Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Good Compositions Take Self Control

People who are good at composition have to exercise a lot of self-control.
Instead of starting a picture with small details, they instead have to plan a big visual statement that reads clearly and simply. I've picked a couple simple Eisenberg images to demonstrate this.

The overall image above is broken into 4 basic shapes. Then each major shape is again broken into subdivisions.
Then the next level.
Someone with less control would get all absorbed in the details early on. Maybe he'd start by drawing a bunch of individual leaves and hope they ad up to an overall tree shape. Or he might do a wild pose of the character - with all the limbs sticking out in every direction, and no overall silhouette.
Good layout artists have to have this kind of self-control - to avoid getting lured into the details too early. I wish I had Eisenberg's control. I've always struggled with composition, because I want to get right to the character.

Here's another example. The characters look great, but they fit perfectly into a much simpler framework, which helps them read well.

Ranger, Cindy and Baba Looey act as one form, that in turn fits into the bush shape behind them. They together are well separated from Yogi, who is the focus of the picture. Boo Boo looks up at Yogi and is framed by the bushes behind him. If all the characters were evenly spaced and the same size, the picture would be confusing and wouldn't draw your attention to anything in particular.

The characters and BG also frame the skywriting plane in the BG.
You can see this deft arrangement of shapes in all of Eisenberg's pictures.
Great illustrators like N.C. Wyeth use these exact same principles, only apply them on more complex levels with more complex drawing:

You can still see the big shapes dominating the compositions, and the details being subservient to them through many levels.
...and great use of negative space


Lluis said...

I love the Yogi bear compositions... They are trully amazing!! and to have that level of control and vision is awsome!
N.C. Wyeth's illustrations are very cool too!

Thanks for keeping on reminding us of all this, since I've been reading your blog I have learnt so much! and I look and analize comics so much more!! and I also enjoy so much more too! thank you!!

fopever in debt!

Mr. Tat said...

Nice combination of both realistic and cartoony for the lurkers who still think about life drawings in one way or another.

My mind is now stuck on the differences between a well composed cartoon with the use of perspective and a well composed cartoon without perspective. I ask then that's a minor detail at best?

pumml said...

Another invaluable post, John. These are amazing examples.

Within the "rules" of illustration and composition, I was under the impression that bisecting a character's head with a strong line or background shape was a bad idea, yet Eisenberg does it often, expertly and really makes it work to direct the viewer's focus.

Any thoughts you'd share on the matter?

Niki said...

I really love older drawings and paintings. You can tell what it is almost immediately with almost no guessing! Nowadays, every picture I see is pretty crowded, and with junk no less!

Frank said...

Is it the same in animation ? I mean, if there's a long scrolling background, should I plan the elements based on the character's path ?

Also, am I making any sense ?

The Mobile Sponge said...

I say, John, I've been reading intensively into your practices to loosen up, and I have hit varying degree's of success

But I'm afraid I can't seem to get caricatures right on any scale, I just don't seem to be able to personalize my pieces enough

Can you do a little more in depth cover of your process in making caricature? I feel that it's the key to furthering my abilities!

Thanks in advance John!

cartoonretro said...

Great, valuable lessons. A complex subject clearly explained.

Aaron said...

I LOVE the bit with the fox. Not big on Mr. Wyeth. Something about his things never felt right to me. Like everything looks so carefully constructed and realistic like I can't or don't want to imagine it moving.

jeremy said...

This is a great post. Thanks for dropping science on us.

Reg said...

Thanks John - very useful.

Zorrilla said...

It's so difficult to keep it simple!

And it's also hard to find a good balance between figure size and negative space around it!

ther1 said...

I bought a book called "Lemon Poppy Seed" that was supposed to show exciting, fresh new talent in the world of graphic design.

Instead, it was full of illegible, cluttered repetitions of graphic design trends (including the picture on the cover). Random lines snaked out everywhere. Most images took a thorough look to determine what they were.

That is not how to impress a real artist, or even appeal to human aesthetic.

the plummer said...

those wyeth pieces are extraordinary. pointed and effective, they lead your eyes right to a focal point as soon as you set sight on them, and then allow to take in the environment almost immediately. good post, this one is!

HemlockMan said...

