Areas of Illustration

Exercise: A children’s book cover

The brief for this exercise was to produce a cover illustration for a natural history book for children aged between seven and eleven entitled ‘Animals from Around the World’.

It seems to me that there has been an explosion of beautifully illustrated non fiction books onto the children's book market in recent years.  They are perfect for bridging the gap between story books and information books, encouraging all children to enjoy non fiction whether at home or in school.  In his book ‘Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication’ Martin Salisbury writes this introduction to non fiction illustration for children, ‘Although some people may think of non - fiction illustration as being a lesser or more prosaic art form, it can be a highly creative area that demands both technical, problem solving skills and aesthetic vision. The best non fiction illustration can be both informative and visually stimulating.’ Salisbury, M. (2004) Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication. London. Bloomsbury Visual Arts

In order to create a book cover for reference book called ‘Animals From Around the World’ I wanted to start with analysis of some covers from natural history books for children from the past in addition to more contemporary ones.  Below are the covers of ‘The Animal Kingdom’, by Charley Harper and Brian Wildsmith’s ‘Wild Animals’. Both were published during the 1960s.

The following is said about Brian Wildsmith in an obituary to him in the Guardian, ‘In his arrestingly powerful series on the natural world, which includes Birds (1967), Wild Animals (1967), Fishes (1968) and others, his vibrant illustrations are matched by a minimal text: “a stare of owls”, “a school of butterfly fish”. Despite the simplicity of the words, the books are sophisticated visual feasts containing images that encourage children to look closely, to imagine and to tell the story for themselves.’ Eccelshare, J. (2016)

The cover for this book has the text running along the top in black on a white background for maximum contrast. The illustration features two large tigers in the foreground with a smaller one some way behind. Of all wild animals, a tiger is a well known and loved animal, therefore perhaps chosen to engage children. The tigers are looking directly at the viewer but aren’t scary which is also important when appealing to children. Brian Wildsmith’s artwork is so textural you can feel the wild emanating from the cover.  You can just see the tiger’s legs coming through the layer of green paint over the top giving the impression that they are walking towards the viewer.

In contrast to Brian Wildsmith’s textural animal illustration, Charles Harper reduces the form down to the fewest lines and shapes as possible while still capturing the essence of the creature.  “When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don't see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes, colour combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behaviour and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures.”

This is clear to see in the illustrations for the front cover ‘The Animal Kingdom’ which are minimalist and stylised.   Although stylised though, the animals are recognisable which is important in a non-fiction book. The colours used are realistic but vibrant and engaging. He has made much use of pattern in the illustration with spots being a common pattern connecting the different animal types featured.   

Harper chose to represent all animal groups on his cover which I think is important in a book with the title of ‘The Animal Kingdom, especially as it has the subtitle of ‘An introduction to the major groups of animals’.  He has created movement in the image by depicting all the creatures moving in the same direction with most facing in that same direction. Only the cheetah faces the viewer. The cheetah has been positioned in the centre of the image and is what the eye is drawn to first.  I think this is a clever device because it captures the initial attention, then the eye is free to move around the rest of the image.

The artwork on the cover is set on a white background with the text positioned at the top, in the contrasting colours of red, with black used for the subheading.  

Owen Davey and Dieter Braun are two contemporary illustrators who appear to have been influenced by Charley Harper.  Both have a minimal realist style, depicting animals through basic lines to indicate form.

Owen Davey has illustrated a series of books about animals shown in the images below. All photos except ‘Crazy About Cats’ from Crazy About Cats image from

All books have the same design aesthetic, it is clear to see that they are from the same series.   The text is always placed within a ‘bubble’ to ensure it stands out from the complex arrangement of the items in the image.  This approach enables the text to be part of the image while remaining clearly readable. All covers depict different species of the the focus animal in various positions.  He also includes elements from their habitats and other objects linked to them such as a magnifying glass in ‘Bonkers About Beetles’. Despite the similarities however, each book has its own ‘look’ largely created by colour choice. He tends to use a limited colour palette for each cover.   ‘Smart about Sharks’ has hues of blue and pink, ‘Bonkers about Beetles’ is turquoise, yellow and green while shades of yellow and orange are used for ‘Crazy about Cats’.

