Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Daniel Powers on Picture Books: Part 1, the Physicality of the Picture Book

Since I'm teaching the picture book semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts right now, I decided to talk to my friend Daniel Powers, who is an artist, illustrator, and teacher of illustration at SCAD.

Picture book text and illustrations interact in a variety of ways, from traditional forms where images exactly duplicate selected portions of a larger text, to present-day humorous or even metafictional relationships. Can you speak about what makes the picture book such a magical form?

Daniel's answer, which is wonderfully detailed, embracing the nuances and ambiguities of the form itself, will post in several sections in this blog over the next few days.

Here's Part I, on the Physicality of the Picture book.

The physicality of a book is an important consideration when crafting picture books. While books are commonplace to adults, to young readers they are structures to be wondered about. They fit nicely onto little laps; they are moveable — covers open, pages turn, they can be rotated or made to flap like a bird (which is a little weird from an adult standpoint, but for a kid, why not?); in other words, they are forms that children explore. Kids find new worlds between the covers of books. Their formats are typically vertical, horizontal or square; their sizes vary; and their binding comprises the spine on the outside of the book and the gutter on the inside of the book.

Our industry’s nomenclature of a vertical or horizontal format isn’t very informative, but the British terminology of portrait or landscape format is.

Landscape formats are particularly good at accommodating a lot of descriptive imagery. We perceive the world around us based on the earth’s horizon, and everything we see and interact with has a physical relationship to this line, making the landscape format perfect for illustrations packed with detailed settings.

Portrait formats are particularly good at creating images laden with emotional content. Using portrait formats, we can create close-ups of our characters, carefully articulating their emotions. Viewers’ eyes don’t typically sweep through portrait formats the way they do through landscape formats. As a result, the reader spends more time poring over portrait-oriented illustrations than landscape formats.

The reason it’s important to consider form is that the form or shape of a book lends itself to particular sorts of content (which may also imply genre), and the form can speed or slow a reader through a book. Form has to be considered before deciding how image and text will relate to each other physically or conceptually on the page.

Next, the directional movement of illustration, page turns, and gutters.


  1. Very informative and helpful information. Thank you.

  2. I'm very interested in what Powers says about the physicality of the book. I think of my toddler niece, who drags her books around with her and brings them to us to read them to her. They are tangible, mysterious, portable worlds for her.