Understanding Art in Picture Books

When pictures and story combine, interact, and work together to support and enhance the reader experience, magic happens. What do we look for when we read, evaluate, and review picture books? What are the typical elements reviewers need to critique?

Many librarians consider themselves literary experts. We know how to read, evaluate, and discuss text. But what about art? You need not hold an MFA to appreciate a great picture book or describe it accurately. The following post highlights some of the artistic elements you may want to consider when evaluating artwork in picture books.

Visual Elements

Line: The marks on the page made by the illustrator. Lines can be thick, thin, curvy, straight. The can be plain black or in a range of colors. The type of line used can convey emotion. Soft, curvy lines are often associated with organic and natural objects. Jagged, zigzagging, and sharp lines connote energy, power, and strong feelings. Illustrators sometimes use line to direct a reader’s eye across the page, or “point” to a specific part of the artwork.

Shape: An extension of Line. A two-dimensional area. They can be geometric shapes (circles, squares, etc.) or free-form. Similar to Line, the more organic, free-form shapes typically illustrate natural and organic scenes, like landscapes, whereas strictly defined geometric shapes are often used for man-made objects, like buildings and machines.

Color: aka “hue.” There are a few ways to describe the use of color in artwork:color-wheel

  • Analogous: Next to each other on the color wheel (ex: red and orange)
  • Complementary: Opposite one another on the color wheel (ex: red and green)
  • Monochromatic: A palette in which the artist only uses one color, varying the intensity (ex: shades of dark, medium, and light gray)
  • Neutrals: Black, white, gray, and shades of brown
  • Primary colors: Red, yellow, and blue
  • Secondary colors: Those made by combining primary colors (ex: green, made by combining blue and yellow)
  • Gradation: The transition of light to dark, or dark to light
  • Value: The relative lightness or darkness of a color

Texture: The surface quality of the medium used. In picture books, most texture is implied (visual), meaning readers cannot physically experience the surface. An exception would be a book like Pat the Bunny, in which case the texture is actual and tactile. To describe texture in a picture book, one might use words and phrases like shiny, rough, layered, thickly painted, smooth, reflective, cottony, fibrous, three-dimensional. For art nerds wanting to dig deeper into texture in fine art, check out this post about Texture from Elements of Art.

Perspective: The way objects appear to the human eye, in relation to the other objects in the scene. The use of perspective (bird’s eye-view versus worm’s eye-view, for example) can help create mood.

Composition: The way the various visual elements are arranged on the page.

  • Balance: The elements are arranged equally around the surface of the page, creating a visual sense of equilibrium.
  • Asymmetrical: The elements are arranged in such a way as to suggest a visual imbalance.
  • Contrast: Elements create a juxtaposition. (ex: jagged, thick black lines intersecting a softly rounded pastel shape.)
  • Dominance: One element or aspect is emphasized over the others.
  • Symmetry: A type of balanced composition in which both sides of the page or spread are designed exactly alike.


The medium can refer to the tools and/or the surface used by an artist.


  • Acrylic: A synthetic base that dissolves in water. Creates an opaque finish.
  • Oil: Pigments mixed with an oil base. Usually creates a rich, glossy finish. Oil paint can be used in many thin layers to build color and dimension.
  • Watercolor: Finely ground pigments mixed with water. Typically has a loose, translucent quality.
  • Gouache (pronounced “g-wash”): A type of watercolor that has an opaque finish.


  • Pen-and-ink: Typically creates a fine line. Sometimes used with other mediums, like watercolor. (ex: Patrick McDonnell’s line work in Me, Jane.)
  • Charcoal: Creates a soft, smudged edge.
  • Pencils: Can create both fine and broad strokes.
  • Pastels: Creates blurred edges, typically has an impressionistic feel.
  • Scratchboard: The artist usually paints over something with black, then uses a sharp tool to scratch off the black paint to reveal the colors beneath.