The latest in this series is ‘Fanatical About Frogs’ so I will use that to analyse in more depth.

Different types of frogs are shown from different angles, the poison dart frog at the top left of the design is shown from above, with a front view of the tree frog and the common frog depicted from the side.  A tadpole and frog spawn have also been included, together with elements from their habitats such as lily pads and trees. All of this is placed on a pond background. Although the illustrations themselves could be described as simplified, the arrangement and composition of each element is not!  The eye is initially drawn to the tree frog because, like the cheetah in Charley Harper’s cover, it faces the front and appears to be staring at you. My eye was then drawn up to the top with the tadpole helping to guide you round and down to the bottom right. The colour palette is limited to shades of green, yellow and black.  The black helps to create contrast in the design and prevent all the greens merging into one.

Like the books from Owen Davey, Dieter Braun’s series of two, ‘Animals of the North’ and ‘Animals of the South’ has a design aesthetic which makes it clear they are part of the same series.  Each book features one large animal who is looking slightly up at the viewer. The animal chosen for each is indicative of the region the book is about. In both, the text is large is placed at the top of the book, laid over the body and top of the animals head.  White is used for the text to create contrast with the colour and pattern of the animal. The geometric shapes Braun uses in his illustration make the animals look 3d, as if they are coming off the page which I think would make children want to grab it off a shelf to read.  

Another contemporary collection of children’s non-fiction about animals is the series by Yuval Zommer pictured below. All photos: Briony Dixon

His illustration style is more like Brian Wildsmith’s than Charley Harper’s in that he uses a lot more detail to create his realistic looking creatures.  He has a kind of trademark eye that he gives his creatures which gives them real personality and character. Like Owen Davey and Dieter Braun though, it is clear that his books are part of a series due to a similar design being used across all.  The text takes centre stage covering the whole cover, with animals being used almost to decorate the text. They walk on top, peek through holes and hang off it which creates a comical feel. These books are for a slightly younger age range than the other books mentioned for whom a more characterful approach works well for. The text is hand lettered, whereas the text on the other covers are type faces.

The title ‘Animals from Around the World’ is quite wide in terms of content and would include animals from across all different groups, much like ‘The Animal Kingdom’ previously mentioned.  To begin with I felt quite overwhelmed by the choice so I made a mind map of animals from each continent. The list mostly contained well known animals with some more obscure ones included.  I tried to include all main groups but think I ended up weighting it heavily on mammals. The age range the book is intended for is 7 -11 years so I didn’t want to choose animals that are known really well.  With the title being ‘Animals from Around the World’, it was my intention to include an animal from each continent if possible. With these two factors in mind, I started to make lists of possible animals I could put together in my design. This was time consuming though and I couldn’t visualise it properly leading me to the idea of creating a visual mind map of observational drawings of animals.  This was also time consuming and didn’t really get me any closer to working out what animals I wanted to include.

I then realised that I could start thinking of design ideas rather than choosing the animals first.  I knew I wanted to focus on the around the world part of the title so I started thinking about how I could portray this in the design.  My first idea was to fill the sea on an outline map of the earth with sea animals and the land with land animals.

Halfway through drawing out this idea though, I started to wonder whether it was a problem that the whole world wasn’t represented by the map considering the title of the book. The animals also weren’t placed in the correct habitats and the whole thing looked a bit chaotic. To try and correct these issues, I thought about showing the earth on a map rather than a globe, but that would make the book landscape and I’m not aware of many children’s non-fiction books being produced in landscape format. So I redrew the earth slightly distorted to fit the whole world in. I then chose a few animals, just one or two that live on each continent, to ensure it didn’t get cluttered. I used layout paper to explore text positioning which at this stage, I felt looked most effective running in an arc around part of the earth.

All of my colour visuals on this course so far have been created by adding colour digitally, so I wanted to make the visuals for this exercise traditionally. I thought it would be a good opportunity to practise some technique. Using watercolour and gouache for the land and sea, I allowed the two mediums to intermingle to naturally create darker and lighter areas. For this visual I coloured the animals in with coloured pencil for speed but for the final artwork I would use gouache so they work in harmony with the background. If creating a colour visual traditionally again, I will create colour thumbnails first to explore the right colour palette before making the final visual. The colours I chose seemed too dark. I think subtler shades of blue and green would work better or even completely different colours altogether.

