Shop Forum More Submit  Join Login
Drawings from Buddha, by Osamu Tezuka.  Copyright by Tezuka Productions.
This analysis copyright Scott McDaniel, 2012.

The Image, Part 1


Not too long ago I started working on some drawings in which I needed to draw water, mountains, and trees in ink.  For example, in Fairy Tales I tackled both up-close and mid-distance forest and trees.  In Knotwork in the Skye mountains and water were the problem of the day.  

While I'm not completely happy with the results, I thought I'd share some of the drawings by Osamu Tezuka that I referred to several times to try to work out doing nature with ink.  All three of the main pictures I'm showing here are from his Buddha series.  The one above is from Volume 8, the last one.  Now, when I look at that I'd call it fairly realistic.  But when you start looking at the individual parts we can see how he's combining abstract patterns and textures to construct it.

Let's take a look at the water.  At a glance we can see the waterfalls and that there are rapids.  We can also tell where the rapids are running faster and where they're running not quite as fast.  This first example is from the left side of the drawing, where the water is running over a large stone.


If this were out of context of the larger drawing, could you tell what it is?  I see jagged veins of white connecting to each other, and then textured dark areas.  But what does each one represent?  Why does that read as water in the larger context.  To help us along a little bit, here is a photo my father-in-law took of some the type of water Tezuka was drawing:


Looking at this, it seems that the white areas are foam and the dark areas are the water.  Tezuka has also given the foaming areas a direction, so we can tell when the water transitions from falling down over a rock to landing in a pool.  Still, he's not trying to draw each vein of foam perfectly.  Looked at close up, they're abstract patterns.  Let's take a look at the water on the lower right side.


To contrast with the earlier detail, this one gets rid of the veins altogether and just uses motion lines to indicate the flow.  In context, this reads as even more foam and churn - so much that we can no longer see any specifics at all.  My first instinct would have been to go in and try to draw even more chaos and texture in there, but this is certainly more effective.

There's also lots of interesting stuff going on with the rock surface and texture.  These rocks have been worn down by the water - they're curved and don't show jagged parts.  What do you see in there in terms of how Tezuka has used pure black areas interspersed with hatching?  What does the direction of the hatching (and number of directions) communicate about the surface?

The Image: Part 2


Here's the second of the three pictures.  This one also lets us look at rock and mountain surface, though from further away.  Let's take a look at a detail of some of the mountains.


Not so different from the water above, we're seeing patches and almost vein-like textures.  Here, though, the veins are the shadow.  I imagine him drawing those almost as contour drawings, without the shading in the shapes, and then when it came time for the inking he chose some to fill in completely and others to hatch.  I also see at least two levels of shading going on - one is at a large scale and shows the structure of the mountain overall, while others form more of the texture pattern in specific areas that conveys the idea of "rock."


Moving down the picture a little bit we come to clouds.  I've been practicing clouds for a long time with marker/brush and ink and still have a ways to go, so it was interesting to see what Tezuka does with them here.  Throughout Buddha he treats them in many different ways, but I particularly like this one.  Clouds often break down into smaller and larger spheres and ovals, fractal like.  We can see that most clearly at the top and the middle of the detail.  As we move down, though, those structures break down and become more swirly until it just shows swirling lines.  At the bottom of the detail (and below in the main picture) the clouds just fade out with no defined bottom outline or texture.  That was something I had to train myself out of - giving clouds an outline on the bottom.

Looking back at the mountain, clouds, and plain, which perspective techniques does Tezuku use?  How often do we see a mountain rising above clouds like that?  What's the weather like?  How does he use relative size cues and occlusion to make that mountain seem so huge and so distant?


Now lets look at the trees in the relative foreground.  I've been focused on trees a lot lately - there are so many different kinds and arrangements.  I do think it's helpful to do gestures of trees just like it is for human figures.  These trees aren't very close to us - they're in the middle ground.  So, we're close enough to see their shape and silhouette, but not close enough to really get a sense of fully rounded objects.  The trunks and limbs, for example, are mostly silhouette.  That canopies, on the other hand, do show some form.  Still, it's a subtle mix of blacks and texture.  The texture of scribbles stands in for the leaves, which Tezuka doesn't draw individually.  Under all of this, though, we can still see branch structure and foliage structure, so they're certainly not random squiggles.

