COMPOSITION: BALANCE (Part 6)
I have already touched on the notions of symmetry and asymmetry, since they are connected to contrast. However, I’ll touch on them in this context as well; namely, as referring to balance. While for the most part we discuss it more within the frame of art proper rather than comics, balance is an artistic property of things, whose importance cannot be understressed: “Art is an experience of balance, of the relationship of its parts to the whole. Perceiving it as anything else is missing its most fundamental component […], organized and gracefully balanced around a hidden sense of proportion.” (Priya Hemenway: The Secret Code: The Mysterious Formula That Rules Art, Nature, and Science (2008); pg. 91)
While this quote is related to the aspect of golden ratio that will be discussed in the next part, its essence applies to balance as well. Balance seems to be a key proponent in all art that stems from the basic human nature and can be connected to the formalistic arrangement and understanding of every aspect of said human nature. If our ancestors had somewhat similar traits as we do, we can say that we have always wanted to make sense of both ourselves and the world we inhabit. Balance is a measuring stick of our coconsciousness that can be actually traced from the seeming chaos and randomness of the universe on one hand and order within galaxies and solar systems on the other (again, part of the golden ratio).
Balance is an arrangement of elements within a picture that carries pictorial weight. Like gravity, every element within a picture carries “weight” and affects one-another, regardless of how insignificant one detail can be … and remoteness, isolation or smallness often gets stressed or contrasted by its very nature. Consequently, every element attracts the eye. In such a way, a snowflake displays a similar symmetrical balance as a vortex or even a black hole, everything stemming outward from a point or a singularity (obviously taking two and tree-dimensionality into account).
Balance in van Gogh’s Starry Night is evident becomes of the interplay of the “erupting” black cypress tree on the left, the subdued bottom scenery and the playfully stars in the sky. The “weight” of the picture gets distributed between these three features of the scenery and creates balance that may not be obvious at first glance.
Pictorially, symmetry is more eye-pleasing and functions more precise when we want to make things as clear as possible. Such instances can be found in the digital world, where icons, symbols for apps and avatars are for example placed in a central position of a given background. From such a perspective, aesthetic clarity is key and there is no room for complex, abstract artistic expression (of let’s say a Kandinsky), when wider acceptance is the goal.
We have different types of balances for different compositional takes. The easiest way to imagine (a type of) balance for me is through so called steelyard balance, which functions like a counterweight. If there are many close objects in the lower part of the picture, this can be balanced by a smaller, distant object in the upper part. If we go back to the Starry Night, the distant moon in the upper right corner of the picture displays steelyard balance in relation to the large cypress trees that looms in the bottom left side of the foreground of the picture. Essentially, a larger element on one side of the picture is balanced by a smaller isolated one on the other side.
On the other hand, just as much as art in general is subject to symmetry, it depends heavily on asymmetry as well. The human body itself is a physical example of bilateral symmetry, while we express what we see in ourselves and the world around us. Asymmetrical balance may be less easily understood and observed, but it adds vibrancy, freedom and feels more “real”.
What symmetry does for the concepts of aesthetic appeal and mathematical unity, asymmetry extends towards differentiations and even biological mutations. In other words, both concepts are equally important, keeping structural and ideological balance in a yang-yin-type interplay.
Even the seemingly least balanced, random or abstract works of Kandinsky, Rothko, Mondrian and Pollock inherently follow their own respective art fields. It can be claimed that it is much harder (if even possible) to create a random, disorganized work than a realistic, balancing and pleasing one. This can be applied further. Even random thoughts are anything but random in the sense that they are governed either by the interplay of our subconscious and predisposition (aka. the personal) and the world that allows us to function as such (aka. the social). That’s why this can be consequently applied to all fields of human expression … meditation to boot, where suppression of random thoughts is akin to creating a disorganized canvas.
Some more examples. The first panel in Picture 1 creates partial balance. Hellboy occupies the bottom part of the panel, while the hanging rope counterbalances his position. It needs to be stressed once again that such principles that are central to great works of art are displayed differently or at least for the most part on a smaller scale in comics, because the focus is more on the interplay of verbal and pictorial elements. The verbal elements in a panel, sequentiality, economy of space and strict deadlines all play a major factor, whether each and every panel can be a small masterpiece in itself, or the panel arrangement on a given page can display balance, symmetry, etc. Superb artistry of Picture 1 captures both the balance of the while comic page as well the cyclical/clockwise storytelling technique. All in all, understanding the basic principles of art in general and especially their consequent mastery and use within comics themselves, adds volumes to the admiration of the much underappreciated comics artists.
Comprehension of centrality and the fringes of a picture may be conflicting, but I would argue that this functions more on a theoretical level. While Molly Bang (in Picture This: How Pictures Work) argues that central position means centrality of attention and the outskirts its fringe, Henry Rankin Poore (in Composition in Art) stresses the opposite by claiming that an element near the edge of a picture has more attraction. They are in fact both right; however, their point of reference is different.
Bang’s position stems from the natural fact that elements at the edges function less important in a similar way like audience in a theater, where the actor on center stage is the one in the (quite literal) limelight. Further, since human peripheral vision is of relatively low resolution, we see clearly only what is directly “stressed” in front of us. In terms of “clarity”, the use of blurring and motion lines in comics is for example not merely a neat pictorial device, but resembles the natural human visual (in)ability.
Rankin Poore’s position is that of balance and contrast (in paintings), where an element at the edge gains attention by proxy, since it is in sharp contrast to its counterparts. Also, centrality loses its power, since the greatest works of art tend to imply movement, have balance and lead the eyes away from the center of gaze towards the equally important elements on the outskirts, essentially visually completing the image. Movement is of course one of the staples of comics … i.e. the cyclical nature of the first five panels in Picture 1.
