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.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 2.19.31 PM copy

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. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/492510909223693284/

Fig. 7. Colt Bowden, Handwritten sign, 2015. http://coltbowden.com/MAC-Sign-Painting-1

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 http://anm.sagepub.com/content/8/1/3.extract [Accessed 29 October 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 http://folkartmuseum.org/exhibitions/vestie-daviss-new-york/ [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 http://www.tofugu.com/2015/07/01/animes-great-deception-difference-anime-cartoons/ [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  https://www.tuts.com/shows/matilda [Accessed : 06 December 2015]

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

Fig. 6. Kamishibai box, https://studiobuji.wordpress.com/kamishibai/ [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 http://anm.sagepub.com/content/8/1/3.extract [Accessed 29 October 2015]


Left, Right, Up or Down, does it really matter?

Through my research into settings and backdrops, an area that was often discussed was that of positioning and placement. Whilst not directly related to the backdrop, I found it interesting that a character’s position on a page was important as it apparently emphasised certain meanings. This was certainly a view held by both William Moebius (1986: 149) and Kress & van Leeuwen (2006: 57). To ascertain whether this was true, I experimented a little.

It was argued that the right side of the page represented risk and uncertainty, whilst the left was a place of calm and the familiar. The images below represent a dinosaur blissfully unaware as he pads towards a hunter. Fig. 1. demonstrates the idea of the dinosaur heading towards the right side of the page and therefore a more dangerous layout. When flipped I cannot say that I deem it to be any less intimidating an image. It seems that Fig. 1. would be a more appropriate layout due to the western way of reading left to right and therefore showing a normal progression.


Moebius (1986: 148) argued height on the page could be “…an indication of an ecstatic condition” whereby being low on a page is often “… a signal of low spirits, or of an unfavourable social status”. In an attempt to gauge my own views, I produced two images. The first depicting ‘low spirits’ and placed it both high and low on a page to try an judge the significance of each. Fig. 4 seems to ‘feel’ better although I cannot judge whether this is simply because of the natural ground plane being low down.

Figs 5 & 6 show an elated status and again depicted using both high and low positioning. This time I feel Fig. 6 does feel ‘correct’, but it may simply be because the character is jumping and is therefore more feasible? Often elation does coincide with floating and jumping, whereas low spirits denotes a poor posture and lethargy. I feel that this argument could be true unlike the ‘right & left’ argument. In ‘Storyboarding Essentials’ Rousseau & Phillips (2013) tackle the question of whether “…viewers tend to be more comfortable and at ease if the action enters the screen from the left and exits on the right?” to which the authors conclude “Not necessarily”, showing that the concept probably has limited influence on cinematography. Although there remains the grey area of ‘Exit Stage Left’ in theatre, where the apparent normal way to leave a stage  is to the actors’ left (audience right)….

I decided to see if this positioning of high and low was clearly apparent in picturebooks. Admittedly not an in-depth study, I observed one book “Curious George Saves His Pennies”. I chose a Curious George book as Moebius referenced Curious George when discussing the concept of positioning and elation.

In the story George experiences a range of emotions and is therefore another good reason for its selection. Initially Fig. 7 seems to depict elation being placed towards the top of the page and worry positioned lower down when he gets his finger caught. Fig. 8 shows both concern and happiness on the same page, yet the positioning is in contrast to the proposed effective positioning argued by Moebius. Finally, Fig. 9 portrays George’s happiness at finding his piggy bank, yet he is firmly positioned in the centre of the page, despite being the only image on the page (and therefore giving greater freedom to the illustrator to position him where she wants).

Whilst I believe that positioning on a page could make subtle differences in relation to the feelings portrayed, I feel that more often than not it is the sequential nature of picturebooks that determine positioning of elements. It is not always feasible to locate characters on a page in accordance with this code as other factors are at play including other images inhabiting the same page space and the sequence of incidents in the story. Whilst the codes that Moebius argues may hold true for art work I feel that picturebook illustrations are not required to follow such codes.


Rousseau, D. H., & Phillips, B. R. (2013) Storyboarding Essentials. New York: Watson Guptill

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

Moebius, W. (1986) ‘Introduction to Picturebook Codes’. Word & Image. 2 (2), pp.141-158

Rey, M., & H.A. (2012) Curious George Saves His Pennies. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Experimentation: Scale and depth skewing

Through my ongoing research, a reoccurring theme is that of depth and scale. I am becoming more and more interested by the amount one can push these realistic boundaries and whether this has an effect on the enjoyment and overall understanding of the illustration and book by the reader. Vinas Valle and Rogero (2012, p. 68) when discussing the work of illustrator Javier Zabala, note that his illustrations often imitate the child’s use of perspective. Horizon lines are often omitted and readers are required to place their own imaginary horizon lines to avoid the impression of objects floating in the air.

It was whilst playing with my son that proportion, scale, and the importance it holds with children became apparent.

Scale to children

Despite the apparent inadequacies of the jet aircraft and digger in relation to the enormous action figure, he has still enjoyed numerous flights and operated heavy plant machinery during his time in our house. It is this understanding and realisation by children that despite this scale, it is still understandable and feasible that the 3 can live together in the same world and interact accordingly, that intrigued me to experiment on a flat canvas.

Taking this scale concept I played around with numerous characters of a scene to determine if the same could be true of illustration. Could the scale be altered yet still produce a pleasing and effective illustration? Kress and van Leeuwen boldy claim “In general there seems to be little interest on the part of illustrators in varying the means by which setting is created”. I wanted to create a setting with the elements required to ‘set’ the scene holding equal weighting and attempted to achieve this through a disparity of scale. I also wanted to see if I could flatten the image and award equal importance to the backdrop elements and the primary characters. In a similar way to hieroglyphics and cave paintings producing an array of symbols on a flat surface, I wanted to try this approach in a post-modern context.

I made a determined effort not to use any of the other suggestions of setting suggested by Kress and van Leeuwen that are the main methods of depicting setting (mentioned in a previous blog post ‘Setting Suggested in 4 Ways’). I ensured there were no overlaps, no lack of detail in the trees or rocks, they were all from a similar palette without purposeful desaturation or adjustment of light and were arranged very much along a singular plane.
Dinosaur pic random scale pink no shadow

I feel the resulting image is interesting and still holds some charm. I added ground shadows as an afterthought but it then meant there were overlaps and therefore forcing an element of depth I didn’t want to use. The shadows ‘ground’ the elements somewhat because of the lack of a horizon line and stop the floating of the elements. The character tones defy reality as many of the characters are simply repeated and flipped on Photoshop, yet again I don’t think this would cause confusion in a child or indeed the majority of adult readers. In fact, it is quite an interesting accidental experiment that again shows that logic and realism doesn’t need to be applied to make for an interesting image.

Dinosaur pic random scale pink

The use of marks in the background adds further depth and a green hue creates a feeling of grass. The setting take on more life now. Is it possible to eliminate the foreground, midground and background completely? Can we get the elements of the illustration to hold equal weighting? Whilst Bette Goldstone (2008, p.118) states that the action for most picturebooks occurs in the midground, I wonder if it is practical and advantageous to skew this spacial paradox and concentrate on elements more than perspective. I certainly like trying!

Dinosaur pic random scale small


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

Vinas Valle, L and Rogero, M. N (2012) ‘Javier Zabala: A Nonconformist in Spanish Children’s Literature Illustratration’. Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature. 50 (4) October, 66-72

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

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