The Image: Part 3


Since I'm short on time right now I'll just leave this here for you and ask a few questions.

  1. What does the hatching and directions of the lines tell us about the tree trunk?
  2. How does Tezuka draw our eye to the people seated beneath the tree - the focus of the image?
  3. Why would Tezuka put so little detail on the focal point - the people - and so much in the tree?
  4. The darkest area of the tree trunk forms a V that points down.  Why?
  5. What purpose does the distant foliage serve to the focal people?
  6. What does Tezuka do with branch structure and leaves

That's it for now.  On a personal note, I haven't been doing these analyses lately for several reasons, but the main one is lack of time.  The day job has been sucking up more time, and I've wanted to focus on creating art, not just deconstructing it.  I do plan to continue these, but they will still be irregular.  And, they'll be shorter.  I've had my eye on The High Priestess by lauraborealisis for a while, but I'm also tempted by the freaky bizarreness of Illustionist by xeeming (both at DeviantArt).

  • Listening to: Mago de Oz
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Once Upon a Time
  • Drinking: Honest Tea
Hi all,

While we wait for the next analysis, here's a link to a good one by Lee Moyer comparing two book covers.  Before clicking through, why would you say the left one works and the right one doesn't?

Tale of Two Book Covers

Lee explains the differences on his blog, here:…
  • Listening to: Mago de Oz
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Once Upon a Time
  • Drinking: Honest Tea
Hi all,

I've been quiet with the art analyses lately.  The job I took at the beginning of last year leaves less time for them, but they're not all done.  I've got the next couple of pieces picked out and just need the time.

In the meantime, I did an interview for Khuan Tru's site, here:

The next analysis will be of a couple of landscape drawings in Osamu Tezuka's Buddha series.  After that I plan to continue the Eastern theme with :iconjialu: jialu's gorgeous Illuminated 2:
  • Listening to: Mago de Oz
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Once Upon a Time
  • Drinking: Honest Tea
Flights of Fancy by James Gurney, copyright 1996.
From Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, p. 181.
This analysis copyright Scott M. McDaniel, 2011

The Image

Before I say anything else, if you're an artist you should go buy both of James Gurney's books about painting.  If you like the approach this blog takes to analyzing paintings, you'll love Gurney's approach in these books.  The one this painting is from is Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, and his first one is Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist.  (As a former technical writer I also like the presentation - each topic is a 2-page spread with a summary up-front, clear text, and a number of illustrations.)  OK, plug over, but they've both helped me out tremendously.

This analysis is all about contrast.  Not just contrast between values, but all sorts of contrast.  If you want to create a focus - an area of interest - you need to set up some sort of pattern and then selectively break it.  The contrast between the rest of the pattern and the special part draws the attention.  That contrast can be values, but in this painting we'll also look at contrast in lines of direction, saturation, and hue.  In his book, Gurney uses this painting to illustrate several points about lighting conditions at dawn or dusk.  The first thing that jumped out at me, though, was contrast in the direction of the edges.

The Lines of Direction
This graphic cycles among three views - one that accents the horizontal and vertical edges, one that accents the diagonal edges, and one that accents curved edges.


The edges of the background elements - the horizon, the buildings, and the city below are almost all either horizontal or vertical.  We see them especially in the area of city-scape texture at the bottom of the painting.  While there are diagonal edges there for perspective, they have little brightness contrast so they don't jump out.  So these horizontal and vertical  edges form the background pattern that Gurney sets up.  The only noticeable deviation from this pattern is at the focal point.  The flying books have diagonal lines at the bases and the pages.  Even the prominent curves of the Chrysler Building  are right next to the large flying book.  (Donato Gianola's The Archer of the Rose uses a similar directional strategy.  In that case most of the lines are diagonal from upper left to lower right, with the archer at the focus breaking the pattern.)

