Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hierarchy - Who Understands it Yet?

Here's a nice cover by Carl Barks that really demonstrates the concept. It works from the big picture (the composition) to the second level (its next biggest parts) and on through each successive level until the final details. Well, maybe the final details get a little less controlled. Some artists are better at composition than they are at details. Some generally work best in the second level of hierarchy (Kirby is a good example - although he also is capable of some great compositions when he wants to be). Some are good at every level - like Frank Frazetta.
I'm going to break the Barks cover down into the first 2 or 3 levels of construction, but I wonder if anyone else is up to the task first. I'm curious to see if this stuff is helping anyone see better.


Anonymous said...

It's helping me a lot. I was thinking about breaking something down, like you've done, to see if I'm reading it right.

Since you're interested, I'll definitely do it, this weekend.

Trevor Thompson said...

Definitely interested.

Incidentally John, I finished my first attempt at that Porky Pig comic cover, and although there are definitely areas for improvement, I have to say that this is the closest I've come to doing this right.

I'd greatly appreciate it if you could head over to my blog and take a look at my progress because as close as I've gotten, I'm still eluded by the whole process.

Thanks for these posts and the great information contained within! Yes sir, I like them!

- trevor.

Ambassador MAGMA said...

What a great cover!

I'm not sure I have the hierarchy down by any means, but here's my attempt:

The page is beautifully broken up. The two totem poles point to the upper corners of the page, the first thing you look at is Donald, then the title, which leads you down the totem pole on the right and back up the pole on the left to read the expressions of Hewey, Dewey and Louie. Now back to Donald's face, we see the real emotion going through his mind. His stance is almost prayer-like, sweating and unable to look down.

The forms are layered over the hills, and over the title "Land of the Totem Poles" the furthest Indian just a silhouette. The stiff totem contrasts the hills really well, there is no conflict in what we see.

The poses are "balanced" and the grinning creature they are perched on really sets off the scene (the distant faces are all angry, as if that pole is going to give chase as well.

The silhouetted pines in the background are a little awkward, as well as the color of the sky (perhaps to offset Donald's costume?).

The details are pretty basic, but it's also difficult to see with the pixelation. The three Indians all seem like they have diverse poses, faces and dress.

I don't think I have anything else to say! Good thing, as I have to go now!

Alex said...

I can make a weak attempt.

The main point of this is a cover, so the important things to get across are presented, a rough plot high point, the main character, and the label of what is going on.

Characters are nice and clear up front in a totem pole- apparently the plot point. The indians on the ground tell more of the story, and the second totem helps to frame the title between the negative space of the two totems. I really like the wing of the 2nd totem over the title box- helps to separate it from the plot point and make it separate from the image.

Um, for the donald totem, ot looks like donald was drawn first, then the 3rd nephew on the bottom to frame in the characters, and then the other two draw inbetween- that way there's guaranteed to show some of the totem they're on to explain, with the 2nd totem backing it up (whether or not the 2nd is in the story is redundant, it's to help back up what's pictured under them).

The hills add a nice bottom frame, keeping the negative space upward toward the title and characters. the indians are there to to modivate the plot point some more, but all to aid in filling the negative space on the hills.

that's all I have.

Alex said...

as far as being able to read them, I think it's becoming clearer-

but as far as being able to apply it I know I have a long way to go...

JohnK said...

...I wasn't asking for a description of the drawing.

I'm curious to see if anyone can draw the thing - the first 2 levels of hierarchy.

craigp said...

a broad breakdown reads to me like this (i'll skip the text on this pass and just discuss the scene):

in this case i see the main points as foreground, middleground, backgound
1. Donald, the nephews, and that one totem. together they read like one large shape and one outline they have the most contrast of shapes.
it's also the leftmost thing on the page and since we read top-to-bottom left-to-right we see it instantly.
2. The second totem pole. it's the second largest form and is bright and vibrant. the nephews eyes led me here.
along with the totem pole, the little indians running around could also be included in the second most important things because, like the other totem pole, they're there to support the main idea/emotion of the picture show why donald and the gang are reacting the way they are.
3. the far background (mountains, other poles, and tress, etc.)

you might look at this cover and think first,'hey there's donald and the gang but they're worried and disguised as a totem pole', then see the indians and the other pole and think ' oh those indians are after them and they're on the indian's turf' and then the mountain and other bg forms help ground the scene in a more specific space.

tried to keep it brief, didn't work all that well i guess.

Geneva said...

I gave it a shot:

Lluis Fuzzhound said...

Yeah, I feel I have improved heaps, with your teachings, and I understand much better what I am looking at all the time, I am making things more readable, I still stuggle with composition though, I've always felt I'm pretty lousy at it!
But gotta keep hacking away!
Thank you so much for all this!

Oscar Baechler said...

On that first D. Duck cover I immedately thought, "uh oh, John K. Wants me to analyze this." My instinct was that the foregound was shown importance via breaking the camera pane, the midground mimicked a design element in the foreground, and the background was a detailed and fun-to-look-at version of a horizon.

Anonymous said...

Hi John
Here's my attempt at dissecting the first three levels:

If the link doesn't work, please go to

I hope I'm on the right track.

Thanks Mr. K!
Josh Heisie

Kali Fontecchio said...

Aw, you don't want descriptions? I was going to explain Donald to you! He's an asshole with a big butt....

Niki said...

I'm not really so hot with the hierarchy, but I'll give it a shot as long as you'll help me build a better structure with a critic.

I decided to try Kirby's on my blog

Isaac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zorrilla said...

I did my homework too.

The Editorial We said...

I'm no artist, so please don't be too hard on my thoughts!

I really like the arrangement of Donald and his nephews--one nephew's holding up two of his brothers, and they in turn are supporting Donald. Logically, it should be the opposite, with Donald (the strongest) supporting two nephews and they supporting one--like a pyramid--but Barks flips the pyramid upside down, making the viewer sense that something's not quite right. (In terms of character, though, it's entirely appropriate, since Donald's usually saved by his nephews.)

The eyes seem very well done, too. I don't know about everyone else, but I'm usually drawn to eyes, and there are certainly a lot of them on this cover, but I think Barks is very careful to keep your attention on the ducks. And I think he does that by making their eyes asymmetrical--in contrast with the eyes of the characters on the totem poles, which are all symmetrical. (I also like how Donald's nephews are all focusing on that one indian--that is, the problem at hand--while Donald's looking up, not willing to deal with the dilemma they're in.)

HemlockMan said...


Barks and Kirby and Frazetta!

Analyzed, no less!

Looking forward to deconstruction.

craigp said...

yeah. i got the message after i wrote that big stupid long post...

Kelly Toon said...

Josh!! Awesome!!!

pappy d said...

Don't be distracted by abstractions, grasshopper. Re-read the post & look!

Niki said...

I think Josh has it, it's certainly better than mine. I thought the hierarchy was just what I posted, I considered but wasn't sure whether it encompassed the entire composition.

Ambassador MAGMA said...

Okay, I did my study... although it was much harder than the Bugs cover!

Drawing duck bills is tough!

JohnK said...

No F-words Elana, please. There are babies that read this blog.

Anonymous said...

Still taking entries?