Again, this seeming paradox of two equally valid theoretical points of view is in fact not confusing at all when viewing any work in question from a particular position (echoing the previous statement of multiple types of balances). And we do that all the time and in any endeavor. References, general comprehension and background information play a vital role both in understanding different positions in art as well as understanding myths that offer a multitude of meanings (with paradoxes galore to boot). Of course, there are just two general examples of theoretical divergence that is essentially a matter of perspective. Through a similar approach, different art styles and techniques offer both distinction as well as interplay of artistic traditions within cultural evolution.
I hope it’s clear by now that all these principles of composition may have a powerful individual role, but for the most part appear united and thus affect one-another. This interplay can lead towards strengthening of a particular element and can provide a new, unique experience, or can lead to conflicting situations (either intentional or unintentional). Strengthening can be observed in Picture 2, where the darker tones, sharper lines, higher position of the creature and its attack from behind all strengthen the notion of danger, despite the fact that the protagonist is Lucifer … a splendid little ironic leitmotif in the whole Lucifer series.
On the other hand, Picture 3 exhibits a unique experience, where the visually-enclosed position of Hellboy creates an uneasy atmosphere, yet his nonchalant answer reassures the reader that he has had numerous experiences of danger, creating a dichotomy of meanings. Plus, not the balance of the balloons in relation to the weight of the characters.
Again, I know it’s visually more appealing to give fresher examples, but I just love reusing these examples over and over again, because you can clearly see the genius in their creation and just how much theory and application can work hand in hand. And I will always argue that comics is the best medium for linear visual expression. Honestly, I’ve seen too many examples of comics (meta)greatness that it’s hard to argue otherwise. Gotta love it!
NEXT: GOLDEN RATIO
COMPOSITION: CONTRAST (Part 5)
Contrast is a fundamentally crucial principle that may like the gutter in comics paradoxically go unnoticed. The reason for this is that contrast in art is so prevalent that it is far too often taken for granted. However or rather consequently, it actually works on a deeper level. I can full-heatedly say that contrast is the essence of art and creation in general. Even human perception of the world relies heavily on contrast. We perceive motion for example only after it has already occurred; therefore motion becomes intrinsically linked to its diametrically opposed stillness as a way of distinguishing changes in the perceived world.
Just as these words on (digital) paper are viewed only because of contrast, so we distinguish characters by their traits and elements by their specifics. The clearest example of contrast can be seen in notan, a Japanese term meaning dark-light principle … or even the yang/yin principle of interaction between the negative (dark) and positive (light) space. To carry the philosophically ubiquitous dualism of yang/yin even further, the opposites complement each other rather than conflict … hence the perfection, fluidity and unity of the symbol [. This means that while contrasting elements allow for differentiation and notoriety, their greatest advantage lies in their mutability, since they inherently affect one-another. The perception of one directly depends on the position, size, color, etc. of the other.
Contrast in Monet’s Les Coquelicots is achieved horizontally though the separation of sky and grass, where the dark green trees in the background serve as “boundary markers”. We can see strong interplay between the red blooming poppies and the lush green meadow, not to mention the taller damsel in the bottom right who clearly stands out with her darker blueish tones.
In such a way, the most obvious and natural function of contrast (and paradoxically the least noticeable since it has already been internalized), is that it actually enables us to see. Bearing this in mind, it would not be a bold statement in the least to claim that contrast is all we see … or do not see. Further, the more rapid the change, the (ideologically) stronger it is perceived: “Many visual perceptions, such as luminance, color, motion, and depth, exhibit greater sensitivity to abrupt than to gradual change.” (Margaret Livingstone: Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing (2002); pg. 58)
The starker the contrast, the greater shape and color value differences, the more noticeable it thus is, since the eyes are drawn to it. Even psychologically, we are shocked more by unexpected, unforeseen changes (whether temporal, material, etc.), while the gradual differentiations remain “concealed”, as they do not peak our responses in either extreme and we readily internalize them. We become accustomed to our everyday surroundings, so we easily take things for granted. In such a way, greater “contrast” is achieved when we partake of newer experiences.
I’m well aware that this is an extension of the artistry/composition I’m discussing in these posts; however, the universality of contrast is one of those rare and precious things that extends to every facet of being, comics nonexcluded. Consequently, Hellboy in Picture 1 creates a stronger pictorial contrast based on his color and half-demonic species, while the dark, blue tones of the other three (human) characters have a stronger tonal connection to the woods all of them are traversing. Additionally, contrast is greater also because it’s a newer setting for both the reader as well as Hellboy as the protagonist of the story.
We can carry the analogy of contrast further by extending it to all of our senses and the concept of life itself; the reason why one can distinguish jazz from heavy metal is contrast (speed and method of playing, instruments used, etc.), space observation and consequent equations are dependent on imagery scientists have to contrast to make sense of. Good and evil are equally prone to differentiation; not only observable through what is not part of one and central in the other, but in the essence(s) definable through one-another.
Contrastingly paraphrasing, contrast as such is natural, since the comprehension between music and noise, speech and buzzing, or visual literacy and mere observance of visual stimuli is for the most part “only” a matter of distinctions, which in turn range from the most mundanely banal to the intellectually sublime. If contrast is “normal”, line drawings – essentially the accentuating work of inkers in comics – are on the other hand actually “abnormal”, since reality seldom offers strong, clear-cut (out)lines separating one element in nature from the other. Instead, we speak of borders between regions of different color or lightness known as contours. (Comics) artists thus enhance the contrast by adding a stronger division between the layers of contrast (even through penciling alone or inking). This enhances the reader’s ability for distinction, which consequently results in faster reading, more distinct although less “realistic” imagery. Without these contrasting distinctions, we would be in the presence of absolutism, either the absence/negation of everything (chaos) or the everlasting omnipresence (God), both extremes that extend beyond human physical conception, which is in turn but a liminal transference from one state (of being) to the other.
