comic books

The Art of Line: Simple Line Contour

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The War on lines

Some moments stick in your mind like spoiled taffy, bitter-sweet. Sometime back in 2002, I woke up eager to attend my first academic life-drawing class. Strolling to class with my morning coffee I felt confident I was going to make an impression on my professor with drawing abilities. The model struck a pose and my pencil began christening the fresh art pad with a wonderfully rendered line drawing of the figure before me.

After finishing our first long pose we were instructed to post our finished pieces upon the class wall for examination and critique. The professor most likely wanted to see where our coordination - and more importantly our artistic mental abilities - currently stood. Scanning the wall, the professor finally approached my drawing and I awaited the adorning review. Instead, the instructor began a crushing critique that haunted me for the entire year. “Stop drawing lines. You need to stop thinking in lines.”

The advice was a double-edged sword. I had previously only studied comics, an art form with highly stylized and skillfully applied lines. My hope was I would learn more about the mental process behind the techniques I had been studying. My entire artistic foundation was yanked out from under me. For a while I was devastated, however, It did help me break my addiction to my constant use of line. As a result, I was forced to start thinking in three-dimensional forms. However, it left me in a state of confusion for a long while as well. I grew up on comic books which held the beauty of line as a powerfully graphical tool. Lines in comics are an expressive cornerstone to the original art form. Yet to further the art education I was asked to let them go.

A comparison of figure line contour with the rendered form of a figure.

A comparison of figure line contour with the rendered form of a figure.

MAKING PEACE WITH LineS

What I have come to understand since then is that an art school worth its salt will first heavily focus on a classical chiaroscuro approach. This is designed to break a young artist’s tendency to draw two-dimensionally. When we first learn to both observe and draw we typically begin with the line. We notice the borders of an object and try to ‘outline’ it and then use lines for prominently overlapping forms. Alongside that, most developing artists copying other illustrations and photos. By copying the shapes and tonal variations the artist is tricked into thinking they have an understanding of three-dimensional form. When in fact, your eye is being trained to transfer a flat image to a flat image. This habit trains the mind to think and observe in flat, two dimensions. While it may develop strong hand-eye coordination (which is an important element to drawing) it limits the artist's ability to convey the world to mere contour.

A good professor knows this and has the difficult job of taking a promising student and forcing them to evolve. The goal is to expand the artist’s understanding of perspective, three-dimensional forms and their interactions with light and shadow. This focusing on light and shadow and representing forms which bend into the third dimension on the page is called chiaroscuro. This school of thought, taken to its extreme, discourages any direct use of line. The professor teaching the class indeed views line as a lesser technique compared to the rendering of tonal form. If any line is granted it is used merely to plot and construct the design of the page, but even in this area, the blocking of shadow forms is preferred to line.

However, throughout the history of artists, the use of line has been evolving in tandem with tonally rendered representation. The oldest use being line contour drawings of animals in cave paintings dating over 20,000 years ago. These simplified forms speak to the symbolic mind and represent more the concept of an object rather than attempting to capture a photogenic copy of the forms. The power of this type of image, distilling the essence of an object to a simplified line, was rediscovered by modern artists in the 20th century.

Left: Cave Paintings; Right: Picasso’s line drawing

Left: Cave Paintings; Right: Picasso’s line drawing

This simplification of forms through line is a powerfully minimized graphical representation. It condenses of the visual world to a stripped down image which is quickly identifiable by disposing of the unnecessary elements. Line use has since branched into many different approaches and styles, but this being the oldest and most simplified, I thought it would be the best place to start when exploring a discussion about the art of line.


Ancient Origins of Simple-Line Contour

The use of line was observed in the earliest forms of visual communication (as I’ve already touched on referencing per-historic cave paintings). As line-rendering techniques evolved and complexified, there still remained lineage of exceptional use of simple-line contour which continues even to this day.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Ancient Egyptian images were intimately intertwined with their written language in the form of hieroglyphs. In a way, we can see the visual tree of words and images begin to split into two distinct branches as history progresses. This early method of communication is sort of the primordial ooze of both pictorial art and literature. Egyptian images were symbols and their symbols were images, and lines were used in both for clarity.

Greek Vase Painting

Shifting forward a few thousand years, it’s worth taking a look at the Greek vase painting. Here the approach to figure representation is similar to the style of early Egyptian hieroglyphs but the skills of application have evolved. Narrative images wrap around the pottery intertwined with decorative symbols. The attention to detail and the elegance of the rendered forms are much more nuanced and life-like than the stiffness found in hieroglyphs. Greek vases are broken into two eras, red-figure, and black-figure. The red figures are outlined in black paint and thine black lines are used to detail the figures themselves. Black figures have their interiors painted in black and the lines are removed to reveal the color of the pot. Both styles are incredibly stylized and very graphical in nature and create a distinctly recognizable image.


