Reflective Statement

My initial rationale for choosing ‘backgrounds’ as a focus was to improve my own practice in this area of illustration. I quickly realised that my keyword was very broad and open-ended, which at times I considered a hindrance, whereas at other times I feel it allowed me to read and experiment with a wide range of areas, thus adding to my overall understanding and skill-set. My research was mainly practice-based in an attempt to gain further knowledge around the area before utilising this newly acquired understanding in experimental work to resolve my theories.

I am a big advocate of an iterative design process. However, I found my overall approach (not pre-meditatively) to my research to be more multi-linear. I sourced, read and researched an area, which then triggered an idea, I thereafter executed my interpretation based on this to prove/disprove my hypothesis before briefly evaluating and progressing to another area to repeat the process. I feel it is this selection and data collection that could have been streamlined early on. It was successful however in helping to narrow my focus for future work when I initially could not and allows me to subsequently approach my work (now with a clearer focus) in an iterative way to try and perfect my chosen area. I do feel that if I had formalised my plan earlier on, it may have allowed me to focus more on my practical work, which I feel has limitations with a rather sporadic execution. By ultimately using two different approaches, I consider it an adequate approach in order to help me find a key focus.

One of the first articles I read, went on to focus much of my research. I found Alan Walker’s ‘Flat as a way of visualising space’ a fascinating introduction to the concept of flatness. The subsequent effect led me to read amongst others, depth portrayal in Japanese culture, multi-layered space in anime and scenography approaches. I loved finding connections between these broad genres and time periods.
The other main area I kept referencing were the four methods noted by Kress and van Leeuwen (2006) of suggesting setting. I was surprised that I found this to be a largely correct argument, and irrespective of genre the same techniques to suggest settings and backdrops reoccured. These areas became the foundation for much as my exploratory work and have had a lasting impression on me as a practitioner.

Despite entering the process with limited focus, I became more interested in both depth portrayal and techniques to differentiate foreground and backgrounds. I discovered that my methodology needs greater planning from the outset to focus my direction. I collect, hoard and sift through information and dip into practical work. It is the ongoing reflection I have done throughout my blog posts that I have surprisingly enjoyed the most and found to be the most productive. I rarely take focussed time to reflect, rather just add scribbled notes in my sketchbook. I found a more formalised approach to this process of reflection to be a key tool to aid progression.



Kress, G., & Van Leeuwen, T. (2006) Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

Walker, A (2013) ‘Alternative Traditions: Flat as a way of visualising space’. Varoomlab journal issue two.
Available at [Accessed: 13 October 2015]



Further Experiments

The forest scene I produced was the first of my retro-inspired backdrops. Having experimented with lines, layers, transparency and having read further about Disney and Maurice Noble, I felt I needed to experiment more.

In ‘The Noble Approach’ (2013), Maurice Noble was recorded approaching a similar philosophy that I have grown to experiment with. “… we were trying to make a complete statement with the backgrounds and characters working in harmony. If you have characters that are primarily line and flat color, why not take the same approach with the backgrounds?”. Whilst I still aimed for a degree of separation, I wanted to try and experiment to see if the ‘roles’ of the lines and realism could be reversed with clarity and effectiveness still apparent. Lines and simplicity in the background, realism and no lines in the foreground. By concentrating on the backdrop I drew the 2 elements in isolation, not awarding much consideration to how the two elements would interact. By trying to produce as natural setting as possible I figured that prepping the scene would not be required. In a child’s bedroom the positioning of toys is not always neat and accurate (a decision I would later regret) and things go where they land, I didn’t want it to appear staged. Fig 1 shows the line drawing of the backdrop. As before, I wanted to make the planes of the image translucent and overlapping as per Icinori to add an element of disorder and activity as well as added interest. I’m pleased how this works both with and without colour. It is this overlapping that adds further interest to a naturally shallow scene where there simply isn’t much depth – such as a child’s bedroom. I also made an effort to keep elements as 2D as possible to shake the realism from the piece and to allow this overlapping to make more logical sense. I still find it a struggle to try and eliminate perspective from my layout sketches that are so common in European approaches.

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Fig. 1.

Whilst looking through other students’ blogs I came across John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ in Robin Johnston’s interesting blog post. I particularly liked the concept that perspective draws everything into your eye, but your eye can only be in one place at a time. With a flat (and overlapping) approach, this is somewhat eliminated.


One of the first problems arose when I began to place the characters into the scene. I now realise I was a little naive not purposely placing backdrop elements to allow for the character presence later. Along with many interesting elements simply being blocked completely (hippo / parrot and some of the boxes that were to make up the pirate ship), more annoyingly, the toy dagger resting on the floor appears to be held by the middle character (fig. 5.). I could maybe drop the character on the page a little to prevent this, but it highlights that I need to consider positioning and scene setting to some extent at least, especially as unlike a theatrical production, there is only one audience viewpoint. I also had to swap the character and cat on the bed and flip them horizontally as the middle boy was blocking too much of him and the crisps he is eating – thus losing all the narrative of this part.

