Many illustrators include black and white work in their portfolios, in addition to color work, in order to appeal to those publishers looking to hire artists for chapter and middle grade children’s books. I’ve worked in both black & white and color, and in both cases, creating a strong composition is all about hierarchy and focal point.
The objective is to guide the viewer’s eye around a scene in an intentional way. With color work, an easy way to create a focal point is to use a limited color palette overall, then bring in a bright pop of a contrasting color to your main subject. Since this isn’t an option for black and white work, the main emphasis is more simply on lights and darks. Try including a range of tones, from pure black, to medium gray, to bright white.
A focal point is created where the lightest and darkest areas of the piece are paired together. This painting, ‘The Dream’, by Rousseau, is a great example. The overall colors are muted tones of green, with the pale white figure placed against a dark rust-brown object. The entire painting is packed with detail, yet the eye is instantly drawn to the reclining figure.
While this painting works beautifully in color, its focal point is still strong when converted to grayscale. I would encourage illustrators to bring color pieces into Photoshop and see how they work in black and white. If the illustration flattens out considerably in this process, the intended main subject may need a greater range of darks and lights in order to emerge as the visual point of focus.
Eliza Wheeler illustrates and writes for children's picturebooks and middle grade novels. Author/Illustrator of NYT Bestseller Miss Maple's Seeds
Illustrator of Wherever You Go by Pat Zietlow-Miller (coming May 2015)
Illustrator of The Grudge Keeper by Mara Rockliff
Illustrator of Newbery Honor book Doll Bones, by Holly Black
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