I know I've talked about this one before, but since I'm on this kick of talking about how to get more storytelling into a drawing or an illustration, this seemed like a good time to revisit the concept and expand on the topic with some new perspectives.
When you sit down to do a drawing or painting of an event or a story, how do you know exactly which moment to pick as your moment to illustrate? This can be especially challenging when dealing with a scene full of action and drama.
There seem to be two schools of thought on this. The first type is the kind you see on the cover of pulp fiction novels from the 30's-50's.
Pulp Fiction covers always seem to be trying to cram as much action into the cover as they can (a lot of comic book covers seem to try this approach too). For example, someone's breaking down a door right as they're shooting another person who is just at that moment burning a screaming person with a white hot poker.
So when the Pulp Cover painter thinks about picking which moment to illustrate, he seems to be asking himself, "what's the most exciting moment in the whole book I can pick to show on the cover?" I imagine this is what sells books; those books are all about action so a potential buyer probably looks at all the covers and picks the one that looks like it has the most exciting story inside. So I think of this way of working as the "Pulp Cover" or "Comic Book" approach to picking the moment you use as the basis for your illustration, and it seems to be all about getting as much action as you can into one image and putting the viewer right in the middle of the violence.
The other school of thought I like to think of as more of an "Illustration" approach. Painters like Pyle and N.C. Wyeth seemed to have a different method of finding the right scene to portray.
These types of paintings seem to be created by showing a moment either before something momentous happens or right after something momentous happens. I like to think of it as they show either preparation or aftermath. But not the moment of action.
In this Wyeth illustration from "Treasure Island", the heroes are preparing to raise the flag of their fort, in defiance of the pirates that are laying siege outside the walls. He could have painted the moment where the flag is raised in a heroic fashion against the sun, with pirates firing their muskets at it and the heroes straining to raise the flag. It could have been painted as a big dramatic moment, but instead Wyeth chose the moment before: the simple action of the character sewing the flag to the flagpole and preparing to hoist it above the fort.
The moment seems charged with a lot of dramatic weight in a way that a moment of action can never be. Moments of action are somewhat flat: in a moment of action, characters aren't feeling deep, complex emotions. They're either scared or angry, or maybe they could feel triumphant or defeated, I suppose....but in moments of action, when people are breaking down doors or ducking a bullet, they aren't feeling any deep complex emotions.
In the Wyeth moment above, there are deep complex emotions at play: the feeling of defiance, the sense that these people have made a hard choice and are going to make a statement to their tormentors that they are not afraid and they are not going to surrender (I know you can't really get all that from the illustration - you need to read the book to get the proper context).
So that one is definitely a moment of preparation.
Another one by Wyeth that I love - the pioneer stepping out of his canoe, pausing for a moment before plunging into unexplored, unknown and hostile territory (I think it's from "The Deerstalker", but someone tell me if I'm wrong).
Another moment of "preparation" that has a lot of dramatic weight. Because it's a moment of "pause", there's a stillness that lets you look at his face and read emotions into it. Again, in moments of action, the faces of the characters tend to be contorted with effort and strain...which means you can't play deeper, more thoughtful types of emotions on their faces. When you're dodging a punch or firing a gun you can't be reflective or thoughtful, so the "Pulp Cover" kind of painting can never be that deep or subtle in the emotions they portray.
I'm not picking on the "Pulp Cover" or "Comic Book" way of selecting a moment, and there are times when that's definitely the right choice for the subject. But one of the reasons why I appreciate the "Illustration" approach more is that film is great at capturing movement and action. It's very hard for a single image to capture the feeling of kinetic force, movement and action in the same way that film can. Distilling exciting action into a single frozen image isn't really the strength of drawing and painting (in my opinion). I think that the approach taken by Pyle and Wyeth plays more to the strengths of illustration and painting. But that's just me.
Here's one by Pyle that portrays the moment after pirates have attacked a town and won the battle. They are forcing the representative of the town to kneel in front of them (the mayor?) and you can see their collected booty in the lower left - clearly they've sacked the town and taken everything of worth they could find.
I like this approach better than, say, a painting of a giant battle of pirate ships firing their cannons at the town. I like this scene of "aftermath" because it implies a huge battle for the town in your mind. But the painting shows so much more than just a battle...it shows character and relationships. The pirates have a great sense of personality and character, and their relationship towards the town and the town's mayor is very clear. The pirates are clearly in power and the town is at their mercy. All that would be hard to get in a painting of an epic land and sea battle. A painting of a giant attack on a town by pirate ships isn't really a good format for showing characters and relationships.
This one is an interesting one by Pyle because it actually does show a moment of action but he's handled it in an interesting way.
In the first place, Pyle chose to put the "camera" back a ways from the action. That's very different from the "Pulp Cover" approach, where it seems like the painter is trying to get everything happening in your face as much as possible.
Even though it's a fight, Pyle picked a moment where the two pirates seem to be "deadlocked" in combat - they seem to be at a moment where they're both frozen still, trying to overpower the other. So even in a fight, Pyle has picked the most static kind of moment possible - not like in the "Pulp Cover" style, where the painters seem to try and paint their figures in the middle of a violent action, like firing a gun or slashing someone with a knife.
Also, unlike the "Pulp Cover" style, it seems that Pyle isn't focusing on the emotions of the people involved in the fight. In this painting, Pyle seems to be playing the fight - not off the combatants - but off their audience, the pirates who are intently watching the fight. The pirates watching seem very invested in who wins (probably that person will be their new captain) and I love the sense of character and attitude the watching pirates have. Their grim seriousness and intensity gives the picture so much more weight - this isn't just some drunken brawl that just broke out...there's a lot riding on who wins this fight. Again. the "Pulp Cover" fights don't seem to have that layer of deeper meaning or interest, and to me, that's what makes Pyle work so much better and deeper.
Anyway, to sum up, it seems to me that the Pyle approach works well because it offers more opportunities for character, personality and storytelling. As exciting as a moment of violent action can be, you're limited in the amount of story and character you can get into a painting like that. So it bears repeating that there's no right or wrong way to illustrate anything, but knowing how to pick the right moment can at least help you say what you want to say in the best way possible.