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]



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.


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]


Are Settings in Children’s Book Illustrations Prejudiced?

I am aware of the ongoing discussion around prejudice and equality in children’s literature at the moment, especially related to gender and race. However, whilst reading Room with a View: Bedroom Scenes in Picturebooks (1991), Moebius suggested bedrooms are often being represented in picturebooks as the type that “…privileged class that can afford dolls, toys, and picture books as well as the time for playing” (Moebius, 1991 p.53). An area I had rarely give much thought to and am intrigued as to whether many other illustrators do.

In picturebook illustration there is an improvement and interest in diversity in books, often around gender, multicultural and racial equality but I see little in terms of settings. In fact, many of the illustrators I follow on Twitter have been (rightly) promoting and lauding various picturebooks that do include strong female characters or tackle issue of same sex relationships and do not have a yet another blonde-haired, white skinned family as it’s focus. However, maybe it is the little things that we are missing? Rather than the characters, the settings are prejudiced and stereotypical?

Whilst depicting scenes, be it forests, supermarkets or indeed bedrooms, is there a habit for perfection? Should we be showing alternative sides of life, rather than just scenes that depict life for a select few and therefore ostracise them? In We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (1993), most of the illustrated settings are welcoming, despite the apparent hardships the family are going through and lack of equivalent descriptions in the accompanying text.

Pages 12-13

Fig. 1.

The water on pages 12-13 (Fig. 1.) is a prime example. Ignoring the fact all children have new-looking shoes and clothes, are well-groomed and seemingly happy and healthy, the river is also shown to be a beautiful, sparkling clear stretch that is rarely seen.

The second book on my shelf depicting a family scene was Aliens Love Underpants (2007). The last two pages show mum and her son’s bedroom. They live in a home with spacious garden of lush green grass (fig. 2.) with a blue sky and not another house in sight. The boy appears to have his own room (fig. 3.), a happy family pet, toys and drinks in his room. There is no peeling paint, stains on the wall and carpet, cramped bunkbeds shared with his brother. The garden isn’t actually a balcony in a flat where the washing is hung from and a smoky sky…


Although I am not suggesting each and every book needs to face the often grim realities of modern life for children, would a little more realism be favourable when depicting scenes or are picturebooks an opportunity for escapism and allow children to enter happier environments than their own?


Moebius, W. (1991) ‘Room with a View: Bedroom Scenes in Picture Books’, Children’s Literature, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 53-74.

Rosen, M. & Oxenbury, H (1993) We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, London: Walker Books

Freedman, C. & Cort, B (2007) Aliens Love Underpants, London: Simon and Schuster

First experiment with ‘2D depth’

I never know when to stop. I overly complicate things. I’m never content.

I am trying to iron out these traits as I experiment with a more flat style to my work. Inspired by the article published by Allan Walker for Varoomlab, mentioned in a previous blog post, I was intrigued as to whether I could do a 2D backdrop that represents depth.  After playing around with ideas and being inspired by the October theme, I went for a graveyard ghost scene. By creating the shapes at right angles to the plane of projection and by overlapping shapes I was attempting to put into practice my research thus far. I found it very tempting to add a shadow or turn objects to 30 degrees and create a more isometric world that I would feel at more ease with.

Experimenting with depth using 2D and overlaps

Experimenting with depth using 2D and overlaps

Initially I had omitted the path on the sketch but added it prior to inking. It felt that the composition was more ‘pattern-like’ rather than a representation of depth. I think the path helps the understanding a little more and to flow from background to foreground. By introducing the path, the eye follows a ‘zig-zag gaze’, leading you left and right through the page, very much like Takashi Murakami (2000) explained when analysing Ito Jakuchu’s “A Group of Roosters” (shown below). The same mechanism of using the eyes of the ghost (although only the sockets remain!) to help to draw the observer’s gaze across the entire image.

Group of Roosters

Fig. 1

I produced the original in ink (with glow-in-the-dark paint on the ghosts) but decided to experiment a little with shadow in photoshop. The image shown below has some subtle shadows added on both the ground and the curvature of the ghost. Whilst I like the ground shadow, I don’t feel the tone on the ghost adds anything to the overall image and loses the simplicity that gives it impact.

With colour and shadow

With colour and shadow

By keeping a limited colour palette it puts more emphasis on the importance of the layout to work to show the depth of the piece. I also like the retro feel it gives, similar to screen printing and contemporary illustrators such as Frank Viva whom I admire.

