Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hierarchy - Level 1 - Composition, Relations of Basic Construction


I mentioned the apprentice system the other day. An apprentice is basically a clean up artist. Clean up is something animation schools tend to neglect, which is a shame.

In order to be a good clean up artist, you have to know more than how to draw a clean line. You still have to understand the big concepts, like construction and hierarchy. You need to know that some things are more important than others and how to preserve those important things in your final clean ups.

The most important part of an image is the overall composition and graphic statement. You should be able instantly to see what's going on in the big picture. None of the details should distract from it.

You need to be able to see clearly:

The Lines of action

The relative positions of the characters and their emotional relationships to what each is doing

Their construction

The negative shapes that help us clearly see the whole image

If the big picture (the composition) doesn't make an obvious statement or read clearly, then every other step of the detailing will just make it worse.
Beginners who are recently introduced to the idea of construction and Preston Blair's lessons, tend to think every part of a cartoon is made of simple symmetrical ovals and balls. Maybe very early animated cartoon characters were, but not by the late 30s. You have to look carefully at an artist's drawing to see the subtle shapes in the forms.

At Spumco I've had to train many many assistants to get them to see the subtleties of the shapes in the rough drawings and learn to preserve and enhance them.

I will attempt to do that in a few posts on hierarchy and what assistants and inkers should be looking out for in experienced artists' rough drawings.

Take a look at the Harvey Kurtzman post below. Every image has a beautifully designed "big picture". There aren't a lot of details, and he doesn't need him, because his overall statements are so well planned and artistically designed.


Elana Pritchard said...

Very clear post! I think I was one of those "circle, oval" Preston Blair people. John K is the best teacher EVER!

Claudio Cerri said...

Wow, very interesting! Great post!

Anonymous said...

I actually heard a criticism of composition the other day. "Well, if you try to make people read it YOUR way, that's, like, calling your audience stupid!"

From an art major, nonetheless!

btw, I donated yesterday- hope you got it. Thanks for the lessons, John!

bill said...

John many of the things you claim to be not taught today are really taught in art schools everywhere. Just look at this

JohnK said...

That doesn't look like an animation school. Is there a clean up class?

I see some talented artists there.

Anonymous said...


smirkstudios said...

Well, I guess my last post wasn't good enough to make it. I am going to still keep an eye on your blog for a number of reasons, besides that I am a big fan. Maybe if you get a chance you could help me know why my quality is not how I want it, no matter how perfect I draw up things.

Trevor Thompson said...

Why do the cleanups with pencil if they're going to be animated in flash? Why not do the final cleanup in Adobe with a tablet?

- trevor.

Geneva said... isn't really a school. They do workshops, though. And not really an awful lot of cartooning. They focus in... well... concept art, mostly for game studios. I don't like the aesthetic most of the completed stuff follows. Sometimes you can find gems, but they all generally pursue the same painting techniques. It's okay but I wish there was more variety (speaking of CA as a whole, that post was pretty good).

Anyway, I'm excited for more hierarchy posts!

Rafi said...

Hi john,
I made a copy one of the Bugs drawings you put up, and would be happy to hear your critiques.

the original:

As an animation student, I learn a lot from your blog, things that they don't teach at school..
Thanks, for all the advice,

JohnK said...

Hi Rafi

why so wobbly?

Be distinct. Use construction...

JohnK said...

>>Why do the cleanups with pencil if they're going to be animated in flash? Why not do the final cleanup in Adobe with a tablet?<<

I don't care how they are done, as long as the understanding and control are there.

I personally can't control the detail lines very well in photoshop and that's why they are a little scratchy on my roughs.

If you don't understand construction and hierarchy it won't matter what medium you try to do a finished drawing in.

Niki said...

Hey everybody! I got criticism that just topped M.R Darbyshire!

