Comparing the Illustrations for Episodes 9 and 10 of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure

by Mary Brigid Barrett

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In their respective illustrations for Episodes 9 and 10 of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, both Chris Van Dusen and James Ransome have skillfully contrasted light and dark values in their paintings creating drama and depth. Taking advantage of the opportunity to compare and contrast their work, I have created one Talk Art! section that discusses both illustrations and includes two coordinating art activities.

Click on a category or scroll down to read a discussion of pictorial depth, review art activities, and discover online resources.

Creating Pictorial Depth with Lights and Darks
Art Activity: Shading and Modeling with Light and Dark
Have Your Kids Arrange and Draw Their Own Still Life!
Online Resources

Creating Pictorial Depth with Lights and Darks

In their illustrations for The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, both Chris Van Dusen and James Ransome have skillfully contrasted light and dark values in their paintings creating drama and depth. Instead of imagining a source that sheds light from the front of the picture plane, Chris and James have imagined a light source emanating from the back of the picture plane, creating a backlit illustration.

In most illustrations and paintings, figures and objects in the foreground are frontally lit so that details and expressions are easily read by the viewer. Backlighting in an illustration or painting accentuates figures or objects in the foreground, dramatically separating the foreground from the middle and background, adding great depth to the picture. Atmospherically, because details in the foreground figures and objects are obscure and deeply shaded, the use of backlighting can add a sense of heightened drama, mystery, excitement, and even danger to an illustration.

"Supper at Emmaus" © 1628 Rembrandt van Rijn
“Supper at Emmaus” © 1628 Rembrandt van Rijn

Even more, backlighting is a technique that draws the viewer into the picture. In both Chris’ and James’ illustrations, backlighting the figures in the illustrations makes us feel like we are right behind or above the figures, looking over their shoulders, watching, perhaps even worrying.

Chris and James have shaded the figures in the foreground, using contrasts of dark against light values, giving form and weight to the figures. One of the masters of light and dark shading in both drawing and painting is Rembrandt van Rijn, a seventeenth century Dutch painter. In his painting here, Supper at Emmaus, you see a beautiful example of backlighting and chiaroscuro, the visual modeling and shading of light and dark that gives a sense of volume, of three-dimension, to figures and objects.

Art Activity: Shading and Modeling with Light and Dark

Supplies: White or cream paper; soft lead #2 pencils or Ebony pencils; a kneaded rubber eraser; a light board or heavy piece of cardboard to be used as a drawing board; a spotlight, lamp, flashlight, or independent source of light that can be moved easily; whatever objects you have on hand to create a still life (fruits and vegetables, pile of blocks, simple geometric objects, etc.)

Ep_9&10_eraserEp_9&10_eraser2Kneaded rubber erasers are one of the very best, and cheapest, art supplies; every kid should have one! Not only are they amazing erasers, but they are similar to Silly Putty in that they are very malleable, and can be shaped and molded into any kind of object or figure you like. I often take them with me when I do author/illustrator presentations at schools.

I demonstrate how a kneaded rubber eraser can be shaped into a rabbit, and then popped on the end of pencil, and the next day it can be reshaped into a lion’s head for an all together different look! Very cool, and the kids think so too!

Create a Value Chart for a Handy Reference

Ep_9&10_valuechtMost young people love to draw, and love to experiment with “shading” the figures and objects in their drawings. But, most young people are hesitant to use strong darks in their drawings. Creating a simple value chart on paper is a drawing exercise that raises their awareness not only of the dark values that are needed to give a shape form and depth, but also makes them aware of the wide range of middle values available.

On a white or cream sheet of paper, you and your kids draw a long vertical rectangle of at least six inches and roughly, and lightly, sketch out ten somewhat equal sections within the rectangle (see the drawing to the left). The top section will be the white of the paper; the last section will be the darkest dark you can create with your pencil, black if possible. In the eight sections in between the “white” and the “black,” you and your kids should try to make a gradated flow of pencil graphite that take the shades from the sharpest darkest dark of the bottom section, gradually getting lighter and lighter until it blends into the pure white of the top section.

It sounds easy, but it can be very hard to make this value chart. Experiment and don’t worry if the first time you or the kids try that it does not show a gradual blending of shades. It is important to try to make a value chart, not only to raise the kids’ awareness of the wide variety of shadings available, but it can also be used as a guide when shading their own drawings. Most often, in realistically inspired drawings, most of the values used in shading objects and figures will be those eight middle sections in the chart. But importantly, all drawn object and figures will also need both the lightest white and the darkest dark to really give the shape weight and dimension. Kids can use the value chart as a comparison point when working on their own drawings as it is a helpful reminder that all the values should be represented when they are trying to render figures and objects three dimensionally.

There are many different ways to shade objects and figures:


  • One way is to gradually blend the different shades, which can be done by applying different levels of pressure on a soft lead pencil, and also by rubbing and blending the graphite with a tissue, a figure, or lightly with kneaded eraser. You can also use a kneaded eraser to reveal whites of the page, and to lighten areas that are too dark.
  • Another method of shading is to cross hatch lines over and over again to attain needed dark shades.
  • A third way to shade is to use small dots, or points—pointillism—to achieve light and dark areas. You and your kids may want to experiment with all three methods by drawings simple spheres, like in the above drawing, and then shading them.

Ep_9&10_mbbThe illustration at left is a drawing I did in colored pencils to illustrate “The Testimony of Padraig Tomas O’Deorain,” a story I wrote for the NCBLA’s award-winning book Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out.

In this realistic drawing that details the stone arch that is over the front door of the White House, I have used the full range of values from white to black in order to show readers the incredible depth of the stone carvings on the White House.

See if your kids can find the two griffins that guard the White House in the arch!

And below are some rather incredible Rembrandt drawings that you can share with your kids to show them the many different ways they can shade their own drawings.

Have Your Kids Arrange and Draw Their Own Still Life!

A still life is an “artful” arrangement of intimate objects. The object can be simple, like round pieces of fruit standing on the table or in a bowl, a vase of flowers, or a tower of blocks. The still life can be more personal—an arrangement of beloved stuffed animals or favorite toy cars and trains. It can be anything you and your kids would have fun drawing, but for the first time, simple may be best.

Have your kids arrange their chosen objects on a table. See if you can get rid of all natural and man-made lights sources in the room—close the curtains and shades, turn off all overhead artificial lights. Then get your portable light source and place it somewhere near the still life. It can be behind the still life to get a backlit effect. It can be to the right, left, or way above—whatever you and the kids like! You may want to try a series of drawings—drawing the same objects from a variety of different viewpoints with a different lighting source direction each time.

The kids should pull up a chair near the table, resting their “drawing board” at an angle from the table to their laps. A piece of drawing paper can be masking taped to the board. They will also need their soft lead pencils and an eraser. You can sit right next to them and draw, too! Everyone should lightly and loosely sketch in the objects in the still life, and use the entire sheet of paper!!! Once you have an idea of where you want the objects on the paper, draw in details and shade the objects so that they begin to have dimension, weight, and form.

When everyone is done—have a tea party and tape your drawings all around the living room or your classroom for your own gallery showing!!

Online Resources

Check out the following online resources for more information about chiaroscuro and the artist Rembrandt van Rijn:

Be sure to review the book recommendations, classroom activities, and discussion questions for Episode 9 and Episode 10.

© 2010 Mary Brigid Barrett