Since I always tend to stray away from the artistry proper, I have another reason for it this time, even beyond the seeming universality of the subject matter. The conception of contrast was actually an aha moment for me. Not really a revelation, more of an eye-opening experience, since it connected various things for me to the point where everything just clicked (from my linguistics education to my research about perception and mythology). Once I truly realized that what we see, hear, taste, etc. is rooted in contrast, the worldly concepts took on a larger role … or a more nuanced one, if you care to look at it that way. Realizing, how authors for example subtly play with contrast and negative space alone adds an important layer towards greater comprehension and appreciation of art … and in this case life as well.
COMPOSITION: TRANSFER (Part 4)
The more abstract notion of closure is that of transfer, where connecting of dots occurs on a more symbolic level. To a large extent, abstraction itself is based on generalization and indirection, which means that we generalize the elements of the world around us and transfer them to similar ones in order to make sense of our surroundings. Just as much as all great paintings are basically just color on canvas, for the most part we perceive them not as abstract lines but as complete wholes. This applies to Monet just as much as Kandinsky, although their styles are a tad different. Just a tad. (Having had many hours of pleasure and pain in assembling art puzzles, this can also be a teaching tool for comprehension of both the basic composition of a particular art piece as well as realizing how transfer and unity work within the picture you’re assembling.)
Further, the visual information we actually comprehend is heavily filtered by numerous factors, from biological to environmental ones, so for the most part we are essentially living in “tunnel vision”, where the majority of visual stimuli is necessarily relegated to the peripheral. Similarly, mathematical equations are just as indirect, abstract and arbitrary, as is our knowledge of the universe based on them … which of course does not mean that it is necessarily incorrect. Transference then allows us to see common, easily understandable shapes in those that would otherwise make less sense, not to mention enabling us to see pattern within larger, more complex frames of thinking and reasoning. This is partly due to a deeply personalizing and personifying nature of humanity, but it is a fundamental feature of art in general. Think of the smiley face and how easy it is to see it anywhere and everywhere. We see ourselves as objects in nature; a tree can be seen as a standing person with outstretched arms and a keychain can look like a smiley face. Poetic personifications may not be far removed from this observation. Plus, probably my favorite idiom of not seeing the forest for the trees can be (mis)understood within this frame as well.
Cognition plays a crucial factor here, since the perception of elements and imagery in the mind must not be limited to what you see in a particular moment, but you sequentially connect all the singular visual moments that unfold in front of your retinas into an integral part of a larger whole, the world around you. Just as we are able to reason that two circles and a line underneath function as a face, we can observe that the characters in Picture 1 are arranged in a circle (or at least are grouped together) which implies equality. This is further stressed by them facing each other in a conversation, which strengthens the notion that Hellboy is part of humanity despite his devilish origins. And despite the fact that his red color still makes him stand out as paradoxically as his plight to fit in (which further foreshadows short-term storytelling for this particular comic and functions prominently in the long-term Hellboy canon as well). Another reading based on the principle of transference indicates that the group is equally in danger in the dark forest (yet, Hellboy’s color scheme again indirectly distances him and his abilities beyond those of his companions or the world he finds himself in in that situation).
Whether transference is direct or rather theoretical, it still adds volumes to the understanding of art. We can thus apply it also to allusion, allegory, metaphor and non-literary elements that make readings of any work as complex as its creation, yet through amazingly different personal layers.
COMPOSITION: CLOSURE (Part 3)
“Perception is heuristic in nature – in order to speed up the translation of sensory data to conscious processes, our cognitive processes take short cuts and use generally applicable and broadly accurate rules of thumb to process the raw information and compensate for flaws in the incoming data stream.”
(Levy, J. (2013). Freudian Slips: all the Psychology You Need to Know; pg. 121)
I have already touched upon the notion of closure as an intrinsic element that allows readers of sequential art to bridge the gaps between the images and the gutter, experiencing a “continuous” narrative flow. I will elaborate it a bit further in light of current subject matter, since closure functions as a prism of visual experience. (Plus, as it is with “reuse” of pictures for different purposes, it’s always a positive when you can expand a concept into different venues.)
For the most part we can say that we live in the present moment. Now, we do have to suspend our disbelief of how we process this present moment and how much we are hindered by the shadow of the past events and the looming echo of the future to come. Our present moment extends to the future events which we are continually entering into; yet, our past experiences allow us to anticipate them better, thus removing the shocks that would befall us otherwise. In comics terms, by “connecting the dots”, we are required to make sense of our daily lives just as much as we make sense of the story by connecting the panels. Technically speaking, we are using closure at every moment. We are connecting the dots repeatedly through blinking itself; however, we do not experience it as obstruction, since its rapid nature functions like film: a continuous series of images, creating the illusion of motion.
Another simple, yet obvious example of closure occurs on a daily basis when we go to sleep. There is an obvious difference between the image we see when we wake up from the one before we closed our eyes. The difference may be merely temporal or spatial (if we wake up facing in a different direction), but the fact remains that our brain needs to make sense of the change in the surroundings, allowing us to visually assess the situation we are in. And as with comics where all the magic happens between the panels, life happens between all the sensory and empirical information we are privy to (if not faced with) at every single moment.
I’ll reuse the double-page spread from Beowulf (2016, Image Comics) by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin as an example. Not only are the inserted small panels on a diagonal used to subtly guide the eye through the composition, but they add to the vibrant celebration at the dinner table (although it can be seen as the last supper as well). The focus on bones implies voraciousness of the feast and refers to the inexplicably hard times in the old Norse era, where food was often scarce. Indulging your primal animalistic urges comes to mind. The small panels are highlighted through the fiery yellow (contrasting) background and through their extreme close-ups. Artistically they serve as balancing forces for the whole scene, while also stressing the continuous flow of the meal, which marvelously embodies the concept of connecting the dots and captures the illusion of motion.
