Sunday, February 21, 2010

What You Don't See

Sometimes a picture is more effective because of what is left out.

I scanned this illustration by John Gannam. My scanner, for a reason I can't fathom, is built in a way that prohibits me from laying books flat on it, which is why there's a shadow along the edge.

I love this illustration because of what it leaves out. If you saw the girl's face, it would be a rather pedestrian picture of a pretty girl reading the Sunday funnies. But because we can't see her face, we are forced to engage with the picture and use the clues we are given along with our imagination and life experience to figure out what her personality is like. And, of course, when a picture manages to trick us into working with it to understand it, we stop and become involved with it instead of just glancing at it and moving on without a second thought.

So let's examine the clues we are given that tip us off to what kind of girl she is. First off, we have her rather unfeminine pants, which tell us she's not too much of an overly feminine girl, and the rougher dark-colored pants give a nice contrast to her light-colored, very feminine skin. Also I like the fact that she's surrounded by comic pages from several different newspapers, so we know she's not just pausing to read the comics as she devours the whole. She's the type of girl that only reads the funnies.

Her jewelry is a bit bigger and flashier than a very dainty girl would wear. Also you have to consider what it tells you about a girl's personality that she wears her jewelry while she lies around in bed reading the funnies. I suppose we can surmise that she was out late last night (it would have been Saturday night, after all, since these are the Sunday funnies) and slept with her jewelry on. Her red toenail polish seems to suggest that too. And red toenail polish is another touch that fits with the other clues we've been is the most flashy and bold color, after all. Even the fact that she's relaxing in bed instead of say, sitting in a chair, tells you something about her character. And it suggests that last night was a late night as well. One thing we know, she's probably not planning on going to church...

The cliche standard would say that girls always cross their legs in a more dainty and demure way, with the upper legs touching and the knees together, and that you should always paint them this way. The way this girl crosses her legs tends to be much closer to the way men (again, according to the cliche) usually cross their legs. The way she's crossed them here feels very aggressive and confident. But it still comes across as very feminine because of the masterful way he's painted her legs (very feminine shapes) and even the way that bottom foot is tucked around so that she's resting her lower foot on its side. A more masculine approach would be to have the sole of the foot resting on the bed.

I also like how the illustrator has placed her high in the frame by leaving some blank area at the bottom. It makes her seem more powerful and strong (which is the type of girl she seems to be). Also it just makes the space breakup more interesting.

Somehow the painter has found a way to give her a great feel of femininity but balanced that with a good sense that she's not too feminine, and that she's a strong, confident and fun girl. I love how the hand gripping the paper is handled. It's so well-observed and confidently painted. Her fingers grip the paper with real intensity. It would have been easy to make her hand much more feminine but that isn't the point the illustrator is trying to make. Her hand seems to complete the picture of a girl who is strong, confident, and feminine without being too girly. I love how the other hand is artfully hidden by the paper. I think it makes you focus all the more strongly on the hand that you can see. And since we can't see her face, that hand is the closest thing to a face we are ever going to see, and we put a lot of weight and focus on it to decipher who this mystery girl is.

Again, love the big green ring. Even the rectangle seems like the right shape...elegant without being demure or fragile.

I just think a lot of the success of the image comes from that contrast between the feminine and unfeminine. Seeing her face would make the picture tilt too far one way or the other, maybe. Anyway, a mystery always adds interest to a picture, so it serves this one well.

My favorite example of seeing less but in order to get more impact out of it is from the Chuck Jones short "Feed the Kitty". As Marc Anthony the bulldog watches his kitty friend get mixed up in some cookie dough, rolled flat by a rolling pin and cut up with cookie cutters, he reacts with horror outside the window. In the last scene of him watching, you can only see his eyeball. It rolls back in shock and he falls over out of frame.

I think its so much more powerful this way than if you saw his whole face.

As always, feel free to leave a comment and tell me if you're confused by this, and want me to clarify, or you agree with my analysis, or totally disagree...


Rochelle said...

No, no. I absolutely love reading your analysis posts. They're very informative and I have to say I've learnt a lot from your blog since I first started following. Great, as usual!

dorian said...

wonderful, thanks for sharing!

Wild and Uncouth said...

I agree enthusiastically! Great analysis!

Abraham said...

It's a great analysis and very informative. Thanks!

Lucy said...

I totally agree with you. When something is hidden, all you can do is stop watching and start seeing, to perceive what's beyond it all... and that is funnier, 'cause you´re being an active part of the picture.

:P I hope you understand my english, I'm not so good... your blog is awesome! thanks!

markjens said...

Big fan of your site... I did my own analysis of the painting before reading yours since I am familiar with what a sharp eye you have. (Sort of like when you're looking for something for ten or so minutes and the wife says, "What are you looking for other than the dog bone right here?" I didn't want my own analysis to see exactly what you saw. In the end, I did though. You are training me to see these things much more clearly. I picked up the posture, jewelry, toenails, papers, and since you entitled it as you did, I very much noticed what was NOT visible. Great example, and thanks! (Oh, for the sake of honesty, although my mind registered the posture of her hand on the paper, I did not really make the point of it that you did - always something more to learn from you!)

オテモヤン said...


Valery Zrazhevskiy said...

I really liked your analysis.Absolutely agree with you, this work is very interesting.Thank you very much!

Fabio Lai said...

I like when this concept is applied in movies to create emotional tension, suspense. For istance in Ridley's Scott's 'Alien' we never see the creature all at once, but they show us only small details of it. This makes the presence of the alien even more as an impending danger, it's more oppressive.
If they had clearly shown us the entire creature since the first movie's scenes probably all the tension in the screenplay would have collapsed.

mark kennedy said...

Rochelle - great, thanks for the comment! You're too kind.

Dorian - you're welcome!

Wild - glad you liked it, thanks!

Abraham - thanks!

Lucy - I get it, you're very clear, and glad you like the blog!

Markjens - great, that's a good idea, to look at it first without reading my analysis. There's always plenty more to see so don't take my analysis as "gospel" but use it as a launching board and see if what I say makes sense or not....thanks for the comment!

Valery - great! You're welcome!

Fabio - yes. "Jaws" comes to mind too, of course, and there's a famous scene in "Rosemary's Baby" where a character is on the phone but we can't see her face because it's hidden behind a door. Same thing, great scene. Thanks for the comment!

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