January 17, 2015

Use Picture Book Art to Write Your Best Story

Whether you are an artist or a writer, staring at a blank page is nerve wracking. We are all looking to be inspired and excited about our craft.  Using art- looking at it for characters, texture, setting and mood- can help you get excited and write your best story.

There are many similarities between making pictures and writing stories. In both art forms we want rich detail and a stirring of our senses.   By using picture book art specifically as inspiration, writers can elevate their prose simply by being abundantly observant.  Picture book art is made to tell a story: it’s rich in color, mood, perspective, characters, setting and action (not coincidentally all of the things you want in a good story!)  We are used to seeing these illustrations sequenced in a book, but many images can stand alone and be used as a writing prompt.  When we interpret art, we bring with us all of our experiences, biases, and personal beliefs.  Looking at art through this lens, from just one image, a new original story may be created.

How to use picture book art to inspire your next story

How, exactly do you ‘use’ picture book illustrations?  On my blog, Denise Draws, I use the model of “Observe, Interpret and Create”.  Here, I will simplify the process so you may derive rich imagery from detailed images for your next story. I will use my illustration, Kraken, as an example we can use.

 1. Start with Observation:

All artists are able to see what others do not through intentional observation.

One of the most important steps while using art to inspire writing is observation.   In order for us really ‘see’, often we have to know what to look for and ask the right questions.   When you look at an image, we need to answer the question, “What is going on?” Keep in mind that the decisions the artist make are strikingly similar to the decisions that writers make.  Once we intentionally observe, we may then interpret and write our stories.

With a quick look at Kraken you may think, “It’s a boy going to bed.”  Well if you look closer, you’ll see something under his bed that’s not supposed to be there, light coming out of an open drawer, some objects that are in color while others are not, and wallpaper that comes alive. (There’s more hidden, but you’ll have to find it for yourself!)


Kraken, Denise M. Cassano

Let’s start writing!

While looking at Kraken, record your answers to the following questions.   We will use these answers to determine what is happening in the picture and write our story, so explain your reasoning for each answer.

  • Look carefully… is anything besides the boy moving in this room? What is it?  Is the boy aware of it? Is he clueless, or is he purposely ignoring it?
  • Why are some things in color, while the rest is black and white?
  • Think about the general mood of the scene and list five words describing how it makes you feel.  Would the mood change if it were not predominantly in black and white?
  • What unusual thing is happening on the wall off to the right?
  • Ask yourself, “What if?” What if someone walks in the room? What if the diver on the floor comes to life? What if something comes out of the drawer?
  • If you could step into the picture and look all around you, what would you see? smell? hear?

2. Interpretation: Use your answers above to infer what is happening and from who’s perspective the story is being told

Perspective, the position by which the story is told, is the driving force of how the story is told.  Ask anyone who has been in a car accident, and invariably it was, “the other guy’s fault.”  This holds true in written stories and narrative art- art that tells a story visually.  When painting my illustrations one of the first things I do, much like a writer, is envision the scene.  Writers should do the same.   In Kraken, I decided to make a close shot of a boy on a bed, but I placed the camera, i.e. the perspective of the viewer, close to the floor where we actually have to look upwards to see the bed.   I wanted the viewer to see under the bed and look closely at the toys on the floor.  The boy is facing away from us, so we see things he can not.  (This is true in writing a story- there may be things that the reader knows, but one of the characters doesn’t.)  There is a drawer that opened with light coming from it, and part of the wallpaper has come to life.   If this image was an overhead view, or a view from the door, the viewer would miss the action on the floor, and therefore miss the tension in the scene.

When interpreting the image, keep an open mind and think of all possibilities.  Record your answers to the following questions:

  • Who is telling the story and what is their perspective? (the boy, the diver, something in the drawer?)
  • Why is there only one person on the image? How would it change if there were more people?
  • Is this image in reality or is it supernatural? Explain how do you know.
  • Why are some things in color, while the rest is black and white?
  • What is causing the light to come out of the drawer?
  • What time of day is it and how does that effect the mood and outcome of the story?

 3. Create

Read over your answers and think about all of the conclusions you have made.  Think about how all of these answers come together to paint a picture of what is happening in the story.  Only after you have responded to all of the questions, ask yourself, “What is happening” and write your first draft of the story.  Think about perspective characters, setting and mood.  Use specific details from the image to make the story rich.

Another trick to solidify the story in your mind:

Ask yourself, “What happened five minutes before this scene? What is happening now? What happens five minutes after this scene?”

Don’t forget, language matters.  Instead of saying, “The drawer opened and light came out,” you can say, “Light emanated from the drawer, casting shadows that danced on the wall.”  This gives us a picture in our head of what it looks and feels like to be in the story.

Picture book art is full of hidden surprises.  Find your favorite children’s book and take a closer look at the images.  I bet you’ll find something worth writing about.

Want more creative ideas?

Check out my Story Starter Illustrations and Video Writing Prompts– complete with Critical Thinking Questions so you may organize your thoughts.


Download my free eBook, "How to Use Art to Inspire Creative Writing". I hope it helps you the way it has helped my students.
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