My other issue came with adding outlines to the characters or not. It felt like they were getting too lost in the background, especially as I chose a common palette for the entire picture. I realised that further emphasis of tone and highlights was required to make them stand from the other layers a little.

One final area I am still not entirely pleased with is the rainy window. I feel it is still too realistic in relation to the rest of the scene, both in terms of the colour and the representation of the drops on the window. I decided to blur this similar to the techniques seen in Gravity Falls and The 7D. This is something I definitely need to practice to get the balance right.

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Fig. 9. Realism is not always a good thing!

Overall though, I am happy with experimentation and coming together of key elements I have studies over the recent months…


Fig. 1. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, ep. 1, 1972, viewed 30 December, <;

Figs. 2-9. Artist’s own work

Polson, T. (2013) The Noble Approach, San Francisco: Chronicle Books

Learning from the Masters

How did I not know about Disneyland?! No, not the overpriced theme park; I’ve not much desire to go there I’m afraid, but the TV show – Disneyland?

I stumbled across it via a link on the internet where I saw Walt Disney host episodes explaining the wonderful workings of how some of his animated films and shorts were made. Upon further investigation, I discovered it ran from 1954 until 2008 (albeit with a few extended breaks) yet I have never seen or heard of it before!

Most of the later episodes debut some of their animations and live-action films and also got renamed to ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’. However, it is the early episodes in the 1950’s that fascinated me the most and proved the most useful to providing me with an insight into how Disney approached their settings and backdrops. I also found really interesting the quantity  of these shows and segments that were dedicated to the importance of music within animation, whereas the mention of settings and backdrops were very limited. I am still intrigued by this comparable lack of universal credit and research.

Season 2, episode 11 ‘The Story of Animated Drawing’ showed how, during the making of ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ in Fantasia (1940), the artists wanted retain the fragile character of the inspirational pastel sketches. However, the animators’ usual approach of hard ink lines and flat opaque blocks of colour didn’t create the desired effect. It also created the obvious separation I have spoken of previously between foreground and background, when on this occasion the boundaries didn’t want to be as distinct (like I have been trying to avoid also). The scene wanted to be animated, not have superimposed characters in the scene animated. Fig. 1. highlights the harsh look that would have been achieved using their conventional methods, with fig. 2. showing the preferred look.


Transparent paints were developed to help resolve this problem. Also, a dry brush approach was also used to produce a chalk-like texture, again, reminiscent of the many backdrops I so admire of classic Disney settings. Adding to the laborious task, an airbrush was also used on each cell to add further depth and form.

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Fig. 5. The completed scene from Fantasia

The results are breathtaking. Fig. 5. shows a clip from Fantasia. The effect of losing the hard line and flat colour result in a much more harmonious effect where the obvious ‘joins’ between animated and static are lost. It fact watching these old animated films again reminded me of my fascination as a child of  working out which parts of a scene in a cartoon would move and which wouldn’t. I looked for the flat colours and bold outlines in each scene and despite being elements of the same image, I could tell that these were the bits that were to move. Fig. 6. Shows just this. The difference between the painted backdrop images and those produced on a cel to be animated is clear to see.

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Fig. 6. Guess which pipe will move?! A game I used to play with most cartoons I watched as a child…

The exclusion of the black lines on characters that I have also been experimenting with produces an added benefit. As a character moves to the distance, the lines do not get thinner, resulting in a heavily-lined, solid mass as demonstrated below in figs. 8 & 9 as Micky skips to the distance.

I also found episode 16 in season four, entitled ‘Tricks of our trade’ interesting. Once more hosted by Walt Disney, he explained the development of the multi-plane camera as a way to create even more realistic backdrops for their feature films. With it, the backdrop is split into different planes, with each one moving independently of each other to reinforce the illusion of depth when panning. So rather than simply having the foreground and background, they used four oil-painted glass planes just for the ostensibly three-dimensional backdrop.

It is this multi-layered approach that links to ‘ma’ – the spatial term often used in Japanese culture to indicate areas between layers and discussed in a previous post here. This use of numerous planes is what I have been using more of in my experiments and by giving them a translucent quality it gives it greater interest (albeit less realism). It is also likened to the printed qualities of silkscreen printing and helps utilise some of the dry brush effects previously mentioned that I enjoy so much and that gives it a retro ‘Disney’ feel.



Figs. 1-4. Disneyland 2.11, The Story of the Animated Drawing, 1955, viewed 23 December 2015, <;

Fig. 5. Fantasia, 1940, motion picture, Walt Disney Productions, USA.

Fig. 6. Walt Disney. Pluto. The Purloined Pup, 1946, viewed 23 December 2015, <;.

