The main function of the narrative illustrator is to represent, interpret,
and heighten the meaning of a selected passage of text (in a complementary
way) by means of pictures, with the aim of contributing to the reader's
appreciation of the narrative. This usually involves consideration of
the setting of place and time and the nature and action of the characters
who take part in the story. Pictorial narratives may, of course, dispense
with words. My talk today will mainly touch on various elements of narrative
illustration and what we often have to consider when we are illustrating
texts. Below is a list of some of these considerations:
How are ideas generated and how do we wish to approach a particular
problem when illustrating a narrative? How do we bring to life what
has been described in words? What are the special complementary qualities
of pictorial expression?
Ideas in illustration may be generated in several ways: ideas are
required to solve particular problems; ideas are required in selecting
and composing the elements of a picture; ideas can come from inventing
a new visual language or by an original use of materials. Ideas may
take on the form of the visual clarification of something that cannot
be expressed in words or seen in the normal way. Visual ideas may
complement words. Pictorial ideas may show what the world is like
in the present, what it used to be like in the past, and what it could,
should or might be like in the future.Visual ideas may inform, persuade
and warn of danger. Pictures can alert people's consciousness or conscience.
They can also celebrate the beauty, or emphasise the ugliness, of
something; they can amuse, delight and move people and they can show
impossible situations and a world that doesn't or cannot exist. Illustrations
may be `evocative' of a text rather than aiming to be specific by
incorporating the details of its content. Pictures can be seen in
sequence and thus have a bearing on each other.
Which individual passages of text shall be selected to illustrate
and how do the pictures relate to each other to attain a satisfactory
sequence? What pictorial properties should we consider when we are
illustrating in series?
The frozen moment
At what precise moment do we choose to stop the action when the events
in the narrative take place? Catching the fleeting moment when an
event has just happened, or is about to happen, and that will, in
the next moment change.
Mood and atmosphere
We need to consider reflecting the tone of a narrative by extracting
the appropriate sense of mood and atmosphere from its content. Our
intention might be to create a sense of drama or humour, suspense
and surprise, or joie de vivre etc.
Nature and action of the characters
The nature and action of the characters who are participating in the
narrative have to be considered as well as registering their physical
appearance, (features of face) and their momentary gesture and expression
- not just what they are doing. Maintaining the likeness of individual
characters throughout a story might be something that has to be handled.
Other 'props' in a picture
There is the need to identify and select the various components, objects
or props (such as clothes and furniture and oddments etc.) that may
be included in the illustration, as well as deciding those that may
The scene setting or location where the action takes place, has to
be thought about. The background setting may be carried out in such
a way as to emphasise mood and expression as well as our experiencing
a sense of movement in the picture.
The choice of viewpoint (angle of vision or eye-level)has to be established
for each picture.
Time when the event takes place
The period, season and time of day or night may have to be considered.
An historical reconstruction may be necessary.
The light source may be another factor, as well as the kind of weather
that is taking place.
One of the most fundamental aspects of making pictures is considering
which compositional approach will best serve the idea? Here we need
to speculate about the disposition of the various elements in the
composition, including their proximity and relationship to one another.
Pictorial emphasis or understatement may be important by means of
giving weight or light to certain lines and shapes within the composition.
Stressing dynamic rhythm (or indeed the lack of it) by bringing about
passive qualities, or a sense of repose, may be something that is
wanted in the composition. One may have to consider whether to have
'sealed off' , bled or vignetted illustrations. The independent unity
of each individual picture set against its neighbouring pictures is
an important consideration. The use of contrast is a vital part of
book illustration, when the pictures follow each other in sequence.
Compositional variety and contrast is recommended to avoid monotony.
are a few headings to think about: tone and colour contrasts; figure
and ground possibilities - dark against light and light against dark;
contrasts of scale and proportional changes; different perspectival
views; opposites - near and far; simplicity against complexity; passive
and active; vertical, horizontal and diagonal stresses; curved and
angular shapes; using constants (ie the grid) as a means of orchestrating
Other considerations :
Gutter problems; clarity and readability of the image; the viewer
has ability to 'fill in' what has not been drawn; varying pace in
expressing sequences of events; maintaining the likeness of a character
throughout a narrative sequence; maintaining consistency of drawing,
where appropriate, and a sense of continuity; ability to correct a
drawing; physical relationship between image and text.
Compositional devices and physical marks in drawing and painting (tonal
and textural effects) naturally have a contributory bearing on how
atmosphere can be conveyed. Also we have obviously got to consider
how the images are to be rendered in terms of the material and media
to be used?
Visual reference has to be gathered as an aid to creating the illustration
1. from direct observation;
2. from visual memory and drawing from the imagination;
3. adapting information gleaned from other forms of pictorial material.
A comment about narrative illustration
Illustrations could be said to be an unnecessary distraction to a
reader - their very presence tending to freeze out the imaginative
mind of the viewer. We must remember that our reading of texts and
our viewing of the illustrations are each modified by our experience
of the other. The very ease of viewing a picture in a book (in that
its very presence can often dominate a page) may cause us to look
at it before reading the text and hence - not only pervert our later
reading of the words themselves but also narrow the margin for personal