Visual Elements: The Grammar of Illustrators
Line—“path made by a moving point” (Reynolds 1).
“Artists use line to suggest direction, motion, energy, and mood” (Norton
128). Lines control the movement of your eyes across a piece of artwork.
“Lines can direct our eyes around and through a composition” (Katz 62).
Line shows framework, patterns, and textures.
Contour line: defines and describes the edges or outlines of a subject.
Gesture line: quick, rough line capturing shape, form, and movement
(Reynolds 1). Randolph Caldecott was a master at drawing gesture lines.
Line can be imagined.
Five main types of line:
Words to describe line:
Contour lines—outlines the shape but also shows surface lines, such as
folds of clothing and lines of facial features
Crosshatching—crossed lines for shading
expresses movement in a graceful, flowing way
amount of movement in a curve depends on how tight the curve
the less active the curve the calmer the feeling
change direction gradually to form curves, spirals, and circles
sense of sweeping, turning, and bending
less definite and less predictable than straight lines
loss of balance and uncontrolled energy
may appear firm and unmoving if holding something up, as a
appear to be either rising or falling
action, movement, tension, drama, excitement
Edge—outline not used. Edge exists where one shape ends and
Fuzzy—suggest dreamy, mysterious mood
Hatching—shading with series of parallel lines
parallel to the horizon and look like they are lying down
suggests calm, rest, sleep, comfort, quiet, relaxed
stability, absence of conflict
Implied lines—shapes suggest lines
Jagged—suggests a breaking down, destruction, danger
refers to outer edge of a shape as if you traced around it
seems to have little depth
move straight up and down, perpendicular to the horizon
Static, potential energy (if the lines would fall)
Lack of movement
May give impression of dignity, stiffness, formality because
they stretch toward heaven.
Often connected with religious feelings
Can make objects look tall
Combination of diagonal lines that connect at points
Creates confusion, excitement, nervousness
Two vertical lines connected by horizontal line at top suggest something
solid, safe, stable.
Color—“element of art comprising hues produced through the reflection
of light to the eye” (Reynolds 36).
Color is an extremely important element in book illustration. Combining
line and color is perhaps the most common way in which artists convey
mood and emotion in picture books.
Color appeals directly to our senses and emotions
Consider how colors match the mood or content of the story:
Black—unknown, fears, death, evil, sophisticated
Bright—loud, may create happy upbeat moods
Blues, greens, purples/violet
Associated with air, water, and plant life
Suggest emotions ranging from tranquility to melancholy
May be mysterious or depressing
Blue—sea, sky, soothing, restfulness, coolness, constancy, truth,
Green—spring, hope, restfulness, coolness, rebirth, serenity.
Negative connotations—poison, jealousy, decay
Dark colors and shadows—may suggest fear and danger
Earth tones—comfortable and friendly
Gold—royalty, luxury, power
Intensity—brightness or dullness of a hue
Monochrome—color scheme that uses only one hue in all its tins and shades
Natural colors—browns, greens, yellows, oranges—suggest nature and are
Neutrals—black, white, browns, grays
Pastel and muted colors—calm and quiet mood
Primary colors—red, blue, yellow—suggest excitement, happiness, and action
Secondary colors—orange, violet, green
Value—lightness or darkness of a hue
Reds, yellows, oranges
Warm or hot connotations
Associated with fire, sun, and blood
May suggest friendliness
May have religious overtones—Buddhist monks wear orange
Warm, bold, flashy
Vitality, passion, love
Royal color for China
Death (as noncolor)
Purity, peace, faith, joy, good
Sun, warmth, bright
Renewal & growth
Spring & summer
Shapes are two-dimensional areas with a recognizable boundary.
Shapes are enclosed areas. A shape is solid matter that defines an
“Lines join and intersect to suggest shapes, and areas of color meet to
produce shapes” (Norton 133).
Different shapes have different connotations depending upon line and
Shapes are another way to emphasize mood of a picture and story.
“Shapes that lean toward the protagonist feel as though they are
blocking or stopping forward progress, whereas shapes leaning away give
the impression of opening up space or leading the protagonist forward.”
