3.2 Reading an image


The brief was to analyse an illustration from a children’s book to understand how the image is constructed, (use of colour, texture and visual hierarchy), and how the illustrator uses this to direct the reader’s attention whilst they are ‘reading’ the image.

Keywords from the brief:

  • List the content of the picture
  • Answer [several] questions
  • Identify the hierarchy


The illustration is from a children’s book called ‘Tom’s Clockwork Dragon’, written by Jonathan Emmett and illustrated by Mark Oliver.

Toms Clockwork Dragon
Illustration by Mark Oliver from ‘Tom’s Clockwork Dragon’ written by Jonathan Emmett

The authors website Scribble Street , describes the book in the following way:

When Tom, a young toymaker, offers to rid the kingdom of a ferocious dragon, the king just laughs in his face. But then Tom meets Lizzie, and together they come up with an extraordinary plan.

The two children wind-up in a thrilling adventure in which the dastardly dragon finally meets his match.

The content of the picture

The action takes place in a large underground cave.

The key visual elements in the picture are:

  1. A sleeping dragon
  2. Two characters; a young boy and girl both in awe of the sleeping dragon. One is pointing forward towards the dragon, and one is pointing back towards the exit – so there is a tension about what is going to happen next
  3. The treasure; gold coins, precious stones and a magnificent throne all surrounded and protected by the slumbering dragon
  4. Two piles of armour, swords, helmets and spears indicating that several attempts have been made by valiant knights to defeat the dragon and recover the treasure. But these have all ended in failure.
  5. A tunnel in the background receding back towards the entrance to the cave.

What the image is about? What is it saying?

The image seems to illustrate a key point in the narrative. The young protagonists finally get to discover the wonder of the treasure and the size and difficulty of the challenge they need to overcome to recover it.

The image is saying that the children have been clever and brave enough to find the dragon’s lair, but the task to defeat the dragon will be against impossible odds; many knights have already gallantly tried and failed.

Work out the narrative and identify the story

The narrative in the image is:

  • Boy and girl seek and find the dragons lair
  • They want to defeat the dragon and recover the treasure that was lost many years before
  • Many people have tried this and failed already
  • The characters are both scared and intrigued

This is the tipping point in the story – we find out what’s at stake and what will happen if the characters fail. This is the ‘upping the stakes’ image.

Describe the palette and tonal range which has been used

The colour palette consists of a range of highly saturated (hot) reds, purples and oranges which are used to describe the elements in the foreground, notably the dragon sleeping in the shadows and the treasure.

The same desaturated (cooler) colours are used in the background and tunnel that lead away from the action or main focal point.

There is an interesting use of colour in the bottom right hand corner of the image where the colours used in the shadows cast on the dragon are made to ‘zing’. This device attracts the attention of the viewer.

Overall, the level of detail in the dragon is limited in favour of large areas of hot red colour.

There is an interesting visual trick where a bright green draws attention to the throne in the centre of the treasure. The same green is used on the girl’s cloak. So visually they linked and given the same prominence.

The reds and oranges used in the top left quarter of the image in the roof of the cave are still quite warm, but nowhere near as intense as the colours in the bottom right quarter.

Texture is used to describe the cave floor and in the background in combination with cooler colours that recede backwards.

Is there any connection between hot colour and the importance of the element in telling the story?

The hotter the colour, the more important the element is to the telling of the story.

Image hierarchy

The image hierarchy or the way in which the image is read is:

  1. A sleeping dragon’s head and upper body
  2. The two children
  3. The treasure surrounded by the dragon
  4. Two piles of armour
  5. The tunnel receding backwards
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