Monday, April 30, 2012

Picking the Right Moment to Illustrate

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 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.


James said...

great topic/issue film has to tackle!
I'd say I agree that your 2nd type conveys meaning much better:
-mostly because the images are much easier to read; i think this is partly due to any bodies/objects (usually) being that much further away from our 'camera' view, allowing us to pin-point center of interest/focal point. This is much harder in close up action shots where all the conflicting lines and angles full frame are hard to identify and correlate to each other/directing our eyes to no particular area. Everything, but yet nothing!
- we want to go straight to the face to read our characters; when they're further away, their faces appear in closer 2d proximity within the frame and hence our eyes can quickly scan the different expressions and relate them all to the overall meaning of the picture.
This is way harder when all the faces are that much further apart in the 2d film frame, as a result of a CU, and hence our eyes have to dart around that much more, from a face on this side of screen to a face on the other. We only focus on the one we are looking at at the time and hence, somewhat lose awareness of the other one.
(i guess it's somewhat ironic that this CU action needs more time to study and realise, and generally, these are the type that are over in 2 tics!)

I didn't recognise Wyeth when you mentioned him, didn't even know he was famous (oops!) but google search returned a picture that I remember finding years ago and particularly was drawn to, (apparently also famous!) 'Christina's world'.
This is kinda exactly showing the 'less IS more'. Both are far enough away to establish direction line and relate to meaning (which in this picture is actually left to us, from absence of the expression). Body/pose easy to read against 'flat' bground/grass.

I think one of my most liked, Ed Hopper, is a prime and brilliant example of your second type, yes?

- learnt so much again -illuminating post!

El caimán de Legutiano said...

fantastic and didactic blog! Thanks!

Tom Lyle said...

There are three generations of Wyeth's to enjoy, but the grandfather (N.C. Wyeth) is the best for me.
CHRISTINA'S WORLD is by his son, Andrew. And his son, Jamie, is considered an important fine artist as well.
This painting is by NC Wyeth and look that up specifically. I think you'll be pleased with the results.

James said...


bhashkar_Quantity-Takeoff said...

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dzart said...

Mr. Kennedy,
I have only just discovered your blog. Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom.

This illustration principle is a also a fundamental principle in animation.
Show the character's action with a strong anticipation and a strong result, and the middle won't even matter.

Tim Shirey said...

Enjoyed your post!

When NC Wyeth was given Treasure Island to illustrate, the publishers gave him complete control of what scenes to paint. It was interesting that NC not only chose the preparation or aftermath, but he often selected a secondary event to illustrate as opposed to an obvious climactic/dramatic part of the story.

I never get tired of visiting the Brandywine River museum and the room with those large Treasure Island paintings! Wow.

Steven K said...

While your general points are very good, there are some problems with your comparison.

BTW, all of your pulp cover examples are by Norman Saunders, a brilliant illustrator whose work includes the original Mars Attacks! cards (vastly superior to Burton's movie).

The basic problem with your comparison - and dismissal of the "pulp" approach - is that Pyle and Wyeth are creating interior illustrations for specific scenes in specific stories. In essence, they are working from scripts.

Saunders is not. Saunders is painting covers for pulps. In the last two examples, he did not have stories to work from - at best, he might have had titles; more likely, he came up with his own ideas, and stories may have been written to fit them. In the case of the Ellery Queen cover, he might have had a synopsis, but I doubt it.

In other words, you are comparing apples and oranges. Pyle and Wyeth are doing multiple interior illustrations depicting specific scenes for specific stories. Pyle, in particular, is anticipating the coming of film by his staging and composition. But they are doing story illustrations - interior illustrations to accompany a text.

Saunders is doing covers, which is a very different challenge, especially pulp covers. The cover had to sell the pulp, or everyone starved. It was as much advertising and poster illustration as story illustration. It had to leap off of a crowded news stand and grab someone by the eyeballs. Saunders doesn't have the luxury of multiple illustrations, nor can he avoid illustrating the climax - there is no climax, because there is no story. He has to do everything in a single image whose primary purpose is to sell the magazine. It is more like movie poster illustration than story illustration.
It is also incredibly difficult. The pulp cover and later the paperback cover are among the ultimate challenges in illustration, a combination of advertising (sell the product) and narrative (tell the story) illustration that has produced such masters as Saunders, St. John, Baumhofer, Belarski, Howitt, McGinnis, Maguire,and Bama.

If you want an indication of how challenging it is, look up NC Wyeth's Tarzan cover to see how miserably he failed at it.

A better comparison for the points you are making would be to look at the pulp interior artists, such as Tom Lovell, St. John (the movies still can't capture the inventive excitement of his John Carter illustrations) Paul Orban, Virgil Finlay, John Fleming Gould,(his Spider illustrations are masterful examples of staging and composition), and the incomparable Blue Book Magazine illustrators such as Herbert Morton Stoops,Austin Briggs John Russell Fulton, Hamilton Green, Gratton Condon, Manning DeVilleneuve Lee, Clayton Knight, and Raymond Thayer. They are among the many pulp illustrators whose staging, composition, lighting and characterizations had a tremendous influence on film storytelling, especially film noir. Alex Toth sited Lovell's "The Shadow" illustrations and Orban's "Doc Savage" as primary influences on himself and other early comic artists, and praised their economy (always Toth's primary focus). Stoops and Fulton might be particularly interesting to look at, as they were both students of Harvey Dunn, who taught Pyle's philosophy the most effectively.

jesse said...

Great article, thanks for writing and sharing!
This is definitely something I'll keep in mind when brainstorming for an illustration next time. Emotional weight versus exciting action...What draws a viewer in most? Action might be a cheap way to get people to pick up a book, but if there's nothing more there, if there's no depth to the scenario or characters, no emotional weight, no importance... I can't imagine they'll hold the book very long.

Again, thanks! And all the best to you. :)

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