Two basic shapes
Organic (free form)
Irregular and curving
Common in nature and handmade objects
Pleasing or soothing to viewers
Exact and rigid
May have mechanical origins
May connote complexity, stability, assertion, severity
Unemotional or express total lack of feeling
Pure shapes may express spiritual ideal
5 basic geometric shapes—circle, square, triangle, rectangle,
Asymmetrical—unbalanced, irregular, dynamic
Curved—secure, comfortable, graceful
Diagonal shapes—imply motion or tension
Dynamic shape—leaning, swirling
Horizontal shapes—sense of stability and calm
Pointed—danger, fear, threatening
Static shapes—peaceful, vertical & horizontal shapes
Rectangles, squares, ovals
Suggest calmness and solidity
If three equal sides (equilateral) or on a flat base, represent
If triangle placed on diagonal, gives sense of movement
Exciting and active
Imply energy and reaching toward heights or the heavens
“Book illustrators manipulate such visual elements as line, color and shape
to create textural imagery that satisfied curiosity about how something
feels” (Norton 135).
“Texture is the element of art that refers to how things feel, or how
they look as if they might feel on a surface” (Ragans 175).
Space—refers to the area within, around, between, above, or below
Overlapping shapes create feeling of depth.
When values are closely related, space appears to be flattened.
Positive spaces or figures—areas of a surface occupied by a shape or
Negative spaces—empty spaces within or surrounding the shapes or
Ambiguous space—reflections, mirrors
Bottom half of picture
Objects feel more threatened, constrained
Objects are heavier and sadder
Objects feel more grounded, more attached to the earth and less
Center of page
Center of attention
Point of greatest attraction
Upper half of picture
Place of freedom, happiness, triumph
Feeling of being lighter and happier
Give sense of floating or flying
Objects placed on upper half of page have more emphasis, greater
Space may appear
Large—larger objects in picture feel stronger
Small—smaller object in picture appears vulnerable, faces danger
Depth—“sense of depth accomplished by arranging pieces so that the
thinner they are, the higher up on the page their bases are placed” (Bang
Edges and corners of a page
Closer the object is to edge or corner, the greater the tension
Focus—more detail appears in closer objects, less detail in distant
Intensity & value—use of colors that are lower in intensity and lighter in
value for objects in the distance
Perspective—“use of size variation, overlap, value, and converging lines to
create the illusion of three-dimensional space (depth) on a two-
dimensional surface” (Reynolds 31).
Linear perspective—slanting lines cause objects to seem to come
together in the distance
Distant objects placed higher in picture
Closer objects places lower down in picture
Point of view—looking at, up, or down at things
Shadows—consider how shadows appear within illustrations
Size—distant shapes appear smaller than closer ones
6. Value/Dark & light
Value refers to the degree of darkness or light.
Chiaroscuro—“Italian word for light and dark. In painting, a method of
modeling form primarily by the use of light and shade” (Janson 794).
“method of arranging light and shadow to create the illusion of
form: also called shading or modeling” (Reynolds 8).
A famous example of the use of chiaroscuro is in da Vinci’s “Mona
Crosshatching—technique of using crossed lines for shading.
Have black added
Often associated with evil, fear of unknown, death
Have white added
Used to symbolize truth, hope, new life
Feel safer than dark values
Light values placed against medium or dark values
Dark values placed against medium or light values
Center of interest may be area with the most extreme contrast.
Place where lightest light and darkest dark come together.
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Gatto, Joseph A., Albert W. Porter, and Jack Selleck. Exploring Visual
Design. 2nd ed. Worcester, MA: Davis, 1987.
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MD: Scarecrow, 2003.
Hobbs, Jack, and Richard Salome. The Visual Experience. Worcester,
MA: Davis, 1991.
Janson, H.W. History of Art. 3rd ed. New York: Abrams, 1986.
Katz, Elizabeth L., E. Louis Lankford, and Janice D. Plank. Themes and
Foundations of Art. Minneapolis: West, 2000.
Norton, Donna E. Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to
Children’s Literature. 3rd ed. New York: Merrill, 1991.
Ragans, Rosalind. Arttalk. Lake Forest: Glencoe, 1988.
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Reynolds, Nancy Walkup. Art Lessons for the Middle School: A DBAE
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