notes on


John Vernon Lord

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.

The text

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 be omitted.

Scene setting

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.

Light source

The light source may be another factor, as well as the kind of weather that is taking place.

Pictorial Composition

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.


Here 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 compositional elements;

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

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 visualising.