One area of my art which I think could be a lot stronger is composition. I tend to compose for story telling purposes – making sure that he writers story is expressed in a way that tells their story and makes the art almost disappear. Which, I think, is largely how it should be, but of late I’ve felt that the art is disappearing all together. I’m onto the fifth episode of this here Dredd story that I’m drawing and parts 1-3 had me making a deliberate attempt to break with some of my own set-in-stone rules about story telling and I think it delivered better art and didn’t harm the story one bit. (Part 4 saw me revert to type though, so I think the story telling is clear but I really struggled with the art). Part five I’ve binned a fully inked page and replaced it with a redrawn page that is, compositionally, much more interesting.
Now, unfortunately, I can’t show any of that, but I thought what might be fun or useful is to grab someone else’s art and break it down into components and see if I can’t understand their compositional tics (and I think all artists have them, even when they don’t think they do – I certainly don’t think I have any compositional tics, but I clearly do, otherwise every page would be a ground breaking new layout)
So, for this exercise, I’ve just nabbed an X Men page from comixology, and scribbled all over it. I apolgise to all parties, and this isn’t intended as to be anything other than an educational thing for myself and anyone who may be interested.
Here’s the unvarnished page, from X-MEN vol3, issue 1 art by Paco Medina.
Here’s the first page of that strip, with colours washed out and the lettering whited out.
Story wise, there’s nothing much happening in this page (well, there’s no BIG visual element, essentially we’re following two dudes walking down the street who bump into a big scary looking dude). But every panel and the entire page is still interesting too look at.
Let’s start with the macro view. When I look at a page for story telling, I get a very clear sense of where my eye wants to go – the typical read (and how you’d read a page with writing) is the zig zag shape, I’m sure you’re familiar with (but just in case: you read left to right, then zip down to the start of the next line and continue …). But that read can be subverted by the shapes of the panels – but only for a little while, it’s like your eye wants to snap back into the familiar Z reading track.
Here’s how I imagine this page would be scanned by a reader.
Starting with panel 1, the shape of the this panel is forcing a readers eye down (which is against the flow of what you’d normally do, but that’s the skill) but almost immediately our eye snaps back up to the next panel – Starting with the big empty section of panel 1 we move down to read the balloon, follow the tail to see the guys and then snap back up to panel 2. We entirely miss the overlapping heads from panel 4 and the shadowing guy is present but not a focus – in fact, he’s helping frame and force the reader to look at the two hackie sack guys. The perspective in this shot is entirely in service to forcing your eye down the page. The large vertical building shapes move your eye down and the perspective points to the guys crotch (er… sure that’s not intentional, but we’re a crotch focused species…) but the single point perspective draws the reader in, while the vertical buildings bring the readers eye down that panel. It’s subtle and clever and works very well.
Breaking the panel is one of the big no-nos for me. Largely because when you’ve less experience under your belt, it’s VERY easy to break the panel borders in the wrong place – causing the story telling to become deeply confused. I’ve always said to people that over use of it will reduce it’s power – but I’m beginning to think that that might be bull. I’m not sure if it can be over used. It can be used wrong, that much is certain. But it’s hard to imagine an interesting page layout that will look dull because it’s followed 22 pages of other interesting page layouts. Gotta question assumptions. On panel one, you don’t even see the broken panel – it happens in a dead area of panel 1 where the readers eye never really goes to.
Let’s talk rule of thirds: the rule of thirds is the idea that a composition (of a photograph, or painting, or, in this case, a comic panel) can be broken down into a grid or 3×3 and that you can make the composition more interesting by aligning things to where the grid lines intersect. Essentially avoiding very flat compositions.
I’m not sure I buy into this, there are two many special cases where compositions really work well that don’t fall into the rule of thirds. Personally, for me, I think a stronger case to be made is for contrasts in a composition: strong perspective adds contrast – a large figure with a small figure. A cropped shot with a full body shot. Something in heavy shadow with something brightly lit.
I’ve drawn a 3×3 grid on the first three panels, and you can see it sort of works, but I’d argue I could draw any random grid on those panels and you’d see an alignment of sorts. We see patterns where there are none. (And, in fact, here I’ve drawn a random grid – drawn with my eyes closed – and it’s easy to see how you could claim it maps to a layout). I feel the same way about the ‘divine proportion‘ in composition (the divine proportion is a number sequence that occurs frequently in nature, can produce a spiral shape and was used by many artists to produce compositions). Maybe I’m wrong though.
Panel two continues keeping our big scary guy off panel. The dutch angle does the job of keeping the panel visually interesting. The contrast between the big guy and the two smaller guys is also interesting – both in terms of their size and in their obvious inked contrast (heavy blacks on the shadowy guy)
Panel 3 is a continuance of panel 2, but a second dutch angle would be odd – or, rather, it would feel peculiarly still. Dutch angles add a real zip to a panel, but, I think, you really need to change that angle every panel – otherwise it can look like a locked off panel, like you’re watching an episode of Batman the TV series, rather than reading a comic. One dutch angle=good, two different dutch angles=good, more than one dutch angle the same = bad. (Probably.)
Here’s page 1 with the panel 3 as the same dutch angle so you can see what I mean.
And, finally panel 4: a big reveal shot. We have two real establishing shots in this page. Panel 1 establishes where and when we are (big open city, day time). Panel 4 establishes who this dude is. We’ve done all the hard background work and so we can let the guys reveal big big and bold and important. The temptation MIGHT be to let the big guy break the panel border of panel 3 – it would look like this. (and, actually, now that I’ve done it, I think I prefer it – it really pushes the size of the guy…)
Ok, that’s it for now. There’s a lot there to digest (for me and, if it’s your thing, for you). There are probably a load of assumptions I’ve made there that are wrong, I’ve no idea why- for example, the dudes are playing hackie sack – was it scripted? was it the artists decision? how much did the writer specify in the script? and so on.
The intention was the break down a few pages, but that’s exhausted me. If you’re interested, I’ll do this again, and if there’s a page you’d like to nominate please do so – I’m looking for good story telling/interesting compositions that I can break down and look at. I picked this page on a whim, but there’s interesting lessons to be drawn from it (and I don’t think I’ve ever got near all the stuff you can unpack from this one page).