Monday, December 29, 2008

Can Angular Styles Be Staged and Composed Well?

Flat designs that are extra stylized can pose a problem for layout artists. If they get too flat or wonky, then all the individual design elements tend to veer off into their own planes and directions. This makes it hard to get an organic hierarchical warm composition.
When I was around 8 or so, Hawley Pratt and Al White's Hanna Barbera Golden Books were my favorites. I loved the design of the HB characters and Al White's bright happy colors and crisp rendering made the books look extra fun.
As a kid, I didn't think at all about composition - to me design just meant superficial stylistic tricks - like squarish heads and backwards hands.

Then one day I discovered a whole new approach to the Hanna Barbera style:
This cover immediately caught my eye when I saw it on the bottom shelf of The Davis Agency Store in Billings Bridge Plaza in 1965. I grabbed it and stared at it in shock.

There was something really unique and brash and challenging about this style. Superficially the painting style looked messy because of the loose dry brush shading and textures. But it had something else that was different and appealing too. Each individual shape was designy and quirky, yet it fit easily and neatly onto the bigger forms. It had a great combination of contrasting curves and straights and everything just fit together so perfectly.
Biggest Forms of the composition make an overall interesting pleasing design. Every level of sub forms down to the smallest are interesting and fun.
The eyes have interesting angles and are asymmetrical. But they still fit on the head in the right place. They don't go in a different direction than the angle of the whole head.

I flipped through the book in awe. Mel Crawford instantly became my favorite Golden Book artist. I didn't know at the time just how sophisticated his art was; I just knew it was different, somehow wrong and right at the same time.
This is not merely stylish and angular on a superficial level; it's great drawing, great composition and balance of filled areas against negative spaces. It has beautiful balance - much like the Bambi book, but in a more "modern" style. Balance is the key to good design. That's what's missing from so much of today's cartooning. Everyone thinks he's an instant designer just by drawing flat and wonky, or putting Anime eyes on a Bruce Timm drawing.
Of course, I also loved that Mel painted everybody the wrong colors. What a bonus!
By comparison with this stuff, the Hawley Pratt books look rushed and uninspired. I get the feeling that it was just easy money for him and he wanted to pump out as many books as he could. I know he has great layout talent because you can see it in the backgrounds of many 50s Friz cartoons. But the books look as if he just started drawing on the left side of the page and kept going till he made it to the right side of the page without worrying about having any compositional balance, or even good construction and balance in the individual characters.

I don't know if every Golden Book artist got paid the same page rate, but these Crawford paintings look like he spent some time planning each layout before he actually drew it. All the elements and shapes, big small and inbetween are related to each other in hierarchical order.
Mel is balancing a pile of skills and principles all together at the same time - a very difficult thing to do.

This is the kind of stuff that gets easily misinterpreted as "wonky". It's anything but.
Every layout is a complete design whole. It's not just a bunch of unconnected sharp cornered shapes randomly thrown together.
The negative shapes are as interesting and appealing as the positive shapes. And they serve functional purposes too.

Mel Crawford - genius!


Noel said...

Man i reeeeealllly like this Blog ha ha ha, i can't BELIEVE IT. I wanna know everything!!

Noel said...

I wish i could see this...i can't see any of it. I feel like i could draw it but i would know how to draw it. I feel sucky cause i don't see like this.

Will said...

thanx john =) this is great, supose practice makes perfect right =) Been trying to figure out my layouts lately but not sure if i'm quite grasping it yet, theres some more articles coming tho right? =) thanx mate, merry xmas n a happy new year yeah =)

Alain-Christian said...

I still don't like angular tits in my cartoons.

It's going to take a lot to make me a believer in this stuff.

Anonymous said...

Man, maybe I should wait on my Golden Books posts-- You sure gave me a lot to top.

I never think about how lines of action relate. My eyes have been opened to a new realm of possibilities!

Combustibillion said...

You have a really crisp, writing style, full of energy for what you're writing that you have me excited over something I thought I wouldn't be.

Great blog!

Iritscen said...

Sorry for going off-topic, but was anyone else totally distracted by Betty's expression in the first image? It's like she just sampled a local mushroom or something.

mike f. said...

[Mel Crawford - genius!]

Yep, that about says it. Excellent analysis, too. Crawford virtually redefined Hanna-Barbera and Bil Baird for Golden Books in the sixties. No one ever did it better.

BTW, I miss the stillborn "Fred Jr.", who never even got to see the light of day on The FLINTSTONES. He was replaced by Arnold the newsboy and Pebbles. (Oh, the ignominity!)

Kelly Toon said...

John, were most of these illustrations painted in watercolor or gouache? Were friskets used to block off shapes? I'd like to copy one or more of these, and I'd like to know what tools were generally used. I am especially interested to learn how to mimic these effects digitally.

Here are a couple of concept drawings I did to bid for a children's book illustration job. Take a Look. I tried very hard to keep my negative spaces interesting, asymmetrical, and to use balance in my designs, and make it all very appealing. I am proud of the results, though I can see where they need adjusting. A certain redheaded bombshell gave me some excellent feedback and that helped a lot!

I am sharing these images, just to say thank you again for this wealth of easily-digestible information you provide every week. Hopefully these do not make you want to shoot yourself, if you decide to take a look. Of course I'd be delighted to get any critique.


Mush said...

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Shotgun_Mario said...

I never thought I'd be so excited over something like layout or character design... thanks to your blog, you've fully pulled me into becoming an animator (verses animatronics). Have you ever thought about writing a book, or at least selling hardbound copies of your blog? The information is priceless, and no printer paper could properly contain it at my desk!

Anonymous said...

Who the heck is JUNIOR Flintstone??

HemlockMan said...

This is a great blog. Who knew the best animation teacher on Earth would do a blog?

Nice to see CAVE KIDS mentioned. I loved those comics when I was a kid.