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Illustration Lesson Week Two: Setting

Hi! Here we go on to week number two! This week is all about setting in a story. Last week I showed you a variety of characters. This week I want you to show you a range of settings. The setting supports the character in the story. It can indicate time, feeling, power, weather, history, location, point of view and more.  Setting can even collude with your character. Sometimes that which is visible in the setting is as important as that which is not shown. The setting can be stark, lush, ornate, or spare. The setting is vitally important it's the stage set in which the story unfolds. 

This week includes:

• An example of a minimal setting.

• An example of a lush setting.

• Examples of children's book settings and their storytelling elements.

• Your assignment

• Week two Booklist. 

Here is an example of the minimal and the clever:

A Child of Books by Sam Winston and Oliver Jeffers.

Notice endpapers! Setting the scene Is a list of classic books.

The title page is on the right side. If you are counting book pages this is where you would start number one.

It is unusual to have a separate dedication page. My guess is that this page would have been without text otherwise. So the dedication was moved here. It's the dedication really decorating the pen and ink instead of the pen and ink decorating the dedication page. This image also reenforces the idea that this book and all books materialize from marks on a page.

MINIMALISM: Just line and a sheet of paper.

MINIMALISM: Words make form.

COMPOSITION: The approach of the girl looks fearsome and gentle at the same time. Two worlds come together.

PERSPECTIVE / MEDIUM: The path uses words to create form. Recalls the idea of thought— first a thought and then a form.

WINDOW: Used as separation between two ways of seeing words, thoughts and imagination.

COMPOSTITION: Note how the slope of the words lead to the summit.

VALUE: And now the form the words take feels dramatic and mysterious. (note: value means the relative lightness and darkness.)

MEDIUM: Literally, books of poetry.

DRAMA: Even the rope is made of words.

COLOR: The explosion of color emphasizes the power of our imagination.

VALUE: Can create an expansive void.

PLAYFULNESS: Visual play of ladders reaching to each child's cloud.

COLOR: Can distinguish what is different, special or imaginative in a gray world. This selective use of color is often seen in books over the last few years.

VISUAL PLAY: Note the transformation from imagination back to it's source—the book.

COMBINATION OF MEDIUMS: The line drawing of the key and photographed tag are narrative decisions. Ba-Bump: This is that last little image or line that seals up the book.

REMINDER: The key is yours if you will take it.

The concepts and characters are all concise, visually thoughtful, and edited to a succinct telling that expands the reader's experience


Here is an example of imagination in a lush setting.

A River by Marc Martin

COLOR / TEXTURE: The deep blue of river water comprises the endpapers.

NEGATIVE SPACE: Note the type treatment—It tames the deep blue of endpaper. And the negative space sets up a blank canvas for the ensuing adventure.

DETAILS: What can you learn about the character from the objects in the room?

TRANSITION: The room is fading away... I wonder if there are other solutions to this transition? I find this solution a little clunky. Notice the mobile.

SYMBOLISM: The window is a division between two worlds and the river is weaving through both.

COMPOSITION: Note how this congested composition is never the less highly organized.

VALUE: Distribution of light and dark create atmosphere and drama.

BIRD'S EYE VIEW/TEXTURE/DETAIL: Bright colored patches seen from above.

TEXTURE: The brush strokes reflect the soft feeling of green rolling hills.

TEXTURE/DANGER: Notice the variety of textures: the smooth rocks, the jagged plants, and the flowing lines of the waterfall.

SPACE: The page is tight and lush with detail. The River looks squeezed by the jungle.

VALUE: The dark value range makes this illustration more mysterious, especially with the mention of eyes and being watched.

SPACE: The River opens up to the sea setting the boat free from the constriction of the jungle.

SPACE / SCALE / VALUE: The blue vastness of the ocean is such that we feel anxiety for the little boat, but also a sense of wonder and possibility.

POINT OF VIEW: But the boat is not alone....seen from below the ocean like the jungle teams with life.

VALUE / TEXTURE / MOTION / SCALE: The slashing brushstrokes and dark value range heighten the sense of threat to the little boat.

VALUE / COMPOSTITION: The dark values and turbulent movement in this composition evoke the feel of a violent rainstorm.

POINT OF VIEW: The main character is safely behind her bedroom window looking out at the storm.

SYMBOLISM: The vast black void is a symbol of possibility.

LIGHT: Everything is dark and still, while our character is active and illuminated.

COLOR: Deep dark, rich endpapers finish the book. They are darker than the front set of endpapers.

Other Components of Scene Making:

Comparing the two books, one might say The Child of Books engages our mind while A River is more visceral and engages our body. 


