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Picture books and the art of collage
Childhood Education, Fall 2003 by Prudhoe, Catherine M

Close your eyes and imagine you are listening to someone reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1969). In your mind you see the little egg that lies on the leaf and the vibrant blue-green circles that form the caterpillar. As the story continues, you visualize all the different foods the caterpillar eats and the cocoon he builds around himself. Finally, you picture the "great big beautiful butterfly." Carle's illustrations are as much a part of the story as are the words. The images he created are forever linked to the words he wrote.

Picture books create meaning by blending art and text. As visual representations of the words, illustrations add to the information and help make the text more understandable (Huck, Hepler, Hickman, & Kiefer, 2001). In picture books, the illustrations are more than background for the authors' words; they act to engage the reader cognitively and emotionally as the story progresses. Illustrations add a richness and depth to an author's words by creating the setting and heightening the mood. They help us flesh out our understanding of the characters by vividly depicting their actions, challenges, and triumphs. Patricia Polacco's The Butterfly (2000) serves as a perfect example. The illustrations capture the fear, sadness, and ultimate joy of her characters, who are living in France during the time of Nazi Germany's occupation. We understand a little better how frightening that period of time was, and why we must always remember it.

Adults know that for very young children, the pictures are the story. Often, when a child is holding a book that an adult is reading to her, she needs to be reminded to move her hands away from the page so the reader can see the words. Children may be puzzled by such a request, looking at the reader as if to say, "What's the problem? My hands aren't covering the pictures. Keep reading!" For older children, the pictures offer contextual cues to further exploration of texts. Children may use the pictures to help them figure out unfamiliar words or to verify that they read the text correctly. Beyond their literary value, beautifully illustrated children's books also offer exposure to the visual arts. "Picture books are designed to be taken in through the ear and the eye, to be savored as an auditory and visual experience" (Savage, 2000, p. 99).


In 1994, the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations (now known as the National Coalition for Education in the Arts, but here referred to as CNAEA) published the National Standards for Arts Education. These standards espouse the belief that in order to be truly educated, children must receive instruction in the arts. In support of that belief, the consortium developed a set of competencies in dance, music, theater, and the visual arts that specify what children should know and be able to do by the end of 12th grade. The standards for the visual arts are:

* Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes

* Using knowledge of structures and functions

* Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas

* Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures

* Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of [students' own] work and the work of others

* Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines. (CNAEA, 1994)

As teachers, we can engage in appropriate art instruction that focuses on one or more of these standards. This article explores how teachers can use picture book illustrations to teach children art lessons, specifically examining the art of collage.


For centuries, folk artists have put pasted objects and papers into their artwork. However, collage first truly emerged as a fine art when cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque incorporated pasted papers and objects into their designs (Brommer, 1994). Incidentally, the word "collage" comes from the French word colle, which means "to paste."

Picasso's Still Life With Chair Caning (which was completed in the spring of 1912) is considered by most to be the first modern collage. In this work, Picasso used oil paint, oil cloth, pasted paper, and rope in a three-dimensional construction, or assemblage (Brommer, 1994). Braque created his first collage using only paper in the summer of 1912. He incorporated wood-grained wallpaper into a series of charcoal drawings. Other artists quickly followed these innovators and expanded on their collage techniques. Silberstein-Storfer and Jones (1997) explain how Henri Matisse drew images by using scissors to cut pre-painted papers that he then assembled in layers. Matisse began using cut paper collages as his sketches for commissioned works, and later exhibited these collages as finished works (Silberstein-Storfer & Jones, 1997).

Today, collage is considered an important medium for artistic expression. It may be used alone or combined with other media as artists create and visually communicate their ideas.

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