How to Illustrate a Story

by John Steven Gurney

Illustration sessions for early grades I have done illustration sessions that are mostly about how one conceives of an illustration. When I present my work, I discuss the development process, how I get the story or the concept, I do a rough sketch, present it for feedback, get visual reference material, and then start painting the finish. In my session with the students we only take things to the rough sketch stage.

First, read a simple piece of text. I have found that something familiar works best, but use something that is not too descriptive. For example, try this nursery rhyme:

  Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone
When she got there
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none

Then ask the students to close their eyes and picture the scene. Ask them to picture the dog, the woman, her dress, the room, and so on. Then ask them to focus on specifics, like, what kind of dog was it? They almost all picture a different kind of dog. Use this as a starting off point to demonstrate how many illustrators might illustrate the same story differently, making it their own. No one is right, no one is wrong. It’s important that they have a clear, specific vision before they start sketching, so they aren’t overly influenced by each other.

Next, have each of your students sketch out their idea. Talk to them about different aspects of composition and how they help the picture tell the story. Scale, for instance, is an important aspect of composition. Ask your students to pay close attention to the size of the important elements in their picture. Too often kids will draw a huge kitchen with a tiny dog and a tiny Old Mother Hubbard. Also discuss perspective with your students. Ask them to think about where we, the viewers, are as we look at the scene and how different perspectives impact the picture.

The objective of this exercise is not to walk away with a great piece of art but to give students more options at hand when they set about making pictures in the future. If you have time for more than one session, your later sessions could be used to explore different rendering techniques such as paint or colored pencils to further develop the students’ sketches.

© 2007 John Steven Gurney


Permission is given for individual school classes to use this lesson and to make as many copies of the lesson as are needed for the students’ use. All other reproduction is prohibited under penalty of law. For use outside individual classes, please e-mail


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