We've just experienced two very different setting styles. Let's now look at a range of books that use a variety of components to set the scene.

Home by Carson Ellis is the ultimate book about setting. It's the variety of homes we find in the world.

ACTION: Look at the variety of action in this scene and the weary resignation on the face of the Old Lady.

FANTASY: Look at the mix of natural and fantastical elements in these illustrations.

COMPOSITION: How do these homes feel? How are they different? How does composition tell the story?

TIME: Is this our future?

FORM AND DETAILS / LACK OF DETAILS: Appreciate the differences.

OUTSIDE / INSIDE: The details give clues about it's inhabitant.

DETAILS: Different homes for different needs.

What's So Bad About Being the Only Child? by Sophie Blackall. I never get tired of this scale play from the child's point of view.

SPACIAL DISTORTION: Friends retreat to the right and to the left in this fisheye lens composition. The distortion of the sidewalk creates a segment of a circle where the only child is trapped within the center of a circular form—reminiscent of an only child dilemma.

SPACIAL DISTORTION: In this illustration, the same fisheye lens approach is used to allow important storytelling elements to be more dominant and less important ones to recede to the background.

The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger.

SPACIAL DISTORTION: The witch's body becomes the ground for the wolves.

SPACIAL DISTORTIONS: Zwerger's illustrations often have a skewed enchanted sense of space.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger.

SPACIAL DISTORIONS: The dark hard edge of the mushroom edge flattens the space.

Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers

COMPOSITION / COLOR: What makes this image so quiet?

COMPOSITION: ...And this scene more active?

The Absentminded Fellow translated by Samuel Marshak Illustrated by Marc Rosenthal. The main character is an absentminded fellow but the story is told from his community's point of view. They celebrate his quirkiness and mishaps.

ACTION: Notice the different ways Rosenthal portrays energy and motion.

POINT OF VIEW: In this illustration the main character is in the background, viewed from a distance.

POINT OF VIEW: Again our main character is off in the background while the towns people sound the chorus "Oh that absentminded fellow from Portobello road!" Note this book is written in rhyme. Editors these days have little patience with poor attempts at rhyme. The rhymed text of this book however are excellent and make it very fun to read.

Tibet Through the Red Box, by Peter Sis.

LAYERING OF IMAGERY / TEXTURE / HISTORY: Structured in vignettes from his father's journey; Sis layers time, place, people, and history in his illustrations. This is jingle boy—a mail carrier in Tibet.

LAYERING OF IMAGERY / SYMBOLISM: The images here represent a Tibetan creation story told by the narrator's father.

COMPOSITION: The formidable wall surrounding the Potala palace emphasizes it's inaccessibility. Sis depicts the inaccessibility of location in a few different ways....

MAP: Here is a map showing the complicated maze of a landscape through which his father travelled.

DIAGRAM OR MAP: The same concept as the previous illustration, but from above.

COMPOSITION: The towering mountains are another take on showing a remote, inaccessible location.

Goodnight, Commander, by Ahmad Akbarpour Illustrated by Morteza Zahedi is a story about a boy who's life has been affected by the Iran—Iraq War. Grave subject matter for a children's book.

MULTIPLE PERSPECITVES: The boy's room is viewed from above but some objects and characters are illustrated from other perspectives within the same image.

UNRELIABLE NARRATOR: It becomes clear that the illustrations are from the child's imagination. This is an example of unreliable narrator—we start to realize our main character's play has been affected by the war.

SELECTIVE DETAILS: We see more characters, but the details in the scene are prioritized by the child's view. The color indicates what is more important to the child who visualizes the scene.

SELECTIVE DETAIL: The enemy has a missing leg just like our main character, (the Commander) and this leads to a cease fire. The enemy has never seen a prosthetic leg, he asks the child if he can borrow it just for tonight to show his mom.

SELECTIVE DETAILS: The mother in this story has died in the war and the boy only has a picture of her. The picture is obviously important to the boy and the other colorful element in the illustration is the boy's blanket, my guess is that it was probably made by the mother. The story ends when the boy worries that his mother wouldn't be proud because he became friendly with the enemy, the picture of his mother, however speaks to him approvingly and says "Good night, sleep tight."

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers

POV/POINT OF VIEW: This book is a great example of a clever POV. The story is told in complaint letters from each crayon. This would be a completely different story if it had been told by the child. The take away—changing the POV in a story can make a big difference. There are three elements in the scene: The crayon's letter, the crayon, and the drawing the child made with the crayon.

COLOR AND LINE: Grandpa Green, by Lane Smith, features drawings of lush green garden sculptures and contour line figures.