Turn of the Century Simple-Line Contour

ALPHONSE MUCHA

Mucha, to me, is the purest example of a blending of the two approaches. As a painter, illustrator and graphic designer during the Art Nouveau era his knowledgeable range of skills contributed to his original style. Here we can clearly see the simple-line contour techniques of old but in conjunction with the masterful planning and composition techniques that grew out of the Renaissance. His avoidance tonal rendering contributes to the delicate feminine appearance of his work. Tonal variation and gradients are used minimally and as a device to create a focal point for the eye. The art salons of his time were dedicated to the traditional craft forged during the Renaissance. Mucha's departure into minimalism was part of a movement of the era and opened the door for other artists to explore simple-line contour as well.

Henri Toulouse Lautrec

Toulouse Lautrec was another well-rounded artist working as a painter, illustrator, print-maker as well as a caricaturist. It’s my belief that Toulouse Lautrec’s unorthodox style emerged from his involvement in caricature. Caricature has its roots firmly planted in the comics realm and thus has a history of utilizing simple-line contour. This merging of worlds led to Lautrec's innovative voice.

Erte

Simple-line contour was an essential element of the two emerging art styles of the early 20th Century: Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Previously we discussed Mucha, essentially the face of the Art Nouveau movement. The equivalent artist in Art Deco would be Erté. Branching out from illustration, Erté became a recognized fashion designer for the theater as well as film. His simple-line illustrative style became the look associated with Art Deco figures.

AUBREY BEARDSLEY

Beardsley, inspired by Japanese woodcuts as well, as the waters of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, developed his own black and white style using simple-line contour. His work acts as a nice transition from the examination of the painting/academic world towards artists within the comic art world; this is partly due to his exclusive use of black and white and partly due to his methodology. Beardsley was definitely well versed in the fine art world of his time but chose to swim in murkier waters and make his own vision. He preferred to focus on the grotesque and perverse without worry of being shunned by the art world. This freedom allowed him to make art through a more exploitative and unique lens.


Comic Book Simple-Line Contour

TRADD MOORE

Tradd Moore has a distinct style within the comic industry, sporting clean and elegantly flowing lines that carry their own life-force. The power of simple line contour lies within not just the flow of the line, but a strong understanding of balancing positive and negative space. It is through the simplicity of line that the focus is on the shapes and how they move and sing on the page. Tradd’s work has roots in the wonderful history of simple-line contour, but he molds his style and shapes to the format of the comic book medium. His original pages are a work of art unto themselves, but the experience a reader receives reading one of his graphic novels is a living work of art. For this reason, I suggest heading over and picking up his latest book, The New World, hot off the press at your local comic shop (or if you must, on Amazon).

Thus concludes this little exploration of Simple-Line Contour. Ultimately, most comic artists use a variety of techniques including variations of line-use within them. I wanted to explore the idea of finding the essence of a style by tracing it to its roots and following where it has led. Since I’m not studying for a PhD in comics, I have only touched on the surface using my prior art historical knowledge. However, there are many interesting links within the world of comic book art that have ties to various art lineages. This is something I plan on exploring more in future posts. For now, hope you’ve enjoyed the read and until next time, keep making comics!

Designing a Comic Cover (Part 2 of 2)

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The first part of this two part series focused on my philosophy in regards to comic covers and their importance to a comic. To reiterate I made three main points:

  1. A cover should set the tone and mood for a series and reflect the story being told.

  2. A cover should act as a ‘hook’ that peaks the readers interest in the story to come.

  3. Cover designs should be instantly recognizable across a series.

For part two, the focus is going to be on the process of developing a unique cover design with your comic series in mind. As an example, we will take a look at the cover design process for the series, “13” by Chris Massari in which I’ve been hired to design cover work. The series focuses on the legend of 13 Shaolin monks who helped to defeated two rebel dynasties in 7th-Century AD.


Step One: Gathering Reference

My first step is to gather reference material and begin to study the subject matter surrounding a series. This is the foundational structure upon which all the creative visuals will build. Often the smallest detail can become a cornerstone upon which a unique concept will be built. Luckily for this project Chris is actually an astute researcher and had assembled a great amount of reference for me to begin with. This initial gathering of reference is the first round of reference collection. As a direction is narrowed down, more specified references will need to be gathered for specific elements. The most important part of this step is to ‘get your head in the game’. You want to start charging your creative mind with the subject matter of the comic series.

Alongside your subject references, it’s also important to start contemplating the mood & feel of the comic series. Chris had expressed two major influences which he had in mind while creating of the series: 300 by Frank Miller; and Vagabond by Takehiko Inoue. Upon exploring the two series, there was a quick realization that they had very different tonalities from one another. 300 had covers which were loud, graphic and implying excessive violence, where as Vagabond chose calm, serine and quite moments in between violence and conflict. Therefore, my approach pitching design direction to Chris was to explore both paths at their extremes and then offer a third option, the middle way, trying to incorporate the essence of both books.


