Friday, July 13, 2007

Detour on Character - Observation VS Imagination

Observation and Imagination can be used separately or together in varying proportions to create art. Or entertainment.

But I want to dissect them somewhat to see what's different about the 2 concepts. I think this will help to understand character better.

Some arts are pure Imagination:

A musician doesn't try to make his music sound like the real world. You don't buy a cd to listen to fake ducks, dogs, people walking around, talking, quacking, brushing teeth or taking a bath.
(Unless it's a comedy album).You can occasionally evoke real things (Flight Of The Bumblebees) but you aren't trying to literally imitate them.

Music is meant almost purely to pleasure your ears. The sounds and all the technical mathematical rules and structures used have as their final purpose abstract auditory pleasure.

Talented musicians can make you feel emotions and moods that nothing in the real world can.

How many times have you listened to a symphony and said "Wow! I understand what he is saying!"...but you can't put it into words.

Music is probably the most purely imaginative and abstract art. No one has been able to achieve in the visual arts what musicians have. Cartoons have come the closest.

Yeah, you can add lyrics and tell a story about life to go with the music, but if the music sucks, who will listen? (Jorge excepted.)

Here listen to this song. It's a real Jim Dandy. I defy you to concentrate on the lyrics.


The girls sings the same verse twice in a row and makes it mean 2 completely different things. 2 different emotional messages.
Then the guy comes in and scats it and creates a whole new feeling. Genius!


Dance is similar to music. When someone gets on stage and tap dances, they are aren't imitating the motions of anything in real life. They don't try to fool you by masquerading as reality. They are just making stuff up-or building on dances that were made up long ago and adding their own ideas to it.

Dance relies on beauty, skill and style to make art.

Some Arts are Pure Observation.
Well, most people assume that all good art takes some imagination but I'm not yet sure of that. For now, I just want to make a point how some arts lean a lot more on observation than others.

Portrait Painting

A good portrait has to more than anything else, look like the subject. (Let's leave out Picasso and modern art for now.)

What makes one portrait artist better than another comes down to his skill in observation, and then his style.

I'm still trying to figure out what style actually is. Is it imagination? Maybe not. Let's wait for another post to think about it.

Landscape Painting

If you sit in front of a real scene, you have in mind that you want to paint something that resembles what
is in front of you.

You aren't going to just make something up. Hopefully.

Still Life
You have to see this painting in person. It's at the Getty. Your eyes will melt.


This is a combination of observation and imagination. A good caricature has to look like the subject, but that isn't enough. It has to be highly amusing and surprising and that takes leaps of imagination.


Here's a guy who has both observation and imagination in big dose. Watch him do celebrity impressions (observation) and then dance like a maniac (Abstract entertainment).

Realistic Characters (observation) VS Fantastic characters (Imagination)

These 2 artistic concepts relate directly to the creation of characters in stories and entertainment.


These are characters and stories that could physically happen in real life. Of course, real life doesn't have as many coincidences as fictional stories, but the characters are usually recognizable and have believable emotions and motivations.

Detective Story-Psychological crime drama
Soap Opera - bland realisticgeneral human types
The Honeymooners - a brilliant insightful caricature of real human nauture in conflict



Whoever came up with the first superhero must have had a wild imagination.

A human who wears colorful long underwear, is above the law, has fantastic powers and doesn't use them to satiate his lusts for women, money and power.

It's not only fantastic that he has super powers and dresses indecently, but his humanity is completely unrealistic. He has no normal human motivations.

Everything about Superman is preposterous. Not just the physics.

No one acts like real humans do in old superhero comics and they don't need to because that's not what kids bought them for. You wanna see them kick everyone's ass and do impossible things with as much primary color as you can stand.

I think classic Superheroes are a great American tradition. Mike Fontanelli collects all of them.

There is no logic in any Superhero comics. Superman puts glasses on and then no one recognizes him.

Nobody reacts to bizarre situations that happen in a realistic way.


Batman is even more preposterous than Superman. He merely has the long underwear. No powers.

No criminal has good enough aim to shoot him dead. The police let him take the law into his own hands. No one recognizes his voice or jaw when he is Bruce Wayne.

