Erik Brooks, Author of the Month: Visual Literacy Visits

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Visual Literacy: The ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of a written or printed text.

Once upon a time, as a newly certified K–12 art teacher (c. 1995) who in three years of job searching and subbing only ever found a single full-time art teaching application opportunity, I ultimately turned my artistic interests to picture books. I haven’t really looked back, except to say that I always look forward to my teaching opportunities.

I get invited to literacy nights (and days) at schools, and as a picture book writer, I really do relish the opportunity to explore reading and writing with kids in the classroom. As an illustrator and wannabe art teacher however, I’m always even more excited to draw! And to me, visual literacy goes hand in hand with a more traditional idea of reading/writing literacy — and perhaps it sometimes even leads the way.

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Kids “read” pictures, and words emerge to match.

Beyond books even, we are surrounded by visual media — and this media generally doesn’t ask you to do a lot of work. It’s passive consumption. Becoming visually literate demands that you analyze these images and try to figure out what you are being asked to learn or read in the process.  And kids should know that they can be active participants — both as consumers and creators. It’s powerful stuff disguised as drawing 🙂

Kids post, they text, they create video etc. And the tools of visual literacy — the choices that one makes about even the simplest things like line or color or composition — all work in tandem to inform the viewer/reader of what you are asking them to see — or what words you want them to conjure to accompany the pictures. And even these most basic tenants of image making help you tell a story. And they also help you read it. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s not, but visual literacy is integral to better communication, and making a picture or a picture book is such a great place to introduce this topic to a student audience.

Character, setting, plot, emotion, cliffhangers, hooks, foreshadowing … ALL of these things can be visual or given emphasis by visual cues. Literate art makes for literate readers.

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Just a few of the ideas that I’ll demonstrate as tools for visual literacy. So kids are watching this happen while I talk them through it, and then they get to try in on their own.

And so, all of that being said, for the last few years I’ve been doing a LOT of drawing workshops where kids create characters and scenes with an intentional visual impact. Using lines and details to draw attention to certain things in their artwork; using angles or compositions to help a reader follow their picture in a certain logical order; deciding on just the right expression or gesture to represent an emotion; these are fundamental things to communicating an idea or telling a story — and it’s also drawing, and it’s work — but it’s so much fun!

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Everyone starts with some guided drawing for a foundation…
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…and it’s incredible how many different things will happen when the kids take over and start to add lines, details, emotions, expressions, and setting of their own!
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Are we having fun yet? Do expressions help to tell a story?

And of course it’s always incredible when you hear from a school about visual projects  inspired by your books – even when you haven’t had a chance to visit! Great teaching starts with digging just beneath the surface and giving kids an idea of the process that they can put to work in their own fantastic artwork and storytelling 🙂

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AMAZING expressions and gestures add to the humor and energy in these speedy tortillas inspired by Eric Kimmel’s THE RUNAWAY TORTILLA.
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Inspired by the watercolors in POLAR OPPOSITES, students also emphasized the differences between two main characters using different colored backgrounds.

And finally, for an appropriately visual teaser to keep you on your toes for my next book, here is a sketch from Shelley Gil’s IF I WERE A BEAR (Sasquatch, Little Bigfoot, Spring 2018) to be released simultaneously with IF I WERE A BIRD.

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Cover sketches for the next book. LOTS of little thumbnails like this and sometimes I get even a little more detailed then I should for such a small space!

These are both board books in the wake of our February 2017 collaboration on IF I WERE A WHALE.

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A favorite spread from IF I WERE A WHALE.

And it’s one day too late for this, but “HAPPY HALLOWEEN!”

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Erik Brooks is the author/illustrator of 24+ books for children and their most excellent parents and teachers. Look for his newest picture book, IF I WERE A BEAR!, in Spring 2018.

Erik writes, draws, coaches, and visits schools and libraries from his home in Winthrop, WA. It’s a little off the beaten path, so online visits are the perfect thing — and screen sharing means drawing lesson work as well! To learn more about booking visits with Erik, head to the school visits page of his website at www.erikbrooks.com.

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