Step Two: Sketching and Thumbnails

Once the reference is gathered, its time to pour a big cup of coffee and let things rattle around in your creative mind. In the early stages of sketching it is important to think in broad strokes. This prevents getting lost in the details on any one concepts. Let yourself be playful and explore without restriction.

With a sketch book and pencil in hand, I begin to pluck images from my mind onto the paper. I began traveling down the direction influenced by, Vagabond. The reason for this is that I believe in finding elements that will make a cover unique on the shelf. I appreciate the Eastern manga style of exploring quite moments within a story. This is very popular in manga comics, however it is incredibly rare in the American comic market. Next I studied the 300 covers and tried a more minimal approach then I attempted to combine the feeling of the two together. I always thumbnail covers at approximately 2” X 3”. Here are the results of the sketching stage:

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  1. Eastern Influence: The first direction explores a solitary moment of contemplation prior to battle. The image of a warrior monk gazing at his reflection in a pond, mentally battling the decision to participate in war. This concept is visited again in the last direction with dramatic a twist. My initial take was to focus on the warrior’s entire figure and have it enveloped by the environment. This concept focused on the old adage that a person pushes out onto the world to shape it but the world is always pushing back shaping the individual. I wanted to have a few falling flower petals to evoke a trickling in of danger into this serine environment.

  2. Western Influence: Frank Miller is known for having graphical covers. They are loud and scream ‘danger’. I wanted to use typography stripped down on a red background incorporating a weapon in with the number 13. Ultimately if this comic was going to be a blood bath, this would be the direction to go. Thankfully, Chris was much more interested in merging the essence of comics from the East into the Western market than repeating the traditional excessive violence found in American comics since the 80s’s.

  3. East Meets West: This was my attempt to marry the two extremes. I wanted to take a moment after battle, pull back and show a moment of contemplation. This time we see the actual reflection of the warrior’s face as he meditates on the actions he has taken. By displaying a blood stained face inside a calm pool of water there is a juxtopsing of violence and peace. The sword next to the puddle helps to reinforce the idea of battle. Chris appreciated this direction, but was really excited about exploring the direction of the first thumbnail that had a more Eastern influence.


Step three: refining Thumbnails & finalizing reference

The next stage is my favorite part of the process; crafting the final direction and solidifying the details. Chris and I both decided the image needed more of an allusion of the war to come. After expressing interest in perhaps having a few arrows landing in the scene, Chris suggested using a wheel as a nod to dharmachakra (representing the Buddhist teaching and walking of the path to Enlightenment). To add to the metaphor, we chose to have the wheel be broken. This sybolizes that the monks path to enlightenment, through isolation, was broken and about to be challenged by the war to come.

These little symbolic gems grow as the image is revised. In each phase there is a potential for new elements that build upon the previous ones. Keep in mind, it is important to edit and remove just as much as you focus on adding to an image. For example, we had also discussed adding a crane, as it is the bird representing Vajrapani (the god venerated by the Shaolin monks). However we decided that it took away from the quietness which the image so effective. Also, it wasn’t directly relevant to the message of the first cover, so in the end it was kept out.

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After cementing the direction of the final composition and elements, there was another round of gathering references specific to the image. These were the last bits of detail to assure that everything looks and feels proper. It may seem like a lot of effort sorting through images, but it will pay off in the end.


Stage four: Rendering

This article isn’t focused on how to create a cover image, rather it revolves around the thought-process behind creating a cover image. Therefore, I won’t go into the details of execution, but I will examine the thought behind the color palette I chose.

My approach to rendering a cover varies depending on the project. With the covers for “13” I wanted to bring elements from the East and incorporate them into my western style. I’m not an artistic chameleon, ultimately I want my images to feel recognizable as my personal style. However, I did want to capture the essence and tone of Chinese ink wash.

I love the mood of these long scrolls, especially the fog it catches drifting up from the water. It creates a stark contrast of dark and light tones. The goal was to create a tonally dark foreground that quickly becomes lighter in tone due to the fog of the environment.

There is an intentional limitation on the amount of color in the scene. This limited color helps to evoke the feeling of ink wash scrolls. I chose limit the color to the primary elements of the scene: the monk; the flower petals, and a touch of color on the wheel. The majority of the scene is a de-saturated cool grey which allows the character to be the central focus. Having established this approach on the first issue one, it will be subsequently applied to every cover following. Part of the fun of cover design is establishing a rule set and then experimenting within that structure.

With all that in mind, below is the result of the final cover image for 13 issue 01. As always, if you enjoyed the article, please share and like on social networks and the like. Until next time, Keep Making Comics!

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