He has a bare legged teenaged sidekick. He risks the kid's life every day and is not arrested for it.

Superhero comics are completely opposed to common observation of not only the physical world, but of how humans actually are.

Look at the gripping emotion in this so human comic:Many comic artists draw as if they have never actually witnessed human expressions. Observational skills are not really needed for purely fantastic characters. Wild imagination is.

Peter Pan (mildly fantastic)Peter Pan is less imaginative than Superman - or less preposterous, depending on how you wanna frame it. He can fly, so that's a bit fantastic, but his personality is non existent. He's slightly mischevious, but that's not enough to call a "realistic" personality, nor an "Imaginative" personality.

Combinations Of Fantastic and Observed

Dick Tracy
Dick Tracy takes place in realistic cities, but the villains are fantastic caricatures and they are named after what kind of ugly they have.

Dick himself is a simple character, but many of the villains have weird psychoses and quirks. The strip is highly imaginative even thought it supposedly is serious and realistic.


Fantastic characters with preposterous or simplistic personalities generally belong in:

Horror Movies
Science Fiction
Kiddie Fare

Because of the interesting fantasy settings we suspend our disbelief at the craziness of the characters.

Simple personalities usually don't work in bland settings, and they sure don't work in bland stories that beg you care about them.

To truly care about a character, it has to have more depth than Dracula, Wonder Woman or any mdoern feature animation character.

If you cry in one of those fake pathos scenes you are being tricked by the staging and the music, not the dialogue, story or character's charisma. Unsure Directors work the audience like puppets using cheap filmic tricks. Now they even have the characters tell you to care about them!

Spiderman and Marvel comics in general

After the first few Superheroes had mined every imaginable power, they ceased to be very imaginative. They just became endless clones and a whole formulaic mindset took over the industry. Artists and writers unquestioningly churned out mindless unimaginative fantasy with personality less characters. Superheroes had become cliches, just as Disney cartoons did.

Then in 1960, Stan Lee did what every kid who ever read a superhero comic did-questioned the preposterous nature of it. He and Kirby and Ditko started making costumed Superheroes that had the same powers that had already existed for 20 years, but now they gave their characters more normal-or realistic emotions and motivations.

This actually made the stories seem even more fantastic, because you believed the characters were like us. It invited the fans into the stories. Stan Lee is a huge influence on me (and I'm sure a million other artists). I took this idea and applied it to comedy cartoons. Realistic shaded characters in crazy situations. I also invited the audience into the fantastic stories and events in the same way Lee did. I used his homespun marketing style and made the fans feel like they were in on the gags and everyon else wasn't.

In the 60s, what Lee did was a revolution. We were so used to seeing nobody ever act like humans in comics that all of a sudden seeing these fantastic characters act like us..they were greedy, horny, torn between good and bad. The mere shock of semi realistic personalities wearing brightly colored underwear in public was a great novelty and it breathed new life into comics for about 10 years.
Unfortunately this led to the utter ruination of comic books. Lesser men than Lee and Kirby came along in the 70s and put too much emphasis on the psychological problems of the superheroes. They also added current events, like war protests, the drug problem and homosexuality!!

The Hulk had a friend that was gay who die of AIDS! Holy crap! In a comic about a big green guy who goes around crushing everything in sight and saying things like "HULK SMASH!"

The underwear boys had become too serious and all the fun was gone.



This is the same old affliction so many popular culture entertainers have- the need to be respected, to have their silly works be accepted on a higher level than just pure fun or sheer beauty.

Jerry Lewis syndrome.

This thinking leads to limbo art and limbo characters, characters who are neither fantastic nor realistic. They are simplistic cliches that beg to be compared to "real" fiction, like movies and novels. This is the kind of art that lesser talents with inferiority complexes make, or worse- executives.

To ME, and I know this an unpopular notion these days, is that you need to use observation, imagination or both and in heavy doses to make great art or entertainment.

At least if it's going to last.

Stay away from cliched blanded down versions of characters that have already been beaten to death a thousand times if you want to be remembered.


harpo said...

