Empathy with Images and Narrative


[images online] Available at://blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded/2010/12/14/guest-review-gerard-elson-on-tim-burtons-the-melancholy-death-of-oyster-boy-and-other-stories/)[Accessed 15th December 2014]

Tim Burton, a man who tells stories which come with a dark shadow. The shadow that intrigues and shows a darker side to tales and fiction, and not ones that have fairytale endings.

In 1997 Burton created ‘The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories’ a collection of twenty-three illustrated short stories. The stories comprise of a set of characters, all of which are disfigured and seen as not normal. The children come with names, like Roy, the Toxic Boy,  Stain Boy and Oyster Boy. The names alone set of the imagination and create images of children that are seen as outcasts.


[images online] Available at://www.joblo.com/newsimages1/burtonart6-big.jpg [Accessed 15th December 2014]

Gerard Elson spoke about the characters

“…never complain, nor seem embittered, nor seek to settle the score. If they teach us anything, it’s that though life often sucks and other people can be jerks, there’s dignity in not allowing the injustice of it all to corrode your spirit or compromise your character.”

(Elson 2014)

This book explores the harder realities of life, and how if different you can become an outcast, subjected to a lonely life, yet the book gives permission that you may not be alone and that others out there can empathise with how you are feeling.

Returning to thoughts spoken in other posts about who’s need is it to avoid these darker aspects of life, and holding in mind my aim for the course, I returned to the work of Shaun McNiff, an Art Therapist who states

“To those questioning the therapeutic wisdom of welcoming disturbing figures, I can say I have never encountered an image in artwork or dream that came to harm the person experiencing it. A student once said to me “It may come to show me where I hurt, but it doesn’t want to hurt me.”

(Mc Niff, 2004 p.97)

This encompasses the ideal of creating images that do challenge and evoke emotions, and  as Tim Burton’s work clearly shows, it does not need to be explicit, but to resonate with the viewer to have a dual commonalty that the reader can empathise with.


  • Meyer, A, (2010) ‘Guest review: Gerard Elson on Tim Burton’s The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories'[online] Available at http://blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded/2010/12/14/guest-review-gerard-elson-on-tim-burtons-the-melancholy-death-of-oyster-boy-and-other-stories/) [Accessed December 15th 2014]
  • McNiff, S,(2004) ‘Art Heals, How Creativity Cures the Soul’, Shambhala, London

Picturebooks without words

Trauma and illustration, picturebooks that explore trauma through narrative, does this narrative require text or is it enough for the illustrations to speak alone to the viewer. In allowing the illustrations to stand alone, does it allow the viewer to create their own narrative, align their own experiences within the narrative of the illustrations, or does the text give them a foundation in with they can build their narrative from and again align to their own personal experiences.

Reflecting on my Art Therapy clinical work, it is focused on providing a space where emotions and experiences can be explored using art as the narrative, as words can be to hard to find to truly express how the client is feeling. In Psychology Today a article Children’s Art as Visual NarrativeMalchiodi (2014) states,

“We now know that non-verbal expressive arts like simple drawing, painting and constructing are effective restorative experiences. Language, a function of declarative memory, is often inaccessible to trauma survivors of any age if the event has been particularly disturbing.”
(Malchiodi 2014)
As I work through these thoughts I feel there is not a definitive answer, as a Art Therapist the client tells their story in their own words, as an illustrator does the same principal remains when creating books focusing on traumatic experiences.
Shaun Tan’s book ‘The Red Tree‘ (2014), depicts a story of a girl’s  world full of dark thoughts and feelings. Tan uses little text or no text, in the book. Text that is used is either interwoven into the illustration or carefully placed on the page pulling the viewer to the image first. Tan expresses his understanding of expressing emotions through illustration
“I’d also been increasingly aware that illustration is a powerful way of expressing of feeling as well as ideas, partly because it is outside of verbal language, as many emotions can be hard to articulate in words. I thought it would therefore be interesting to produce an illustrated book that is all about feelings, unframed any storyline context, in some sense going ‘directly to the source’.”
(Tan, S,  n.d)

[images online] Available at://www.shauntan.net/books.html [Accessed 16th December 2014]

As my works shifts and changes, I am sure so will the use of text, with some work needing more and some requiring less or even none at all. It feels as though it will be subjective to each work produced, and not a exact template for each book or even each page.


