Books

‘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?

 

Self-delusion, tall poppies, and other creative nightmares

I don’t read so many new books these days as I used to, because I spend quite a bit of my reading time revisiting books I’ve read before.  Most recently I’ve been re-reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.  It’s a terrific book, rich with good advice and insight and I find something different in it every time.

Twyla Tharp: The Creative HabitEarly in the book Tharp lists her own creative fears.  We all have an assortment of these, and I knew I had them too, but I hadn’t clearly articulated them to myself and it struck me that this might be a worthwhile exercise.   Then I thought that it might also be good to share them, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else is super-confident and it’s only ourselves that are shriveling up inside.  So here goes – I’ll share my fears with you, and if you feel brave enough, maybe you’ll share yours with me in the comments.

Fear number 1: I’m deluding myself. 

This is a big one for me – I think about all those people on X Factor who truly believe they can sing and have talent when in fact people are actually laughing at them because they’re so bad.  Whenever a little fin of pride shimmies around inside, I get this awful thought that perhaps I’m deluding myself, perhaps – horrors! – people are amused that I think I can actually do this (whatever it is).

It’s a bit of a twist on imposter syndrome (feeling like a fraud, and that any day now people will discover that’s just what you are), but imposter syndrome is about feeling you’re fooling others, while mine is more about feeling that I’m fooling myself and that others aren’t fooled in the slightest.  I find that a whole lot scarier.

Oddly, imposter syndrome doesn’t worry me so much – I’m a big fan of the ‘fake it till you make it’ school and there have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve had to wing it and have pulled it off.  I know I pick things up fast and improve fast, so I also know I’ll actually be what I appear to be, given a little time and experience.  We’ve all got to start somewhere.

It’s fear of self-delusion that stops me entering photography competitions or putting my work forward in any way that invites judgement.  Although I have moments of it in all areas of my creative life, the fear is strongest in the areas where there’s least chance of objective feedback.  There are methods of assessing art in a relatively objective way, but it’s fundamentally a subjective thing and so I don’t know how seriously to take criticism or praise.  In the end, it’s up to me to decide whether or not my work has merit and I don’t entirely trust myself.

I think anyone who practises an art in any serious way has to be both supremely confident in their work (or they wouldn’t be able to keep going), and also full of doubts about it (or they might fall into the self-delusion trap).  I’m comforted by this quote from the art critic, Robert Hughes:

‘The greater the artist, the greater the doubt.  Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.’

And Bertrand Russell:

‘The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’

Of course the mere act of doubting doesn’t mean you’re any good, but I guess it does mean that you’re less likely to suffer from self-delusion.  Strange that doubt can be so reassuring.

Fear number 2: tall poppy syndrome. 

Tall poppy

Once I get past the fear of self-delusion, fear of tall poppy syndrome kicks in.  The expression refers to ‘a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.’ (Wikipedia)

While looking for quotes for a previous blog post, I came across this poem by Jane Taylor which encapsulates the rather petty sentiments of those who would cut down the tall poppy (or in Taylor’s case, all poppies):

High on a bright and sunny bed
   A scarlet poppy grew
And up it held its staring head,
   And thrust it full in view.
Yet no attention did it win,
   By all these efforts made,
And less unwelcome had it been
   In some retired shade.
Although within its scarlet breast
   No sweet perfume was found,
It seemed to think itself the best
   Of all the flowers round,
From this I may a hint obtain
   And take great care indeed,
Lest I appear as pert and vain
   As does this gaudy weed.

Well that puts it in its place, doesn’t it!!  All those poppies should just crawl right back into the soil they came from lest they offend anyone by daring to think they’re worth attention!

I’ve never been successful enough to have suffered from tall poppy syndrome, but I’d like to be.  Successful, that is, not a target of it.  But in the lower recesses of my mind I think that if I become too noticeable then people will attack me, criticise me, or otherwise try to bring me down.  I know exactly where this one comes from – if I got noticed as a child (primarily by my mother) it inevitably led to one or more of these, so I kept my head down and made myself invisible, and the habit has stuck.

This is one fear I simply have to ignore.  I know it’s inevitable that the more visible you are, the more likely you are to attract the trolls, but continuing to hide is not a solution. Authentically putting yourself out there is always going to be scary, but it’s so much more worthwhile than becoming what Billy Connolly refers to as a ‘beige person’ – somebody who blends in so well that nothing distinguishes them or makes them interesting.  He should know – he has a purple beard and is absolutely and totally himself at all times.

Fear number 3: people won’t want what I have to offer. 

No Entry, happinessHappiness – No Entry sign – image by byronv2, used under Creative Commons licence, via Flickr

This is quite a biggie, as well, and something I’ve given into till recently.  I tend to offer the kind of services that I think people will want, rather than what truly comes from my heart and soul.   It doesn’t help that a lot of marketing advice tells you to do exactly this: find out what people want, and then give it to them.  And how do you find out? – you ask them.

However, I think that often people don’t know what they want and that perhaps you can offer them something they didn’t know they wanted until you offered it to them. I often find I’m a year or two ahead of the norm – many years ago when I wrote my ebook I had to explain to just about everyone what ebooks were – and what seems suspiciously different now is what everyone’s going to want in due course, so why not go ahead and get in there first?  Besides, by the time it’s the norm I’ll probably have lost interest and be onto something else.

It’s difficult to answer this one.  I’m not sure why I don’t just get on with it.  There are a number of negative thoughts that twist together in small strands to form the thick and sturdy rope of negativity that pulls me back – I’m not sure how to position myself in the market; I’m not sure how to explain or label what I want to do; I find it hard to handle the look of doubt on people’s faces when I explain what I want to do; I have to explain it for them to get it; I don’t know how to explain it for them to get it; I don’t know how to find the people who’ll want it; I’m scared no-one actually will want it; I’m scared of the pain of disappointment.