Glad to see a shout out to Stan Lee & Jack Kirby!
Being a comicfan I adore Kirby's style, it's so energetic, raw and powerful.
For me Erik Larsen is one of the few comicartists today who has that same star quality.
Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon

John said...

Im sorry John But Im not really a fan of many american superhero comics but I do understand their siginifagence.However I do like newspaper comics and alot of underground american Underground comics Partictularly Bone by Jeff Smith which I beleive beyond almost all doubt you will really enjoy its black and white but its purely astounding to look at and has very very memerable charecters I highly suggest it. Its the greatest american comic of our time in my opinion.But I fully agree with you on evertything else especially with music.Look how much the beatles changed the world with their legendary sounds!Now if we could only get cartoons back to those standerds where they were truly revolutionary we can only imagine what the world we be like if they were still like that today!

Vanoni! said...

These posts are great, John.

So much food for thought.

- Corbett

Robert Hume said...

Holy Crap! These are all amazingly informative and interesting posts, but I'm having a little trouble keeping up! heh heh
It's awesome that you keep this blog updated so regularly! Keep up the great work!

Sam L. said...

John, have you met Stan Lee?

Andy J. Latham said...

I'm curious to hear what your opinion of comic book movie adaptations is.

Obviously, some work better than others, but do you think they need to be purely an extension of the comic books, or do they need more realism? I think Spider-Man translated well to film (except the third one), but The Hulk did not. Spider-Man had a balance of realism and fantasy, with conflict in Peter Parker's life, but still with odd villians and some good humour. The Hulk delved too much into realism for my liking. It tried to be Jekyll and Hyde and failed to pull it off.

Also, if you are being completely honest, do you really think that art can be reduced to formulae? There are rules to producing good drawings, but these can be bent, or in some cases broken. As for artistic creation itself, I think the "rules" apply even less of the time.

Visit Andy's Animation!

Anonymous said...

'Talented musicians can make you feel emotions and moods that nothing in the real world can.

How many times have you listened to a symphony and said "Wow! I understand what he is saying!"...but you can't put it into words.'

That does make sense, especially whenever I listen to Miles Davis, The Champs, or even the Gorillaz; I find it hard to put those feelings into words, yet I can understand what they are trying to converse to their audiences.

limaCAT said...

I don't understand the jab to early superhero comic books... or at least, I would understand it in context (see at the bottom, and sorry in advance if I did not understand your post).

Most comics books where made by people striving to get supper to their table, day by day. Hell, you can see the main difference in the first Superman books, and the same era Disney cartoons: the first had rushed drawings, the latter had research and development which brought it from Steamboat Willie to Snow White in few years.

> Many comic artists draw as if
> they have never actually witnessed
> human expressions. Observational
> skills are not really needed
> for purely fantastic characters.
> Wild imagination is.

Remember that there you are comparing the "Striving for survival" business model versus "a hollywood powerhouse with hired people" (Disney, Warner or Mgm)... and I think this is unfair...

You can ask for quality in a product only when its author had a lot of time and the talent to push it to fruitful use.

I am completely o.k. with you if your meaning is: "look at this, it's history , but don't copy this, story-wise and art-wise".

zoe said...


Portraits have always been commissioned work. Paint some rich sap, take his money and run. Most are boring, and you seem to be describing the boring kind.

Then there are the Subversive Portraits (like John Singer Sargent). His portraits stand alone as works of art because of his insight into people's deepest natures. He was a real soul-stealer.

Good portraits like his are like the most subtle and scary form of caricature, because he captures the essence of his subject, but without softening it at all. The result can be really terrifying: paintings that really seem like they're staring at you.

Clinton said...

I think that creating characters based on your closet friends or yourself is a good way to start creating good, long-lasting characters. You begin to notice all the characteristics that make you different from everyone else and you can exaggerate it. All the characters I've created so far are based on the people in my life. Most music today is all the same to me. Same lyrics sung by different people. I can't remember the last time I watched MTV, I listen to SomaFM-Ill Street Lounge more often.

pinkboi said...