That third Wyeth painting from the top is the one that I saw and went: "AHA! This guy is where Frazetta learned his tricks!!"

I like to read your posts where you take an artist like Eisenberg and point out how skilled he was. When I was a kid reading those comics, I was never really impressed with the work--maybe it was the scripts. Now I can see what I was missing.

Who did THE CAVE KIDS? That was one that appealed to me on a lot of levels when I was in grade school.

Torsten Adair said...

While you concentrate on visual composition, your use of comicbook panels also illustrates good storytelling composition as well. (And what good is illustration if it does not illustrate?)

The panel showing the skywriter is an excellent example of guiding the reader's eyes across the page, so that all elements are seen in the correct order.

The group on the left comments on the skywriter and the reader follows their gaze to the skywriter.
We see and read the skywriting.
The airplane serves as a diagonal arrow to Yogi's perplexed expression and his hat.
The reader's eye moves to BooBoo's speech balloon.

Peter said...

My Producer at the studio I work for in Canada tells me good composition on the Storyboards is "old fashioned"!

The BG's should always be filled with interesting clutter, and if something happens to be sticking out of a character's head, we shouldn't be concerned about it...negative space is "old fashioned", too...AAARGH!

Anyways, it's nice to see Harvey Eisenberg is getting recognition on the web...he was a Layout artist at MGM so he understood composition more than most of the other artists at DELL.

Andrew Mortlock said...

Wow! The Robinson Crusoe images are beautiful!

and the Yogi caught in mid-head spin is hilarious.
He looks different than usual in these ones almost "Homer Simpson character" ish.

Ignacio Ochoa said...

Great lesson!!


Geneva said...

This is a very good post! I love the examples given and when you find connections between artists with very different technical approaches. Two great artists! Thanks, John.

Jack G. said...

I love these kinds of posts.
They're a big help in my learning to draw a better cartoon.

Mitch K said...

Very helpful. Thanks a lot! :D

Doctor Jones said...

What a great read at the end of the day.
Very informative.
Thanx for sharing.

smbhax said...

Hm, like that Wyeth. I'll have to keep an eye out.

Pilsner Panther said...

The more "serious" classic illustrations are drawn and painted with a lot more technical acumen than most cartoons are, but the cartoonists of the early 20th century had a talent for getting right to the point, visually.

It's a very subjective matter, but who was really the better artist, N.C. Wyeth or George Herriman? Maxfield Parrish or Elzie Segar? Norman Rockwell or John Held Jr.?

My own standard for visual art is whether it gives me an "Aha!" moment the very first time I see it. I'm not big on abstract painting in general, but Arshile Gorky's work gave me exactly that reaction when I saw a large-scale exhibition of it. That man could draw, even if he gave the viewer almost no idea of what he was drawing. Forms based on plants, sort of, late in his career... I guess. You have to just appreciate his sinuous pencil, pen, and brush lines and use of color and space, and then you'll "get" Gorky. Which is also true of Picasso and Kandinsky. Even if you're totally confused by the subject matter (whatever it might be) their astonishing talent shines through, regardless.

There's a parallel in music: Cecil Taylor. When he performs on the keyboard, you might find yourself thinking, "What the hell is he doing to that poor piano?" But even though Cecil often seems to be beating the instrument into submission, what he does works. He communicates very directly with the open-minded listener.

Maybe all I care about is superior draftsmanship, since I can analyze drawings acutely, but I'm no great shakes with a pen or pencil or brush, and never will be. Having tried to draw and paint well, I eventually gave it up. Whatever might be required to be "talented" on paper or canvas, I don't have it.

As a frustrated artist, maybe I should grow a little toothbrush mustache and start a dictatorship, instead. It worked for... no, wait, it didn't!

Joe Baggs said...

This is a great lesson! I'm still a pretty lousy artist, but posts like this one help a lot. You're a good teacher John, keep it up and I'll be a cartoonist in no time!

Michael said...

Great post! Here's something kind of funny. We're all living in Andy Wyeth country nestled in the Brandywine Valley. Bam Margera from the movie "Jackass" is now painting and in one of his crazy paintings he smartly writes in big green letters "Andy Wyeth Don't Even Tryeth."