Dancing about Architecture – how to criticise art #artcred
“Writing about art is like dancing about architecture”
attributed to just about everybody
Since Declan Shalvey started the #artcred hashtag, highlighting how comic critics and reviewers have tended recently to ignore the contribution of artists in favour of writers, one of the things that has come out of the discussion is that reviewers are, by definition, writers, who have a grounding in the craft and terminology of writing and can analyse and describe what a writer is doing – but may not have a similar grounding in the craft and terminology of art.
I think that’s fair comment. I’d also venture to suggest that many artists have little or no grounding in the terminology of art, having learned to draw more by practice than instruction. So I thought I’d open up the discussion: how do we talk about art? If we want to explain why the one one comic is good and on another not, or why two comics might have art that’s equally good, but in different ways – how do we do it?
Please bear in mind I only did the foundation year in art college, and I didn’t even finish it. My art education is about as lacking as anybody’s. If there’s terminology I’m using wrong, forgive and correct me.
(Examples are mostly found from Google images. I’ve linked the pages I’ve stolen them from.)
The vast majority of comic art, historically and now, is based on black line. I’ve been banging on for several years about how that’s not necessary any more, and the possibilities of scanning, digital art and digital printing allow us a much greater variety of techniques, but that’s not important right now. We’re going to be looking primarily at line art. So lets talk about what line can do.
The most basic thing line art can do is outline. But there’s plenty of variation in how different artists use it. It might be angular or curvy, tight or loose, broken or continuous, thick, thin, a combination of both, or flowing from one to another. It could be a brush line, a dip pen line, a technical pen line, a marker line – or a digital simulation of any of these.
Almost all comic artists use outline, almost all the time. Apart from filling in a few blacks, Hergé (above) uses nothing else. No modelling of form, no texture, no light and shade, no pattern, just pure, tight outline. Jaime Hernandez and Milo Manara also rely very heavily on outline.
2. Form and texture (surface)
Some artists use line to model form, using hatching or feathering to show the shape of an object in three dimensions or the texture of its surface.
Some artists combine outline with modelling of form and texture, like the above example from Carlos Ezquerra, or the one below by Robert Crumb.
3. Light and shade (chiaroscuro)
Some artists use areas of black to indicate shadows, contrasted with open white spaces showing where light falls.
Some combine outline with light and shade, like the example above by David Mazzuchelli, where the lines and the blocks of black graduate into each other and aren’t really separable, or this one by Mike Mignola, where the lines are thin and spindly and contrast with the large black areas.
David Lloyd, on V For Vendetta, memorably dispensed with outline a lot of the time and worked mainly with light and shade.
Some artists use a combination of outline, form and texture, and light and shade, and they tend to produce very rich work (and take a very long time doing so). Brian Bolland would be a good example of this.
4. Mark making
This is where it gets interesting. Some artists use line expressionistically, to create mood or feeling, or abstractly, creating patterns on the picture plane.
Artists who add expressionistic or abstract pattern to their work are quite rare in comics, because they rarely help storytelling, but it’s an option if you can make it work. Steve Bissette and John Totleben used unusually long brush strokes and dry brush marks to create mood in Swamp Thing (above). Then there’s Jack Kirby’s famous “Kirby Dots”, and some of the strange lines, blocks and and squiggles he drew all over his figures.
5. Technical qualities
If an artist uses techniques like perspective or anatomical figure drawing, how well do they use them? Do they use them naturalistically, or do they distort or stylise them for effect?
Which brings me to:
6. Stylisation: the Big Triangle
Another area for discussion that’s difficult to talk about was brilliantly summarised by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. Since I can’t for the moment lay my hand on my copy, Scott has helpfully put it online: The Big Triangle. There’s a high res scan of McCloud’s triangle, with examples placed at various points within it, at this link.
The baseline of the triangle is a continuum from Reality (photo-realism, close resemblance to reality as perceived by the eyes) to Meaning (cartooniness, abstracting the image to simpler shapes, but what it depicts still recognisable) – with a photo of a face at the bottom left-hand corner, and a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth at the bottom right hand corner. Extend the line further in this direction and you get letters spelling out the word FACE – meaning retained, but zero resemblance.
The apex of the triangle is The Picture Plane – abstraction away from both Reality and Meaning to pure mark making. Comic artists crowd into the bottom half of the triangle, but an artist like Marc Hempel (above) might venture tentatively towards the apex from the cartoony corner, Sergio Toppi, Bill Sienkiewicz or Dave McKean from the realistic corner, and Jack Kirby from somewhere in between.
Most comics are printed in colour (and a lot of black a white comics are printed with grey tones, which can be considered in a similar way). Colour can be used in most of the ways I’ve described for line art: form and texture, light and shade, mark making.
Colour can be schematic, with Tintin’s jumper always the same shade of blue; naturalistic, taking account of lighting conditions and distance from the viewer; expressionistic, using unnatural colours and lighting effects to create mood and accentuate feeling; or abstract, with colours chosen for visual effect on the picture plane.
This last is more common than you might think. Before computers gave colourists a fuller palette, comics were coloured by a crude mechanical process that didn’t allow much subtlety, and were often coloured for contrast, to make figures, backgrounds and other elements stand out from each other, using a combination of schematic and abstract colour.
And that’s another area we can talk about with regard to colour – is it mechanical – flat areas of colour, smooth graduations from one colour to another – or is it painterly, with visible brush strokes showing the artist’s hand?
If the line artist and the colourist are different people, how well do their styles mesh and complement each other? And while you’re taking care to credit the artist, do make sure you credit the colourist as well!
Characterisation and storytelling
This is an area that’s very pertinent to comic art.
Characterisation: how good an “actor” is the artist? How clearly do they distinguish one character from another, and how consistently do they portray the same character from panel to panel? How believable, and how informative, are their facial expressions and body language? Can you tell what they’re thinking or feeling? Do their figures have weight? Do their actions seem to involve effort?
Storytelling: how effectively does the art convey the progression of the story to the reader? Can you easily tell where the characters are, where they’re going, what they’re doing, and why?
I’m not sure if this is the right word for what I’m talking about, but it’ll do for now. Qualities it’s hard to put your finger on. Impressions you get. Some art is macho, and some is sensitive. Some art is dynamic, always in a hurry, some is contemplative, unrushed. Some art is humane and sympathetic, and some is cruel and contemptuous. Some art is carefree, some is neurotic. Some art is detached, some is intimate and emotionally involved. Some art is deadpan, some is hammy. I’m sure you can think of other kinds of oppositions like that.
So there we have it: some tools to help you criticise the art of a comic you’re reviewing. And like I say, it’s not meant to be definitive, more something to inspire discussion. So have at it!