Figs. 7-12. Disneyland 3.16, Tricks of our Trade, 1957, viewed 23 December 2015, <;



Inspiration from the stage

Theatre design and book illustration are very different.
Whilst Salisbury (2008, p.23) suggests marginalisation of illustration as an art form, I wonder if theatre set design could indeed be the black sheep of the arts family? They are different classifications of art qualifications, it is live action that takes place in front of the settings, the size/scale is naturally a lot larger, the viewers all have different viewpoints and therefore different experiences and theatre design does indeed have an actual, physical three dimensional space in which to operate. Despite these differences (and many more besides), I feel there is a lot to learn from the discipline to maybe see how the practitioners deal with similar issues. For instance, how to be economical with the amount of different changes, how to create great depth on a relatively narrow stage, and how to add interest when proposing a scene.

It is this final question that I begin with. Nikolajeva & Scott (2006, p. 62) also propose similarities in picturebook settings and theatre set design “…which can be realistic or symbolic, elaborate or simple”. Whilst not of a great surprise, inspiration can be harvested from their use of layers, stylisation, colour and texture, as shown in figs 2-5.  Oddey and White (2006, p. 18) propose “Scenography is no longer ornamentation, but rather the body, which is intrinsic to the media of theatre culture”. It is this potential within the scenery of both a book and stage backdrop that I have been trying to utilise throughout my experimentation and research. Much like the fans in a football stadium are likened to a ’12th man’, I feel the backdrops could be akin to an extra character / element rather than simply a frame to a picture.
In the same chapter, an interesting concept arises. “Research… has suggested that the larger the image, which is projected or transmitted, the greater the presence responses from the spectator.” (2006, p. 19) I wonder if the use of large, bold images and extreme scaling of elements in a backdrop may give more impact, rather than concentrating on small details required to add interest and realism. It is this paradox that is often the decision of the illustrator and publisher and what feels right for the story. By flattening images and creating a more 2D feel to book illustrations, I believe it lends itself to this use of large, bold images, used by Chris Haughton, that I so admire.

It is exactly this use of large-scale, bold images that held my interest when researching set design. Fig. 1. is taken from a set design by Ken MacDonald from ‘The Overcoat’, where 22-foot nibbed ink pens descend from the rigging system and dwarf the rest of the architectural office. It is this sense of proportion that I feel is used well in modern, contemporary stage design, yet often not used in children’s illustration, possibly due to a preconceived (and arguably incorrect) assumption that children wouldn’t be able to comprehend this imbalance of scale. However, like my experimentation with scale I feel it is indeed appropriate and comprehensible, whilst at the same time, possibly simply more fun and engaging?! Without sounding too cliche, is a book not meant to take us to a fantasy place, to entertain and inspire? Surely being OTT and exaggerating is good sometimes?! certainly many Hollywood movie directors feel the same!

MacDonald The Overcoat

Fig. 1. Set design for ‘The Overcoat’ by Ken MacDonald

Rewa (2006, p. 133), quoting the work of MacDonald argues “such scenography does not seek to be understood as a two-dimensional landscape captured in the frame, rather such scenography performs itself.” agreeing with Oddey and White’s opinion of requirements of a backdrop / scene.

Concerning my initial question / foci, Natalie Rewa talks of an interactive space – engaging the audience. “…scenography is often characterized as linear perspective, represented as the view through a window, therefore, pictorial and graphically depicted as a cone emanating from the eye of the spectator, which arrests the object on an imaginary screen, interposed between the viewer and the object.” (2006, p. 122) It is this ‘window’ that engages the audience / reader, and there are different ways to achieve it. I think that too often picturebooks aim for this immersive environment with a realistic image. With (or possibly especially with) postmodern picturebooks, it is a trend for illustrators to “…utilize these three traditional spatial dimensions, (and have an) atmospheric quality; translucent and mobile” (Goldstone 2008, p. 119). Rather than trying to deal with a realistic immersive environment, I think that immersion for the reader / audience can occur even without this realism. The skewing and manipulation of scale, perspective, and character / backdrop differentiation are all part of this process.

In Robbins’ article ‘Theatre and Design’ she discusses “(Wagners set designs that were) moved singly and regrouped in clusters to create an almost endless set of configuration” (1990, p. 28). In a similar way, it is advisable that illustrators be rather astute with their constant reproduction of new images for each setting and page, especially considering the sheer volume of work a modern illustrator needs to produce in order to maintain a healthy income, whilst at the same time, ensuring the almost comical repetition of setting in Tom & Jerry chase sequences are avoided.