SELECTIVE DETAIL: In these drawings the greenery has more weight than the figures. This storytelling depiction reflects grandfather's way of being since he is mostly concerned with things of a green nature.


SYMBOLISM: "Grandpa Green's "wish was to study horticulture, but he went to a world war instead." Young Grandpa Green shuts out the trauma of the war around him.


PEEK-A-BOO: Just to note the playfulness of peek-a-boo.

Wolfie the Bunny, by Amy Dyckman and Zachariah OHora,

COMPOSITION: Bunny's Mama and Papa bring home baby Wolfie. This composition bends the sidewalk into a circular form with Baby Wolfie at its center. Dot is dismayed to be left on the outside.

Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems uses illustration on top of photographed backgrounds showing the Brooklyn neighborhood where this story takes place.

PHOTOGRAPHY: For visual clarity, the photos are in black and white and the illustrations are in color.

HUMOR—A child always appreciates the moment when he/she knows better than the adult.

Wonder Bear by Tao Nyeu

FANTASY / PERSPECTIVE: The setting in this wordless book gives the feeling that anything could happen.

FANTASY: Wonder Bear takes our main characters on a fantastic journey.

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna

COLOR: The main character is told to go outside instead of playing with a hand-held computer alien game. She goes outside and explores the rainy day and looses her hand-held in a pond. Her bright orange coat creates a hot spot of contrast—the whole book becomes a magical experience.

PERSPECTIVE: This illustration is seen from the mushrooms' point of view.

INTERIOR: The warmth of this interior contrasts with the rainy outside. The character is engaged both inside and outside on a day that initially appeared gloomy.

BA-BUMP, this is a really great end spot that concludes the story and adds another little snap. The fish are gathered around the hand-held device that had fallen into the pond.

The King of the Sky by Nicola Davis Illustrated by Laura Carlin.

PERSPECTIVE: A powerful landscape image from a bird's eye view.

UNFOCUS: The soft focus illustration creates more privacy as diffused vision through the windows.

NEGATIVE SPACE: Look at the open space that become the ground.

FOCUS: Look at the building rendered in light contour lines so our focus remains with the character.

Paul Cox created this series of three mysteries that happen on an island of anthropomorphized animals.

DIAGRAMS: A diagram to illustrate a complex idea can make your point clear.

BIRD'S EYE VIEW: Can help a story's clarity if used at the right time.

SCALE: The Little Gardner by Emily Hughes, Here we see the garden from the tiny gardner's point of view.

SCALE / POINT OF VIEW: The reader experiences what it might feel like to be a few inches tall in a garden.

The Little House by Virgina Lee Burton. This a classic book about change, building, and the overrated idea of "progress".

TIME: Look how the clouds moving across the house represent the passing time of the day.

TIME & RHYTHM: Burton includes seasonal details in her drawings to reflect the rhythms of life.

Mystery Bottle by Kristen Balouch

DETAILS: This is one of my books. I added a little white bird to every illustration in this book, to accompany the main character on his journey.

DETAILS: I used detail to engage the reader in a discovery experience as well as to add to the storytelling.

DETAILS: Notice the signs in Farsi with english translations.

Not a Box by Antoinette Portis

COLOR: First we see a black contour line of the box and the bunny.

COLOR: Contour lines in red however, depict the world of bunny's imagination.

The Big Adventure of a Little Line by Serge Bloch

COLOR: Here red is associated with magic, life, and imagination.

PASSING OF TIME: It's just a line, but this extraordinary line depicts the passage of a lifetime.

The Gnashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. The fine black line illustrations enhance both the humor and morbidity to this delightful book.

FORM: The dark massive bears closing in on Basil convey a sense of doom.

ATMOSPHERE: Gorey's illustrations convey a gothic gloom which aptly compliments the delightfully morbid text.

Components of Scene Making:

Consider these examples when choosing what type of setting you want for your book. Elements to consider when creating scenes:

 1) Medium

 2) Color

 3) Value (relative lightness or darkness of the composition)

 4) Line

 5) Texture

 6) Form

 7) Negative Space

 8) Spatial Distortion

 9) Point of View or Perspective

10) Sharpness of Focus / Diffused focus

11) Time: as in time of day—time of history—passage of time

12) Weather, Mood, or other Atmospheric Conditions 

13) Conflict

14) Action

15) Fantasy

16) Informative or Descriptive Detail—Selective—Diagrams or Maps—Layering of Images

17) Symbolism

18) How much scene do you need and what will benefit your storytelling? | Brooklyn, NY 

© 2018 by Kristen Balouch

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