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Different Kinds Of Illustrations: A Reference For Authors

When commissioning an illustrator for your picture book, it’s useful to know some of the terms used to describe different types of illustration. These terms are also helpful to know when planning out the pages of your book and deciding what kind of illustrations you want to use.

Most picture books use a combination of these illustration types. Ideally, you want to use the type of illustration that best communicates the story. However, if your illustrator prices per illustration, you may want to consider the price, as some will be more costly than others.

Knowing what types of illustrations you want in your book will help your illustrator quote for the project. It’s also useful to know these terms so you can discuss with your illustrator what best serves the story.

Spot illustrations

This is an illustration without any background. It usually highlights a character or object without the distraction of outside elements.

Spot illustrations are used when you need the focus to be on a single point. They can also be used in a sequence to tell a story in a smaller space. For instance, if a character is trying to shoot a basketball hoop you might use a series of spot illustrations to show them dribbling, preparing to throw the ball and the ball bouncing off the edge of the hoop. This can be a more interesting way of telling the story than simply showing the preparation or point of action in one image. It helps to build tension, but also allows you to show the sequence in a smaller space, rather than using several pages to do so.

A spot illustration of Spot. Eric Hill, Penguin Books.

Vignettes

Similar to spot illustrations, vignettes are glimpses into a scene. They include more background elements and often peter out or fade at the edges, showing a snapshot. A vignette can be used when you need a little more context than in a spot illustration but don’t need to extend it to a full page. Like spot illustrations, they can be used to show a series of events or the passing of time.

An example of this would be if you needed to show the changing of seasons. You could use a set of vignettes to show a scene in summer, autumn, then winter.

Vignette from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Pauline Baynes, HarperCollins.

Full-page

A full-page illustration does what it says on the tin. It’s a single page, usually with full-bleed (meaning that the image extends right to the edge of the page). Sometimes the page will include text and sometimes the text will stand alone on the opposite page. If you have two full pages next to each other that tell different parts of the story, make sure that it’s clear that the two are separate. This could be done through things like colour, layout or perspective.

Full-page spread with facing text from Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd, Puffin Books.

Double-page spread

Like the full-page illustration, the double-page is usually full-bleed. A double-page spread is often used at the climax of the story to highlight an important scene. They can also be implemented to set a scene (a bit like an establishing shot in film or television) or emphasise a change of scene or mood.

You may have more or fewer double-page spreads depending on the pacing of the story and how much of it is told in words vs illustrations. Double-page spreads often work best with little or no text to let the illustration do the talking. Bear in mind that the more full or double-page spreads you have, the less impact they are likely to give. They can be used tactically for emphasis if used sparingly. The level of detail may encourage a child to spend a long time looking over a page. Equally, a lack of detail can create a natural pause in the story.

These are usually the most expensive interior pages to commission, especially if they are highly detailed, so if you’re on a tight budget, use them sparingly.

Double-page spread from Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, Harper.

Comic strip (sequential illustrations)

This technique is less common in children’s picture books, but can still be used to great effect. It involves putting smaller illustrations into boxes, similar to a comic strip. Use these in the same way as sequential spot illustrations or vignettes.

A series of sequential illustrations from Teacup, illustrated by Matt Ottley, Scholastic.

Covers

The cover illustration is the most important one in the book. For this, you can choose to use an image from inside the book, but many authors prefer to have a custom-made image for the cover. The cover design is different from the design of the inside pages because it needs to include the title and author name.

A cover needs to be attractive to both the target audience (children) and the buyer (usually parents). It also needs to communicate what makes the book interesting or different. If there isn’t an appropriate image from inside the book that does these things and will work with the title and author text, a custom image will need to be created.

Whether you are using an existing interior image or commissioning a new one, the cover image will usually be the most expensive one. This is because it is the image that will be seen the most, used for marketing and publicity and essentially sell the book. Some illustrators will include the price of the cover and rights for its use in the overall cost of the project.

Front cover of Puffin the Architect by Kimberly Andrews, Puffin Books. (Note that this is a custom cover illustration not found inside the book.)

Endpapers

Endpapers are the pages found directly at the front and back of a book. They are technically only used in hardcover books as they are used to hold the inside cover and pages together. However, a similar effect can be created in paperbacks by printing on the reverse of the cover.

These pages can be left blank. However, they are a great opportunity to include some pattern or colour in the book. Many contemporary picture books have simple patterns on the endpapers such as stars, foliage or a variety of spot illustrations from inside the book.

The pricing of endpapers will probably depend on the complexity of the illustrations and if they reuse elements from the book or require new artwork.

Endpaper illustration from No Longer Alone by Robyn Wilson-Owen, Egmont 2019.

How do you decide which sorts of illustrations to use?

When considering the types of illustrations to implement in your story, consider the following:

Hierarchy

How important is this scene? If it’s a pivotal moment in the story, it makes sense for it to have a larger image. This gives it more weight in the story and encourages the reader to spend more time looking at it.

Pacing

Want the story to slow down? Use a larger image. For a series of similar events, you might want to group them together into a series of spot illustrations or a comic sequence. Using the same types of image on every page can give each scene or moment equal weight and can become monotonous.

Variety

What is the most interesting way to tell this part of the story? Are there any ways you can make it surprising or novel? Switching up the illustration type is a bit like changing your tone of voice. Think of montages or action sequences in film or cinema compared to an establishing shot of a city or landscape.

Word to picture ratio

How many words in the story correspond to this picture? Using fewer words with more illustrations can help to slow     the story down.

Equally, having lots of words to a single illustration can become boring, so consider the reader’s attention span.

Detail

The level of detail in the image can help to determine its size. If you need to include a lot of visual information in one image, it may make sense for it to be a full or double-page spread. If less information is required then a spot illustration may suffice.

A final word of advice

It’s all very well you reading this and seeing examples here. But to truly understand how these principles work you really need to see them in action. Head to your bookshelves, local bookshop, or library, and take a look at the picture books. How do they utilise these different types of illustrations? Do they use any types of layouts not described here?

Reading the types of books you want to create is always going to be the best form of research.

Holly Dunn

Holly is a Nelsonian, studied in Wellington, and lived in the UK for about three years before returning to Nelson in 2017. She has worked as a bookseller both in New Zealand, and in the UK.

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