It’s the last one that has most emotional force.  If you never try anything you won’t be disappointed and you can hold onto the hope that it would all work out if you gave it a try, rather than having to deal with the wrench of disappointment when it doesn’t.  But I’ve been disappointed before.  My life has been full of disappointments and I’ve survived.  I’m still here, I’m still breathing, and I’m still doing things.  And not everything turns out to be disappointing – heavens, sometimes things actually go well.  So why should this fear be so strong?  I don’t know, but it runs through me like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock.  I have to get over it, that’s for sure.

I have lots more fears but none so disempowering as these ones.  I think I’ll hold back on the rest in case you’re already thinking that I’m a bundle of fear-induced neuroses.  (You’d be right, but I’d rather you didn’t think that.)  Are you willing to reveal what scares you when it comes to putting your creative dreams into practice? – let’s share the fears and take their power away.

 

Alain de Botton – art as hope

It’s desperately frustrating when you’ve been trying to express something for a long time but have never quite managed to find the words that will pin down the thought or feeling.  Then one day, with a surge of relief, you read something that someone else has written and they’ve said exactly what you would have said could you have brought those words into consciousness.  I subscribe to Brain Pickings – something I can whole-heartedly recommend if you want in-depth reviews of extremely interesting books – and one of their latest posts covers Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s book:  ‘Art as Therapy’.

I haven’t read the book yet, only the review (although I aim to rectify that as soon as I can), so I’ve drawn heavily on Brain Pickings’ account of it.  In the book De Botton and Armstrong propose seven core psychological functions of art, one of which they term ‘hope’.  I’ve long had a problem, which I keep coming back to, concerning the conflict between beauty or prettiness in art, and depth.  The two seem at odds with each other and art critics are frequently derogatory and dismissive of anything that might be regarded as primarily beautiful or pretty, seeing such things as ‘a failure of taste and intelligence’.  I’ve wanted to argue against this view many times, for it seems to me that art that gives pleasure must have something of worth about it and for the first time I’m seeing an account of this dilemma that makes sense.  This is the basic problem:

The love of prettiness is often deemed a low, even a “bad” response, but because it is so dominant and widespread it deserves attention, and may hold important clues about a key function of art. … The worries about prettiness are twofold. Firstly, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying ‘you don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ — a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity. . . . . The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to militate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.

De Botton and Armstrong go on to point out that neuroscientific research indicates that optimism makes both us and the world better:

If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. This flies in the face of the elite view that talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope.

The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1909The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1909

The authors then refer to Matisse’s Dance (iii), 1909, saying that the dancers in the Matisse painting are able to put us in touch with a part of ourselves – a carefree, happy part of ourselves – that better equips us to cope with life’s problems.  Nevertheless, while looking at the painting helps us to access the happier, more optimistic parts of our psyche this should not be seen as a denial of the cares and troubles that beset ourselves and our world.

We should be able to enjoy an ideal image without regarding it as a false picture of how things usually are. A beautiful, though partial, vision can be all the more precious to us because we are so aware of how rarely life satisfies our desires.

This resonates very strongly with me. I’ve often had people say to me things such as ‘get real’ or ‘welcome to the real world’, as if the only reality we have is the bad stuff.  Reality  is a mixture of good and bad, of hope and despair, of joy and grief, of kindness and cruelty and I’ve had my share of all of them.  All these things are equally real, and dancers engaged in a carefree dance are no less real than people being starved, killed or tortured.  While art plays an important function in drawing attention to inequalities, catastrophes and inhumanities, surely we shouldn’t be restricting the function of ‘serious’ art to this one thing?

As things stand we’re bombarded from every side with depressing, troubling images. It’s important to know what’s happening in the world, but there’s plenty of research to show that an excess of these words and images are actually harmful to us both physiologically and psychologically.  The more time we spend looking at such images, the more our immune system is prone to damage and our psyche to depression and pessimism.

This isn’t a selfish exhortation to ignore the fate of others in order to keep ourselves OK – happy, healthy people are  in a much better position to help others than depressed, sick people, and are actually more likely to do so.  Like the safety instructions in the plane to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else, we can only help others effectively when we’re not struggling ourselves.  Art that can help us access the positive, optimistic and untroubled parts of our selves, can also set us up to be strong enough to tackle both our own and the world’s problems more effectively.

When it comes to the depiction of the positive in art, the trap lies – as De Botton and Armstrong say – in the tendency to lapse into a shallow sentimentality that lacks complexity and therefore depth.  This often does happen, but I don’t think it always has to.  Good, uplifting art has the potential to act as a counter-balance to an overdose of all that’s bad in the world, and to help us to transcend it.  This needn’t be its only function, but rather one of many equally valuable ones, and art that falls into this category deserves a lot more respect and validation than it gets these days.

I find it significant that De Botton and Armstrong have chosen as an example a painting that’s more than a century old – in this Post-Modernist age, uplifting art is hard to find.  It’s never been my view that art shouldn’t deal with misery and trouble – I think art should deal with everything that’s part of life – but it seems to me that we’ve concentrated on the angst at the expense of the joy and that that is harmful to us both personally and culturally.  The zeitgeist encourages us to act ‘cool’ – cynicism, irony and pessimism are applauded, while sincerity, authenticity and optimism are sneered at and derided, and that’s reflected in the art we have today.  De Botton and Armstrong, of course, are not writing for the rarefied world of the art critics, but for the layperson who’d like a better understanding of what meaning art might have for them.