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

Creative use of typeface in picture books

“Images cannot – and must not- be looked at in isolation from the surrounding text” (Moebius)

Words and pcurl upictures compliment each other to create the story, but the words themselves can create further meaning to the story by the use of creative typeface.

Typeface can indicate the playfulness or the seriousness of a book.  The text in this book shows that the book is suitable for young children, and the position of the words, as if the character is shouting them out adds another playful layer to the narrative.

Different colour fonts can complement the images:

Coloured font










Each envelope in The Jolly Postman is written an a way that harmonizes with the story and the characters. Jolly postman

Different typefaces are used for different voices. 

Each character in this book has their own typeface to represent their own voice.  This is a great technique when there is a dialogue between two or more people.  The different types in this books not only compliment the pictures, but they become an integral part of the artwork.

Clarice Bean
Voices in the park by Anthony Browne is a superb example of using different typefaces to represent different characters. (See picture below)
For voice one Browne uses sensible typeface, and a sensible picture for a sensible lady.  For voice two the text is bolder, darker and almost gloomy, like the  picture, to match the personality of the unemployed man feeling low about his situation.  Voice three is a quiet little boy, and the typeface used here is fine, almost fragile.  Finally, voice four is a happy little girl.  Her text is bright and playful.  The picture is quirky and bold.Voices in the park