There's this kid at my school, and he completely criticized construction! Worst of all he had everyone eating out of his hands and his drawings were awful! 'Imagine a man with a half circle/ half jagged cliff face' awful! I was laughing inside cause he didn't believe a word I said! Too bad for him huh? Also he believes that people like John K and Da Vinci never tried it!

Ben Forbes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Niki said...

I meant to ask this question earlier,

"Since there are several lost concepts that allowed animation to be fun and entertaining as long as it follows a set of rules and instructions, do you think that there maybe lost ideas that allowed everything else to work? Like music, maybe there is a law that The Beatles, The Ventures, and others to be popular? Or maybe something that allows lawyers like Johnny Cochran to get past a law that most lawyers wouldn't know today?

JohnK said...

Hi Ben

your link isn't working. I'm not sure which drawing you want me to look at...

Anonymous said...

Link tag:


Remove underscores.

Ben Forbes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben Forbes said...

Thanks for the comment! I have some done... I'll post them when I do a few more this weekend.


Anonymous said...

I don't know with animation but speaking from a strictly art point of view, the simple key to all composition is actually plain old contrast. Lots of people seem to miss this.

Big versus small, one direction versus another, space vs. detail, black vs. white, red vs. blue, circle vs. square, smooth vs rough, wobbly vs. straight. etc..

Every master at composition I've ever studied just thinking to myself, I've realized its all contrast, nothing more.

Using contrast to point to a focus I guess, might be important to mention, though sometimes a focus isn't necessary. In animation I imagine it is though. XD

Bitter Animator said...

The lack of a circle causes my brain to explode. You're so right, of course, but it was one of those things that came early on in animation for me and has stuck with me like a bad habit.

No matter what shaped head I'm drawing, I draw a circle first. Why? No idea. It's about as useful as me flipping pages when I'm just doing a single drawing, something I also do out of habit.

Dan Becker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
drawingtherightway said...

Hey John I know you said alot of cartoons today don't use construction, but technically they do don't they? They just use a crappier method of construction. For instance, I saw one of the artist that works on family guy in a youtube video and showed how to draw stewie. He started out with shapes for the head but when he drew the guideline for the eyes, he made it a straight line instead of wrapping the line around the head. My point is he didn't draw straight ahead, but rather used crappy construction instead. The difference being that your method of construction makes sense but theirs doesn't!

smirkstudios said...

I would imagine that it is tough to compare Family Guy to Ren and Stimpy when Family Guy doesn't really offer any antics or heartfelt movements to connect with that are visibley tough to do. I'm not saying I could do it, but I am saying that they don't try very hard on the animation (although that doesn't mean it's bad).

Anonymous said...

drawingtherightway-- Seth Macfarlane learned to draw from one of the crappy animation schools, if I recall. He's not really constructing anything, so to use the term for his crap doesn't seem right. All he is doing is making sure the eyes are straight across from each other in 2 Dimensions.

Anonymous said...

And, yes, that does make Family Guy bad.

smirkstudios said...

That's what I would have guessed. He's a smart guy who knows the media today and knows the provokative things people want, and his cartooning is very clean, but some of the chins on his characters are beyond me! I like his work, though, and his characters are fairly original looking. (besides stewie, he is clearly a "Hey Arnold" rip off if you ask me!) I would love to here John Kricfalusi's take on the whole Family Guy thing.

drawingtherightway said...

smirkstudios- I'm actually a fan of family guy (though they do draw alot of the jokes on for too long.) I don't think the drawings are terrible but if you think about it, the construction doesn't make much sense since both eyes are always the same size no matter what the head tilt is.

M.R. Darbyshire- I would still use the term construction simply because he isn't just drawing straight ahead but rather starting with a shape and using a guideline (even though it doesn't wrap around). I do see what you mean though about not calling it construction.

smirkstudios said...

By the way, I spelled "hear" wrong. I meant HEAR, not HERE. I would like to HEAR John K.'s views on Family Guy. Not HERE them LOL