Friday, August 6

Picture This

How Pictures Work
by Molly Bang
Chronicle Books 2000

A short study on graphic composition that's an accessible introduction to the subject for the artistically inclined, and those who just want to understand better how illustrations 'work.' 

Picture book illustrator Bang comes to the subject of her book honestly, at the beginning of her introduction.  A visiting friend makes a suggestion about her drawings and then realizes "You really don't understand how pictures work, do you?"  Undaunted, Bang decides to do as she's always done with her illustration career, to learn by doing, and in the process comes up with a book that explains how to compose pictures. 

By showing her trial and error, and by explaining what is and isn't working, Bang gives us a frame-by-frame construction of a scene from Little Red Riding Hood using essentially only two shapes (triangles and rectangles) and four colors (black, white, red, lavender).  Along the way she plays with scale, perspective, balance, focal points, tension, emotion, and other elements that go into the design and layout of an illustration.

In teaching herself these things, Bang originally started by experimenting with third graders before moving on to eighth and ninth graders, and then adults.  Working with cut paper collage and keeping the shapes simple she makes the exercise accessible to everyone, though she admits that it is best understood by teens and older. 

I would consider this a good fundamental text for students who are interested in the arts.  Any of the arts, not just drawing or painting.  The ability to compose an illustration is no different than composing a shot in photography or designing a stage set for the theater.  Animators need to understand how to direct focus, tension, and emotion within a scene, and even creative writers can benefit from understanding the effects of color in setting tone and establishing themes.

Though there are many other books out there that go into far greater detail about how to draw or compose a drawing or illustration, what Bang's book does is make the ideas accessible and encouraging.  A good deal of this probably comes from the fact that Bang herself didn't learn these things formally in an art school setting and so comes about it humbly and suscinctly.

Have have few reference books I would consider required for all students entering high school – Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Hoff's How to Lie With Statistics – but I'm considering adding Bang's Picture This because, like those other books, it deceptively packs a lot of basic information into very little space and provides a solid foundation for further studies.

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