Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Books I'm Reading: Picture This: How Pictures Work

Children's writer and illustrator Molly Bang's Picture This: How Pictures Work has come to my attention in the form of a recently released 25th anniversary edition. A new, hard-cover anniversary edition suggests the book has long been well known and loved, yet I'd never seen it before--never even heard of it--despite a habit of reading about art and perception. It was originally published in 1991 by Bullfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company as Picture This: Perception and Composition, but I read the revised and expanded (slightly re-titled) 25th Anniversary edition of 2016 from Chronicle Books shown here.

It's a shame it's escaped my attention all this time because this simple, easy-to-grasp book is a remarkable distillation of much of what artists know about composition presented in a way that virtually anyone will understand. So, I wish I had read it long ago. My instinct now will be to recommend Picture This every time someone looks at a piece of my art and wonders what's going on, every time I'm in the presence of someone who expresses frustration with understanding art, especially abstract art. Although it can be read in a single sitting (the expanded edition is about 132 pages, mostly pictures), it's nothing short of revelatory. This book is quietly brilliant.

Picture This is likely to be extremely useful in teaching or presenting basic concepts of perception and composition to laymen. It provides a handy framework for talking about art, particularly with people who think they don't understand art--and again, abstract art in particular because the discussion is presented using simple paper cutouts, themselves abstracted distillations of the things they represent; Bang looks at how shape, color, size, and placement on a page affect our feelings.

At the same time, I suspect many artists will find the book concisely articulates much of what they instinctively know already about these subjects but may be unable to express in words. For artists, the book is likely to feel like an affirmation of instinct. The author touches on the subject explicitly at the end of the book (I suspect this is an addition to the anniversary edition) in a short chapter called "Finally, in Defense of Instinct." The chapter comprises a single illustration (from the author's book Dawn, an adaptation of the Japanese folktale known as "The Crane Wife"), and a single page of text. She says "I made this image long before I wrote Picture This and before I understood its principles." You can almost hear her inwardly saying "Yes! See! I knew what I was doing all along!" And, as an artist, it's hard not to share her feeling.

But she's thinking about instinct in another, more fundamental sense. Throughout the book, Bang looks at pictorial elements pared down to essentials and draws attention to the basic human instincts these elements play on to evoke feeling through the agency of the artist. For example, she makes it abundantly clear how our intimate, unavoidable relationship with gravity informs the way we interpret nearly all pictorial forms. Almost the entirety of the book is illustrated with diagrams made using only black, white, red, or lavender paper cutouts--just the essentials (see the book cover above). The first example not such an explanatory diagram appears only on page 117, at the very end of the book. Presenting her illustration from Dawn mentioned above, author Bang invites the reader to contemplate the image using the ideas presented in Picture This without herself deconstructing the image. By page 117, however, there's no need for her to reiterate. With the concepts leading up to this illustration in mind, it's easy to see how it works. Her ideas are clear, elemental, and obvious once presented; they leave a deep impression. The last time I encountered such a clear, convincing, extended argument about any topic was reading Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Highly recommended. This book should be in the collection of every artist, every school, every man or woman who's ever struggled with interpreting (or making) imagery of any kind.  
Related Posts with Thumbnails