Character Design
Starting Out
A Note to Authors
Give a Helpful Critique
Online Crit Groups
The Blanking Page
Dummies for Smarties

THE BLANKING PAGE: A crash tutorial in illustrative and textual consideration in book design

You've got a brilliant idea for a picture book. You've studied what's already in print. You've written your story, you've made sketches for your characters, you even know what material to best render your wonderful work in. There you are— the vast blankness of paper in front of you.

I've been so terrified of that expanse that I didn't dare start a drawing. I was paralyzed by the fear of making a "wrong" mark.

There are some ways of cutting the fear quotient. Preplanning helps. Knowing something of design, color, composition and layout also helps. And asking yourself some questions about your project will set you on a good path.

What kinds of questions, you ask? First, what's the nature of your piece? Is it a somnambulic bedtime story? A raucous romp? Traditional story or something quite new and different?

Pish, Posh, said Hieronymus Bosch by Nancy Willard, illustrated by the Dillons is a wonderful melding of style, lettering, and words. Hand-lettered text, layered, multi-detailing and a humorous ornate frame around each picture not only mirrors the words of the book, but pays homage to Hieronyomus Bosch's work as well.

Sailor Moo by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Ponder Goembel is another example of type placement, the character of the illustrations and the words all working to great effect.

Even in the classic tale of Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown's text and Clement Hurd's illustrations are reflective embellishments of each other.

These are a very few examples of type, words and illustrations working for the whole; there are so many more. If you're not quite clear on this concept, a few days at the library and book store perusing picture books would be advisable.

Make sure your artistic style suits your words. The illustrations, the lettering, the pace, even the design and feel of the piece, should be reflective of the story. A simple storyline would not be served by stilted ornate renderings. Whatever the story, the illustrations and text should amplify the emotional subtext of your story.

Right off the bat, I confess my biases. The written word is, mostly, for communication. Anything that makes letters illegible or the words hard to read should be avoided, especially in children's books. Children are already grappling with word concepts and reading; besides, you need to give the poor older reader's eyes a break. To do anything different defeats the whole purpose of the book.

There are no hard and fast rules. Very strong suggestions, yes. But in essence, the only question is: does it work? You have something in your head, you should try it as a thumbnail. If your idea works, BINGO! You've got a keeper. If it doesn't, you can stick it into the deepest darkest reaches of your personal portfolio.

For a picture book to be truly successful, it has to work on a number of levels. First and foremost, it has to work on your intended listener's level (most picture book ranges from baby to around eight-ish, though of course this is one of those strong suggestions I spoke of. There are also books directed at older or younger readers, but they are rare). It should also work for the reader, usually a beleaguered teacher or parent.

I like to jam pack my stuff with something for everyone. I want someone to linger over my pages or make a new discovery after the twenty-ninth read. Even if you don't work in the same manner, your work should have a fresh feeling, so people look forward to spending time revisiting your book, yet again. Kids love repetition— my goal is to create a well-read, well-viewed, well loved book.

Color Me This

Most people have heard of the color wheel, a handy-dandy invention first developed by Isaac Newton. Segmented within are the Primary colors, red, blue, and yellow. They can't be mixed or formed by any combination of the other colors. All other colors are derived from these three.

Then there are the Secondary colors, green, orange and purple, formed by mixing the primary colors. Mix the Secondary colors together, you get the Tertiary Colors.

Analogous color themes use three colors side by side on a twelve part color wheel. (Like red-purple, purple and purple blue), usually one color predominating. A beautiful example of this is Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflower paintings. A Complementary color scheme uses colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel.

Josef Albers and Johannes Itten were a couple of wonderful color studyists and teachers (Josef Albers being one of the original Bauhaus teachers). Itten's books The Elements of Color as well as The Art of Color; the Subjective Experience and Objective Rationale of Color are intriguing insights into color and still available, though they are rather costly.

Albers was of the mind that "color deceives continually" because of the interaction and relativism of color (we see colors in relation to each other, not separately). There are some fun exercises based upon Alber's work at Marilynn Fenn's website

Color also has historical impact. Red in the new world was made from the female cochineal beetle; a pound of water soluble color came from one million insects. One pound of the Roman Empire's color purple was derived from four million mollusks. Both dyes were more valuable than gold. Today those colors still have impact on our language and perception. We especially think of the color purple as being "royal", as only royalty could attain it from those far away times.

As for the Cochineal red, the Spanish kept the Europeans in the dark as to the true origin of the dye, selling it as a grain. The idea that the permanent color came from being "dyed in the grain" is the source for the term "ingrained".

Some colors soothe (green), some excite (red). Colors look very different in relation to other colors, there's even a phenomenon whereby you can make four colors of three. Take analogous colors, and surround one color by two different colors, side by each, and the color not only "vibrates" visually, but will read as a different hue.

I love the color usage and texturing of illustrators Raul Colon, Grace Lin, David Wisniewski, Janelle Cannon, Floyd Cooper, Lisa Kopelke, to name a few.

Looking critically at books is very good practice. Dissect why you like something or don't, perhaps apply it to your own work. It's much harder to make generic (or even mass produced art), in my opinion. You have to reproduce the predetermined image continually with the same quality and consistency.

You can copy only for a little while. Your own personality and vision will always show in your work. So feel free to observe and learn from others; the worst they'll do is influence and inform you. And that's how we all learn.