When I started to build the cover on Illustrator though, the dark background seemed to matter less. In fact the artwork worked really well behind light coloured text giving me the idea to make the text large and placed over the top of the image. I like this look because I think it looks modern and the title of the book is clear, capturing initial attention with the artwork behind inviting further investigation once picked on the shelf. I tried the text all the same size and with the important words larger and I think having the important words larger has more impact. I did try text in other positions but don’t think it has the same visual dynamism.

I had some trouble with removing the background from my artwork in photoshop. The background is partially removed but there is still a shadow present. I don’t normally have this issue so am a bit baffled. This is an area I need to work on.

My second idea was to create a layered image showing an animal from each continent in its representative habitat. I started making thumbnails but found it difficult, I seemed to be rubbing areas out more than creating new thumbnails each time. I thought about using tracing paper but it wasn’t a case of just moving animals around. I was trying them out in different bodily positions.

I couldn’t seem to make the transitions in the habitats work either because it all seemed slightly disjointed and messy. So I simplified the idea and decided to show just a small amount of habitat with each animal. When drawing the animals, I wanted to strike a balance between giving the animals enough character to engage children, but not so much to make the cover appear story like. I was also mindful that the age range is for slightly older children.

With this idea I made artwork for two different colour visual ideas. The first (below left) depicts animals from around the world cropped with a space in the centre for the text. I think this looks unbalanced though because the koala is too small and uncropped. Cropping it and moving it down to give the toucan space would have looked much better. This colour for this visual was flat colour gouache with coloured pencil used to add the detail I felt was absolutely necessary.

I feel that the second idea (right) is much more balanced. I was still able to represent animals from different continents with less animals leaving more negative space. It also has all the animals facing forward, looking at the viewer which I think engages a potential buyer. I used this opportunity to practise a different watercolour technique , allowing different shades and colours mix naturally to add colour to this visual. For final artwork, I would use coloured pencil and pastel to add detail.

I started by trying different fonts positioned in the centre of the animals, but as with the first visual, the text looks most effective when placed over the top of the artwork. Once decided on this, I tried out many different coloured backgrounds. Again the photoshop issue caused a problem, this can clearly be seen on the versions with darker backgrounds where I made edits in photoshop before removing the background, which then didn’t remove properly.

I used what I had learned from making the other two visual when building the final idea. Again I chose the place the text over the artwork and tried out different background colours.

After making a decision about which thumbnail to use as the colour visual for each design idea, I checked whether it was a good decision by referring back to an article I read on the publisher Penguin Book’s website. It shares six essential things to consider when designing a book cover.

‘Think about the target market and who you want to pick up the book as the cover needs to appeal to them.

What do you want to tell the buyer about the book? What kind of genre is it? What do the other books in that genre look like that it will compete with?

You need to have read/have an understanding of what the book is about, so you can instantly visually communicate the story, characters, message, settings and ideas.

Make sure the author name and title are readable.

Identify what the key symbols and motifs are that run throughout the book.

Try to create something that captures someone’s attention and makes a strong first impression, whether that’s through the tiny details, typography, choice of colour or imagery.’ Palmer.R & Wakefield.L (2017)

I think the genre of the book is clearly indicated through the image and text and the title is definitely readable because it is in white on a dark background. There is space for author, illustrator and publisher name at the bottom. I think the animals have enough character to make them engaging for a child. I think the modern look this cover has due to the text taking centre stage creates a great first impression.

The genre of the book in this design idea is clear, as is the title. I think the light text contrasting with the background captures the initial attention and the artwork invites children to find out more. I think it will definitely engage the more curious child who wants to find out more about animals around the world and where they live.

I think this is the least successful of the design ideas. While the genre and title is clear, I don’t think the animals are engaging enough. Showing a mixture of forward facing and side views didn’t really work, there is no unity.

I really underestimated the amount of work involved in this exercise. To think of multiple ideas, create thumbnails and visuals for each is very time consuming. I would still like to explore some of the ideas I had here in the future.