Comparing my previous interpretation of a forest, I researched a few interpretations in the theatre to see how it was approached. Likened to a picturebook, there were unsurprisingly a range of approaches, from the minimalistic (fig. 2) and abstract (fig. 5) to the effective use of lighting and props to create a more realistic forest setting (fig. 4). Nikolajeva (2010 p. 31) suggests complex images in a picturebook “…compel the reader to stop and browse”, I suppose it may be true for theatre design, although I feel that Nodelman’s (2010, p. 18) views on the relationship between simple text and complex images may hold true for theatre also. The more abstract / mature theatre shows having often minimal set design, where as shows for the layman tend to have more obvious backdrops. I suppose it obviously depends on the mood that needs depicting in a theatre show, maybe rather than the intended audience, and maybe this is something I could learn from set design. Forget I am illustrating for children, and simply illustrate, period. Much as my illustration preferences have begun to favour, looking at the depictions of trees and forests shown below, I know which ones I find more interesting and fun…



Fig. 1. Ken MacDonald, Pens and Figure, 1997.

Fig. 2. Scene from Frank Wedekind’s Lulu, directed by Robert Wilson, 2011.

Fig. 3. Scene from The Lion King, 2006.

Fig. 4. Scene from Don Giovanni at the Salzburg Festival, 2010.

Fig. 5. Jean Denis Malclès, set deign from Becket or L’Honneur de Dieu, 1959.

Goldstone, B. (2008) ‘The Paradox of Space in Postmodern Picturebooks’. In Sipe, L. R., & Pantaleo, S. (eds.) Postmodern Picturebooks: Play, Parody and Self-Referentiality. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Nikolajeva, M. (2010) ‘Interpretative Codes and IMplied Readers of Children’s Picturebooks’. In Colomer, T., Kümmerling-Meibauer, B. & Silva-Díaz, C. 2010, New Directions in Picturebook Research, New York: Routledge.

Nikolajeva, M., & Scott, C. (2006) How Picturebooks Work. New York: Routledge.

Nodelman, P. (2010) ‘Words Claimed’, In Colomer, T., Kümmerling-Meibauer, B. & Silva-Díaz, C. (eds.), New directions in Picturebook research, New York: Routledge.

Oddey, A. & White, C. (2006) ‘Introduction’. In Oddey, A & White, C. (eds.) The Potentials of Spaces – The Theory and Practice of Scenography & Performance. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Rewa, N. (2006) ‘Scenographic avant-gardes: Artistic Partnerships in Canada’. In Oddey, A & White, C. (eds.) The Potentials of Spaces – The Theory and Practice of Scenography & Performance. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Robbins, C. (1990) ‘Theatre and design: Costumes, sets and lights’. National Forum. 70 (3), 28.

Salisbury, M. (2008) ‘The Artist and the Postmodern Picturebook’. In Sipe, L. R., & Pantaleo, S. (eds.) Postmodern Picturebooks: Play, Parody and Self-Referentiality. New York: Taylor & Francis.


The future of Picturebooks (?!)

As a Design Technology teacher I am constantly tinkering and experimenting with the latest gadgets and technological advancements. Two such advancements have recently got me excited and reaching for my wallet….

Two companies have produced new types of inks, both with unusual and un-tapped properties relating to illustration and design.

‘Living Ink’ is a company that has manufactured an algae-based ink that actually grows over a period of three days to reveal your message / graphic. This idea is fantastic and opens up a whole range of future possibilities. Linking with my current research focus, Sendak’s classic tale could see Max’s room really “grow with leaves and vines”, adding an element of interactivity never before experienced.


Fig. 1. Maybe a forest really could grow in Max’s room?!

Books could grow with the child and be required to be looked after and nurtured as part of the story. As it has a time-lapse effect, new parts of the story or image could be revealed over time, giving it a potentially great life. Whilst this concept is till in it’s infancy and at the ‘gimmick-stage’, I very much like the idea behind it and the move away from synthetic-based inks towards a more natural and sustainable product.


Fig. 2. Living Ink, using timelapse ink, could open a range of opportunities for writers and illustrators.

A different, yet somewhat similar concept is the use and application of ‘Conductive Ink’ in ‘Circuit Scribe’. Whilst electrical-conductivity ink has been available for a while now, it’s application inside a convenient pen, again opens up a range of possibilities that could transform conventional picturebooks for children. Although many batteries are still rather large to fit inside the pages of a picturebook, the technology is advancing constantly and pages that have in-built interactive elements such as lights, sounds and moving parts are in the not-too-distant future.

Fig. 3. ‘Circuit Scribe’ allowing electronics to be embedded into the pages of a picturebook.

Although comparisons could and should be drawn with Kindles, Ipads and similar electronic reading devices, this could potentially add a greater amount of interactivity. Readers could use the pens to finish elements to complete circuits and change the story, interaction with the reader as an energy source could mean their fingers are used to complete circuits and trigger motion and a whole menagerie of sight & sound.

Add to this, current smart pigments available, including thermochromic (changes colour with heat), photochromic (changes colour with UV light) and phosphorescent (glow in the dark) and illustrators have a whole range of opportunities to tap into.