Music can and occasionally does have an element of observation in it, though it's almost always with a heavy dose of imagination. I'm not just talking about Vladamir Ussachevsky's "music concrete", but also classical music that tries to suggest an action with the music. Debussy in particular made many, many pieces that suggested something else with the music (such as la mer)

One obvious way music can be observation is if it's intentional mimicry of other music, such as the triumphant horns in the last movement of "symphonie pathetic".

Some pop examples (which are few because musicians don't like to experiment much anymore) - the sounds on much of the songs on The Cure's Disintegration suggesting, or even being a recording of, rain. Much punk, industrial and hip hop using samples from radio, tv, horror movies, etc (with Skinny Puppy skillfully rhyming the samples). Oh, and a few of the songs I made, like where I simulate rain with bongos, a windshield wiper with a pure synth sound and horns with a synth in one of my band's older songs.

But a sample is easy to do, it can only be coupled with imagination, like you said, or else skillfully rendered with another instrument.

Anonymous said...

Hey John K,

I was thinking ,instead of trying to get a TV network to fund one of your cartoons-why don't you just animate a short cartoon by yourself.

The animation that you did at the end of Boo Boo Runs Wild was quite good.

Or if you didn't want to animate all by yourself and had a bit of spare money, maybe hire one of your friends to animate?

If a 6 minute cartoon would take too long to do,maybe a 2 minute one.

Then you could enter it in film festivals around the world and it would probably generate quite a bit of interest and be seen by investors in all areas of entertainment -not just television executives.

A lot of people seem to be working on their own cartoons in their spare time-like Nick Cross and Jessica Borutski.What do you think of this idea?

JohnK said...

Then there are the Subversive Portraits (like John Singer Sargent).<<

Yes, he's great!

Wutatool said...

i think its kind of sad that 'illustrated storytelling' is so overwhelmingly dominated by the superhero genre.

great post, i dont know if the feature people are quite conscious of them making 'bland' characters, they probably dont mean to. i'm glad you have brought attention to these sort of things, i'll be thoughtful in regards to characters.

Kali Fontecchio said...

I'm glad you wrote this all down! I love your observations about observation and imagination! That Flemish painting sure was great!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

I can't believe the internet contains blogs like this! Food for thought combined with massive entertainment! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

harpo said...

Glad to be Flemish!

jOEy BaTEs said...

The Sammy Davis Jr. clip is great. Thanks for all the goodness.

I are da cute one said...

On that first part.. people sometimes consider sounds of the ocean music. I know I do. recorded rain and thunderstorms.. I find that a pretty sound :)

Anonymous said...

I suppose I should feel insulted that John made fun of me in a blog post again, but then again, I'm in the company of Mike Fontanelli, so I don't mind.

Part one of that second youtube clip was even better after that first tap dance routine with Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. He did a killer impression of Nat King Cole.

JohnK said...

No no Jorge, I was making fun of rap and you're this blog's representative of it.

I was merely acknowledging your influence here.

Your pal,


The Video Game General said...

What is the name of that flower and plant painting?

Moro Rogers said...

To be fair, Peter Pan has a lot more personality in the book. He's a cold-blooded psycho little kid.^_^

peldma3 said...

Great post... I don't know what else to write.
Especially the comic book stuff, I never got super hero stuff when I was a teen , I thought they were no fun to read, i just couldn't articulate it like you did in this post. I did like to look at old comic though an amazing amount of which I now realize was jack Kirby.. that guty drew like a machine!

peldma3 said...

When I read this blog i realize there is a whole history of the things I like , That I don't know much about.

JohnK said...

Hi Moro

I never read Peter Pan, but I believe you. I read all the Tarzan books and he had a ton of personality that was completely ignored in the movie.

Barbara said...

Hey John, I don’t think you know (or maybe you do) how much of a wealth of information this blog is. Especially for college students. I’ve never seen a site so packed with vital animation information and history, and your writing oozes with passion for the medium. That said:

I think you've struck gold with this notion, and I agree with you. When you compare animation (or say, visual art to be more broad) to things like music and dance, visual art is still a long way off from its creative brothers. So how do we even begin to catch up?

