Canvas Percentages and Informational Illustrations
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By bschu   |   
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I noticed something regarding composition recently which might seem obvious to some, but perhaps it is easy to forget as your mind gets bogged down with things like perspective, anatomy, etc.

I have been focusing on environment work a lot recently, but now I am getting back into drawing scenes with characters and so the matter of Composition started to become very important again. Mainly, using composition to bring out the emotion, the drama, the feeling of a scene with characters. The simple question is "How much space does an element, object, or character take up on the canvas?" And how can that changes things?

If the most important object in the illustration is the character themselves, is it appropriate for them to be very small in comparison to the overall scene? Probably not! We would normally assume that such a landscape view would be to emphasize the environment and not the character. Of course there are exceptions... as always... but let's just keep on track with this thought for now.

So since we know that the characters relative size on the canvas is important, a lot of things seem to snap into place. One thing to note is that this is exactly why thumbnails are so important. Thumbnail sketches are the perfect phase to scale out the sizes of things. I think that is self-evident. The other thing to note is a matter of comparing the size of things, and this is where I think it gets quite interesting.

I remember in an art class we learned that there might have been a reason why ancient art was often lacking things like perspective. Ancient art was often religious and so representing the structure of important characters and events was essential. For example, let's imagine a piece of art that is intended to show an image portraying both an angel and a criminal. What if we drew the criminal very big, and the angel very small? Would that seem appropriate? I don't think so. In fact, not only does it seem absurd, but it might actually offend some people!

The obvious lesson to be learned here is that people care about size a lot. Bigger things are more important, smaller things not so important. In addition to this, things in the center are usually more important, and things off to the side are... well... off to the side!

Gegenees - Greek Myths 1 of 10 by bschu

So this is obviously a fundamental composition lesson, but something I probably needed to remind myself of. And in fact, I do keep these types of things in mind, but it seemed to change a lot recently as I have been focusing on landscapes these days. When I did a recent illustration with many characters in it ("Gegenees", above thumbnail) a friend of mind said that he thought I was struggling with characters because I usually do more environmental work. In fact that wasn't the case. I knew exactly what I was doing and I really thought out my composition well. Actually, there were multiple people who suggested I try to play more with the camera angle and such to bring out more emotion better. But that is not what I wanted really. It was intended to be an action scene which both lets you get a sense for the environment and also shows you the full action of all of the characters, AND the illustration has some emphasis on certain characters with regards to their importance to the story. Because this illustration was a Greek Myth! So I thought what better way to portray all of this action and show all of these characters than to step back a bit and show the flow of the action.

Still, that is not at all to argue with the advice I got. Although I still would have illustrated the same scene in the same way, but it was a good reminder of something about how people see illustration, and the expectations that they have. THIS is something that I need to put some thought into.

When dealing with "characters", I definitely have to apply consideration to how much canvas space they take up, and I have to be prepared in advance to make the viewer understand if I choose to make the characters small - there should be an obvious reason for it.

I also thought that this phenomenon shows a common misunderstanding on this topic. A lot of people always talk about "camera angle" for emotion and drama. Well... I think that is WRONG. Is it the "camera angle" that made the monster seem more scary? Or is it THE SIZE that made the monster seem horrifying? What if the camera angle is from above, looking down, and our hero is dropping down on top of a giant monster one hundred times their own size? The camera angle clearly means nothing here. The monster is still big, it is still scary. The only reason "looking up" at the monster brings drama is because it reminds you of the "size". We look up at things which are bigger than us! As long as you portray the scale accurately I would dare to say that you can choose any appropriate camera angle. Although of course some might be more optimal depending on the situation.

But then it came to me. It seems that CANVAS PERCENTAGES are what really counts. Because if you had a big monster that only took up 50% of the page, and the hero only takes up 10% of the page... in fact they are BOTH small now. You can't really feel as much drama because it seems like you are far away. Think of such a movie scene, wouldn't it seem odd if a giant monster only took up half of the screen? That would mean they are far away, and the main characters would probably look tiny on the screen next to them when fighting. So you might wonder why you are watching the action from so far away, when the camera is like an omnipotent eye that can travel wherever it wants! OF COURSE I want to be up close where the action is!

And so that is "usually" the case. And that is a very good thing to keep in mind. However, don't forget when I am trying to encapsulate a heroic myth of an entire ancient civilization, I might have to zoom out a little sometimes to include the scene. That is what we can call an "Informational" approach. It's more like a documentary, not everything is a Hollywood film :)
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