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An Encouragement to Visual Storytellers

I’m frequently asked for advice by illustrator hopefuls, and my constant response is: “Keep drawing. Keep drawing like you draw. Don’t repeatedly reinvent yourself. You will naturally evolve if you just keep drawing in your own style. Then, once you’ve convinced yourself to draw naturally, focus on telling a story through your illustrations.”

The main character in a scene doesn’t always need to be visible, or their face shown, or a full frontal shot. Try to avoid drawing the “cover image” with each illustration. Can you imagine the mess that Star Wars would be if every scene was a Drew Struzan movie poster? Holy cow! Tie Fighters in miniature scale, zooming past the giant, disembodied heads of Luke or Han. Awesome movie poster—but that’s no way to tell a story. That’s just intended to draw the audience in. When you are visually telling a story within a particular scene, try telling the scene from the teller’s eye-view, or from different perspectives. The “fly on the wall,” an ant on the floor, what does he see in the scene? Think like a movie director.

Our characters are not always walking directly toward a camera. That would make a terrible movie. Look at the scene of Bonifer Squoon as a spider (“Spidifer”) in The Warden and the Wolf King. No faces are visible. The boys are narrowly escaping out a bright door so we see only their silhouettes. Squoon himself is scarier as a mysterious, spidery hulk, without focus. There are implications of his appearance, but no clear view to be seen. Give the reader details they need, and give them room to imagine as well. Thats not always the plan or what is needed, but its a great step in learning how to tell a story through illustrations.

Create opportunities for mystery and wonder in the mind of the reader. The great Charles Vess once told me, about my illustration of John Carter and Woola for Under the Moons of Mars, that the strange multiple light sources and shadows made him wonder what was beyond the frame of the illustration. What was causing that outside the hut? Honestly, that wasn’t on purpose, but it made me want to do that on purpose from that moment on. Thats what I believe we need to strive for in visual storytelling. Make them want more, in a good way. Make them think beyond what you share by the clues you provide.

You are a storyteller, in pictures.


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