Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Illustrate a Scary Scene

Opera Box scene from The Blue Aspic by Edward Gorey
I bought this poster by Edward Gorey, a master illustrator of the macabre, at an estate sale this past weekend. When I got home, I propped it against the kitchen cabinets, went off to do chores in another room, and forgot about it -- until my twenty-something son walked in the door for a visit. "Aaagh!" I heard him exclaim. "What the heck is this creepy picture?"

It is creepy, isn't it? And yet it's just a drawing of a group of people sitting in an opera box.

So what changes it from benign to spooky?

I have some ideas, along with other tips for illustrating fear and menace, which I'll list below. But first, I strongly recommend you take a peek at Cynthia Light Brown's excellent post Write a Scary Scene; she has lots of useful ideas for the process of crafting a scary scene, as well as good explanations of the whys of fright, all of which will help illustrators as well as writers.

1. Darken your palette.  Primal fear thrives in the absence of light and bright -- just think about dark alleys, dark and stormy nights, black caves, the villain's black hat.  Gorey's use of pen and ink with areas of deep blacks and cross-hatched shadows is probably heavily responsible for the baseline dark atmosphere in it.

If you do use color in your scary scenes, think about mixing in black; even slightly darker shades will suggest a worrisome mood better than brights or pastels. Or use color in a limited way: dark blues and purples bring twilight and nighttime to mind. Or go bold, with the addition of just red. Blood red. One final note: yellows within a black palette will tend to be read as places of light and safety.

Some more "dark" illustrators and books to study:

Little Red Riding Hood; source Fantasy-Art-Workshop

 Lane Smith does dark and creepy very, very well. (Compare the different palettes he used for Spooky ABC and It's a Book. And note how his use of yellow here does NOT lend a feeling of safety.)

2. Obscure even more. Being in the dark figuratively as well as literally heightens unease: what you don't know might kill you!
Gorey uses this technique in his illustration as well. The scariest figure in the opera box is the man with the beard and wearing a heavy fur - his expression is hard to read and the viewer likely feels some unease about what's beneath his heavy clothes. Gorey also crops the picture in a way that feels slightly disconcerting - lopping off the bottom of the bas-relief face on the opera box.
Besides obscuring details and cropping, point of view can also be effective in creating the anxious feeling you get from not seeing everything. Perhaps show your scene through a keyhole or from under a bed. Or show things the endangered character doesn't see - or have her see things we can't. Either approach will add to the tension.
Dave McKean's cropped illustration for the opening scene of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman gives me the shivers and compels me to turn the page! (Sorry for the crappy photo.)
3. Use light - and shadow - to highlight what the viewer should notice.
Bright, focused light used sparingly will direct the viewer's attention in a dramatic way. Shadows - especially ones that are long and looming, that extend from something out of the image, or that highlight facial features in a disconcerting way up the scariness quotient every time. I can well remember how the long shadows cast by a worried Miss Clavel as she raced to the bedside of Madeline made my heart beat extra fast when I was a young child and first encountered Ludwig Bemelman's classic picture book.
4. Size DOES count.
In general, characters (and other threats) that are big will be understood to be threatening; ones that are small will seem vulnerable or benign.
In Gorey's illustration, the guy in the fur feels menacing in part because he's taller and about twice as wide as his companions.
Exaggerating size differences is an easy way to heighten the sense of threat. This can also be accomplished by use of perspective. Characters' body language also influences their perceived size. When we're scared we pull in and make ourselves a smaller target, like crouching, ducking or tucking arms close to our bodies. When we're aggressive (or responding to a threat with fight), arms go out, fingers may spread, stance widens. 
In addition, characters that loom or even just lean forward slightly (like the guy above) seem more frightening - as do small things in sufficient number to swarm.
5.  Pay attention to facial expressions and body language. There's not a single facial expression that indicates fear or menace, nor a single type of body language. Partly this is because of the degree and timing of the threat - anxious, startled or terrified will produce different expressions. But in general, when we are frightened, our eyes widen and eyebrows go up and together (likely to let in more light and help us see better), our lips part and may stretch sideways (perhaps to help us get more oxygen in preparation for fight or flight - or ready to scream), we may turn from the threat and look toward it from the corners of our eyes. This site on Emotional Competence has more interesting science about the physiology and outward expression of fear.
One interesting thing to keep in mind: if you want to create a sense of fear or aggression in the viewer, it particularly helps to show the protagonist's expressions. This is because humans are primed to unconsciously mimic those they identify with.
6. Use details to advantage. Little things can have powerful effects. In Gorey's illustration, the expression on the bas-relief face is disturbing, and the twining of the ribbon around it suggests a large and powerful snake -- and I'm sure centering the scary guy right above the face was no accident. The high collar of the woman evokes Dracula, while the fur hints at killing. Even the large ring on the man's hand suggests a weapon and power.
7. One last thing: Titrate the scary quotient to your audience. Fear is a part of life from the start, so scary elements can be important parts of books for even the youngest readers.

By Carol Baicker-McKee from Cheep, Cheep by Julie Stiegemeyer
But obviously, in the interest of not terrifying small fry, it's a good idea to temper the scariness of images for younger children. In the above picture from a book of mine for babies and toddlers, I chose to depict a chick anxious about a strange noise as more unsure than terrified. The continued use of a cheery nursery palette provides reassurance. In addition, the reader already knows from previous illustrations that the strange noise comes from a hatching egg rather than something actually threatening. The cartoonish look of the character also adds to the sense of safety. These elements let the young child be aware of the character's emotions, while being in the position of "big guy" who understands that everything will be okay - so the overall tone can actually be more warm and humorous than upsetting.
Any other thoughts or tips? How do you go about getting the "scary" just right in your illustrations?

No comments:

Post a Comment