Art work that allows space to create your own stories.

Charles Avery, I first came across his work in The Gallery of modern Art in Edinburgh about 10 years ago. Since then his work has reappeared in my head. I have thought what this is, but on reflection I think it is because it captures my imagination. it allows the viewer to create their own story through Avery’s beautiful, and detailed sketches.

[image online] Available at: http://generationartscotland.org/artists/charles-avery/gallery/the-place-of-the-route-of-the-ifen/

Avery, C (2007) Untitled (Place of The Route of the If’En) Pencil, ink & gouache on paper. 162.60 x 243.50 cm[image online] Available at: http://generationartscotland.org/artists/charles-avery/gallery/the-place-of-the-route-of-the-ifen/

Creating scenes that pull the eye in, roaming around from section to section, each time you look you notice something new. Using sign and symbols of everyday objects we all recognise, and we can project our own meaning onto these objects. No one viewers story would be the same.


Avery, C (nd) Untitled ( Heidless Macgregors Bar) [images online] Available at:https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/the-islanders-an-introduction/highlights-6048 [Accessed 5th December 2014]

Charles Avery  is a Scottish artist from Oban. He currently lives and works in London. Since 2004 he has devoted and developed his practice to develop an imaginary island. Avery uses drawing s and sculpture to explore the aspects of the island, the main market town Onomatopoeia to the Eternal forrest.

Avery gives an insight into the ‘Heidless Macgregors Bar’

‘After an afternoon ambling through the market our tourist will no doubt frequent one of the taverns around the port that provide bush meat and beer, before tottering onto the cruiser that will convey him back to Triangleland, as the Islanders disparagingly call the outside world.’

Avery 2008

These feel to me like the working of Avery’s mind, bringing the subconscious to the conscious, a wonderful imagination, depicting his thoughts and bringing them to life in his drawings. His work leaves an intrigue an invitation to pull you back too the Island again and again.


  • Generation(2007),Generation-25years of Contemporary Art in Scotland. Available at:http://generationartscotland.org/artists/charles-avery/%5BAccessed 5th December 2014]
  • National Galleries of Scotland (2008),The Islanders: An introduction|Charles Avery. Available at: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/the-islanders-an-introduction/highlights-6048 [Accessed 5th December 2014]

Challenging subjects in picturebooks.


[images online] Available at: http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=2220 [Accessed 14th November 2014]

Picturebooks can often be viewed as books which contain stories that are light hearted, contain a moral or a lesson for the younger generation to learn. Often they do not handle the more challenging subjects, and when they do it can provoke reactions and avoidance from some.

When should children start to learn about the more challenging aspects of life, and what about those children who are already dealing with difficult and traumatic experiences on a daily basis, I wonder what it would be like for them to pick up a picturebook that spoke to them, resonated with a part of their life.

Wolf Erlbruch a German author and illustrator created the book Duck, Death and the Tulip (2007) (German title: Ente, Tod und Tulpe).

The story consists of two characters, a Duck who comes to know Death, and unbeknown to the duck death has been following her all her life.

DDT internals_Page_05

[images online] Available at :http://blaine.org/jules/DDT%20internals_Page_05.jpg [Accessed 14th November 2014]

Duck and Death become friends and talk about life, death and what happens after you die. Sitting in a tree after being diving together they wonder what would happen to Duck’s lake after she dies. The book comes to a close with the death of the Duck, and Death carries her to a river, placing her gently on the water, Death takes the tulip and places it on her,”For a long time he watched her. When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.” 

DDT internals_Page_16

[images online] Available at: http://blaine.org/jules/DDT%20internals_Page_16.jpg [Accessed 14th November 2014]

I can imagine this is a controversial topic for a children’s books, but the way the illustrations depict the gentleness and the empathy of Death towards Duck it handles it with delicacy of Death in a beautiful way.

My work as a Art Psychotherapist working with children I witness children dealing with real challenges more than some adults do throughout there whole life.

I understand this can be hard to contemplate, so when picture books that are created tackling the harder subjects it does cause controversy, but what I pose is, whose need is it to avoid the challenging and hard subjects?

We can not rescue and protect forever, and I wonder is it better to give children an understanding through the use of a medium they know and understand, that can allow for questions to be answered with those who care for them, a healthy exploration into the difficult aspects of life. 

I feel Wolf Erlbruch deals with the emotion of death in a manner which invites a conversation and give permission to talk about something which so many try to avoid, just like Duck not knowing Death had been following her all her life until she turned around.


  • Danielson, J, (2013),“You can start having strange thoughts in trees”, Or, Curiously Good Books from Around the World’, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 13th October 2013 [online] Available at:Available at :http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=2220 [Accessed 14th November 2014]
  •  Erlbruch,W (2007), Duck Death and the Tulip,New Zealand, Geko Press.

How emotion is depicted in picture books.

An image an illustration is a powerful communication tool, capturing a time, a space and emotion, speaking a thousand words without a single word being spoken.

For this project I am using emotion as my keyword. Exploring what emotions are elicited through illustrations in picture books, how this translates into page layout, character development, text and image relationship, the colour pallet chosen and how the image speaks emotionally in the absence of words.

Below is an image from Oliver Jeffers book ‘Lost and Found’,(2006) the image is full of signifiers that allow us to engage with the emotion of the image, from the colures used, body language of the characters and the page layout as well as character placement.


Oliver Jeffers [image online]Available at: http://myopemyope.com/2011/11/13/oliver-jeffers/ [Accessed 16th October 2014]

In looking at the above image we employ a understanding of code and signs that we have developed through our understanding of the world around, using this it allows us to understand and gain meaning from the image. To understand this futher I will delve into the world of semiotics, and the decoding of signs and symbols.

“Semiotics involves the study not only of what we refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday speech, but of anything which ‘stands for’ something else. In a semiotic sense, signs take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects.” (Chandler,2002, pg.1)

I will explore wider fields and think about how music and film can transcend us into a state of being and awaken different parts of our subconscious bringing emotions to the conscious.

It feels as though it is a journey full of adventure and intrigue. On I go into the world of picture books, emotions and semiotics.


  • Chandler, Daniel. (2002) Semiotics :The Basics, London :Routledge
  • Jeffers, Oliver, (2006), Lost and Found, London: Harper Collins

John Byrne Exhibition


Photograph taken before entering exhibition

I first came across John Byrne whilst working at one of his previews a few years ago in Edinburgh. I remember as I poured drinks for the guests  it was clear that John Byrne was a man full of life and character, from the way he dressed to the way he conducted himself amongst others. He captured my imagination as did his art work.

Sunday I visited the Scottish National Portrait Gallery  to see his show ‘Sitting Ducks’, a retrospective of his work spanning 50 years.

The exhibit seemed bigger than the room, the people he had captured were full of life and rich in depth and colour. His self portraits, appeared to ooze out of the frame and draw you in closer to see the fine brush work and invite you to look into his eyes. I wondered what thoughts are happening when he is creating a self portrait, what story is being conveyed and if the portrait could talk what would it say.


Byrne, J,  Me and Myself  (nd)48 x 36 inches, oil on board, private collection.[images online] Available at:https://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetpeaillustrations/363843963/ [Accessed October 8th 2014]


Byrne, J, Self Portrait, (nd) oil on board. [Images online] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetpeaillustrations/349200796/ [Accessed 4th october 2014]

I came away thinking how to create stories and characters full of life, characters that will come out of the page, invite the reader/viewer in and engage them in the process of the story and to caret a relationship with the characters portrayed in the story. John Byrne’s work for me is an example of studying the finite details on his sitter or himself, knowing every mark every line and creating a work where it feels it is not just an artwork but a story contained within frame. 

John Byrne spoke of his work and the importance of self examination and of others  in a video interview for the National Galleries of Scotland (2014)

“What do you think when you get up in the morning or what do you think when you go to bed? You never sort of quiz yourself and you’ve got the means to do that, forensic examination of your psyche and your exterior and what that exterior contains. It contains so much wonderful and marvellous things. People seem to skip over that quite lightly, the appearance of people and that’s your outward face to their world, I cannae imagine why it doesnae intrigue everybody. What you have to do is capture the spirit of the person you’re drawing and I can see the spirit of all of them.” (Byrne 2014)

Capturing the viewer/readers imagination through depiction of characters is a clear defined area for my work and as my thoughts turn to the the presence of text the relationship with the image or how the image works in the absence of text, I can see this becoming a interesting and exciting journey.


  • National Galleries Scotland,(2014) John Byrne Film

    [online] Available at://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/john-byrne/john-byrne-film [Accessed 8th october 2014]