Free shipping in the continental US

Intro to Book Illustration

Posted by on

Illustrated books are not just for children. They can be humorous, cinematic, quirky, and sometimes dark. In class I'll share some classic and contemporary highlights, followed by a series of exercises in generating ideas, developing concepts, and communicating action through sequential drawings.

The goal of my introductory workshop is to examine what makes a satisfying picture book. The answer is, of course, different for each of us. Children and adults enjoy the same books, but for different reasons. Before limiting ourselves to the demands of what publishers would consider commercially viable, we must determine what makes a great story.

Class exercises address the elements of visual storytelling based on our discussions of the following books:

We will divide the class into morning and afternoon sessions with a one hour lunch break.

We will examine many aspects of the picture book to determine what makes them successful (or not).

You will be asked to submit your sketches today so that we can discuss them. Remember that these are only sketches of new concepts and we don't expect them to be polished or represent your best work. What we do need to see is how clearly you are conveying your ideas. The role of the illustrator is to communicate specific ideas and the group discussions will give you a chance to see if you are doing so clearly. Therefore, it is important to let us tell you what we see and to use our feedback in your revision process.


1) "List books" and our first idea generation exercise.

Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris van Allsburg

Rules of Summer, by Shaun Tan

People, by Blexbolex (google slides)

Seasons, by Blexbolex

ABC of Fabulous Princesses, by Willy Puchner

If, by Milton and Shirley Glaser

1B) Exercise  3 minute automatic writing exercise: Make a list of topics that interest you. Don't stop along the way to edit or second-guess yourself. If an absurd idea comes up while you are writing, put it down on paper. This is for your use only- no need to submit.

Next: Choose three-five of your topics to develop further in our next exercise. We'll spend 3 minutes on each topic. Write down every idea related to your topic that comes to mind without editing or second-guessing. It may lead to something useful later.


2) Expressing emotion through body language and facial expression.

Wave,and Mirror, by Suzy Lee

2B) Action and emotion exercise:

In ten frames, sketch a character discovering a package on the doorstep, opening the package, and reacting to its contents.

2C) Emotion. Express the following using body language and facial expression:

Fear, Anxiety, Curiosity, Joy, Contentment, Confusion, Sorrow, Boredom, Surprise

3) Active vs. passive voice. Note the importance of the obstacles in Journey, and the lack of obstacles in Pool.

Journey, by Aaron Becker (with discussion of the passage of time and spot illustrations)

Pool,  by Jihyeon Lee

3B) Obstacle exercise:

In ten frames, sketch a character overcoming an obstacle.


4) Wordless picture books: Tone and Audience

 Zoom, by Istfan Banyai,

Du Iz Tak, by Carson Ellis

Arrival, by Shaun Tan (excerpt only)

4B) Tone exercise #1

Create three thumbnail sketches using pencil only to express the following:

1) peace/contentment

2) anxiety

3) your choice- we will tell you what emotion we get from it during the critique

4C) Tone exercise #2

You'll create several sketches of the same character, each with a different audience in mind. The tools of the visual artist include line (hard/ soft, heavy/ delicate, thick/thin, jagged/ flowing); value contrast; perspective (close up vs. distant; overhead vs. low to the ground); level of detail (abstraction vs. realism). If working in color, moods are created through color combinations and temperatures.

We'll begin with black and white media for this exercise. Use this limitation to push the expressive content of line, contrast, and composition/perspective.

First, establish the physical traits of a character in 10 minutes, using these considerations

1) form (human, animal, divine, mythological, combination of these)

2) age of character

3) year of character (past, present, future). 3089 BCE? 2014? 2049?

4) clothes and props

Next, you'll create 3 new thumbnails of your character for these audiences:

1) pleasant children's book

2) young adult mystery/horror

3) Book cover with title and author. Your design and title should give us some clues about your intended audience. You will determine your audience, and we will guess who that is.


5) Balance of Text and Image: 

Dillweed's Revenge, by Florence Heide, illust. by Carson Ellis

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, by Mac Barnett, illust. by Jon Klassens

5B) Text and Image exercise:

Using one of the provided texts, create a sketch that remains consistent to the written word while adding an element of surprise.

Option #1, The Crocodile, by Lewis Caroll

How doth the little crocodile
     Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
     On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
     How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
     With gently smiling jaws!

Option #2 excerpt from Annabel Lee, by Edgar Allen Poe

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea. 

option #3, excerpt from Man with the Blue Guitar, by Wallace Stevens

They said, 'You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.'

The man replied, 'Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.'

6) Story Frames

We will look at familiar story frames, as outlined in The Seven Basic Plots, by Stephen Booker. This is a fantastic read but covers literature, folk and fairy tales, and mythology but does not directly address picture books for children.

Seven Basic Plots:

1) Overcoming the Monster-The protagonist must conquer an evil force (man vs. man; man vs. self; man vs. nature)

2) Rags to Riches- Protagonist begins with little, gains much (wealth, power, or partnership), loses it all, regains it, and changes as a person.

3) The Quest- The protagonist sets out with a specific goal (or goals) and faces a series of obstacles along the way.

4) Voyage and Return- Character travels to a new location, overcomes a series of challenges unique to that location, and returns with new knowledge and/or skills.

5) Comedy - Character(s) overcome a series of adversities with happy results.

6) Tragedy- The protagonist is undone by a major character flaw. Their unfortunate end evokes sympathy.

7) Rebirth- The main character is forced by a series of events to become a better person.


We'll look at a few examples of picture books with a narrative arc and identify the framework

Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

Zeke Pippin, by William Steig

I Want my Hat Back, by Jon Klassens

Three Pigs, by David Wiesner

6B) BME Exercise:

Automatic writing exercise: Make a list of your favorite books, identify which of the story frames they are built on, and describe what it is that you love about them. This includes everything from children's lit to adult non-fiction. What kinds of stories do you want to tell?

Write or sketch lists of possible beginnings, middles, and ends.

Sketch the characters that have been living in your imagination and write down what you would like to see happen to them.

book illustration illustration class illustration workshop online illustration class online illustration workshop

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published