Whatever medium is used, whether it is pen & ink, the latest digital media or indeed, one of these new range of smart inks, the key thing should always be the function and effectiveness of the illustration. Think of the outcome first and then choose the tools. Like in my Design technology teaching, students may wish to make a table and then choose the tools best suited for the job. I hope they never pick up a soldering iron and a sewing machine and think “I want to use these, so what should I make?”…



Fig. 1. Maurice Sendack, Illustration from Where The Wild Things Are, 2000 (London: Red fox)

Fig.2. [Accessed 19 December 2015]

Fig. 3. [Accessed 19 December 2015]


Experiment – retro style backdrop

Using some of the ideas gathered so far, I wanted to try putting together a scene that includes a beautiful retro backdrop.

I recently purchased the book ‘The Noble Approach’ showcasing the work of Maurice Noble, a layout artist for Disney and Warner Bros. His beautiful use of colour and simple yet highly effective backdrops are iconic and reminiscent of the approach used by Steven Universe that I documented in a previous blog post. The book showcased a range of his work and documented the approaches he took. Noble mentioned (Colson, 2013, p. 65) that as an artist, he considered effects such as wind, rain and smoke early on it the process. I wanted to ensure I considered the lighting and overall feel before committing pencil to paper, rather than having it as an after-thought.

I decided to set myself the challenge of depicting a forest scene as I imagined it to be a challenge due to the repetition of colour and also as I would need to represent the vast depth of a forest using numerous planes. This would allow me to experiment with translucent planes in ‘Issun Bôshi’ as documented in a previous post to help and portray depth and interest.

One of the characteristics of the retro style is the abstract gouache backdrop. Also, I like the previously mentioned offset colour and line work which adds movement and interest without overpowering the scene.

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Fig. 3. Initial colour scheme trial.

Another characteristic of the classic style popularised by Maurice Noble, Mary Blair and Al Dempster is their use of colour. Fig. 3. shows my initial test with colours and the subsequent lack of impact generated. In-keeping with the American retro theme, I looked to ‘Roadrunner’ cartoons for inspiration; one of Noble’s more recognised pieces. The contrast of the purple palette with the yellow of the sun I wanted to have shining through the trees is reminiscent of the classic Roadrunner cartoons I used to watch as a child.

Fig. 4. shows a common ‘Roadrunner’ backdrop. The offset colour and line work adds interest in an otherwise barren setting with little change in weather, light or indeed action of any kind. The exaggerated colour scheme adds further interest.


Fig. 4. Inspiration for the colour scheme and highlighting the offset style.

I also wanted to see how I could use linework in the backdrop yet omit it from the main characters that are the usual focus of the illustration. This is in stark contrast to the approach taken by the majority of cartoons and illustrations I have researched thus far, and to some of the articles and literature studied as part of my FAT1 project.

Woodcutter lines

Fig. 5.

Fig. 5. is my initial approach, using outlines on the characters. Whilst the characters stand out from the backdrop, they almost float on the plane and have the same feel as traditional cel-based animation. This apparent floating on the midground is a confirmation of Nakagawa’s description of Mamoru Oshii’s anime approach “…as if the characters were floating on the midground” (Nakagawa, 2013, p.68) . Whilst this was an effect clearly favoured by Oshii, I wanted a more subtle effect suited for a children’s storybook. His detailed mid ground in comparison to the simplistic foreground gave a similar effect. Rather than having the feeling of inhabiting the forest, the animals appear to be simply placed there. By removing the lines as shown in Fig. 6. the animals now seem to have a home in the forest. The whole scene has a softer, more retro approach.

Woodcutter 1

Fig. 6.

At the top of the scene, the overlapping, translucent layers are more prominent. I feel this adds to balance the picture out, where obviously the action is taking place at the foot of the image, the extended space above, and interest in the overlapping lines and colour give the impression of tangled boughs and twigs as the eye approaches the top of the trees. It was my initial intention to have the greater amount of offset in the more distant layers/planes, akin to blurred vision / depth of field when looking out on a scene. However, this got lost amongst the overlapping trees in the distance and so didn’t really work. I think the sunlight weaving through the trees helps add to the perceived depth. As cooler colours are deemed to recede, these were applied to the furthest planes, with warmer colours at the front. I also ensured the animals were facing the left, thus (apparently!) giving the impression of safety and the ‘known’, rather than fearing the woodcutter.

I went for a retro typeface for the text. I admire the work of Colt Bowden immensely and love his retro sign writing. As the picture is set in a U.S. forest, I felt that a classic American typeface would fit well. I liked the idea that Goldstone (2008, p. 118) suggested text is no longer segregated from the images but can used as props within the space it inhabits. I thought I would experiment with using the text in a more graphical form rather than a rolling text, simply narrating the story, adding to the stylisation of the piece. Each page could stand on it’s own as an artwork.

Colt Bowden

Fig. 7. Colt Bowden, hand-written sign, whom I highly admire.