Frank Viva, title image from Along a Long Road, 2011, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Fig. 2

Frank Viva ‘Along a Long Road’ Title illustration


Fig. 1. Ito Jakuchu, A Group of Roosters, 1757.

Fig. 2. Frank Viva, cover illustration from Along a Long Road,  2011,  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Walker, A (2013) ‘Alternative Traditions: Flat as a way of visualising space’. Varoomlab journal issue two

Murakami, T (2000) Superflatness. Tokyo: Madora Shuppan.

Setting suggested in 4 ways?

In the book ‘Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design’ by Kress & van Leeuwen, it is stated that setting is suggested in a number of ways, namely:

“(1) the participants in the foreground overlap, and hence partially obscure the Setting;

(2) the Setting is drawn or painted in less detail (or, in the case of photography, has softer focus);

(3) the Setting is more muted and desaturated in colour, with the various colours all tending towards the same hue, usually the blue of distance;

(4) the Setting is darker than the foreground, or lighter, so that it acquires an ‘overexposed’, ethereal look.”
Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (2005 p. 72)

Whilst recognising these common methods of scene setting and also adding “minimal props” Lewis (2012 p. 149) to the list, I am curious as to what other ways illustrators depict settings and scenes and wonder how abstract one can go, pushing the boundaries before losing site of the function of backdrops and settings? Can patterns do a similar job?, texture (not represented in 2D, but actual 3D texture) or a lack of?, maybe even drawing/painting in a different style, therefore suggesting separation from the foreground or focus? It’s certainly worthy of further exploration and experimentation…


Lewis, D (2012; 2001) Reading Contemporary Picturebooks; Picturing Text, Illustration edn, London: Routledge

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

How is depth portrayed in children’s illustration?

Allan Walker, Head of School of Arts and Media at the University of Salford wrote an article for VAROOMLAB journal (2013)  where he discussed alternative ways of visualising space. I am curious as to how illustrators approach backdrops and scenes, especially within children’s literature. One of the pieces he commented on was a drawing by an unknown Cheyenne artist from around 1875-1880 that documented events at Beecher Island.

Cheyenne Fight at Beecher Island

“In Roman Nose, Cheyenne Fight, the method of mapping is similar to an elevation view in a simple orthographic projection… independently and without reference to a viewer or specific viewing point”. (Walker, 2013 p.112)

I found the almost child-like drawing fascinating as a way of representing a scene and despite the almost naivety of the image, it still works as a method of showing depth despite being graphically ‘incorrect’.

In graphic design, students are taught various projections such as oblique, planometric and isometric, all of which defy the laws of reality regarding depth of field, yet they are recognised and respected methods of showing depth and subsequent 3D, yet often in modern children’s illustration it seems that reality, perspective and fixed viewing points are favourable. By defying these ‘laws’ it can open up a range of possibilities for the writer and reader by allowing the focus of attention to be drawn on numerous parts of the page and importance shared amongst the image. The conflicting approaches of industrial design drawings and landscape artists to show depth and dimension is an interesting comparison as a way of approaching backdrops and scenes.

Piero Venturas book of cities

The inside title image of Piero Ventura’s Book of Cities (1975) features a similar approach, with a collection of guards both lining and marching with no obvious sign of foreshortening. By keeping all the figures the same size it helps to accentuate the feeling of regiment and order whilst not drawing the eye to any prominent part of the image and with it possibly making the image more sustainable by adding interest within the image. All the necessary features are there; it sets a scene, depicts movement and stillness, draws interest to characters and the eye is guided to the bystanders by following the line of the standing soldiers.

Belgian illustrator, Tom Schamp is also a clear advocate of such an approach and whilst adding colour and texture to his work, it still maintains this flat, yet 3D projection in his work. In the image below, depicting the streets of Brussels, the buildings are notably facing the same direction and maintain their size even in the back of the image. Depth is suggested merely by the overlapping shapes and the fact the size remains constant, allows the artist to include detail and interest in many parts of the image, therefore allowing and encouraging greater exploration.

Tom Schamp

Tom Schamp, Illustration depicting Brussels street – wrapping paper design.

Allan Walker (2013, p. 116) proposes “… flattened space acts as a backdrop for the depiction of direction, time and movement” and I think that by using flat space, 2D can really open up depth like 3D cannot. An interesting concept, and one that I have yet to fully explore in my own practice.


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

Ventura, P (1975) Piero Ventura’s Book of Cities. USA: Universe Publishing

Tom Schamp, Illustration, 2011,