The notion of proximity is in close connection to that of position. Elements placed together have for example greater weight and are generally viewed as more important, since there is visually more mass in their vicinity. This is further stressed when elements of similar size, shape and especially color are thus grouped. Proximity thus implies connection … On the other hand, however, it can lead to a loss of individuation. Consequently, elements in isolation can actually get stressed because they have a greater autonomy in this respect. While a detailed picture becomes weightier, the components that become excluded from the general accumulation of such mass feature prominently, because they break the pattern even despite their smaller size for example. For example: a comics panel depicting a large crowd is heavy in detail, but if you want to stress a particular person without “sacrificing” color and shape at that particular moment you can do so by merely positioning him or her slightly away from the main pack. Technically and practically speaking, this is a marvelous dualism.
Picture 1 is very distinct in this respect, since the characters visually and metaphorically function as a group within the larger frame of the woods, yet within this proximity principle there is differentiation predominantly though color, since Hellboy clearly stands out. This is achieved through his (hot) redness, which is in contrast with (cold) blue and dark tones of other characters, visually linking them with the background – a clear example of interaction of principles.
Panel 8 in Picture 2, on the other hand, exemplifies how a figure in the background, half immersed in darkness can stand out from a group of four characters, despite (or rather because of) being visually separated from them and thus occupying less physical space. While color is again resolutely the main reason for distinction, balloons further create an additional barrier of separation, while Hellboy and the rest of the characters exemplify pictorial balance.
I know I used these two pictures before and there’s a ton of other example to be used, but the beauty of a particular example is in its reuse, because the more you get immersed into the theory of comicana and storytelling, the more any given depiction can serve multiple purposes.
Also, the reader of a comic can often take panel shapes and positions, character or balloon placements and shot selections for granted, because the story just flows extremely well. Behind all of this functional ease lies laborious work and (for the most part) years of experience from the authors, so the final product is quite literally polished to even seemingly insignificant details. It helps to be interested in shop talk, reading the scripts at the back of some of the works and observing authors’ sketches and character study. All of this inevitably helps you better understand the often wacky world of comics that always offers far more than meets the eye.
“Perceptually, a mature work reflects a highly differentiated sense of form, capable of organizing the various components of the image in a comprehensive compositional order. But the intelligence of the artist is apparent not only in the structure of the formal pattern but equally in the depth of meaning conveyed by this pattern.”
Arnheim, R. (1997). Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press; pg. 269
Along with basic shapes, there are other elemental principles in art that can add volumes to the expressionistic potential and perception of pictorial depiction. I label them under the term composition for the sake of emphasizing their cooperation and hermeneutic propensities.
POSITION (Part 1)
Position in a picture determines the state and importance of any given element in question. Thus, an object in the center of picture draws our attention the most, acting like a celestial star that has a gravitational pull on other elements, particularly when it is the largest. We get the central position through the application of symmetry (intersection of a dividing horizontal and vertical axis).
The importance or at least validity of this central position may be in a manner of saying more a theoretical than a practical point. To clarify, I am referring to asymmetrical depiction, the so called rule of thirds (dividing both the horizontal and the vertical into thirds). By placing points of interest in the intersections of these lines, the artist creates a greater balance and enables a more natural depiction than the standard central shot. (Photographers use this technique in droves as well.) In other words, our eyes seem to be more adapt to viewing elements horizontally; stressing the peacefulness and stability of horizontals as opposed to verticals in general. (Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 and especially his reasoning behind using this untypical horizontal position of panels and the book itself is the perfect example in this context.) The reason why we are even able to comprehend a single image from basically two distinct ones which each of our eyes generates is stereopsis or depth perception, accounting for the disparity between the two respective retina images.
If centrality has greater pictorial weight, the outskirts of the image are the outskirts of our perception as well. Arguably, a general rectangular image can only represent one’s field of vision (a simulacrum of sorts); both in terms of its two-dimensionality and the viewing angle of the eyes, which covers a 60-degre angle. As the eye moves from the focal points of the image (and points of inherent interest of the reader) to the marginal elements, this consequently also affects their respective importance. However, this also allows the artist to skillfully “hide” specific visual elements in the outskirts, if s/he so chooses. In comics, this can be quite prevalent, because the reader is generally accustomed to fast-pace absorption of pictorial material. Think of it this way: it’s like speed reading, where you get the gist of the information fast, but the details can readily remain in the shadows of comprehension.
In connection to the principle of attraction, we should differentiate between the fixation on a particular element and a composition that pulls the eyes into the picture and guides them around it, in a sense creating a pattern that consists of natural framing and entry and exit points. This theory may be more prevalent in paintings and great works of visual art per se; however, in comics it can be (and is) equally applied, in the process creating a better and more connecting visual narration. Thus, by guiding the reader through the panels more indirectly, the reading becomes more natural and the reader becomes more immersed into the story. For example even the balloons and tails can act as framing devices in themselves, thus guiding, connecting, enclosing or separating the pictorial base from the text.
Arguably, framing is primarily pictorial, so it is harder to attain in a medium that depends on the interaction of pictures and words. Words can in this case hinder the natural flow of the picture, since for the most part they are visual add-ons, which by their symbolic nature that requires detailed decipherment demand greater involvement from the reader. In other words, they are natural elements of attraction.
Attraction as such is actually twofold: while the picture creates the visual base and attracts the reader by its immediately recognizable presence, we have learned to attribute greater importance to words, since they can reflect (more) complex subject matter through an equally complex translation of its symbolic nature. Consequently, we are drawn to words because they take longer to digest amidst the pictorial backdrop, which, nevertheless, lingers in the background, gaining “subliminal” transference through even mere glances towards it.
THE CURVED LINE
The curved line is a more natural line. And coincidentally curves are sexy. As much as the Earth is literally nowhere near a perfect sphere, so are strict lines and ordered geometrical shapes predominantly of human invention. Again, this perhaps reflects the pleasure and vice of humanity’s intrinsic formalistic nature to label and organize the world around us amidst the seemingly beautiful kerfuffle of celestial chaos. While groupings of any king pragmatically make perfect sense to us, the universe extends beyond organization per se, since the notions of action/reaction and gravity are the principles in play. Arguably, Earth’s perceived shape is indeed spherical, which is a three-dimensional gravitationally-influenced expansion of a single point; however, Earth’s natural surface is predominantly comprised of curvatures (gravitational forces play a key role in their shape). This might be a natural reason why curved shapes feel more natural and endearing than straight lines.