Overall, I am pleased with how the unconventional use of line works to complement the background and constructs a believable and interesting piece with many of the qualities I was aiming for.


Figs. 1 & 2. Maurice Noble, illustrations from The Noble Approach, 2013 (San Francisco: Chronicle Books)

Fig. 4. Philip DeGuard, Scrambled Arches, 1957.

Fig. 7. Colt Bowden, Handwritten sign, 2015.

Goldstone, B. (2008) ‘The Paradox of Space in Postmodern Picturebooks’. In Sipe, L. R., & Pantaleo, S. (eds.) Postmodern Picturebooks: Play, Parody and Self-Referentiality. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Nakagawa, M (2013) ‘Mamoru Oshii’s Production of Multi-layered Space in 2D Anime’. Animation: An interdisciplinary journal. 8 (1), 65-83 Available at [Accessed 29 October 2015]

New-wave animated series success

There has been a recent wave of animated TV series’ that have achieved great success and admiration amongst both children and the illustration / art community. Quirky shows such as ‘Regular Show’, ‘Steven Universe’, ‘Regular Show’ and ‘Gravity Falls’ have brought with them a whole community of fan-art, and have gained an almost cult status. With their often warped storylines and brand of humour that appeal to adults and children alike, I was interested to see how some of these shows approached the artwork and especially the settings and backdrops.

Animated series are obviously very different to storybooks. In these shows, speed is often the order of the day and animators need to produce work quickly and using very efficient techniques. However, many of the scenes depicted are often stationary and therefore the backdrops can be produced without the full regard for speed of production, thus opening up a wide range of options for the artists to experiment with. Also, with so many TV cartoon series of a similar ilk, surely something different is required to enable shows to stand out from the crowd?…

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Fig. 1. Midground features in a similar style to the foreground characters in ‘Gravity Falls’

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Fig. 2. Beautiful settings portrayed in ‘Gravity Falls’

Figs. 1 & 2 show clips from ‘Gravity Falls’. From the four programmes chosen to focus on, I feel the settings are the most beautiful in this TV series. Whilst the characters are standard, black outlines, with flat block colours, the settings (often the woods and forests of the show) are beautifully represented with a range of texture and colour. Backgrounds are often blurred to add to a greater feeling of depth, whilst objects set in the midground, and animated props are of a similar style to the characters. These backgrounds have a very Disney-esque feel to them and ooze quality, adding to the show’s appeal. There is attention to detail, with tufts of grass growing from the gift shop roof in Fig. 2. and the trees fading into the distance really gives a warm, quality feel to the whole shot. This blurring effect of the background is like the depth of field effect used in photography and is not very common in illustration, but with the extensive use of computers for animation, is now quite simple. It is something I have never really experimented with but interested to see how I can use it for effect.

Another Disney cartoon series is ‘The 7D’, documenting the seven dwarfs from Snow White. The approach is very similar again to ‘Gravity Falls’ and it is clear they are from the same studio. Whilst the attention to detail may not be as prominent, the same techniques of a lack of line, blurring of the backdrops and muted colours all separate the foreground and backgrounds.

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Fig. 3. ‘The 7D’. Muted background palette draws attention to the characters.

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Fig. 4. ‘The 7D’ – blurring backdrops creates greater depth, much like field depth in photography.

Alongside new Disney shows, Cartoon Network continues to produce a range of exciting and unusual animated TV shows. ‘Regular Show’ is one of the more popular (certainly in my household!). This show has a different approach to the settings and appears a lot more simplistic. Whilst the characters still use the bright colours and black outlines reminiscent of so many animated cartoon characters, the backdrops use this technique also, giving a more ‘amateur’ feel. There is a lack of physical depth portrayed in this cartoon in comparison to the Disney shows. Backgrounds tend to be more simplistic and there certainly are not the number of planes / layers used to create the illusion of distance, and all objects feel closer to the foreground, making a much smaller and more compact world that the characters live in. Distant layers remain in focus with no real depth of field. Detail such as omitted ground shadows from the hot air balloon in Fig. 5. make for a less ‘warm’ visual and overall less interactive and believable image.

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Fig. 5. ‘Regular Show’. Showing limited depth in the backdrops.

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Fig. 6. ‘Regular Show’. Mid-grounds used a similar style to the foreground detail, creating limited depth in each shot.

Also coming from the Cartoon Network stable of popular cartoons at the moment is ‘Steven Universe’. Despite not being a big fan of the actual series, I do really like the ‘feel’ of the artwork. The backdrops especially, borrow elements from classic Disney movies. The settings are often minimal, suiting the Cartoon Network genre, yet they have been approached in an almost retro style. Whilst having been produced digitally, the have a hand-made look and backdrops of gouache and dry brush lines create the fantasy world in which Steven inhabits. The offset colour on Fig. 8. also creates a retro effect and is used over again in the series. This is in contrast to the neat, simple lines and colours of the characters, thus creating this separation, yet I still find the backdrops add a huge amount of interest despite using detail sparingly.

