Written by Deirdre Moore

Picture This: Exploring Art Elements in Picture Books

Do you have a classroom library? If so, what kind of books are in it?

The illustrations in those books provide a great opportunity to introduce or review some basic art concepts.  Teachers have always done lots of teaching with pictures but traditionally we have stuck to what’s in the picture rather than how the illustration was made.  Just by asking some key questions using art elements, educators can help students enrich their own artwork, better appreciate the work of others, and improve each child’s ability to “read” the illustrations to deepen their comprehension of the text and appreciation for the story.

Here are just a few suggestions of questions to ask for each of the art elements listed.  Choose one or two elements and “read” the story using just the illustrations.  For each illustration be sure to ask what feeling or mood the students perceive and what it tells them about the story (genre, subject, characters problem, solution). Point out trends or changes in the illustrations as the story progresses.

Shape  (two dimensional) and  Form  (three dimensional)

  • What kinds of shapes do you see: common geometrical shapes (circle, square, etc.), irregular shapes, three-dimensional shapes?
  •  How did the illustrator use the shapes?
  • Which shapes are the largest?
  • Why do you think the illustrator chose to make that (those) the largest?


  • What kinds of lines do you see: straight, curvy, jagged, scribbled, diagonal, horizontal, vertical?
  • Are they thick or thin?
  • Why do you think the illustrator chose this type of line for that subject?

Color  (hue) and  Value  (lightness or darkness)

  • What different colors do you see?
  • Are they warm colors or cold colors? (Warm colors tend to be vivid and energetic: reds, oranges, yellows, bright greens.  Cold colors are more calm and soothing: darker greens, blues, purples.  White, black and gray are considered neutral.  If your students are familiar with the color wheel you can talk about complementary colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel or analogous colors that are next to one another.  Complementary colors make things stand out in a picture.  Analogous colors blend and are easier on the eye.)
  • What values do you notice?  Are the colors very light, very dark or somewhere in between?
  • What are your eyes drawn to first?  Why do you think that is?  Why do you think the illustrator might want you to notice that?


  • What textures do you notice?
  • Are there contrasting textures or do they all seem similar?
  • Why might the illustrator have chosen that texture or those textures?


  • What takes up the most space?
  • How much space exists between objects?
  • Is there negative space, and if yes, how much (the space around the subject of the image)?
  • How does the use of space change throughout the book?
  • How much space does the whole illustration take on the page?

Another Resource

Teaching Art with Books Kids Love: Art Elements, Appreciation, and Design with Award-winning Books written by Darcie Clark Frohardt.  The author starts by explaining and giving examples of each art element.  She then goes on to give fine art and picture book examples of that element.  Finally, she focuses on one book and explains how that element was used by the illustrator followed by a number of art activities for your students to explore that element.

Happy art “reading”!

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.