Saturday, September 2, 2017

Mark G. Mitchell Gives Perspective on Narrative plus a PRIZE!

If I get stuck on anything in my illustration career it's a guarantee that I can find the answer in my inbox. At least that's been the case ever since I signed up for Mark Mitchell's newsletter years ago. Since then I've learned so much about the world of illustration.  As a proponent of lifelong learning Mark has developed Guest Group Critiques. A wonderful way to learn about illustration from some of the best professionals in our industries. You can check it out here:

Look for a PRIZE at the end of this post!


Narrative is so important for us illustrators. But can it get too important?

We get lost in the story sometimes, in our heads, in life, and in our drawings.

We love our stories and the people and emotions in them. We can't get enough of fable or folklore. Illustrators are actors at heart, so we cherish our cast of characters who demand their 'star turns' in our thumbnails and dummies. Ideas, too are so important in the story pictures – like setting up the surprise before a page turn, or the clever visual aside. The play's the thing.

But there's another part of illustration that we sometimes neglect in our rush to tell our stories.

It's the 'hidden picture' of our picture. Easy to miss because it's not often related to the subject or drama.

But it's the 'dark energy' that holds the image universe together.

If your sketch or painting disappoints you, the reason probably lies here.

If there's a fix to make, you'll probably find it here.

If it sounds familiar to you (after you hear what it is), it might be because you learned it in middle school art classes.

We're talking about the elements of design and how you use them.

You know these: Line, Shape, Size, Value, Color, Texture, Direction, Space. The letters of your artist's alphabet.

Some lists leave out Direction. Others, Space. Space and Direction certainly play roles in picture books, so we should include them, don't you think?

Even with Space and Direction included, they're few. (Nothing like the elements in the chemist's periodic table!)

They're dumb-simple basic. Irreducible. Sublimely eloquent.

Of course! They're elements! Our graphic communicator's starting point. The principles of design break down this meager handful and shows how to mash them up for success.

If the elements are the letters we assemble into the 'words' and 'sentences' of our imagery, the principles are the grammar and syntax.

Balance, Unity, Contrast, Harmony, Dominance, Alternation (with variation, which gives rhythm to your picture), Gradation, Repetition (again with variation, which keeps the monotony away.) Magical old ideas. You'll find a nice summary of the concepts here:

Each one expresses in its own way the definition of beauty (or good design) and was attributed to the Greek philosopher Plato:

Unity with Diversity.

Every principle can be applied to each of the elements.

They're called the language of art.

There aren't that many 'rules.' Not even rules, exactly – More like recipes that have stood the test of time.

Not a complete list. Humanity will likely discover more over time (We didn't know the ideas of 'fractal design' until the nineteen eighties, for example, although Nature has always incorporated them.)

This language has little to do with our picture's subject or 'story meaning.'

But lots to do with the viewer's experience of our picture.

Why do the world's painters spend so much time rendering still lifes?

They're not that much into fruits, flowers, bowls and vases.

They know they're in language class, striving for fluency.How many writers have heard from their editors: "It's not what you're telling that matters so much as how you tell it."?

"Storytelling is the most primitive art." I saw this quote somewhere online the other day, though I can't remember where. Children and adults are so tuned to story and its primeval parts (like rising and falling action, character and quest, trouble and resolution.)

We're just natural tale spinners and tale receivers. It's baked into our human DNA, it seems. So world-building is something a reader will do if given half the chance. Even the youngest viewer can connect the dots, get the crisis, complete the scene. Co-create with us.

More detail in our visual character doesn't result in more reader empathy for that character. Behold Eric Carle's very hungry (& very collagey) caterpillar.From our first sighting, we knew this creature of the wild. We needed nothing more than this author-illustrator/consummate designer gave us of him.

Maybe we, as illustrators, need not convey as much in our picture spreads and sequences as we think we do. We can obsess less over the story and dramatic particulars, and more on the play of elements and principles.

So our illustration becomes more about the how than the what.

In the language of art, we'll find our artist's 'voice.


Follow Mark:

Mark teaches classes in children's book illustration and watercolor painting at The Contemporary Austin Art School and online. His blog is How To Be A Children's Book



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1. Complete your dummy this month.

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Smart Tip: If you don't have your thumbnail sketches done, then do them now!


  1. Thanks for the post, Mark. Regarding the elements of design, I hadn't heard of direction before. I'll research this shortly.

  2. Viewers experience verses story meaning...I've never read the differences expressed so clearly and so definitely what I needed. Thanks for a great article!

  3. Thank you for this timely reminder - the essentials ARE essential!��

  4. Great reminder. Without a great composition, the right color scheme and imaginative framing, our work doesn't make the grade.

  5. "Language of art" and "striving for fluency"- love those phrases. Great to keep in mind when "other"-illustrating, :) (Or creating a space for the viewer to imagine). Thank you!

  6. Thank you for sharing Mark. It's good to have a reminder about the essentials while creating our storytelling art.

  7. Simple and basic, but not simple at all.

  8. Wonderfully insightful, Mark. Thank you.

  9. Great thoughts! I never thought of it that way, but a part of me always wanted to be an actor, though my introversion always kept me from really pursuing that. I guess going for illustration was just another way to scratch that same itch. 😊

  10. I love this reminder of the basics, the foundation. When reading beautifully illustrated picture books we are so captivated by the story but it is the ways the elements are used that does the work. Thanks for this post.

  11. Great article and great reminder to remember the basics.

  12. Thanks for reminding me about the basics! Sometimes I get lost in trying to be perfect and lose sight of the big picture. I've been learning a lot from the critique group, too.

  13. Ohhh! SUCH great points! Thanks for the art tips and insight. Great reminders.

  14. This reminded me to go back and review the class Marks & Splashed I took over 5 years ago! An excellent class chock full of insight and technique. I highly recommend it for anyone who is looking for an online illustration class!

  15. Very interesting perspective!

    I particularly loved these 3 ideas:
    - But lots to do with the viewer's experience of our picture.
    - "It's not what you're telling that matters so much as how you tell it."
    - More detail in our visual character doesn't result in more reader empathy for that character. . . . Maybe we, as illustrators, need not convey as much in our picture spreads and sequences as we think we do.

    Wonderful ideas to remember as we try to bring our stories to visual life! Thank you, Mark!

  16. An illustrator is an actor at heart. Yes ♥️

  17. This was a lot to chew on. I will go back to this post many times. Thanks Mark!

  18. Illustrators are actors at heart, love it!