Saturday, August 21, 2010

Cartoony Principles 1: Contrasts

I did this drawing the other day in a private lesson as an example of exaggerating what you see by using the principle of contrast.My student had copied this Preston Blair drawing above and had drawn the proportions too conservatively. The baby's head was too small in comparison to his body. I'll ask him if I can use the drawing to show you, but basically he undertured it.

He was actually trying to measure the proportions and get the drawing to be exactly like Preston's original. In all my experience in the assembly line process of animation I have found that the vast majority of cartoonists -when they try to copy a drawing, automatically tone it down. They lose the contrasts and I always have to push them to go farther and overshoot what they think they are copying.

Drawing By Adjectives:
Here Preston describes what makes a baby look like a baby. His adjectives could just as well describe a real baby as a cartoon baby. The words are very general and don't give a precise description of the proportions and details.
Babies have big heads, right? Well not really. What does "big" mean precisely? It means relative to what we think is small. A baby's head is big in comparison to its body- when you again compare the size relationship of an adult's head and body.

So the difference between drawing realistically and drawing cartoony is that when you draw a real person, you are trying to draw fairly acurate measurements and when you draw a cartoon you are trying to draw the emotional essense. You are drawing opinions rather than reality.

You can use the same adjecties to describe a person in real life as you can to describe a cartoon character, but in your cartoon you exaggerate the contrasts. "Big" becomes "bigger". "Sickly" becomes "sicklier". The relative contrasts are heightened.

There are all different types of contrasts, not just contrasts of size.
You can have contrasts of:

Curves vs Angles
Diagonals VS perpindiculars.
Shapes VS Fills
and more

Other Principles Depend On Contrasts
Silhouettes and lines of action depend upon contrasts. The greater the contrasts, the easier it is to see the point of the drawing and what the artist means. Great cartoonists instinctively use contrast and therefore make stronger visual statements. Bob Clampett and Tex Avery are the masters of contrasts in animation. Weaker cartoonists are timid and conservative. They don't like strong contrasts and think they are in bad taste. In my opinion that makes their statements less forceful, less entertaining and less committed to their own ideas.

I was using "Uncle Tom's Cabana" to explain a variety of animation principles and techniques to my student and started drawing the poses and compositions to show how Tex and his animators used very strong contrasts to make every point in the story. We also noted that Tex liked to experiemnt with graphic styles throughout his career. He used different designers and layout men, yet all the cartoons have the strong pointed visual statements, a confident certainty in every idea Tex wanted to present. There is nothing vague or mushy in Tex' best work from about the mid 1940s on.

Other Cartoony Principles:

There are generally known (well known at one time) principles of animation as explained by Preston Blair and Frank and Ollie, but they don't cover what makes something "cartoony" or not.

I thought maybe I'd start compiling the tools, techniques and qualities that separate cartooniness from blandness and do my own set of cartoony principles.
Some others off the top of my head are:

Simplicity: Real life is full of busy details. Cartoons boil them down to the essential ingredients that make a visual statement clear. Simplicity by itself is not enough to make something cartoony. There are a lot of simple cartoons on TV today that are positively moronic from a visual standpoint. Kids draw simple, but without control or understanding. It doesn't make their drawings cartoony.

Puposeful Impossibility: Cartoons can do what you can't do in real life and it's what really separates itself from other media. For some reason most people in animation (and still cartoons and comics too) are ashamed of this and won't take advantage of this great gift.
Visually Funny: A good cartoon can make you laugh at the visual alone. Dialogue, story, appeal and other attributes are gravy, but not essential or exclusive to cartoons.

There are more principles I'm sure and when I think of them I'll add them. Giving private lessons makes me think even more analytically about things as I witness what concepts are easy to learn and which are more difficult.


Caricatures Are About Contrasts:

Caricatures are not about making everything bigger as some people think. If everything is big, then nothing is big. Caricatues are about finding the actual contrasts in a subject and then making the contrasts more extreme. A big nose becomes a bigger nose, but a little mouth (like Simon Cowell's) becomes littler. Again these are all relative to the other features surrounding them.

Not all caricatures however, are "cartoony". The caricatures that I have been doing are not all that cartoony. I am exaggerating the contrasts for sure, but not to the extent I'd like to, and I'm not really simplifying the features. There are plenty of much better caricaturists than me. I think I am too hung up on figuring out how the anatomy works and what the features really look like, so when I exaggerate them, I am held back by the struggle of trying to learn things that I am not confident of yet.

I do know that the more I draw a certain person, the more cartoony the caricatures get.


talkingtj said...

just want to take the time to thank you! this information is not easy to come by and youre doing it for free! this info is better than any ive ever gotten out of any book and it really opens up my eyes to what is possible in cartoon drawing and that there is, contrary to popular opinion, standards, principles and disciplines involved! thank you john, thank you very much!

SparkyMK3 said...

John, what do you think is the best way for cartoonists to get the "respect bug" out of them and get to laughing at funny things and making drawing things (besides the actual work, anyways)?

One major problem i have is this-how do i come up with new ideas? Whenever i try to come up with a story or character, it's too much like something i'm already familiar with. And since i live in Amherst, Ohio where nothing interesting happens, i don't have much source material to draw from. I have no friends-none of them in school share any of my interests, therefore i can't get anything out of them, and therefore won't waste any time with them. I very rarely leave my house unless its for the library or work.

But I want to make a budget feature with the characters defined in personality solely by movement and expressions with zero dialogue. Do you think that's possible?

Thanks if you reply back. I'm a learning student and i'll appreciate it.

Guy Cx said...

I had exactly the same problems your student had when copying Preston Blair's baby: too conservative proportions. When drawing the character's construction, I could swear I was getting it right. Gotta work on that...

