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Hidden Messages:

The Strategic Use of Visual Elements to Tell a Better Story

by Chris Tugeau

Chris Tugeau is an artist and artist's representative. This article is used by permission. It and other articles can be found at her excellent web site at www.catugeau.com

As visual people, we artists respond intuitively to the visual stimuli the world presents to us daily. We need to be aware that everyone responds to this stimuli on some level. Consciousness of these responses is very important when creating illustrations for picture book stories. You need to know the subtle, and not so subtle, messages you send to the viewer. The choices you make, instinctively or with careful consideration, can actually determine whether or not a particular piece, or a whole book, works or doesn't work. The more awareness you put into each choice of shape, size, placement and color the more easily your story will be "read." The strategic use of these visual elements can take the reader or listener further than words could ever do alone…that is exactly the point of a picturebook experience.

A decade ago, while studying art therapy at the graduate level, I became re-sensitized to the psychology of art with its hidden messages and personal responses. All artists apply their emotionality to shape, size, placement and color to evoke the viewer's understanding of their personal views and messages. Whether the image is highly realistic, completely abstract, or any where in between, these same basic elements are used to capture attention and cause a reactive response.

To illustrate this point, I'd like to suggest studying a book I happily discovered years ago and just pulled out again. Picture This by Molly Bang (recently back in print) is a wonderful study of the visual perceptions and the abstract elements of composition that artists can use and manipulate to better tell a story. The book is full of simple and effective examples about the "message" differences that placement, colors and the size of shapes can exploit. The book, filled with "tricks of the trade", is an interesting study of how a picture works.

For example, Molly shows how a triangle's sharpness sends a completely different message than a rounded shape. Yet changing the triangle's color, placement on the picture plain or relationship to another shape can completely change the response that triangle "character" evokes from the viewer. It's fascinating to look through this book to feel the changes in your own responses. It's a reminder all children's book artists need every now and then as they struggle with how and what they are "saying" with their art. It's helpful if you want to take your young viewer into a dangerous situation visually and bring him back to emotional safely by the end of the story.

As I mentioned in an earlier article, the words and pictures are a team in picture books. It's a 50/50 partnership to tell the story and give an enchanted experience to a child. That is the magic and wonder of a truly great picture book. The ultimate goal is to imply something beyond the obvious and push the audience creatively along the story's subtle journey. The conscious use of visual tools can make the difference between a merely good story and lastingly memorable one.

First appeared in the SCBWI Metro NY newsletter Spring 1998.
© Chris Tugeau. May not be reproduced or printed, except for personal use, without permission.

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