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Fig. 7. ‘Steven Universe’. Backdrop reminiscent of the classic Disney films circa 1950.

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Fig. 8. ‘Steven Universe’. Retro styling used to create the backdrops. Off-set colour and a dry-brush effect.

If you compare the settings and style to classic Disney artists, such as Milt Banta, Mary Blair, Jacques Rupp and Al Dempster, there are clear similarities between their styles of backdrop creation, especially with the gouache effects and bold, abstract shapes represented.


Fig. 9. Milt Banta.


Fig. 10. Jacques Rupp.

It seems clear that despite the foreground characters of all of these four shows being produced using similar techniques, the backdrops follow no common theme, but borrow aspects from photography and classic animations of the past. They still follow the aforementioned four methods to represent settings, sticking to a tried and tested formula despite pushing the boundaries with their modern, wacky approach to the story.



Figs. 1 Gravity Falls. Wierdmageddon Part 1, 2015, viewed 13 December 2015 <;

Fig. 2. Gravity Falls. Roadside Attraction, 2015, viewed 13 December 2015 <;

Figs. 3 & 4. The 7D. Season Sneezing, 2015, viewed 13 December 2015  <;

Figs. 5 & 6. Regular Show. Hot Air Balloon Crash, 2015, viewed 13 December 2015 <;

Figs. 7 & 8. Steven Universe. When it Rains, 2015, viewed 13 December 2015 <;

Fig. 9. Milt Banta, Yellowstone: Land of burning mountains, 1957. Available at [accessed 14 December 2015]

Fig. 10. Jacques Rupp, The Brave Mice and the Vegetarian Cat, 1959. Available at [accessed 14 December 2015]

I think we need to separate…

I have previously experimented with the blurring of the foreground and background layers traditionally used in illustrations. When a child draws pictures at a young age, there is often no clear separation between what is at the front and what is behind, often no real attention paid to scale, and colour realism can also take a back-seat too. As I further research this area and look into different approaches to represent backdrops and settings, I was immediately drawn to Kyle Hughes-Odgers’ book that utilises many of these concepts.

From the front cover of ‘On a Small Island’ it is clear that this has been approached in a rather different manner to many other picturebooks that sit alongside it in the library. With a sea of muted greens, blues and browns that resemble a Kandinsky canvas produced with a Vestie Davis palette, this has clearly been produced by an artist who (as his website states), is known for his large-scale public art. It is in this large-scale art that huge flat blocks of colour often need to be broken up by interesting shapes and forms to add interest to the passing pedestrian. In this book, compiled of acrylic paintings, I don’t feel it’s nearly as effective.


Fig. 1. With a borrowed palette from Vestie Davis, sadly the sense of depth wasn’t borrowed by Hughes-Odgers also.

Every page in the book, I found confusing. The sea is made up  from a range of geometric shapes and blocks of colour that have no foreshortening or rules linked to linear perspective. The characters are spindly, and produced using a similar approach to the other elements on the page, therefore blending into the page. At times the boats jump to the foreground as a result of the outlining and relatively detailed approach of the wooden panels on the side.

As Ari, the main character inhabits an island, the land where he lives is often shown surrounded by water and so the distinction between foreground and background is also often lost. As previously discussed in this blog, Kress & van Leeuwen stated that backgrounds can be depicted in several ways, including a muted background colour or a change in lighting. Hughes-Odgers has not utilised these conventions and I find the images in the book very confusing. In fact, if it were not for the horizon line and plain representation of the sky, it would be almost incomprehensible at times.

Small Island 3

Fig. 2. Colours and shapes prove to hinder the story and clarity

It is not just the lack of clarity between the foreground and background that I find to be an issue, it is also the need to add shapes and forms where there is little or no benefit to clarify or add to the text, or to simply act as a point of interest. Fig. 3. shows a page towards the end of the book where the captain of a ship that used to pass Ari’s island, returns to congratulate him on his recently formed assortment of artefacts. On the left of the page, the captain appears to be holding 3 items, possibly offering them to Ari. There is however, no relation or acknowledgement to these 3 green squares and they appear to simply be a space-filler by the artist. These three planes (in a similar guise) appear earlier in the book (Fig. 4.), seemingly floating above the captains head. On this same page the artefacts that the captain talks of, consisting of buildings, water towers and numerous steps also appear confused in relation to the proximity and positioning of the visitors of the island It is this confusing approach that left me perplexed by the whole feel of the book.

Small Island 1

Fig. 3.

Maybe I am missing the point and it is this blog post and head-scratching that I am doing that is the intention of the artist? The tale itself is quite pleasant but I can’t help feeling that the confused illustrations are a result of a lack of separation or clarity between what is important in the scene and what is subsidiary. In terms of the foreground and background, maybe a trial separation is called for?…

Small Island 2

Fig. 4.


