Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ILLUSTRATION TIP/Capturing Action & Emotion with Layne Johnson

LAYNE JOHNSON, on Illustrating Action

Well I just found out my book OFF LIKE THE WIND! The First Ride of the Pony Express, written by author Michael Spradlin, won this year’s Western Heritage Award from The National Cowboy Hall Of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City. How exciting! When I think back to working on that book, I recall certain ideas I had as I first read the manuscript, and later as I was designing each spread for the art. The first thing that made me really want to illustrate the story was a biggy. It had loads of ACTION. How many times have authors been told, “Give the artist something to illustrate!” What illustrators hate to see in picture book manuscripts are the dreaded “talking heads.” Or no change of location. With OLTW, that was definitely not a problem! The action varied from location to location with various perilous interactions. When I paginate a manuscript the question is what to illustrate on each spread or page. It was especially challenging but fun with OLTW, because there was so MUCH to choose from.

When faced with this most exciting phase of a book, I must look at what or what not to illustrate. A picture book doesn’t have the luxury of video where multiple thing can be acted out. I must choose that wonderfully magic “moment” which can relay the essence of the scene. Am I asking the reader to think, react, or simply be a part of a scene? Do I illustrate what’s about to happen, what’s happening now, or what just happened, i.e. anticipation, excitement, or reaction. These are all valid things to paint, but must be balanced throughout the book. This is where the true art comes in . . . pacing.

I don’t believe in talking or writing down to children. They are smarter than we give them credit for. And they aren’t delicate flowers, though we try to make them that at times, usually for our own overprotective reasons. The children of yesteryear knew more about life because they grew up with it. And the children of today deserve to know what the past was really like. Knowledge is strength.

Once I decide what to illustrate, I then look at how to build tension, create empathy, make a scene explode, or the opposite – how to create a resting point, something serene. Ultimately I want to make a child feel like he or she is there. Empathy is everything. Panoramic skies can make you feel like you’re really in an expansive environment. Dangerous critters or weather may threaten. There may be hostile people. This is GREAT! Stories must overcome real obstacles; otherwise it can be a boring read.

So look at the scenes below with these things in mind. Also, watch for point of view, perspective, directional elements that guide to focal points, color, etc. They aren’t accidental, but hopefully somewhat invisible. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Visit my website at
See my book trailers on YouTube!


Bottom Row: L to R, Layne Johnson, Jennifer Ward, Me!
I think one of the best things about the Highlights Foundation Writer's Workshop at Chautauqua (besides the fabulous mentors, invaluable learning experiences, wonderful opportunities, absolutely delightful staff and beautiful, quaint & relaxing location) is the people.

At Chautauqua 2002, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Layne Johnson, Jennifer Ward and Matt Faulkner (not pictured) as attendees and becoming pals for the week. 

Here were are, admiring one of Layne's projects at the Welcome Center. I am still a great fan of his remarkable work and am pleased to be able to showcase it here.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! So interesting to hear the illustrator's thoughts and process since I always come at it from the other side. Maybe this perspective will help me in writing!