‘Picture this’ – how the elements of a picture work

Since I’m going to be quite busy developing some new products/services/ideas over the next few weeks, I thought it would be good to re-post some older posts.  This one was something I got quite caught up in when I wrote it, and I thought it was worth resurrecting.  If you find it at all interesting, I’d recommend getting hold of a copy of Molly Bang’s book, Picture This: How Pictures Work, as it’s one of the best books I’ve ever come across for showing clearly how the elements of a picture work together to create an emotional charge.

I picked up a fascinating little book in a second-hand shop recently. It’s called Picture This: How Pictures Work and it’s by Molly Bang.  Molly is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, but one day she realised she didn’t have any great understanding of what makes a picture work.  She decided to experiment using simple geometric shapes cut out of craft paper, to see how these could be used to evoke emotion through their arrangement and colour.

She was working with young children at the time and she did an exercise with them where she cut paper in four different colours – red, black, pale purple, and white – into shapes to create an illustration for Litte Red Riding Hood.  She got the children to give her directions about what made the picture more or less scary – the kids weren’t too enthusiastic (they wanted to make pictures that looked real) but as she went on to try this exercise with a range of children of all ages and with adults too, she found that there were fundamental principles of design that gave an emotional charge to certain arrangements of shapes on the page.  In this book she takes us through the process of decision-making that leads to the most effective illustration of the Red Riding Hood story and then pulls out the principles at work behind them.

So, for instance, she starts with trees like these one, made out of triangles (the slight shading to the right of all of these images is a result of the scanning process):

but then changes them to this (Little Red Riding Hood is represented by the red triangle):

Using tall rectangles that disappear off the edge of the page makes us feel that the trees are very tall and overbearing, giving a better sense of being in a threatening space.  Placing some rectangles higher in the frame and making them narrower gives a feeling of depth to the image as the trees appear to recede.  But upright trees are too static and reliable, which is at odds with the tension of the story, so to increase the feeling of tension she introduces some trees that lean and look as if they could fall on Red Riding Hood.  Placing her inside the triangle formed by two trees also makes it look as if she’s trapped, even though we know rationally that she is situated further into the distance than this.  She’s also been made smaller, to increase the sense of her vulnerability.

The book continues in this vein but this should be enough to give you the idea. Although the basic principles are all things we intuitively feel, it’s less usual for us to have a conscious understanding of why we feel as we do.  I can see that having an awareness of these principles could be very useful in photography, perhaps a little less so for spontaneous shots, but definitely so for those that are planned ahead.  It also offers a way of assessing photos we’ve already taken, to understand why they work or don’t work. It’s a very thin and deceptively simple book that actually delivers rather a lot.

The final, finished image, with the wolf in it, looks like this:

The key elements here are the trees as described before, the largeness of the wolf in relation to the smallness of Red Riding Hood, the red eye, the lolling red tongue, the sharp white pointed teeth, and the lilac background that gives the feeling of it being night, or at least ominously dark.

I thought it would be interesting to look on Amazon to see what existing book covers are like, and to see if they use similar means to get an effective illustration.  I found the books fell roughly into two camps – the modern versions, mainly designed for very young children, had played down the scariness of the story, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.  The wolf in the illustration below looks more like a big friendly dog than anything Red Riding Hood would want to run from:

Of course, this book is aimed at really young children who could end up having nightmares if things got too frightening.  There are lots of variations available on the basic story, some of them telling it from the wolf’s perspective, some turning it into something funny, and some that are adult stories based on the original.  You’d expect the covers to be quite different for each of  these, and they are.  Despite the fact that we consider fairy tales to be for young children, the original stories were often grisly and frightening.  It’s been argued – by Bruno Bettelheim for one – that fairy stories help the child make sense of the world and cope with its own fears and baffling emotions, and that they have to deal with frightening and confusing scenarios to do this.  Modern versions frequently take a Disney-esque approach that changes them into something they were never meant to be and removes a lot of their power.

However, some of the covers, even though still aimed at children, stay more true to the original intent of the fairy tale, and go for a scary, threatening feeling even where some ‘cuteness’ is still in evidence.  In these covers we can see quite a number of the features of Molly Bang’s geometric shape image.  This one has the trees disappearing off the top edge of the frame, some trees that lean, and the wolf hiding behind the trees, but I think it loses effectiveness because the wolf is quite small relative to the girl and actually not very noticeable.

Here’s another cover that contains a lot of the elements in Molly Bang’s image, but the wolf looks a tad too friendly to be really threatening, and Red Riding Hood doesn’t look particularly alarmed or concerned either.  It looks more like a happy game of hide and seek than a scary story.

In both the above images, however, Red Riding Hood is facing the viewer. If we were to see her from the back, it would give a much greater feeling of threat – as if we’re sneaking up behind her, like the wolf is.  Molly Bang uses a red triangle to denote Red Riding Hood so we don’t know for sure which way round she is, but for some reason I assumed we were seeing her from the back.  Despite trawling through pages of book thumbnails, I could only find one cover that shows her from behind and it belongs to a book that tells the story from the wolf’s point of view.  The wolf in this version is a decent sort, but imagine this cover if he had a hungry and predatory expression on his face.

Of the traditional versions of the story, I managed to find a couple that take a side-on view. This is one of them, and the change of viewpoint plus the fact that the wolf is made significantly bigger, delivers geater impact in terms of scariness than the ones where Red Riding Hood faces us.  However, the colours are very gentle and pretty, and the trees rather manicured and orderly, and this works to tone down the frightening aspects of the story.

The next one omits the setting of the woods, but is probably one of the scariest images on offer. Many of the wolf’s features – open jaws, sharp white teeth – are similar to those used in Molly Bang’s image.  The dominance of the colour red also imparts a feeling of danger, with its associations of blood, and the positioning of the wolf above the girl also helps.

One of the covers I like best, and find most effective, takes quite a different approach. In the following cover, all we have is an area of scribbled red, with a tiny Red Riding Hood running towards the corner edge of the image.  I tend to like simplicity, so perhaps that’s why this appeals so much, but that scribble of red says a lot about danger to me, hanging over Red Riding Hood like a threatening storm cloud, with her tiny figure running for safety.

Finally, this image forms the cover of an adult take on the original fairy story. Again we have the tall trees disappearing off the top of the frame, with some leaning in threateningly towards Red Riding Hood.  No wolf in this one, but look at the spiky branches sticking out from the trees – don’t they remind you of sharp teeth?

I got a lot more swept up in these comparisons than I thought I would, and it struck me what a good way it is of figuring out what works and what doesn’t in an image, and why.  You could take any book of which there are a number of versions or editions and do something similar.  I think there’s a lot to be learned from this that could be incorporated into our photographs.  It was fascinating to see the same elements occurring again and again, but also to find covers like the red scribble one above that are quite different in concept.  I wonder how minimalist you could get with this – what’s the least amount of information needed to get the emotion and, to a lesser extent the storyline, across?