By Annelouise Mahoney
Picture books are like little paper theaters inviting us to take a journey. When we provide a believable sense of space, we invite our readers to step into that world.
Environments are important to me. When I develop a character for a story, I think a lot about where the character lives, what their home looks like, and more importantly, why the character lives there. How does the environment serve the story? Does it set a mood, an atmosphere, a feeling of home, or uncertainty? The answers to these questions lead me to do lots of research to determine the particular elements needed to create a specific environment that suits the story.
When it comes down to designing the page, I imagine the setting as a stage. I’m careful to plan the page so the reader knows what to focus on. I like to give space around the characters so you can read their shapes as a silhouette and their gestures and emotions read clearly. I paint digitally and often switch my painting from color to gray scale so I can clearly see if my characters are competing with the background. For example, if my character is sitting on the grass, I’ll intentionally make that patch of grass lighter if my character is dark or make the grass a deeper, darker color if my character is light. I’ll experiment with color, tone, and value to make adjustments as needed.
To make the environment feel believable, I like to give a sense of space by providing a background, middle ground, and foreground. I save these on separate layers so I can play with the values as I paint. I use values and color temperatures to create depth (the warm colors coming forward, the cool colors receding). I rely on color and light to set the mood.
If you think of your illustration as two separate layers, a background on one layer and your characters on a separate layer, it’s the background that transports you to a specific place and time. The environment has the potential to provide as much mood and personality as the characters. The hope is to create an environment a child would want to inhabit, the elements and mood staged just so to ignite the imagination.
Annelouise Mahoney is an author/illustrator living in Southern California. She has worked in both animation and comics and has always loved stories she can step into. She has a B.F.A. in Illustration from U-Mass Dartmouth and has studied children’s picture book illustration at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. You can find her at www.woodlandabbey.com, Instagram, and Twitter.
All photos and illustrations provided by Annelouise Mahoney.