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!