Key Steps in Illustration: Reading an Image

Before I started this exercise I looked more closely into colour theory, and what is defined as warm colours and cold colours and why. I thought a great brief explanation was done by ehullquist in a short YouTube video, where he explains the differences between those colour sets, and what emotions they evoke in people. The colour palette can be devided into warm colours (red, orange, yellow tones) and cold colours (blues, purple, greens). Warm colours often evoke emotions – both good and negative – and passions, e.g. red can be considered agressive and powerful and the colour of love. Warm colours are often a symbol for sunlight, fire, heat, and tend to step more into the foreground within pictures. Cold colours on the other hand usually represent something peaceful, calm, more distant, and often receed to the background in the pictures. For more information, please also refer to other source like here, here, or here. What I found very interesting is artist Josef Albers’s view on colour theory, namely that he wasn’t a fan of the strict rules of colour theory because he felt that the perception of colour is very subjective, and largely depends on the surroundings (Heller, S. & Anderson, G., 2016, p. 10).

This particular exercise asked to read an image, and look at the effect of warm and cold colors in particular.

The image shows a sleeping dragon in a cave. The dragon is sleeping on a treasure of gold and some other relicts, like a king’s throne, swords, and others. The dragon is discovered by two dwarfs (?) or people, one of whom is carrying a torch of fire to light their way throughout the cave. I image in story like the Hobbit, or a fairy tale, where two brave dwarfs set out on a mission to search for the mysterious dragon’s treasure, and they end up finding the dragon sleeping on top of it before a showdown starts.

The cave itself is in a blue, purple shade. The dragon is red, and the fire on top of the torch is red, as well as the light that the fire makes on the caves’s ceiling. Bascially the image can be decided into 4 parts, the upper left is red, the upper right is blue, the lower left is blue, and the lower right is red, kind of like here:

Reading an image
Reading an image

I feel that the red is more prominent, but I’m not sure if it is because there is more red in the actual painting, or because it is more prominent and jumps to the front, as indicated in the colour theory above. The treasure, the dragon’s face, feet and skin, as well as the draws are drawn very detailed, whereas the cave itself is not that detailed. Only the floor shows some texture and looks like stones.

I think there is definetly a connection how the colours were used: the red colours are used for the fire/light from the fire and the sleeping dragon. The latter represents the imminent danger for the dwarfs from the dragon waking up any second. The fire represents light, and something that helps the dwarfs on their mission. Also it is a good counterbalance for the red dragon.

The cold colours are used for the cave, and some minor details from the treasure. The blue cave can be considered cold, and a great contrast for the red, which appears even more vibrant.

The most important elements in my view are the dragon, and the dwarfs with the fire, i.e. mainly the warm colours. I think that the warm colours are used to convey the idea of the storyline, and the tension of the scene, that this is a very exciting moment.

The dragon could have easily been done in a blue, purple tone or green, which is often how dragons are depicted in films or books. However, it is my opinion that the red was chosen intentionally to have the dragon stick out – it is the first thing you notice when viewing this image since it also takes up most space in the image. Then the eye is drawn along the red light on the cave’s ceiling to the two dwarfs who have just discovered the dragon. So there is a clear hierachy in the image, and you can clearly notice how the warm colours were used for the more important elements to direct the viewer’s eyes, whereas the blue colours are mainly used for the background and less important elements in the picture.

I think this is a good example to learn how to read an image, its hierachy, and colour theory, and I probably will look differently at illustrations, especially children’s book illlustrations from now on.


ehullquist YouTube channel. “Warm vs Cool Colors”. Published on Mar 31, 2015. [Accessed on Jan 20, 2018]. URL 

Lifegate.  “Warm and cold colours”. [Accessed on Jan 20, 2018]. URL “Design Basics: Understanding Warm Colors and Cool Colors” by Lauren Flanagan. Last updated on June 12, 2017. [Accessed on Jan 20, 2018]. URL “Basic color schemes – Introduction to Color Theory. [Accessed on Jan 20, 2018]. URL

Grafikdesign. Das Ideenbuch. Heller, S. & Anderson. G. Stiebner Verlag. Published in 2016.  “FARBEN UND FORMEN. Die Magie der Pigmente”, p. 10f.

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