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Composition. Ugh. The roadblock for so many artists, so many illustrators and others who aspire to create pleasing pictures.
Have you ever been there? You draw a picture element, rather expertly, as your first step in a scene. You draw another element. And another, and suddenly, you worry that you have no idea where you’re going.
You see it’s not hanging together and you feel in your heart that your next mark, whatever you do (or wherever you do it) will not be safe. It won’t help, will move nothing forward, design-wise. It will only add to the chaos (or the tedium) on your page.
Which begs the question for a story illustrator: What’s the worth of a subject beautifully drawn if it doesn’t fit snugly into a meaningful , larger whole?
That must be the job of composition. So we’re stuck (if you've ever run into this roadblock.)
Happily, there’s a way around. It came from Kimon Nicolaides, an American artist and teacher from the early 20th century.
He talked a lot about the power of gesture drawing in his classic book, The Natural Way to Draw.
Let’s apply his ideas to a storyboard thumbnail.
Say I want to thumbnail a two-page spread for a Peruvian folktale, Moon Rope. I want to illustrate the story differently from Lois Ehlert’s brilliant 1992 version of it for Harcourt Brace & Company.
I’ll start with a small rectangle first. (You can get a sense of the scale of it in the image below.)
I want to do the scene where the fox and the mole have persuaded a flock of birds to carry a rope that they’ve constructed from grasses and reeds to the moon.
I imagine a wide shot, a night scene with lots going on in it: The Peruvian landscape (in silhouette perhaps?) the fox and mole and their handmade rope coiled before them on the ground. The birds lift one end of the rope into the air. The moon floats above everyone (239,000 miles away) in the sky.
I'll set the timer on my i-Phone for 30 seconds.
Scribble in some make believe text lines on one of the 'pages' in my thumbnail spread, because a text block is a design element.
I think in bits and pieces about the scene I want to do.
Glimmers and vague notions only. Nothing complete, or HD. I don't have anything like a photographic memory.
Still I try to see what’s 'there,' in my mind’s eye. I’m scanning. Not for details, but only for the gestures, which evoke the scene's important actions. Deeper still, the impulses behind the movements. Nicolaides would have us try to experience these in our own bodies before we draw.
The rope being carried off the ground by the birds expresses gesture. It’s moving, like the birds. The fox and the mole are reacting. Many things in the picture are moving or are poised, about to move (even the moon in its glowing stillness.)
I want to feel each impulse, in my own muscles, one character or picture element at a time.
And I want to scribble it all down before my phone timer goes off. Catch all this movement and coiled energy in one pencil line, moving left to right without lifting the pencil off the page.
30 seconds and stop. Here’s what I didn’t do.
Didn’t look for any visual references before I drew. This isn’t the time. I drew from the inside, from my imagination and a lifetime of my own kinesthetic experiences.
2.) Didn’t worry about the composition, or what things in my scribble looked like, or how accurately the creatures and setting were depicted.
I have no idea how to draw a mole without references. But that’s not the point of the gesture thumbnail. There will be plenty of time to hunt for and incorporate wonderful mole picture reference in my final drawing.
3.) Didn’t try to go back and re-think anything. Just went left to right inside the little rectangle in a kind of spontaneous explosion of movement – like gesture itself, by Nicolaide’s definition.
So here it is. In 30 seconds, I created the composition for my two page spread, the flow of energy – trapped or released – across the page from left to right.
So here it is. I won’t show you the final. I haven’t done it yet. And that misses the point -- to show you. Because that puts the emphasis on the wrong part – the culmination of the sequence. You can’t worry at this stage about the final result or what the illustration should look like, at its best. Not only is it not important now. It wrecks the entire process.
Once you have your gesture scribble down (in 30 seconds or less), you can begin your research, your scavenger hunt for visual references to help you work out the drawing.
You’ll have a much better idea of what to look for then. The specifics of reference as it applies to your organically created layout.
You’re going to recreate it, in much the same way, only larger, for your final drawing.
You’ll use gesture again, in combination with the slower, more controlled contour drawing (as described in The Natural Way to Draw and books by Betty Edwards like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) to help you finish your illustration outline.
The gesture sketch is your ticket to good composition in sketches and paintings.
There’s a delicious feeling of safety and cunning authority working this way that will surprise you. Try it and see for yourself.
As you gather your references around you, you can start to examine your scribble to see how it’s working for you in terms of the basic design principles like dominance (unity), conflict (contrast), gradation, alternation, repetition with variation (rhythm), harmony…
You’ll find most of the principles already staring back at you from your scribble. Because you’ve already sown the seeds of your composition in your 30 second scribble. But you can always make tweaks and adjustments, as needed to your larger final drawing.
Just as I gesture in the the thumbnail to compose the scene, I’ll gesture-draw when trying to render something I don’t know very well. It’s a great way to figure out the meaning of your subject (aesthetically-speaking) and launch your drawing.
|In my gesture scribble of this morning’s coffee cup, you can see my effort |
to respond to how the cup bows out at its belly, much like the handle.
The original preliminary gesture scribble I did for this assignment for Appleseeds magazine disappeared long ago.
But I can recreate what I did. The connected pencil scribbles, came from dozens of assembled reference images that I gestured on the fly, with the timer set, moving my pencil from left to right.
As I worked swiftly, the rhythms in the placement of the figures in the scene suggested themselves.
With the gestures down, I could go back and delineate forms according to their contours, relying on one part reference to one part imagination.
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