  • Collage: Materials layered on top of one another to create a 3D effect.
  • Cut Paper: Often a type of collage in which papers are shaped and cut, arranged on top of one another to create a scene.
  • Assemblage: Can use a variety of materials such as fabric, clay figures, found objects, etc. This, like most sculptural artwork appearing in picture books, is assembled and later photographed. (ex: Melissa Sweet’s 3D sculptures made of paper, fabric, and assorted objects, like those appearing in The Right Word.)


  • Woodcut: Illustrations are carved into wood using sharp tools, then inked over and printed on paper.
  • Linocut: Similar to woodcuts, except the surface used is linoleum.
  • Etching: A surface is prepared with an acid-resistant substance. The artist etches lines and designs into the surface before it is placed in acid. When immersed in acid, the exposed areas leave depressions.

Photography: Seen more often in nonfiction, but there are some great examples of picture book photography, such as works by Nina Crews.

Digital Art: Sometimes a picture book is created completely using digital tools like Photoshop, other times the artwork will start as traditional media (like a painting or drawing), then be scanned into a computer and digitally manipulated to create certain effects. As the technology gets better and better, it is becoming harder and harder to distinguish “traditional” from digital art. At this stage, almost all picture book artwork goes through some sort of digital process before publication.


Abstract: Emphasis is on color, shape, and form. What is conveyed is conceptual, rather than literal.

Cartoon Art: Hallmarks include exaggerated and unrealistic facial and body features, reminiscent of old school Saturday morning cartoons and comic-strips. Playful, silly.

Expressionistic: Emphasis is on conveying an emotion, typically through strong use of color, line, and shape.

Impressionistic: Captures a moment in time. Hallmarks include an attention to light and how light is conveyed in a scene, across people and objects.

Folk Art: Dependent upon the culture. Generally, folk art styles tend to features vibrant use of color, strong (sometimes “clashing”) patterns, busy compositions.

Naive: Has a childlike sensibility; a flat, two-dimensional quality to people and objects. (ex: Lucy Cousins’s “Maisy” books.)

Realistic: People and objects appear very much the way they would in real life. Photo-realistic.

Romantic: Rich in detail and lush atmosphere. These are often reminiscent of works by the “great masters.” (ex: Paul O’Zelinsky’s Rapunzel.)

Surreal: Conveys a dreamlike quality. Odd objects and characters are arranged or depicted in ways in which they would not appear in real life. (ex: David Wiesner’s Tuesday.)

Parts of a Picture Book

Just like the art world has its own language, so does the world of picture books. The physical parts that make up a standard picture book are important to know, as they may help you describe various aspects of the work.

Gutter: the center fold of the book where the pages are sewn or glued together. See this post on Suzy Lee’s exceptional use of the gutter from the Eric Carle Picture Book Museum’s blog.

Endpapers: the pages that are glued to the front and back covers, before the title page or acknowledgement. Endpapers can be plain, colored, or highly designed. Many wonderful picture books include elements that preface and expand the storytelling through clever use of the endpapers. (ex: Eric Rohmann’s stalking tiger on the endpapers that begin the story of Oh, No!, written by Candice Flemming)

Trim size: the physical dimensions, usually calculated in inches and centimeters, of the book. Most picture books are rectangular and measure roughly 8″ X 10″. Sometimes an illustrator will use the trim size as a means of emphasizing story elements. For example, a book about the Empire State Building would likely be tall and thin, perhaps even produced in an atypical trim size.

Recto and Verso: the names for the left and right-hand pages of an open book. Easy way to remember: the recto is the page on the right side.

Dust Jacket: the detachable outer cover that wraps around the book. The pieces that fold inside are the Jacket Flaps. When evaluating a picture book, if applicable, always lift off the dust jacket to examine the covers underneath; sometimes there are surprises (ex: Peter Brown’s corrugated cardboard under the dust jacket of Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.)