Fig. 1. Vestie Davis, Coney Island Boardwalk with Parachute Jump,  1972. Oil on canvas 17 x 37 in. American Folk Art Museum. Available at [Accessed 05 December 2015]

Figs. 2 – 4. Hughes-Odgers, K. (2014) On a Small Island, Fremantle: Fremantle Press

Kress, G and van Leeuwen, T (2005; 2006) Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, London: Routledge


Of no fixed plane…

Throughout my current experimentation and research I have been looking at backgrounds as a focus. Depth plays an important role in this and I have been constantly thinking about planes and how these can be utilised to create a backdrop that is effective and interesting. Whether it is using a simple two-layer foreground and background, prominent in many books such as ‘You’re All My Favourites’ (Fig. 2.) or adding several planes as in the beautiful ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ (Fig. 1.) to create layers; planes or layers are clearly used a lot in illustration, and even though we have a shift away from traditional forms of animation and cel-use, Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and other commonly used programs still base their construction of the image around layers. It is not uncommon for a book illustration to have dozens of layers to create the visual effect of depth and realism.


Layers are used extensively in theatre design, and the musical adaptation of Matilda with its award-winning set design, uses numerous layers to build up a non-realistic, yet highly effective world in which the tale is based. Yet again, scale is skewed and the huge letters that form the backdrop help to form the overall effect, rather than leaving the viewers scratching their heads over the enormous letter blocks in comparative scale to the school children!


Fig. 3.


I recently read the book ‘Issun Bôshi’ (translated to ‘The One Inch Boy), based on an old Japanese fairytale. Produced by publishing house ‘Icinori’, I love the way it manages to capture the scene with not only a limited colour palette but also cleverly using layers. Produced to resemble a printed image, the limited colours used, overlap each other and with a translucent effect , it not only creates interest in the areas that overlap but also gives the work some texture. It is this texture and interest, whilst still using a flat colour that I like, as it stops an image looking too digital. The overall image gives a retro feel suitable for a book based on an ancient fable. If the illustrators had used a more opaque approach, the interest would be lost and it would begin to feel a lot flatter also. In Fig. 4. the cranes, despite being relatively close to the front plane and relative proximity to the character in the boat, do not overpower the scene due to their translucent finish.

Nakagawa (2013, p. 66) likened Japanese anime and it’s multi-layered space to that of sliding screens in traditional Japanese architecture. ‘Ma’, Japanese negative space, uses the concept of planes and architects, artists and general Japanese culture utilise this concept. Issun Bôshi certainly retains this Far Eastern feel by using these layered screens, with similarities to cel-based anime. In fact, even since the use of traditional Japanese kamishibai , flat screens and layers have been used to help tell stories.


Fig. 6.

It is this tradition of story telling and use of layers that interests me, and as an illustrator, the opportunity it gives to use images economically that inspires me. Rich Duffy explains one of the reasons for Japanese anime’s success lies in the various time and labour-saving devices that limits its cel count and thus makes production quicker and easier. By overlapping layers, not only does it create a greater perception of depth, but like the theatre, these can be used over and over with varying overlaps and degrees of opacity and colour to generate an almost limitless toolbox of backdrops at your disposal.



Duffy, R (2015) ‘Anime’s great deception – The difference between anime and cartoons’. Available at [Accessed: 01 December 2015]

Fig. 1. Eric Puybaret, illustration from Puff the Magic Dragon, 2008 (London: Macmillan)

Fig. 2. Anita Jeram, illustration from You’re All My Favourites, 2007 (London: Walker Books)

Fig. 3. Photo from Matilda  the Musical, 2015 [Accessed : 06 December 2015]

Figs. 4 & 5. Icinori, illustrations from Issun Bôshi, 2014 (Berlin: Little Gestalten)

Fig. 6. Kamishibai box, [Accessed: 07 December 2015]

Nakagawa, M (2013) ‘Mamoru Oshii’s Production of Multi-layered Space in 2D Anime’. Animation: An interdisciplinary journal. 8 (1), 65-83 Available at [Accessed 29 October 2015]


Flat is back…

I just came across this quirky advent calendar. Children are invited to colour in a different elf each day on the run up to Christmas (I like it un-coloured however!). What struck me is that it is another example, similar to the experimentation I have been doing with the ghosts and dinosaurs, to try and depict a scene without following the traditional rules of perspective and depth.Happy-elves

Fig. 1.


The limited palette once again adds interest and helps to tie the whole scene together. Despite some trees being large, some small, reindeers apparently ready to jump into the face of an elf or Santa and his friend behind the wheel of a seemingly floating car; the image works. Rules are skewed and the image has depth and interest without using 3 planes.


Fig. 1. Miguel Bustos, Happy Elves Advent Calendar, 2015. [Accessed 22 November 2015]