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Learning to analyse picturebook illustrations

Watch this video as Nicola Daly and Dianne Forbes discuss various aspects of illustration.
Nicola: [Māori greeting] Kia ora anō. Welcome back to week two of The Power of Picturebooks. This week we are looking at visual analysis and how we can use visual analysis to look at illustrations in picturebooks.
Dianne: I am going to interview my colleague, Nicola, and to make this and to make this more fun I am going to pull a piece of paper out of this bowl here to decide which aspect of picturebook illustrations I’ll ask her about.
Nicola: Okay, sounds good.
Dianne: Here we go. Into the bowl the first time. The first piece of paper says “framing”. So, Nicola, what can you tell us about framing as an aspect of visual analysis of picturebooks?
Nicola: Dianne, I am going to use some books to help me talk about this and the first one I am going to use is Oink by David Elliot published by Gecko Press. This is a really fun book that is almost wordless except for some noises from the animals. In Oink, David Elliot, who is both the author and illustrator, uses framing quite cleverly at times to keep us distant from the action and at times to bring us in close to the action.
So if we look at the very first opening of the book [opens book to the first images of the story], we can see that the pig is arriving in the bathroom making a little “oink” sound, coming over to the bath, and getting in. In both cases, the images have been carefully framed; we are kept at a distance as the audience. The story continues when some of the pig’s friends, and I say friends in inverted commas, arrive to join him in the bath completely uninvited, and he is not impressed. The way that David Elliot allows us to see how unimpressed the pig is that he removes the frame in a later opening to bring us right in close to the action.
If you look right in close at the bath –> you see that there is a whole lot happening and the lack of frame allows us to really appreciate the feelings of everybody in the bath. Some are happy and some are not so happy. It is a great book.
Dianne: Reaching back into the bowl now. The next aspect I would like to ask you about it is “facial expression”. What can you tell us about facial expression as an aspect of visual analysis in picturebooks?
Nicola: We can see can see a bit about facial expression back in Oink by David Elliot. If we look at the first opening, as we did for framing, and we look carefully at the facial expression on the pig, we see how happy and contented he is to be coming in and having a bath on his own. If we move to that second opening that we looked at before, there are quite a few different facial expressions going on here [image shows a horse, a cow, a sheep, and the pig all in the bath]. The pig looks quite overwhelmed now. His friends in the bath are very very happy by contrast.
So facial expression is really helping us to understand what is going on without the use of any words.
Dianne: Just a few sounds there. Okay, thank you. Back into the bowl and the next element I have pulled out is “colour”. What can you tell us about the use of colour as an aspect of picturebook analysis?
Nicola: Colour is really important. Sometimes the absence of colour is important in black and while illustrations. A lot of picture books these days have full colour illustrations. I am going to use The Longest Breakfast by Jenny Bornholdt and Sarah Wilkins, also published by Gecko Press, to show you a little bit about colour [lifts up picturebook]. In this book, a family is getting ready to have breakfast and the youngest member of the family, who we see in the high chair over here [points to a little boy in a blue shirt sitting in a highchair] is trying to tell everybody else in the family something and no one can quite work out what it is.
I do not want to spoil the story but honey is important in this story and the colour of honey is throughout the book. So, even if we look at the front cover we can see that there is a kind of pale honey colour on the wallpaper on the front cover. If we look at the inside of the front cover [opens to first page], which is an end paper, we have a lovely honey colour. Further into the story, the blanket that the father is sleeping under is a honey colour. And going further still, when the father is almost pulling his hair out because he cannot work out what that baby is saying, the father is wearing a honey coloured jumper.
And so all through this story, a really important aspect of the story is represented visually just by the use of a honey colour.
Dianne: Dipping back into the bowl then. The next element I would like to ask you about is “salience”. So what can you tell us about what salience means as an aspect of picturebook illustrations?
Nicola: Salience really is talking about what is important and how the illustrator is showing us what is important. They often do that by putting something right in the centre of a page [displays book]. So in The Fierce Little Woman and the Wicked Pirate by Joy Cowley and illustrated by Sarah Davis we have got the two main characters of the book right in the centre of the cover and that tells us immediately that these two characters are important in this story.
That is what illustrators do a lot of the time: put whatever is important right at the centre of a page. If it moves to the left of the right, then we start making some assumptions about things that are happening. But when it is right in the centre we know that this is important and we need to pay attention to it.
