Molly Bang's Theory of How Pictures Work
In her book Picture This: How Pictures Work, children's book writer and illustrator Molly
Bang attempts to define how the structure of a picture affects the
reader/viewer's emotional reaction to the images they see. Using
simple shapes and hues, she develops a system of contextual clues that
suggest geometry and color contribute significantly to the affective
(emotional) response to any illustration. After working out the
emotional content of a picture-story of “Little Red Riding Hood”
created solely with differently
shaped and colored pieces of paper, she derived the following set of
principles for understanding pictures.
- Flat, horizontal shapes are perceived as more stable;
then that horizontal pictures are generally perceived as more stable,
and small horizontal areas within a picture can be an “island of
- In contrast, vertical shapes seem more active, conveying a sense of strength and excitement (44).
- Diagonal shapes and
lines suggest movement and tension. Most readers, at least in
Western cultures, interpret diagonals from left to right, determining
whether a slope ascends or descends by its direction (46-52).
- Objects in the
upper half of a picture appear relatively more free and happier; they
may also convey a sense of spirituality. Conversely, figures in
the bottom half of a picture are more likely to appear sad or heavy,
possibly under threat (54-56).
- The eye tends to go
to the center of the page, “the point of greatest
attraction”; illustrators can induce the reader to
“explore” the picture by keeping the focus away from the
center. Figures at the edge of the picture, breaking out of the
frame, imply additional space and/or action outside of the picture and
create added tension (62-66).
backgrounds feel “safer”; she relates this to human vision,
which functions well during the daytime but is more limited
at night (68).
- Pointed shapes are
relatively frightening; rounded shapes and curves are comparatively
- Larger objects tend to seem stronger; an object or a figure can be made more vulnerable by making it smaller (72).
- The human mind tends
to associate objects by color more than by shape; other things being
equal, similarly colored items will be seen as related to one another
even if the picture contains other objects that are similar or
identical in shape but colored differently (76).
Contrasts (of color, or of light and dark) guide our ability to see images (80).
relations can be used to isolate figures or to show tension; either
very wide spaces or tiny slivers of space between two objects can
create tension (89-90).
This document written by A. Waller Hastings
Professor of English