“Picture This: How Pictures Work”

Any quilter who hasn’t followed the exact fabrics and instructions in a quilt pattern has made design decisions. They could have been to change the size or borders, or use a different color scheme; but they were conscious decisions to alter the original in some fashion. I say because even if you don’t design all original work you may benefit from Molly Bang’s “Picture This: How Pictures Work.”

Bang, a children’s book author and illustrator, wanted to explore how certain elements in pictures affect our feelings. After all, in children’s books the illustrations are very much in service to the story. She wanted to ask, “How does the structure of a picture – or any visual art form – affect our emotional response?”

To work through that question Bang told the story of Little Red Riding Hood with very simple geometric shapes, beginning with Red as a bright red triangle.


Using colored paper, Bang created several versions of the scene in the woods with Red and the Wolf. Her goal was to maximize fear on Red’s part and menace on the Wolf’s. The pictures of her changes and the reasons behind them are a master class in design by themselves. The examples below are just two steps of the changes. The final version is on the right.


The books’ second part enumerates 12 design principles and illustrates them with more colored paper images. Now, you’ve probably already read/heard of most of the principles, though I’d never come across “We feel more scared looking at pointed shapes; we feel more secure or comforted looking at rounded shapes or curves.” before. However, it’s those simple illustrations that made all the difference for me.

I realize that Bang has a story teller’s perspective, but isn’t a primary purpose of art to evoke emotions? I don’t want to get tangled in the thickets of the “purpose of art” here. I do want to share a possibly useful resource with you.

Like many quilters with design aspirations I own Elizabeth Barton’s “Inspired To Design,” Joen Wolfrom’s “Adventures In Design,” Sandra Meech’s “Connecting Design To Stitch,” and Jean Wells’ “Intuitive Color & Design.” All these contain valuable insights and copious visual examples. Yet it took a red triangle to make it real for me.

This book was originally published in 1991, but has been recently reissued and expanded. Your library may have a copy.You can read a PDF of the 1991 version. It will take you an hour (at most) to look through it. Sometimes simpler is better.


Filed under Books

7 responses to ““Picture This: How Pictures Work”

  1. Pingback: A Practical Design Book | The Snarky Quilter

  2. WOW, thanks for the reference and link! I’m eager to take a look at it. Changing just the triangle, I would make it much smaller. Based on the last pix, that might be what Bang used, too. Also I hadn’t seen the Sandra Meech book so will take a look at that. Thanks again.

    • I’ve always loved picture books for their art, so Bang’s frame of reference got through to me where other, more art focused books haven’t. And the Sandra Meech book is a very different take on design, more mixed media. She comes out of the British guilds training and certification programs, if I recall rightly.

  3. This sounds absolutely fascinating! I love this sort of explanation of ways we are moved, without knowing it. I read an article this morning that interested me in the same way, about the composition of the recent Time magazine cover on Trump as Person of the Year: http://forward.com/culture/356537/why-times-trump-cover-is-a-subversive-work-of-political-art/

  4. Kathy Collins

    Thank you for this recommendation – I use all the other books you mentioned regularly and this looks like an excellent addition to my resources.

I Love to Hear From You

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.