The Power of Images

Homophones by Bruce Worden“Bruce, you’ve demonstrated so clearly the power of images! Can you/will you gather some of your favorites for a Journal article?” How could any illustrator resist a request like that? Even if it does mean discussing images that are, at best, only tangentially related to the natural sciences. 

In 2011 I launched a blog in which I illustrate pairs of words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same (homophones). I post a new pair of images every week, so it’s called Homophones, Weakly. Get it? Har har. 

Seriously, though, typos irritate me more than they should. So rather than yell down a hole about it, I thought I’d do something helpful. 

I get it, homophones are tricky words to learn. The difference between “whose” and “who’s” has tripped up the best of us. However, I also understand that these mistakes slip through automated spell-checkers and require a little extra effort on our part – we have to actually learn the differences. But everyone learns differently, right? Some people read. Some people listen. Some experiment. And (lucky for us) some people learn best through pictures. 

Homophones by Bruce WordenMy scientific illustration career requires me to break down complex concepts into comprehensible pieces, and present those pieces in a clear arrangement. That’s exactly the approach I took with Homophones, Weakly. I chose an extremely simplified black & white visual style that borrows heavily from warning labels and other wordless graphics. I arrange the images consistently side-by-side and relate them to one another visually and/or narratively whenever possible, while always keeping them in their own separate space. 

It’s tempting to think of these illustrations as visual “definitions.” But I prefer to think of them as “reminders.” They’re not intended to teach new vocabulary, they don’t explain the etymological origins of the spellings. They’re only meant to remind readers who are familiar with both words, which spelling matches which definition. That goal led me to another design rule: always arrange the words alphabetically. A visual learner who can remember the images correctly can, therefore, remember which spelling is on the left or right side. 

Choosing which homophones to illustrate each week could be a crippling decision. My list is huge, closing in on 400-word pairs. How do I prioritize? Honestly, it often comes down to my preference for natural science. I tend to shy away from intangible concepts like it’s/its and allusion/illusion and lean toward physical concepts instead. I’ve done a lot of animals: ant/aunt, marten/martin, links/lynx. A lot of plants: taro/tarot, thyme/time. I love taking natural forms and reducing them to a silhouette. I enjoy the challenge of making them recognizable and accurate in that harsh style, while always remembering that the images are only there to support the words. In the end, this isn’t a field guide, it’s a grammar project. And it seems to be working: 

"My year 3 son is struggling on spellings, and now his teacher wants him to remember homophones!!!! By chance, I had the idea to browse a little bit on the web to see if somebody could help, and I found your blog! 3 pictures later, their, there and they’re were the easiest thing he had ever learned, and the miracle continued with sail and sale. And I have now spent hours looking at your pictures and so impressed by the power of these black and white simple lines.... just fantastic. Congratulations and many thanks, for my son, and also for me, it is just like entering in a new world!"

That anonymous comment may be a touch hyperbolic, but it’s not atypical of the feedback I’ve received on Homophones, Weakly. My readership has increased steadily (and at times rapidly) solely by word of mouth. HW has been featured on other blogs. And from time to time I get an email from a thankful teacher, or student, or parent that validates what I’m doing and keeps me going, 250 posts and counting. I suppose it really has “demonstrated so clearly the power of images.” What more could any illustrator hope for?

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