How Pictures Work A brief overview based on the work of Molly Bang
In this lesson, we will explore how visual images make meaning. There are no right or wrong answers, but you may be surprised at how many common understandings of line, color, shape, and space emerge. These common understandings or “readings” are what make pictures work.
Two key elements help pictures work. 1. Context 2. Composition / Compositional elements
CONTEXT CONTEXT refers to outside influences on the text—things that impact our thoughts or feelings about the text and that can give us clues when we analyze the text. For instance, if we see Jim Carey in a movie, we bet its genre is comedy, even before he does something funny. This is because of an outside influence. We know that he has made other comedy movies, so we expect that.
COMPOSITION COMPOSITION is somewhat opposite of context. Whereas context looks exclusively outside the text, COMPOSITION looks exclusively at the text itself. What is the text like? How are the parts put together? These are COMPOSITION questions.
COMPOSITIONAL ELEMENTS • COMPOSITIONAL ELEMENTS found in visual texts include: • Color • Contrast • Size • Shape • Spatial arrangement • Symmetry
With this picture, Bang is telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood. • Does this picture work? • How do the COMPOSITION and COMPOSITIONAL ELEMENTS help it succeed? • Color • Contrast • Size • Shape • Spatial arrangement • Symmetry
How do the two shapes compare? Which is less interesting? Which is more dynamic or energetic? Why do you suppose the triangle was chosen for Little Red Riding Hood? Now, think about the mother. Consider the following several slides.
This could represent a mother and daughter. Other than size, how motherly does the big triangle seem?
How about now? The author thought the rounded corners made the figure more gentle and mom-like. But, think about the color.
The author thought red was too energetic for the mom. Plus, moms and daughters aren’t exactly the same. So, Bang chose purple. Purple is related to red, but not the same.
Why did Bang choose a red triangle to represent the protagonist? • Literal Reasons: • The protagonist is Little Red Riding Hood, so the color makes sense. • The triangle is similar in shape to the hood or cape she wears. • Figurative Reasons: • Red represents danger, and the girl is in danger. • Red is an energetic color—the color of blood and life and fire. • All of these meanings are going on at the same time and we must sort out which ones to pay attention to. CONTEXThelps us do that.
Summary of design ideas so far: • SIZE has meaning: bigger for the mom • SHAPE has meaning: rounded shapes are softer and more “motherly” • COLOR has meaning: literal and figurative reasons just stated
In the next several slides, we see the WOLF • Which ones seem scarier? • What do you see that makes you say so?
Reflection: • A purple wolf . . . not so scary. He seems more like a stuffed animal. • A wolf with round corners make him look more like a sock puppet. • What about the red triangle eye? It makes him look sort of surprised. • Now, what about these possibilities for the wolf. See what you think.
Finally, the author experimented with more contrast on the teeth. This could be a literal choice, but real wolf teeth are probably not so pearly white. White does make us think of teeth, though, and there is a lot of contrast. What do the wolf’s white teeth add to the picture?
This PowerPoint has been a brief overview of the “building a picture” section of Molly Bang’s book. You are strongly encouraged to read the full text to expand and reinforce your understanding of how COMPOSITIONAL ELEMENTS help pictures work. CONTEXT is still needed to figure out the story completely, but the images get us close. Even without knowing what the story was, you could have guessed that a wolf was after something from the first picture you saw.
Reference Bang, M. (1991/2000). Picture this: How pictures work. New York, NY: Sea Star Books.