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Carousel 029: Composition

Aspiring comic book artists are often admonished to work on their perspective, their anatomy, and their storytelling, but I don’t often hear “composition” listed among those admonitions, and when it is mentioned, it’s rarely well defined. “I like the composition in this panel, but not in this panel,” a pro might say, while critiquing your work. When asked to define “composition,” the pro may squint at the ceiling and reply, “It’s the arrangement of the parts of a drawing to make the drawing look good.” How do I arrange the parts of my drawing to make it look good? “Well, it’s complicated.”

It is complicated, but good composition is crucial to good comics, so let me attempt to simplify it.

Understanding composition begins with recognizing that the nearness of objects to each other has meaning. Suppose you saw a football field, empty except for two people who are both standing on the 30-yard line, close enough to touch each other. You would assume that those two are companions, or that they have mutual business on that field. But suppose instead that they are farther apart: One is on the 20-yard line, the other is on the 80-yard line. In this scenario, their mutual presence on the field may simply be a coincidence. Now suppose they are standing at opposite ends of the field, facing away from each other. This suggests enmity: They both apparently need to be on the field, but are trying to stay as far from each other as possible. In each of these scenarios, the figures’ proximity to each other suggests a meaning to the observer.

Art carries a similar dynamic. A circle drawn two thirds of the way down a piece of paper, and one third across, will look randomly placed. But a circle drawn in the center, or nestled into one of the corners, suggests intent. The centered circle will seem to carry great importance, as though the artist is insisting that you notice it. The circle tucked away in the corner will look as though it’s trying to hide. Every placement of every shape, and those shapes’ nearness to other shapes, or to the picture’s borders, suggests a meaning to the reader. Composition is the art of arranging the shapes in your drawing so that the placement of every shape suggests the right meaning. (Composition touches on more than placement alone; color, value, line, and other elements must also be considered. But placement underlies it all, and is a fine starting point.)

Let’s consider how this might play out in a comic. Suppose your story opens with your protagonist standing on a city street, in front of a wall. If the character is standing in the center of the panel, the reader will sense that you’re claiming the character is vitally important. That may be a proper opening for a Superman story, but if the reader has yet to be impressed by your character, the panel’s center may be a presumptuous location. “HERE IS THE STAR OF THE STORY,” the panel seems to say. ”LOOK AT THIS CHARACTER!”

You may instead prefer a more modest approach, and place the character off-center, as though we are noticing this person by accident. But how far off-center? If the character is way over at the panel’s left edge, touching its border, readers will wonder why the character is so close to the border. Is it just coincidence that the border and the character are so close together? Is the character touching the border for a reason? Placing the figure a quarter of the way into the panel should prevent such questions.

But then readers will wonder why there is so much empty space in the right half of the panel. Why does a blank wall occupy most of the panel? Did the artist forget to draw something there? So, you move the character into the right half of the panel, leaving the left three quarters empty. Now it works! The reader’s gaze moves (as always) from left to right, across the empty three quarters of the panel, and lands on the character—a discovery made as though by accident. The empty space provides a path for the eye to follow to your protagonist, whom you’ve managed to introduce without presumption and without provoking answerless questions.

Unfortunately, there will be further challenges. Not only must you place the character in suitable proximity to the panel’s borders, but there will often be objects and other characters competing for space in the panel. All of these must also be arranged in suitable proximity to the borders, and to each other. To return to the example above: Suppose your protagonist is waiting with several others for a bus. How close should he or she be to the rest of the group? Too close, and your character will be lost in the crowd; readers won’t know which figure to focus on. But placed too far from the group, your character will seem aloof, antisocial. You may need to move your thumb nearer and farther from the group to find the “sweet spot” where your character should stand.

And how close should the others be to each other? Too close, and they’ll look as though they are huddled together for warmth or safety. Too far, and they won’t appear to have congregated at a bus stop.

Likewise, objects will play a role. How close should the BUS STOP sign be to the panel’s upper border? If you crop it, the reader may not be able to read it. But if you raise the angle of view to include it, you may crop out too much of the characters, making them resemble a row of heads resting along the bottom of the panel. A solution may be to pull back far enough to include both the characters’ bodies and the sign, but doing so may make the characters’ expressions too small to read. Perhaps their body language will suffice?

Every choice of placement will have benefits and drawbacks. The key is to recognize that every placement you make will affect the reader a certain way, and to favor placements that will produce the effects you want. How close should you place the character to the panel’s edges in this moment? How will readers probably interpret that choice? How can you adjust the character’s placement in order to encourage the interpretations you want readers to make? This is the sort of thinking you’ll need to bring to each panel. Putting yourself in the readers’ shoes, and moving the characters and objects around to test out different placements, will help you find solutions that work.

Internalizing these ideas should give you the grounding you need to create effective compositions. If you want to delve further into the subject, I recommend Greg Albert’s book, The Simple Secret To Better Painting. Despite the presence of the word “painting” in the title, Albert’s book is useful for any visual artist, teaching you how to compose your art to the greatest effect. Study it to learn principles that will ensure readers receive your work the way you intend, and add “good composition” to your skillset.

Carousel by Jesse Hamm appears the second Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!