While perfect curvature can be technically and digitally reproduced million times over, in nature, however, it does not appear as such. Curved shapes appear unique every time, which everyone can experience for example just by trying to create two perfect circles with a pencil. And they say no two snowflakes are alike, equally as no two people are. As perfectly sustainable as nature seems (with or without us in it), perfect regularity nevertheless does not exist in nature.
As part of either the straight or curved line, we can create convex and concave elements, those that expand outwards and those that turn inwards, respectively (Mathematically, the internal angle of a non-curved convex shape is less or equal to 180 degrees, while the internal angle of the concave shape is always more than 180 degrees.). A speech balloon in comics is thus for the most part convex. Its curved lines expand outwards, becoming more “airy” and cloud-lie. When the curves face inwards, they resemble a hole, facing inwards and become more restricted. Visually, the balloon shape has (apart from the pleasing appearance) also a pragmatic function of offering a greater use of the space within for the text … as coincidentally does the emptiness of a jar for example in Daoist terms. Convexity, though, tends to have precedence over concavity. In other words, expanding shapes have a bigger visual value because of their inherently bigger size. The differentiation is more or less arbitrary, since the same lines can depict opposite notions purely by their position and which direction they are facing (a similar notion can be observed in letter M and W for example).
As with any basic notions, compound meanings – in this case structures – can be applied. Consequently, a vertical line can for example extend into an upright parallelogram, similarly compounding the original emotional meaning of the simple line; reflecting strength like a standing pillar or imply encapsulation or enclosement like in a coffin or the character’s own state of mind.
Composite lines represent numerous other possibilities of line rendering. Whether a zigzag line (expressing tension), a circle (unity), triangle (stability) or any other more or less geometrical and natural shape, the artist’s repository of knowledge is build from these very basic shapes. As much as the writer combines words into established phrases, (s)he incorporates, joins and creates unique expressions as well, instituting a unique repertoire and personal style of writing. Similarly, all pictorial art stems from the basic shapes and is given life through personal styles and techniques. The artists, who are influenced by the world, mimic it through their artistic approach, inspired and molded through their interests, enabling the perfect interplay of the personal and the social. These types of examples are even more context-dependent, so combinations of either intricate patterns or misleadingly simplistic basic shapes can work hand in hand to enhance the reading experience.
But more specifically, a base-heavy triangle ▲ points upwards, its base line creates a stable structure, while its enclosed sides offer further stability (i.e. mountain, especially a pyramidal peak); especially if the triangle is equilateral, where its three equal angles enhance this notion. Turned upside-down ▼, however, the nature of the triangle changes drastically. Due to the one-point base, the stability is replaced by unease. The down-pointing shape resembles a sharp object that we associate with danger (i.e. blade, icicle or tooth). Our awareness of a knife or a dagger in real life is clearly and sublimely transferred into this visually-piercing object.
The characteristics of a circle ● are quite different, since it does not have the same geometrical constraints (and advantages) as the triangle embodies. Its smooth curved surface is visually more pleasing and does not pose a threat (of course for the most part depending on size, mass, direction or movement). The uniform shape has been a long-standing standard for perfection, circularly reflecting both the Sun and the Moon, as the two most influential stellar bodies for the Earth. (Deemed so both because they are so easily observable and because of their geological, astronomical effects and reciprocity with our planet.). The natural simplicity of the circle, however, has an underlined depth which alludes to the notion of simplification for amplification and attribution of seemingly universal meaning to generally arbitrary depictions. Symbolically, the circle is the extension of the point, in other words the singularity of all complex visual expression being fundamentally in a more visibly palpable and beautiful circle … or the sphere, if we extended this notion through “dimensional magic”.
We can relate these observations to comics as well. The caption has a traditional rectangular form ■ (which is even more sturdy and uniform than a triangle). The straight nature of its sides not only offers stability and an easier outlet for the text (which traditionally follows a straight, linear path), but can reflect either the more serious tones or formalistic, factual descriptions in captions. On the other hand, the bubbly thought balloon visually follows the lightness and smoothness of curved shapes and circles, reflecting the inner dialogue of a character. Not to imply that the stream of consciousness approach means that the characters are lightheaded, even though that can often be the case, especially when an extensive action scene, meant to be read fast, is accompanied with an elaborate longwinded inner monologue, where these linguistic elements balance the pictorially dominant portrayal, only to distract the narrative flow and break the suspension of disbelief. (In other words: there’s nothing wrong this “flying” through the pages of a comic, because not every scene has to be linguistically challenging. Sorry, Alan Moore.).
Equally, the jagged shape of zigzag balloons, used to indicate mechanical voices or speech heard from television or radio for example, is visually more tense and tenuous; reflecting the electrical current necessary for the signals to be transferred to the satellites and back or to the transmitters directly. The visual tension becomes psychological as well, since this digital transference of talking on the phone and especially listening or watching a program (both passive approaches, where the communication is one-sided) is much more impersonal.
Obviously, similar arguments can be made for every object we can find both in art or nature. Arguably, specific rules apply; as much as gravity is a force that shapes life in the universe, Abstract art and Cubism follow their own distinctive pattern. Nonetheless, the very shape and color used in the latter cases are still a reflection of the prevailing natural order imprinted in humanity (even if negating these standards). In such a way every “unorthodox” art form is both unique as well as unilaterally formalistic, just as every subculture is “special” and yet quite ordinary at that. De Saussurian duads are constantly in play.
