What qualifies picture book illustrations to be considered high quality? Why does it matter? Whether you are curating, purchasing, or creating them, illustration quality is something to consider. Let’s break down what a good illustration does for a book.
First and foremost, picture book illustrations enrich the lives of children, and they deserve to be created well. However, an illustrator doesn’t have to have an art degree to illustrate. Both traditionally educated and self-taught illustrators need to research, study, and practice. The more in depth their work, the more it is reflected in their illustrations. These are the eye-catching illustrations that jump off the page and attract an audience!
Good illustrators have studied varied art forms, illustrations, picture books, art history, and design to understand how to visually tell a story. Yes, you read that right - illustrators tell a story with their pictures. What that means is an illustrator creates images in tandem with the authors text. Often, a text will purposefully omit visual aspects of the story - but why? They’ve learned that a picture book’s illustrations lead the reader along. It is a marriage of words and images.
Remember: Studying and recognizing quality illustrations takes time and research. If you are learning to illustrate, it is imperative.
A picture book lets the illustrations “describe” the setting, characters, mood, lighting, and action. You don’t need a page full of text describing a character. You might see, for example, the text with just the name of a character. The illustrator, then, visually shows their traits: through their appearance, expression, interactions, actions, and demeanor.
Text can conflict with the illustrations purposefully. An illustration could show the opposite of what the text says for humor, or emphasis. Here is an example: The text says: “The duck and frog invite us in” but the illustration shows a shocked duck in response to a falling dog above them. We see the dog’s thoughts in words and the illustration shows a juxtaposed reaction from the duck.
Illustrations lead the reader through the pages. A reader will typically read the book from left to right and flow from top to bottom. The words lead to the important page turn. A good flow will drive the reader to want to turn that page to see what happens. Illustrations lead the eye with the design and lines.
Words should be placed on the pages with great care and consideration. They are an equal part of the design. A box of text isn’t always the best placement for the story. One can incorporate the words into the illustrations. See how this is done with those award-winning picture books out there!
Quality illustrations use the pages well. Every image is carefully calculated. If there is blank space, there was a reason. If the illustration leaves no blank space, that was planned, too. Visual blank space or crowded imagery is there to help the reader pause, consider, or feel something. Take note how picture books move you along and how they make you feel in how they fill the page.
Note: A professional typographer works with the publishing team to choose fonts, size, and placement. Librarians are great at identifying if typographers and layout designers have done a good job with text placement!
Digital vs. Traditional Illustrations
It doesn’t matter if illustrations are created digitally or with traditional physical media as long as they work with the story. There are many examples of exemplary illustrations. There are many examples of subpar illustrations. A quality picture book should have considered the illustrations as much as it would to the words.
Good illustrations do not need to be realistic or detailed to be good. They need to tell the story with consideration to the theme, mood, setting, character traits, and style. A simple illustration that hits these have done the job and do not necessarily require more.
Poorly done illustrations are those that do not support the story well. Some major mistakes in illustration are the following:
Inconsistent character design
Lack of character expression
Too many focal points in the scene which includes unnecessary, distracting object placement.
Incorrect perspective that distract from the important content.
Redundancy throughout the pages. (Some beautifully illustrated books use redundancy purposefully and are designed for a specific effect.)
Why does the quality of a picture book’s illustrations matter? The answer is in the name, “picture book”. The illustrations are as important as the words in telling the story. They address theme, mood, setting, character traits, and style. Illustrations take a reader on a visual journey and provide artistic enrichment for children.
If you are looking for a quality picture book, you can always ask your local librarian. They can provide teachers, parents, and illustrators with resources such as picture books with award-winning illustrations. The list below includes brilliant illustrators including David Wiesner, Beth Krommes, Chris Van Allsburg, and Bryan Collier. It is a wonderful place to get you started.
Share with us your favorite illustrated books! We’d love to know!