Dilettante 040: Decorate, Decorate

Toucan reading a comic
Steve Lieber

In this space, I’ve frequently made the case for a utilitarian approach to drawing comics. “Tell the story.” “Eliminate frills.” “Let your pictures be a window on the narrative and steer your readers’ attention towards what’s happening to the characters, rather than to how beautifully you can draw.” But there are no absolutes in art. You’ll probably want to create attractive pages. Beauty needs no justification, but still: it gives pleasure. It creates reader interest on that all-important first flip-though. And of course it can stir feelings that amplify the story you’re telling.

For many artists, this is a no-brainer. Making gorgeous things is why they became artists in the first place. But for others, it’s not a priority, or a goal easily achieved. So for them, what are some strategies for reaching beyond the utilitarian and bringing in decorative qualities that make your pages more beautiful? In no particular order, here are ten things to think about.

1. Pattern

There are so many opportunities to add excitement to a page or a panel by incorporating patterns. Hand-draw them or ook for ways to bring in mechanical reproductions that will harmonize with the rest of your work. You can wrap them around the object to describe the form underneath, or just lay them in flat, and play with the dissonance between two and three-dimensional representation. Stripes. Plaids. Florals. Scales, Camouflage. Flat-looping scribbles. Mechanical dots. There are so many options. Use them in backgrounds on architecture, in furniture, rugs, props. Pattern can make great tags, too: A restaurant that always has fleur de lis visible somewhere. A distinctive floral trim on the wall to identify a certain bedroom. Try patterns on clothing. They add verisimilitude as well as interest. You can even use pattern as your means to render light and shadow.  

2. Shape

Even as you attempt to depict three-dimensional form, try to be conscious of the two-dimensional shapes you’re creating. The design and arrangement of flat shapes is a crucial aspect of storytelling, of course. Whenever possible, you want a figure’s silhouette to communicate that figure’s mood, movement and intention. But the design of flat shapes also gives you plenty of opportunities to create beauty on the page. Look for places where you can eliminate modeling or internal plane-breaks without confusing the reader. Simplify the outline until the shapes they describe are clear and beautiful, expressing the qualities that the moment requires. The shapes may be geometric or organic, angular or curved. Just pay attention to the shape as a flat shape rather than as a rounded object, and follow your instincts from there.

3. Line

Most comics are initially drawn as line art. Can your lines themselves be more expressive? Play with long tapering strokes, thin delicate hatching and cross-hatching, blunt staccato marks. Try rendering that follows the length of the form, or that deliberately flattens it in places. Switch your technique for a moment that deserves to stand out as more important than others in the story. The history of illustration is filled with gorgeous line art drawn in ink, wash, graphite, brush, pencil, chalk, and pen. Investigate what’s been done and see what you can incorporate into your own work.

4. Light

The beauty of light has been a subject for artists for centuries. Watch films and look at photographs to see how light can reveal forms or cloak parts of an image in shadow. Observe where light is absorbed and how it glows and refracts. You’ll have panels that benefit from close values, while others demand dynamic contrasts.

5. Illumination

Doesn’t that just mean light? Nope. The illumination I’m referring to is as in “illuminated manuscripts.” Not every element on a page of comics has to directly advance the story. You can add warmth, beauty, and interest to a page with purely decorative elements. Scroll-work or other sorts of border patterns can sometimes give a page a sort of background music. And non-narrative illustrations can be used as framing elements to reinforce a theme or set a mood.

6. Type

Type doesn’t have to be plain and utilitarian. The history of graphic design is filled with endless examples of handsome and clever ways to integrate pictures and type. You can incorporate chapter headings into your page designs, or make more conspicuous use of elaborate captions or sound effects. From the illuminated manuscripts I mentioned earlier, to 19th century posters, to mid-century magazine illustration, to contemporary advertising, there are endless examples to learn from.

7. The Magnificent Moment

Sometimes a script will give you a chance to bring beauty to the page by just drawing the heck out of one big, perfect moment. Your characters emerge from a limb up a densely wooded hillside to see a sunrise and the gorgeous valley beneath them. Or your heroine is brought up from the grimy basement where she’s labored throughout the first chapter and gets her first view of the royal family’s impossibly glamorous ballroom. Look for ways to make those moments both beautiful and unique, and if the story has room, make it big too give the moment room to breathe.

8. The Figure

A figure in a panel can be isolated, or as perspective allows, enlarged to also function as a decorative element on the page. Not every pose will work for this, but at the right moment, a pose with beauty of its own can set the mood for an entire page. You may find it carries its feeling outside of the panel it’s part of and makes the page also function like a poster, extending that mood across an entire page or scene.

9. Color

Color is an endless source of aesthetic pleasure. The harmonies and dissonances available to you are almost limitless. Reach beyond the obvious literal colors and look at limited palettes. Embrace subtle neutrals. Play with saturation and contrasts. The right palette can bring poetry to even the most prosaic scene.

10. Flatness and Depth

Sometimes the picture plane is a window on a world that reaches back beyond the horizon. The depth and space depicted communicates possibilities in the world of your story, and invites the reader to explore that world. And sometimes a picture plane is much flatter and more shallow, and what it communicates is often more related to the internal, emotional state of a character or a moment. You can make striking and remarkable pictures by consciously emphasizing either, or by cleverly juxtaposing the two.

Steve Lieber’s Dilettante appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!

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