The world as we know it is our vary nature and we are but a product of it. Consequently, our “imprint” of it is both intrinsically and extrinsically based (mutability and immutability in full effect) on the natural shapes and colors. Nevertheless, distinction becomes the crucial factor which (like a trickster) stirs this pot of standards by implementing diversity of life. We can see this both in cultural distinctions of all kinds and the very evolution that brought about the complexity of life (while retaining its roots in nature).
END of PART 2 (of 2)
“When no preconceived ideas keep us from looking and we take all the time we need to really ‘feel’ what we see […] the universe opens up and we catch our breath in awe at the incredible complexity of design in the humblest things It is only when this happens that we regain our sense of wonder.”
(Bothwell, D., and Mayfield, M. (1991). Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design. New York: Dover Publications; pg. 75)
As much as the world may seem to be a disorganized, random amalgamation of elements, especially since we are bombarded by visual stimuli at every corner on a daily basis, there is in fact a pattern to be observed. This may be obvious in language – where specific and fixed symbols are used – but that is also the case in the pictorial world, even though it may quite ironically be less obvious. Part of this may be because we generally take the visual world around us for granted. We have internalized the fixed images that we observe on a daily basis, so for the most part we know exactly what to expect when we step outside our house and even more so when we return home … but if someone asks you to describe the intricate pattern on your carpet or the design of your coffee table, most of us would be surprisingly “blind”. The shapes (and colors) make up the visual language of the world that we see around us and consequently immediately interpret, yet we don’t see it per se, because it’s either too obvious or we and our eyes deem the details too bothersome to invest all our precious attention to them, when it’s needed elsewhere.
So, let’s clear the air. It’s try to describe the basic elements of visual composition that apply to both visual storytelling as well as plain visual awareness of ourselves and the world around us. We begin with rudimentary geometric elements (and their spatial relations) that like atoms through evolutionary process and arduous work make up the larger, greater and artistically awe-inspiring imagery. The four elements are the point, the straight line, the curved line and composite lines.
THE POINT •
The point is the one and only essential element from which every other shape is brought to life. Well, obviously. Like the atom (I know there are smaller elements still) or the pixel in the digital environment, the point is the building block of complexity and the starting point of this examination as well (let’s exclude negative space for the time being). While it can be said that every picture is an amalgamation of lines on paper, every line is constructed of points in a sequence. As such, the power of this singularity (like atoms creating higher units, morphemes creating words and further semantic sequences) is more evident in the general shapes that stem from this starting point. We can draw parallels to mythology, where the point symbolizes the center, which in turn is the source of life (the beginning and end). This is the axis mundi that connects the profane world (of basic shapes) with the sacred space (of artistic complexity). Further, this concept can be applied to the cosmos as well, because the Big Bang (whether theoretical or actual) is essentially just that singularity brought into complexity. Also, one other thing as far as mythology goes, there are more or less subtle connections between basic shapes and basic archetypes … of course referring not to their “basic” simplicity, but the foundation for though-provoking complexity. In such a way, were the devil archetype for example vied as negative space, both concepts carry a plethora of meanings and philosophical/transcended imagery. Not “bad”, but essential (in true Daoist sense, if not Jungian as well).
Since I’m generally ad-libbing with most of these oblique analogies, it could be fun to imagine the prototypical archetypes as rudimentary shapes and imagery, but at this point I’m just gonna shoot straight to the next element on the list.
THE STRAIGHT LINE
The basic geometrical shape that reflects stability has to be straight, right? Depending on its position, length, thickness etc., the straight line creates a number of responses. Albeit, in mathematic terms, the length is irrelevant in the sense that a line is just a visual representation and it extends beyond its starting or end point into infinity, but for the most part that is just our required formalistic simplification. Either way, the straight lines are as followed:
The horizontal line (–) expresses stability and exemplifies the horizon of the world that creates a down-to-earth effect and can be calming (like the horizon of a sunset) or overbearing and vast on the other hand.
The vertical line (׀) stresses upward movement, rejection of (earthly) gravity through its symbolic rising (towards the heavens) and obviously all-ensuing phallic symbolism. Schwing! Excellent, indeed.
The diagonal line implies dynamic movement, either upward (/) or downward (\).Therefore, it implies motion and creates tension. As an extension of this fact, uneven and steep terrain is harder to traverse, while angles and triangles have a visually less calming effect. Similarly, knives are dangerous because their edges can quite easily pierce our skin (even though this “sharpness” is less obvious on a molecular level).
Taking into account left-to-right reading pattern in the West, the diagonals “read” in this direction as well. In such a way, the peaks of diagonals /and \ are at the far right, stressing the aspects of progression and regression, respectively. Interestingly, such a left-to-right reading scheme is globally employing in graphs for example. Arguably, this usage can be a matter of worldwide agreement for the sake of comprehension – similarly as the English language has been forced … I mean adopted as the world language (taking into account global expansion and insemination of English-based culture, of course). Not that I’m complaining, but still, let’s call a spade a spade.
END of PART 1 (of 2)
I’m not click-baiting, stereotypes really are essential in comics comprehension. This refers to (over)emphasis of specific character traits, which is to an extent quite evident in caricatures, where exaggeration is inherent, apparent and in for the most part instantaneously recognizable. This notion may seem in conflict with previous examples of visual art (staying true to human anatomy and keeping exceptional moments to a minimum); however, stereotypical depiction in comics equates neither cliché nor absurdity. There is an obvious distinction between a cliché used as an escape route, a mere narrative element, weak plotline or even an offensive characterization of a particular class, gender or belief for example. However, stereotypes as comprehensive storytelling devices are not used to offend neither the conservative nor liberal types.
