Decoding picture books: Colour

Into the Forest by Anthony Browne, 2004
Into the Forest by Anthony Browne, 2004
  • —Stuart Hall argued that all texts/images are initially encoded with meaning and then subsequently decoded or read.
  •  —“… we are all inclined to judge pictures by what we know rather than by what we see.” (Ernst Gombrich)
  • We are used to certain graphic codes that allow us to comprehend event and emotions in pictures.

RED – Danger or anger.  Red can also indicate passion.
BLUE – Serenity or sadness.  Blue can also signify coldness.
YELLOW – Happiness, cheerfulness.
GREEN – Peacefulness, or nature.
BLACK – Could mean evil or danger when darkness fills the page.  When worn, black clothes could mean villainous, or a witch. In western societies it could also mean mourning.
PINK – Girlishness.
ORANGE – Warmth.  An orange hue could also show that something is old, like a sepia photograph.
WHITE – Purity. White areas on a page are uncluttered, illuminated.
B&W – Reminiscent of the past, or ‘draining’ of colour.

The Tunnel by Anthony Browne,  1989
The Tunnel by Anthony Browne, 1989

Shades of colour.  Light and bright represents happiness.  Darker shades portray tension or misery.

In the picture above, the forest is dark, grey and made to feel scary by its bleak and uninviting colours.  When Jack returned to his natural state, the sky turns blue, daisies grow and the forest is a greener place. By brightening the colours in the second picture, sense of danger Browne previously created has been removed.

Different hues are associated with different moods or feelings.  Muted colours in Granpa are used to make you feel that he is becoming fragile and the sepia, that he is thinking of the past.

Granpa by John Burningham, 1984
Granpa by John Burningham, 1984

Saturation:  Vibrant colours represent happiness.  Muted colours give a more gentle feeling.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, 1963
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, 1963

The book below is about the transatlantic slave trade.  Using black and white seems appropriate.   The black and white illustrations capture the despair of these people.  The colour drained from the picture as joy and hope is drained from their lives.

The Middle Passage by Tom Feelings,  1995
The Middle Passage by Tom Feelings, 1995
Hansel and Gretel by Anthony Browne, 1981
Hansel and Gretel by Anthony Browne, 1981
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, 1902
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, 1902
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9 thoughts on “Decoding picture books: Colour

  1. Interesting post, Hannah, thanks – I’ve been a long-time admirer of children’s illustrations – well worth a look (if you can grab a copy from work!) is Martin Salisbury’s book, Illustrating Children’s Books (A&C Black). Greg

    • Thanks. Yes we have that book in work! 😀 I recently taught a class on picturebooks and the codes that illustrators use to create meaning. I mostly referred to Moebius but Salisbury and a few others came in handy too.

  2. This was my favourite part of EA300. It completely changed the way I look and read picture books. And Anthony Browne was a revelation. I spent hours pawing over his books searching for the hidden allusions in his illustrations to other children’s books. Fabulous!

    • Me too; I am completely in love with Anthony Browne’s work! I did my TMA on ‘The Tunnel’ (which I think I’ve already mentioned on your blog) but I think my favourite is ‘Voices in the Park’. 🙂

      • ‘Into the Forest’ is mine, so I was chuffed to see that you’d used one of the images from that book in the post 😀 I loved Dave McKean’s work before I understood the codes in picture books, but my enjoyment from his illustrations is so much more enriched now I know what I’m looking at. Especially as the text/font is integral the image, something I’d never really noticed before. It’s all so clever!

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