Dianne: Right back into the bowl. This time we have “gaze” also known as “vectors”. What can you tell us about gaze as an important element in picturebook illustrations?
Nicola: Well, let’s go back to The Fierce Little Woman and the Wicked Pirate [displays book]. On the cover, we talked about the salience of these two but we can also look at their gaze. [Points to woman] The fierce little woman, which is this person here, is looking directly at us. She is gazing directly at us and that is known as the “demand gaze”. It demands our attention and it is as if the character is trying to communicate something with us. What that communication is depends a bit on the facial expression and here we can see some annoyance or some suspicion by the raised eyebrow.
The pirate, his gaze is looking completely away and this shows us some kind of indifference or stubbornness perhaps. If I look further into the book and contrast gaze from that front cover [opens to near the end of book], the fierce little woman and the wicked pirate end up having a family together and here the gaze towards the end of the book is completely different. Here we have the pirate looking directly at the fierce little woman and she is looking directly back at him. By the rest of their facial expression, we can tell that there is a loving gaze between those two, there is a relationship, a loving relationship there.
Gaze can be used really successful in illustrations to tell use things that are not necessarily always in the text.
Dianne: Thank you. Our next element of picturebook illustrations is “clothing”. What can you tell us about how clothing is used?
Nicola: Well, I am just going to dip back into the same book again [displays The Fierce Little Woman and the Wicked Pirate] because there are some great clothing things in here. On the front cover, we have a very distinctive stereotypical pirate costume going on, right down to the parrot on the pirate’s shoulder, the pirate hat with the skull and crossbones, and the kerchief over his head. So we know from general world knowledge that that is a pirate costume. Whether it is really or not for real pirates is beside the point, here it is being used to tell us that this is a pirate.
If we look further inside on that same opening I used before for “gaze”, we see that the pirate’s coat is now on the washing line. He is still wearing pirate symbolism because he is wearing a hand knitted jumper with a skull and crossbones on it and that tells us that he is still a pirate but it also tells us a bit about the relationship. [Closes book to front cover]. On the front cover, the fierce little woman is holding knitting, so we know she is a knitter. When we come back to over here, we might make the assumption that the pirate is now wearing a jumper that has been knitted by his partner for him.
Dianne: Looks like we are at the bottom of the bowl. So the last element I would like to ask you about is “line”. What can you tell us about how line is used in picturebook illustrations?
Nicola: Line is used a lot around the edges of things but also within illustrations that indicate a lot of energy sometimes. I am going to use The Song of the River by Joy Cowley and Kimberly Andrews from Gecko Press to talk a little bit more about line. [Turns a few pages.] If I go to one of the early openings, this is a story about a little boy who lives in the mountains with his grandfather and he wants to see the ocean, he has never seen the ocean before. So he asks his grandfather who is busy. The little boy goes into the forest and finds a stream that he follows and he follows it all the way to the ocean.
Here we have an illustration where Cam, the little boy, is in the forest finding the little steam going through here. We have a real dominance of vertical lines. Vertical lines can be used in illustrations to indicate energy because a vertical line is defying gravity; it is standing up. There is a lot of energy through here, which is kind of emphasized by some diagonal lines coming in from the sun and going through those vertical lines. Later in the book, when Cam does get to the sea, we have some diagonal lines showing the sea. Diagonal lines are associated with a lot of motion and also sometimes with danger.
Those diagonal lines contrast with the soft curvy lines that are over in the sand dunes and around Cam and his shadow. Just one opening later, we have Cam looking out to a very calm sea with horizontal lines. Horizontal lines often indicate calmness. So line is used quite frequently by Kimberly Andrews in the illustrations for this book. In your article reading this week, you will be reading more about the different ways that we analyse visual images in picturebooks. We hope that listening to this conversation will complement that reading and help you do your own analysis of visual images in picturebooks.

Watch this video to see how the lead educator approaches visual analysis of a range of picturebook illustrations. Dianne interviews Nicola about some ways that illustrators construct meaning using visual techniques. As you watch the video, think about how you can apply some of the techniques to illustrations in picturebooks you know.

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The Power of Picturebooks

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