Stereotypes don’t hinder the work, but enhance it because of the strong, deliberate characterization. They pictorially stress specific features for them to be immediately recognizable. In such a way clarity is achieved through the use of recognizable character traits. We can correlate this even to pantomime, professional wrestling, drama, and film as well, where you often have to exaggerate and go over the top in order to get the desired effect (again, context matters). In comics, the artist for example has to stress the visuals of a character or a scene in general for that very matter, so the linguistic elements are free to carry their part of the narrative without having to describe the character’s features in great detail. Writing in comics is specific, since the writer is restrained by the amount of text that goes into each panel, so they have to be more precise, distinct, clear and resourceful in their phrasing. Speaking from many years of experience, this process can to a large extend be compared to translating … subtitling in particular. The translator like the comics writer “suffers” from the visual constraints of either the subtitle or the balloon, so their respective inventiveness, adaptability and creativity are constantly tested in order to be able to express an idea sometimes in more than one way (especially those writers in the limited 24-page comic books of the mainstream publications).
The principle of stereotypical depictions per se is predominantly used (and abused) in cartoons, where the hero has for example been traditionally portrayed as handsome and broad-shouldered, while the villain’s visuals are sharper and s/he is typically clad in dark clothes. Eisner offers an excellent old-school take on this notion, which stays evergreen (still applied to wrestling as previously mentioned). Running can for further example be overemphasized to the degree where the character may have legs extended beyond the capabilities of even the best ballerinas, gymnasts or contortionists, while the expression of shock on the face can be drawn with mouth and eyes open to a realistically absurd degree.
Comics have to adhere to similar principles, even if the approach is more “realistic” or the theme of the work more “mature”. An argument can be made that the most realistic portrays manage to step outside of the principle of stereotypes, since the material mimics the natural world to the extent that exaggerations are not possible. Especially with stylistic photorealism and with the xerographic technique for example, where actual photos are used and manipulated into creating a story. As the comic seems and feel more real, the stereotypical representation (if deemed necessary) transfers to either the ideological or the metaphoric level. So it helps to look at it as stressing the essentials and choosing the appropriate panel, in which the artist “stressed” a specific posture or scenery as opposed to another, because you want the reader to get your work and feel it without overthinking and overanalyzing every picture. Unless that’s the point of the comic … but that’s very rare.
Suspension of disbelief is always the crucial element that enables the reader to for example take Spiegelman’s anthropomorphic animal creatures in MAUS as humans (which coincidentally creates even greater shock). The language of comicana is the perfect example of such “stereotypes”. The signs on paper or on the screen reflect senses (such as smell and hearing) that cannot be achieved otherwise. Stereotypes, referring to the previously discussed aspect of simplification, reflect the basic human nature of labeling and organizing elements into a more or less coherent whole; the discipline whose roots are surely the most entangled with this principle is history proper. The Hellenistic age and Renaissance are arbitrary labels that modern thinkers have placed on specific traditions that were realistically neither restricted to their respective time-spans nor can objectively be viewed only through what they imply. Consequently, this is as arbitrary as setting the birth of Jesus as the starting point for counting years. Hellenistic age semantically implies the rise of Greek – Hellenic – culture, yet it actually marked its final demise through the Macedonian (Greek) and later Roman dominance. Renaissance on the other hand literally means renewal, yet for rebirth to occur the tradition of Greco-Roman-inspired art would had to have been completely forgotten (an ideologically semantic dispute, I know), which was and still is hardly the case, since the whole model of Western civilization consistently remains the remnant of Ancient Greece.
Last but not least, stereotypes in comics can be seen as mythological archetypes, images that reflect the basic human nature. In a medium suffering from economy of use and density of information they can thus be easily recognizable. Humanity has a tendency to understand and simplify matters so they can be easily understood, yet their true nature is far from straightforward (Jung be proud). Comics (and even more so myth) is an exemplar of this notion: while it is fairly easy to explain the medium, its complex nature and beauty reach far beyond the oversimplistically obvious word-picture interplay.
Either way, this concludes the four-part series on the comics-related essentials of visual art. If another principle worth stressing pops up, I’ll include it in future posts, but for now I’ll continue slogging along with some more basics about shapes (and color) and probably a review or two, because there’s plenty of comics that beckon analytical attention. I know the last post about minimalism (and maybe this one as well) went a bit all over the place and away from artistry proper, but the fun and beauty of art in general is its pervasiveness in making itself the conduit of comprehension and perception of our very being. The thing is that I tend to see connections between let’s say certain philosophical notions and natural phenomena that are often not necessarily thought about together. When I try to make sense of this, I far too often connect them way better in my head than it ends up on (digital) paper. I dunno, it’s a gut feeling as much as it is research-based. I like to consider these allusions and connections of different subject matter (that I’m sure a lot of you find ridiculous or nonsensical … not because you wouldn’t be able to get it, but because I fail to convey them optimally) an attempt to understand my own mind and comprehend the larger reality that has invariably shaped this noggin of mine. If at least one person gets it, I’ll be more than happy, because that will mean I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass, but am in fact trying to put in perspective things I’ve come across in my research and life in general.
Of the four essential concepts in comics comprehension that I’m taking under a bit closer examination, minimalism is my favorite one, because when used correctly, it keeps one in check and prevents you from blowing your (artistic) load. Not to confuse it with the artistic style of minimalism, in this case it’s a bit more literal, although the connection to the artistry is meant to be obvious … I mean, this is about visual art, right?
Minimalism refers to the concept of simplicity, simplification for amplification or my preferred down-to-earth equivalent of less is more. This principle means that the portrayal follows a specific narrative pattern, keeping in check overabundance and overcomplication of pictorial stimuli. Overemphasis on detail in a panel depicting action that is meant to be read fast can hinder the narrative flow in that particular instance just as much as it can hinder the artist further down the line. Thus, when following this simplification for amplification, when a particular element is stressed, it has more weight. This works with plenty of art forms, film as well. Action flicks generally end with a large action scene, like in the case of the 2012 The Avengers. I mean, this is about comics (in one form or another), right? The final large-scale battle obviously wasn’t the opening scene. Everything was built around it and the events of the film lead to a perfect crescendo (with heavy help from previous film instalments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). There is obviously the possibility of different/non-standard narrative flows, but the point I’m trying to make is that through simplicity, The Avengers were able to gradually amplify not just the action scenes, but also lead the viewers towards a climax, where suspension of disbelief was flawlessly executed and the expectations of the viewers matched the on-screen performance. (Which consequently led to a box office record. Now always related, it in this case it definitely was.)
