Pictures Are a Direct Pathway to the Heart - Who Needs English?


From Le Petit Garcon de la Foret by Nathalie Minne (Casterman 2012)

Whenever I want to play with the power of illustration to give me the feelies, I look at picture books in a language I don't understand. That way, I'm not distracted by what the words want to tell me, and am able to wallow unimpeded in the waves of feeling the pictures inspire.

I look at Nathalie Minne's Le Petit Garcon de la Foret again and again (in fact, I keep it kind of handy for easy access) for exactly this reason, and also for the added joy of marvelling at the evergreen ability of her illustrations to move me in every which way, over and over.

Natalie Minne_COVER.jpg

How Does She Do It To Me?

Minne's illustrations seem simple. They are geometric and abstracted, she uses a limited palette, and the characters and landscapes have a stiffness about them that could spell disaster in terms of being emotionally (academic-term alert) salient. But they are not a disaster. Far from it.

When I flip to the first oversized page, I get an immediate sense of blissful freedom ... the expanse of bright meadow, the wheeling birds, the tiny characters and creatures in a vast emptiness, the wind, freshness ... and also a feeling of security: there is a village at upper left, and a staunchly solid tree ...

A predominance of brightness, a minor yet significant block of darkness, and we have the delight of a landscape that is completely wild, and also completely safe ...


Then, immediately afterwards, a very different wilderness feeling ... that scary-safe feeling of being out in the wilderness at night, insignificantly small amongst the looming forest trees, frighteningly tiny against the dark night sky, and yet vaguely safe in the company of a trusty guardian (in this case a goat).

This picture evokes immediate emotion-memories of camping trips in the outback when I was a child, surrounded by endless nothingness and sky, with only a sheet of canvas and the knowledge of nearby, equally vulnerable sleeping parents between me and the ghosts of bushrangers, stampeding sheep, those horrid min-min lights, probable demented graziers and general heebie-jeebies. Deeply discomfited and only vaguely reassured ... 


A couple of pages later, drama and excitement: wildly tossing trees against the night-time sky, flying leaves, wheeling birds and cavorting deer, exuberance, thrill, danger and ... a teeny-tiny cottage with its light on. A picture so powerful I can almost feel my own hair getting mussed by the storm ...


Then suddenly a snowy silence ...



... and, later, sadness ...


... and, BOOM, my absolute favourite picture in the book ...



This picture (above) is one of the most reposted images from the book. It is possibly easy to see why: it looks fabulous, and it feels fabulous.

But because I am me, I'm not content to rest with that. I have to work our WHY I love it so much, and why people keep pinning it and posting it and sharing it.

Maybe It's A Brain-science Thing

Actually, I'm pretty convinced it IS a brain-science thing. I mean, what else could it be? According to the brain science I subscribe to - the neuroscience of evolved aesthetic reception (hah! such a fancy-nancy!) - the thing that grabs us by the viscerals in this picture is the composition, but especially the TONAL COMPOSITION.

You may or may not have persevered with my previous blog post about tonal value, and you may be feeling discouraged again here, BUT STAY WITH ME! It's so exciting when you see with your eyes what your heart has already shouted loud and clear. Hidden in plain sight and all that sort of thing ...

This page is mostly dark. Dark water, dark reflections, dark trees. The only brightness is the sky and the lily leaves on the darker-than-dark water. But see how the image is divided into three bands ...

THE TOP BAND: equal bands of dark and bright, stately and elegant and safe, a stateliness enhanced by the stillness of the deer, by the heavy tree trunks rising crownless beyond the top of the page, a stateliness jittered only by a few tiny darting birds.



This is a tonal composition known as intermediate major key (equal parts dark and light, highly contrasted). It is said to evoke a sense of non-threat, is perhaps even boring, except it isn't. Compositionally, it is all about stripes and patterns. Steady, repetitive, reassuring stripes.

THE MIDDLE BAND: dark on darker, deep on deeper. The tree trunks, the deer, the birds reflected against what seems to me the deepest, darkest forest pond imaginable. It looks like it goes down forever, because we can see entire trees reflected in it, all the way to their crowns. I don't care that there are grasses and lilies growing out of the water, suggesting it is not so very deep after all ... my insides tell me it is DEADLY deep, and DEADLY dark, and DEADLY dangerous ... and if Minne wanted to make us feel it was less dramatic, she would have painted it differently.


This band is mostly in a low minor key, in dark tones with muted contrasts, said to evoke feelings of ominousness, eeriness, gloom, mystery ... except for those splashes of brightness that are lilies and leaves. Compositionally, more stripes. Steady and reassuring.

A composite band, layering in the danger and the safety, messing with our heads, dissonant and ambiguous.

THE BOTTOM BAND: this band is all about circles: round reflected treetops, round flowers. And a kind of steady, steely, almost-mid-tone, neither here not there, it is placid, plain, uncritical. Even if it IS in fact a deadly deep pond. And even if those children and their squirrel friend ARE leaping across the deep dark water with nothing but the occasional lily-pad to step on. More dissonance, more ambiguity, more messing with our insides. And we don't even know what the story is about!



Which Brings Me to My Point (the one I haven't actually raised yet)

Quality illustrations like these lay a powerful foundation to any story. Whatever the story, we, as readers and viewers, cannot help but be influenced by the way these pictures have manipulated so many of our feelings in so many combined, layered and ambiguous ways. No picture-book story can ever be just about the words and what they set out to convey. Picture books are much, much more about the illustrations, and the greater the illustrations, the more mind-blowing and memorable the book.


Margrete Lamond