, but we trust it will be, simply because the boy has been touched by magic. You might call it ‘The Life-changing Power Of Magic’.


[This story] is so tightly controlled in its cartoon strip visual images which resemble animation stills as to almost negate the interjection of the viewer’s imagination that the proponents of the wordless picture book so extol.

– Sheila Egoff suggests in Thursday’s Child that [the reason why this story] is superior to other wordless picture books is because it contains 43 pictures. (This is far more than most.)

Perry Nodelman explains why The Snowman is such a successful wordless picture book:

The Snowman is tightly controlled in every respect. If it stands out from other wordless books, it does so because Briggs has chosen both a subject and a style that allow him to make full use of the potential of the difficult medium. The idea of a snowman coming to life is full of action, and Briggs chooses to show us the snowman and the boy doing things, and lots of different ones. We recognize what they are doing because these are familiar actions, the sorts of things we do every day in our own homes. They are funny, because the snowman does not know how to do them. But the soft warmth of the style demands empathy rather than the distance of comedy; we stand back from the snowman but we still like him. He is the ideal candidate for sympathy: he is incompetent not because he is vain or self-satisfied but because he is ignorant and ingenuous. We feel superior to him because he cannot do the things any child can do, things that the boy in the book does well. But because these are things any child can do, we feel concern for him. He demands the same response from viewers as Winnie the Pooh does from readers. That he should be capable of flying gracefully through the air after his endearing display of incompetence is an added bonus.

Words About Pictures, Perry Nodelman

For this same reason, viewers empathise more with the likes of Patrick in SpongeBob Squarepants more than Squidward, who is self-satisfied, pessimistic and vain. For more tricks on how to create empathetic characters, see this post.


Raymond Briggs, CBE (born 18 January 1934) The Snowman
Raymond Briggs, CBE (born 18 January 1934) The Snowman

There are three main ways illustrators can choose to depict people: minimalist, generic and naturalistic. I write more about that here.

Briggs has been working in children’s literature over decades and has developed a wide range of styles. He chooses either minimalist, generic or naturalistic depending on the story.

In other books, Raymond Briggs’ people lack delicacy/sensitivity, with jutting chins and prominent and scattered teeth. See Fungus the Bogeyman (1977) for an example of that style. Briggs also has an eccentric sensibility (see Father Christmas, 1973) and has even written a picture book for adults to demonstrate the horror of nuclear war (see When the Wind Blows, 1972).

Characters in The Snowman are drawn in generic, non-grotesque style, with dots for eyes. (Though even when we say ‘generic’, generic means obviously a White boy.)


There are two dominant colour palettes in The Snowman — cool palette, warm palette.

The Snowman blues
The Snowman Interior Pink

There are a lot of pictures of windows and doors in this picture book. Windows and doors are highly symbolic. In children’s illustrations they tend to show a child shut inside (against their will). The child will look outside, wondering what adventures could be had on the other side. Next we see them break free of their prison. But first comes the wondering and watching.

The final image could easily have taken up the entire last page, but instead Briggs chose to keep it very small. The boy’s world now seems very small again, now that his partner in imagination has melted away. This letterbox view is surrounded by a lot of white space, also known as ’emptiness’.


I have heard the publishers of The Snowman love this book. They don’t have to do anything and it sells a reliable number of copies each and every year. Partly, this is because it’s a great Christmas book, and as you know, Christmas comes around each and every year. For most of the world (not here), Christmas and winter go together.

Made into a short film, released 1982. The boy who sang the song Walking In The Air (Aled Jones) grew up to present British home and garden shows, among other things.



According to Barbara Bader, the first wordless picture book was What Whiskers Did by Ruth Carroll, published in 1932. Since then, many more wordless picture books have found popularity with young readers. Wordless books are truly interactive, because they require more of the reader. When a child and adult read a wordless book together, they’re probably doing a lot of talking about what’s going on.

Wordless Books


Another wordless picture book with a similarly affecting storyline is The Farmer and The Clown by Marla Frazee. In both stories an interesting stranger turns up, they have fun for a while and then there is sadness as the stranger must disappear.

The Man Raymond Briggs cover

The Snowman is bittersweet. The Man, also by Briggs, shows Briggs is multi-talented. He has the power to tell a story, illustrate it well, and he can also be very funny in both the pictures and the words.

Snowmen are not always the kind, naive creatures as presented by Raymond Briggs. Sometimes Snowmen are evil.