We'll figure that dance was first, because it seems the most primal. If someone had to express themselves and didn't know how, their first impulse isn't going to be to break out in song, and it's certainly not going to be to make a cave painting with complex metaphysical undertones and dynamic compositions--they're probably going to jump up and down, run in circles, whatever. Then comes music. These two art forms are inextricably linked because of their instant ability to hit your emotions rather than your intellect, whether you’re watching, listening or doing. Based on these ideas, visual art is an entirely different beast. I asked myself “why can’t art be on the same level as music and dance?” and I came up with a couple reasons. One is the one you came up with, the fact that art is somewhat dependent on reality and observation. The other is that visual art is unfortunately static. A song has ups and downs, changes in tempo, and a million other specifics. A dance can be fast, slow, rhythmic or choppy. A picture can only be one thing: a picture. Then, look! Animation comes along, suddenly we have the power to make drawings move and have organic life! That’s why I think animation is the one thing in the visual medium that can ever hope to come close to achieving what music and dance can achieve: evoking powerful emotions in people.

That’s not to say that visual art isn’t capable of connecting with you emotionally, but I think that it’s not as “jump out and grab you” effective as the other two and I think that its unchanging nature is part of the reason why.

It’s kind of sad when I think that animation’s been around for almost a century and we’re still mucking about with all this kiddie stuff. There’s so many possibilities--there literally is no limit to what is achievable with animation. Dance is restricted to what the human body is capable of. Music is restricted to what vocal chords and instruments are capable of. Animation is restricted to nothing but what the mind can think up. I wish more people realized this.

harpo said...

video game general:
The title of that flowerpainting is Vase of Flowers
by the Dutch painter Jan Davidsz de Heem.
It's in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC

Davidsz de Heem was born in Utrecht but lived and worked most of his life here in Antwerp.
He was specialized in flowers & fruit.

check out this delicious detail from another painting by him titled Festoon of Fruit and Flowers

Sean Worsham said...

Great posts John,

At least the 60's Batman was humorous. I laugh at all the antics of Adam West and Burt Ward in all those shows.

Jenny said...

Ah, dance....sweet. [somewhat]OT, but: all this time and I've never seen you tap. I wonder if you have some pockmarked parquet somewhere at your house?
Years ago I bought a pair of Tap shoes with taps...I just liked the way they sounded when I walked around, but they were kind of...heavy.

The best tap I think I've ever seen is Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940, that duet she does with Astaire(that I guess she choreographed herself with Fred). Gosh I love that rhythm and choreography. Wow!
You likee?

Joel Bryan said...

At some point, they overloaded comics with angst and pretentiousness. They think they're getting at the Big Issues, but instead they're just pointing out how absurd the original conceits are.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could torture the hell out of their heroes in dramatic ways and make it interesting and entertaining.

Today, the creators are more into brutalizing the characters in Turkish prison ways in order to titillated a juvenile and stunted audience...

That continues to shrink! And then they wonder why they're losing ground to Japanese comics.

Joel Bryan said...

Oops... "titillate," not "titillated." Damn my comment incompetence.

mike f. said...

I only collect Wonder Woman. Don't you believe him, Jorge.

Raff said...

>> I don't understand the jab to early superhero comic books...Most comics books where made by people striving to get supper to their table, day by day.<<

I think John was just mocking the oddities of those comic books while admiring the level of shameless imagination.

But I suppose the "starving" situation of the 30's provided a greater need for escapism, and forced everyone to admit they're all humans living at the same level. Thus the window of opportunity for the imagination to get its way without fear of shame.

Scott Fertig said...

A great book that covers a lot of this is "The Artist's Mentor".
I got a lot out of it.
One point it made that stuck with me, on the subject of observation, is that we are inspired to create by emotional experiences and by what we see in the world. But, we were inspired to become artists by a work of art we saw.

pappy d said...

I get it! Thanks for another great post.

Rainer said...

Better late than never: here is a respectful reply on the subject of comic books and the type of writers that succeeded and make them fun I wrote shortly after this entry was first posted(I previously wrote it for another type of online journal, but have since switched it to my own blog):