But minimalism is not just about that. It’s about clever use of certain items, techniques and takes on a given story, so it seems constantly fresh and helps build suspense and intrigue. Minimalism is the haiku of storytelling of sorts, the art of making the most from the basic building blocks, because once you master the basics, everything else you add to that, will stand out. And in the comics medium that is primarily all about (visually) standing out, this point should not go understressed.
Some more comics examples of minimalism: the use of certain colors in Sin City or the use of splash pages in the final chapter of Watchmen or The Death of Superman. In terms of these large (and in charge) panels, we can go one step further with a double-page spread that should be reserved for occasions that depict an over-the-top situation that literally jumps at the reader (even more so than a splash page, which only takes up one page, not two).
The two following pictures are examples of how using color sporadically can spark visual interest, because the respective red and blue hues were otherwise not used in Sin City’s neo-noir black-and-white technique. Note that such example make far less of an impact in isolation (such as here), so you have to take the whole work as the norm.
Simplification of sort can be observed not only in all walks of life, but seemingly in the Universe as well. We can apply this to the understanding of the history, arbitrary epochs of the world as seen from the viewpoint of humanity as well as our cognition. We simplify everything from languages (signs and sounds) to physics (basic equations) in order to understand its “essence” and consequently build on it and further expand it. In diagrams, we simplify the shapes of planets as spheres (or circles in a two-dimensional representation) and their orbits as cyclical, despite them being more or less elliptical – because of gravitational fields and their complex effects not just in our solar system, not just in our galaxy, but in the Universe as we know it.
In other words, this minimalistic principle can be imagined to having an ace up one’s sleeve, or using selective means most effectively with restraint. Again, if the artist reveals all of his or her cards at the very outset of a comic, if will be harder to keep the reader’s attention span, since the story will already seem to peak during prologue. Arguably, there is a different “simplification” in work when we for example simplify a philosophical doctrine in order to give it clarity, as opposed to being wavy of overexposure and excessiveness of pictorial material, but comprehension can in both cases be enhanced by the very nature of stressing only particular elements. Thus, the focus is clearer and understanding is greater.
The issue of less is more can be best assessed through the superhero genre, where the pictorial extravaganza bombards the reader, while the nature of these powerhouses among humans hinders the effectiveness of storytelling, as the stress is placed purely on the impressive visuals. And to stress the matter further, the superheroes as essentially gods become an ego-driven ideology in itself. Once you unearth God and the (hu)man made in his image, we may as well ask ourselves, where the line is between our self-imposed prominence as merely a selfish desire to be gods and the natural progression/evolution (with or without us). In any case, while the over-the-top heroic elements may pique the interest of (younger) readers, because they present a fantastic, other-worldly sphere brimming with imaginary potential, the author may in fact alienate some (adult) readers by relegating the present human condition to the excesses of some fantastic force. Once you propel the superhero towards hyperbole, it becomes a commonplace for creating more and more powerful figures still. The more celestial the planet-eaters and god-destroyers get, the less humanizing the layers of the story become, so the human reception echoes harder through them. This issue of is also strongly shared by the delusion of religion in the current era of myth-busting. I’ll move on, before this turns into paradox for the sake of paradox, akin to this relatively long-winded post about “less is more” … ahem.
An interesting parallel can be drawn to the notion of wu-wei, present particularly in the Daoist (and Confucian) philosophy. Essentially meaning spontaneity and effortless action, wu-wei bears striking resemblance to the principle of minimalism (or rather the other way around). Following a natural flow, either the artist or the sage embarks on the path of least resistance, where all the other elements follow suit. Consequently, the background noise in music, the darkness/negative space in visual art, the conundrums and paradoxes in religion and philosophy take center stage and become not just more meaningful, but necessary for the subject matter.
An empty picture with a person standing in the middle has a more striking effect than the one displaying a crowd. While the latter demanded more attention and work, it is the void of the first that adds depth and emptiness that the observer fills with their own perceptions and beliefs (again, context always matter). Akin to the notion of Dao, emptiness becomes a tabula-rasa-like possibility, the negative space that the reader fills with an array of choices limited only by one’s imagination. Further, these observations can share resonance with the gutter as the empty-yet-full comics component. Also, by not stressing a particular element, the artist is in fact stressing everything else about it. The empty picture becomes full and remains in strong (yet natural) contrast to the sole person inhabiting it. While in different surroundings the devil is indeed in the details, in this case less is definitely more.
The final point about this varied category of minimalism may be a bit of a stretch, but feels suited here, especially in relation to the notion of less is more. Namely, I refer to masterpieces. So, what’s that about? A masterpiece is a work that transcends not only its specific genre or medium, but connects cultures through different eras by the mastery of its subject matter … This by definition is an irregular occurrence. A perfect world beaming with one masterpiece after another would not only devalue the individual worth of such a work, but raise the level of expectations, where the grandeur of a work of such depth must be contrasted by its place in society.
Utopias aside, humanity seems to have always envisioned progressive lands, states, organizations and orthogenetic ideologies, but pragmatically, there has always been strife and conflict. To a large extent, advancement itself requires diversity, which means the dirty stuff as well. Many a masterful work was a direct response to the less than progressive events of its time (Guernica being a prime example). A masterpiece can only be a masterpiece in the true sense of the word when it directly reflects the human condition in full (the “good” and the “bad”), in the process differentiating itself from the rest in an attempt to artistically take the society towards a higher level (hand in hand with the “good” and the “bad”). And in a perfect world, this becomes a paradox akin to the ideal of liberal democracy in our present world.
I mean, all in all this is about life, right?
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …