Xu Shi Hua: To Tell The Matter In Pictures

Although there is no specific classification for ‘Chinese Narrative Illustration’ in Chinese culture, it is referred to as such when discussed in an academic and historic setting.

It’s important to note the differences between narrative illustration and Chinese narrative illustration here; not because of brush technique or painting styles, but as layout, presentation and formulaic considerations. Narrative symbolism exists in every culture, sometimes this is overt and sometimes it requires a deeper prior knowledge of issues that are indigenous within a particular group of people.

In 1998, Murray argued that this type of art can be identified by story, function and presentation.  She describes story as “…the presentation of one or more events that occur in a sequence of time and bring about a change in the condition of a specific character,” and adds that the function of narrative illustration is to record, affirm, inform, instruct, indoctrinate, proselytize, propagandize or entertain the viewer. She continues that the presentation of the image has an effect on the overall interpretation of the illustration. Compositional structure can be as simple as one monoscenic composition within a structural frame but is more commonly a single picture depicting multiple moments in one story, a synoptic view within a unified space. It’s perhaps a crude comparison but it’s difficult not to make comparisons to the infographic that has become increasingly popular of late, even down to the scroll format.

My interests lie in how a story unfolds when it is told in this way. This works particularly well for me as a storyteller keen to explore visual narrative. To push the viewer into perhaps branching off or being able to visualise more stories, or threads of backstory, through what is essentially just one page within a book, or a poster, homeware or furnishings around them.

The meeting of the different elements within a story and how they work together in one illustration is what I need to pin down. I’ve looked at the work of others in this area and some noteworthy artists that conform to the definition made by Murray (1998) for my own research are below. I’ve found that the majority of art I’ve been researching with these characteristics is classed as surrealist. The forms within the unified space have been deformed and morph in and out of each other, often turning head-space into landscapes or animals into treetops, all forming part of a metaphor that serves to guide us through a narrative.

Surreal illustrations by Julia Iredale // ink drawing // narrative illustration
Julia Iredale

This work by Julia Iredale is a surrealist piece that I would argue conforms to the constructs of Chinese narrative illustration in some way. There is opportunity for a synoptic view if recurring characters and action were added to the village behind. I think this is a very powerful image with the opportunity for a strong narrative with multiple interpretations.

Little red rididng hood & the big bad wolf - The girl who keeps dreaming
Artist unknown
Natalie Pudalov
Natalie Pudalov

MURRAY, J.K. (1998) ‘What Is ‘Chinese Narrative Illustration’?’The Art Bulletin. 80 (4) p. 602–615.

Diversity, Inclusion and Social Media

A few weeks ago I was in a situation where I was posting an illustration I made and I didn’t know how to tag it. The illustration was a young black girl and I felt uncertain about the use of the ‘diversity’ hashtag. I was unsure whether or not it was appropriate to use that particular tag just because my character was black.

Personal work, 2017. I was unsure about using the #diversity tag for this character

I asked Alexandra Strick (Inclusive Minds) for a quote as the situation I was in inspired me to write an article (not yet published) on my personal illustration blog about that experience. I had met Alexandra before at a focus group where we discussed the concept of a book that included a family with same sex parents without being an issue book. Here’s what she said:

“At Inclusive Minds we feel that the term #diversity is not always useful. It can often lead to focusing on differences rather than inclusion and equality. We tend to use terms like #inclusive, #authenticinclusion and #inclusion more, as these feel more positive. We also encourage people to consider using #everybodyin to support the message that everyone needs to embrace inclusion and everyone should be able to find themselves in books. Our ‘Everybody In’ charter is a great way for authors, illustrators, publishers – and anyone – to sign up to show their commitment. We also run our A Place at the Table (#APATT) event, which brings together all those committed to making real change happen” (Strick, A. 2017)

This resonates with me and I feel very strongly that everyone should be able to find themselves in books. Although the social media aspect of this quote is not directly related to my research at this point, I believe this will become important as I continue.

I’ll be looking out for ‘A Place at the Table’ events as I do relate to being a person committed to making change happen. I can only do that if I keep up to date, not only by taking an innovative and experimental approach within my creative work, but also by being aware of how to actually tag and present it on social media at regular intervals.

Singapore Maths: Symbolism To Abstract Thought

Maths isn’t something that I typically associate with illustration but is often used with younger children for Maths text books and tests.

Whilst exploring these resources I came across a method of teaching called Singapore Maths. As the title suggests, this is the method used in Singapore when introducing children to the concept of numbers and groups.

Image: gritlineeducation.com

Instead of introducing symbols straight away, the children are given objects instead. The objects are used to demonstrate numbers and groups and simple age appropriate concepts. This is called the CPA method (Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract). At the concrete stage, children model the problems by handling objects. Pictorial is where they’ll use pictorial reference or representation to help them deal with the problem. This could be by drawing or building to help them ‘see’ the problem and start bridging the gap between the concrete and abstract stage. Abstract is where mathematical symbols and numbers are used. This isn’t a linear concept and teachers tend to repeat the process as new concepts are introduced. Only once they understand the concept of numbers and groups by visual representation are they introduced to actual symbols.

This method is becoming popular because Singapore is consistently ranked top in international assessments (Cvencek, Kapur & Melzoff, 2015).

This is noteworthy in relation to my studies as it is looking at how context given through interaction and pictorial representation before explanation aids development. Pictures and interaction are laying foundations for better comprehension by providing symbolic assistance.

The concrete, in the context of how a child could form a narrative from looking at my images, would be their own life experiences so far. They would have a certain level of understanding of particular situations. An example could be their experience of darkness. Which emotions are tied to it. Would that be a signifier of danger ahead, or would their view contradict that assumption and the narrative take a different turn for them. The pictorial is my representation of the elements within an illustration, this is where my involvement starts. This is how the story I’m telling occurs to me. The abstract is what the individual viewer’s mind does with the illustration once they’ve taken it in. How much detail they look for and where they seek to find meaning will all have an impact on the story they choose to build around the pictures.

CVENCEK, D., KAPUR, M. & MELTZOFF, A.N. (2015) ‘Math achievement, stereotypes, and math self-concepts among elementary-school students in Singapore.’ Learning and Instruction. 39. p. 1-10.

Illustration To Aid Reading And Understanding By Providing A Concurrent Visual Narrative

Illustration is a notoriously difficult thing to measure in this context and various studies have been undertaken to find a correlation between the two and what the link actually is.

An observational study of six children carried out by Feathers & Arya (2012) found that adapted texts with repeated use of elements within the illustrations were much less effective than the authentic versions.

This was determined by measuring the gaze and recall of children during a study where 2 groups of 3 children were given a different version of the same story. One book was the original (authentic) version and the other was adapted. The latter had illustrations taken from the original condensed, re-sized and used less frequently than the authentic book.

The study noted that the illustrated text in its original form was the most effective. This was apparent in recalls where certain assumptions were made based on the illustrations, even when those events hadn’t been referenced or mentioned in the text.

This is particularly interesting in relation to my own work as this non-verbal narration is what I’d like to explore. This study has made me question the relationship between words and pictures and how this non-mirrored dual narration can be used to create a multi-sensory experience in one book.

FEATHERS, K.M. & Arya, P. (2012), ‘The Role of Illustrations During Children’s Reading.’ Journal of Children’s Literature. 38 (1). p. 36. 

One Size Does Not Fit All: Initial Thoughts On Narrative

Narrative is a broad word but it encompasses the areas that interest me within illustration.  My primary focus and exploration will be centred on the different ways in which narrative is conveyed and carried along by image, and by using a range of contributory factors how narrative can be construed differently by children of different abilities.

Sequential images are what I’ve been conforming to in my work to date. That seems to be the universal standard for picture books that are trying to convey a story whilst retaining their sale-ability. The impact of this was explored during a study (Feathers & Arya, 2012 ) where an adapted text was presented to children to gauge just how far accompanying illustrations aid a child’s recall and understanding of details. The findings of that study suggest that it has a negative impact when we do this and therefore illustrations should be generous and varied rather than scant and repetitive. When a difficult or unknown word is introduced in the text, a child will use the visual clues within the illustration to make a choice on what they think the word means. This makes it essential in didactic picture books to include diverse compositions and recognisable objects, especially when they are unusual or it is unlikely that a young child has encountered an item before.

My other areas of interest are sensory impaired readers and keeping my work truly inclusive and promoting equality for all, without just focusing on the issues that surround protected characteristics. I don’t want to draw a family with a gay parent just because the book focuses on issues that are relevant to that demographic. I want to illustrate and promote inclusive mainstream picture books without an agenda.

CBeebies, Pablo, 2016

My initial thoughts were to investigate picture books with an unusual way of story telling. I came across an article called ‘Alice And Her Friend’ (Nishino. et al., 2016) where the writers made a book specifically for visually impaired children. I was interested by the concept but it could have been executed differently for better results and the expert analysis pointed out a number of ways the book could have been expanded to be truly inclusive and to function more effectively (most interestingly, through the use of an eye-ring or other similar developing technologies). It was also noted that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all category.

Children’s TV shows such as ‘Pablo’ (CBeebies, 2017) attempt to show life through the eyes of those on the autism spectrum and would be useful investigative tools for this research. Again, research keeps bringing back cautionary advice that points out how all children with one disorder should not be treated the same.

As I processed that information and did some further reading, I was struck by the fact that this is the case for all impairments. And true inclusivity does not mean designing a different set of books, it means being able to all use the same books but maybe in a different way.

I reached out to a friend who works with adults with hearing impairments and discussed the idea briefly. She made the point that anything that can aid communication would be a welcome development in the field.

At this point, I became concerned that I was veering a little too far outside the realms of illustration itself and after speaking to my lecturer, have decided to narrow my area down a little more whilst still keeping broad inclusivity in mind.

I’ve been playing with an idea for a particular picture book for a number of years but have had trouble pinning down where to take it. I believe that as a this will be the underpinning seed that I’ll develop later on.

The concept is that a clump of ants who all look the same from a distance aren’t quite what they seem. Close inspection reveals major differences, conversations and personalities. There will be multiple narratives unfolding throughout. I will attempt to use contrast, language and haptic feedback to try and structure the illustrations into a narrative that can broadly work for all.

At this stage, my focus is narrative. I like to use interactions within my illustrations to carry a story along. Up to now I’ve done that mainly through background happenings and facial expressions but I know there are more effective ways I can do that and I’m hoping that this blog will really help me to identify and integrate other ways into my work to give a richer and more holistically inclusive feel.


FEATHERS, K.M. & Arya, P. (2012), ‘The Role of Illustrations During Children’s Reading.’ Journal of Children’s Literature. 38 (1). p. 36. 

NISHINO, H. et al. (2016), ‘Alice and Her Friend: A Black “Picture Book” of Multisensory Interaction for Visually-Impaired Children.’ ACM. p. 1