Anyway, thanks for the post, John! I'm eager to know more about cartoony principles.

Pedro Vargas said...

Wow, really great information, John! Thanks!!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful post, John. It kinda helped me to understand the concept of proportions better and to see how I can change them to make my own work cartoonier, rather than toning it down and making it boring, which I sometimes tend to do when I'm trying to study a cartoon drawing I'm not used to drawing.

Kelvin said...

I completely agree, Mr. K!

Fairly recently, I assigned myself to evaluate contrasts in cartoons and wondered the "how" and the "why" of certain aspects in cartoons, such as what makes cartoon funny.

Cartoons are entirely made out of contrasts - it's what makes it funny, in my opinion. The first immediate things that I noticed in cartoons was the visual contrasts that was available. Additionally, there were "scenic contrasts" or "gags" that made things funny - as I think contrasts is Clampett's secret and the core of his cartoons.

Many gags can be discovered in Clampett's "Prehistoric Porky" when Porky goes to his dinosaur dog, it was seen as cute and cuddly at first, as it barked at Porky. However, we zoom out and the dog was huge in its body and nailing its huge tail on the ground - this is what I mean by gags. Another example from this cartoon would be that the dangerous black panther (or cat) was chasing Porky for the better part of the cartoon until the ending where he immediately jumps up and offers Porky his fur services (after finding out about Porky's agenda that is).

In my opinion, "Prehistoric Porky" offers a lot of contrasts, not only in visual features but by scenes and many different ways as well. I think this cartoon is one of the reasons why I find Clampett to be an amazing director is because of his mastery for contrasts, in visual and many different ways (such as the "stretching" which creates contrasts and many other elements that creates contrasts for animation, etc, etc). You pretty much cannot have Clampett without contrasts at all because contrasts is what makes everything cartoony and interesting, much like adding salt to make food taste interesting and not bland at all.

RooniMan said...

Contrasts are your firends, as you explain it.

Elana Pritchard said...

Shucks John, I was all geared up to share this comic I just drew with you, but now that I look at the drawings you posted up, my drawings look all tame in comparison. Well, not the last panel- it's pretty cartoony.

I truly did think of line of action when I was drawing it (which is one of my favorite principals, because it deals with energy) I tried to contrast them more as the tension between the characters built...

Here it is:
funny comic about shirts

Amanda H. said...

I understand where you are coming from and what you mean about exaggeration and contrasts BUT...I'm never sure if I'm exaggerating too much or not enough. I DO want to make visually appealing drawings and yet I do want to make something that has solid construction and looks right. ('right' in a relative sense anyway)
I'm always at odds on whether to draw 'straight' or draw 'cartoony' and what kind of middle ground (drawing 'straight' but with a twist or drawing ultra-cartoony but pulling it back just a smidgen) and I really want to get your opinion on this. I drives me kind of crazy. >_>

Scrawnycartoons said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lohen said...

Great post! I´ve been working hard on these studies and think I have the same problem: Too conservative.

Critics are welcome!


Dorseytunes said...

Thanks John for the education. I gave the baby a try. I would appreciate any advice.

Preston's Baby


solutionsby said...

great great great great great great great you're amazing!!!

Kingsley said...

Thanks John!

TheGhoul said...

ah...I wish I had the money for the private lessons.I love the organic looney style of your Ren and Stimpy cartoons.There needs to be another Looney tunes like show . I live in Huntington beach, so im not too far away from LA.

tropt said...

Huge fan of your blog John. You're a natural teacher in 'the lost art of cartoons'.
great book title eh? I'll buy a copy if you do one.

Kirk said...

"Dialogue, story, appeal and other attributes are gravy, but not essential or exclusive to cartoons."

Ahh, Bless you, son, for saying it!

And with a good piece of meat, who needs the gravy?

Rita Braga said...

Dear John,
I live really far in Lisbon Portugal, but I'm going to have a small tour in the states in September and stop 3 days in LA (i have a solo gig with my ukulele on the 9th). I'm into music as much as animation although been doing music for a much longer time.
I was wondering if you could give me a private lesson between the 8th and 10th and how much you would charge.
I stopped doing the PB exercises a few months ago when I got a job at an animation studio for doing clean-up and a bit of voice acting, but it's all on this blog: here! . If I could afford it and if you're available, I could really think about this! maybe it's not a great idea just to propose 1 lesson but i thought I should go ahead and ask...

Mitch Leeuwe said...

Nice post, thanks for the information!

Kristi O. said...

So is the secret to learning from other artists actively thinking about what it is makes up their drawing?

Instead of just trying to copy the drawing, you need to internalize what the artist is doing, what kind of lines they're using etc.

This ties into your drawing tips that you gave Tommy right? Write down what you see so you can better learn/understand what does and doesn't work in a drawing, because it will help you internalize what is going on.

And if you can successfully exaggerate a drawing, that means that you fully see and understand what is present in the original correct?

So when trying to learn from another artist, should you seek to always exaggerate, because that will force you to really consider what lines and shapes are being used, and the end result will be closer to the original anyways?

Paul B said...

Hirschfeld do funny caricatures but he doesn't use much constrasts in his drawings. I think His caricatures are more about simplicity and style, so maybe contrast is not an essencial item in a caricature.
What do you think?

JohnK said...

I think he uses tons of contrasts.

Regine! said...

My teachers always tell me I need more contrast in my characters but they never go into what contrast means. Thanks for an explanation!

Gabriele_Gabba said...

Phew! Its been a while since i dropped by, but i'm glad to see you're still pouring out with useful lessons like these principles!

All the best!