The Values and Edges
Let's go back to the usual meaning of contrast - brighter against darker edges.  If we look at it from the viewpoint of setting up a pattern and then selectively breaking it, we'd expect to see an overall value level to the painting with the focus having areas significantly brighter and darker than the rest.  Or perhaps there would be an overall pattern to the values and the area of focus breaks that pattern.  Take a look at the greyscale version of the painting below.


Overall we have a brighter top part of the painting and a darker lower part.  The city below has fallen into shadow, while the sky has the golden light Gurney used the painting to illustrate in the book.  It's basic, but the upper part being bright and the lower part dark sets up a basic, large-scale pattern for the picture.  The posterized version below shows 4 levels and brings out the focal figure's contrast even more.


Gurney puts the boy, book, and dinosaur at the division between the two areas.  Further, he inverts the brightness.  The book's pages are bright and contrast with the dark area below, while most of the boy's outfit is dark and contrasts against the brighter area above.  The light source is to the left and in front of the picture plane a bit.  In other words, the sun shines most obviously on the boy's face.  While it's not so much breaking a pattern, the boy's face is part of the focus simply because we're attuned to faces.

The Saturation
Conventional wisdom has it that we should hold back on the intense colors and instead put the highest color saturation at the focus.  Put another way, we should set up a pattern of desaturated colors and then selectively break it by putting the highly intense colors where we want people to look.  This line of thinking suggests that it would also be effective to have intense color over most of the picture and then desaturate the focal area.  I'm not completely sure about this approach, but it might be fun to play with.  James Jean's The Last Castle uses this approach to an extent, though there's certainly more going on than just saturation.

The image below is a saturation map of Flights of Fancy.  The dark areas are desaturated - close to grey in the original image.  Lighter areas are saturated - they have more intense color.  (This post at the CG Society forms shows how to do this in Photoshop.)


The first thing I see is just how desaturated the picture really is.  According to my Photoshop eyedropper, the city in shadow is rarely over 20% saturated.  Even the dots of light coming from windows aren't more than 30%.  The sky areas tend to be in the 5 - 30% saturated range, more saturated closer to the horizon.  The two areas that stand out as the most saturated are the boy's sleeves and the Chrysler building.  The sleeves are part of the focus and the Chrysler building is right next to the area of focus.  Even the sleeves though, are only about 50% saturated.  I did find one place that was about 75% saturated: the boy's left knee (our right).

The Color
That is, the hue, since we just covered saturation.  In Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, Gurney discusses gamut masks.  The gamut is the portion of the color wheel from which we draw the colors in a painting.  The mask part is a tool - a reminder for us not to pick colors outside our color scheme.  For Flights of Fancy, I've reverse-engineered the gamut by reducing the painting to 16 colors and plotting them (by eye) on a "Yrmby" color wheel.  (This version of it shows darker colors toward the center and brighter ones toward the outside.  It doesn't represent saturation.) Gurney is far more rigorous in his book than I am here, but we can still easily see what's going on.


Apropos to the time of day in the painting (and Gurney's point in the book), the colors are generally warm and include yellows, reds, and magentas.  There are no greens and cyans at all.  Gurney uses blue sparingly, as an accent color in the boy's sleeve/collar trim, the dinosaur, and the clothing of one of the distant figures.  To my eye the city in shadow is cooler than the sky above, making for a nice color temperature contrast to reinforce the value contrast.  There's other neat stuff going on as well, such as the blues benefiting from successive contrast, which you can read more about in Color and Light.

By the way, and accent color only really works if you've set up a general color pattern using other colors and then judiciously introduce the accent to break the pattern.

A Few Details
In this analysis I've concentrated on patterns of different stripes (so to speak), but there are a few things I really like about this painting that have little to do with patterns.  The first goes to the painting's purpose as a poster for book festival in New York.  The boy's posture and expression completely sell the wonder and joy of a good book.  The painting could be composed flawlessly using all these other techniques I've been talking about, but without nailing that subtle character aspect the whole thing wouldn't fly.  Take a look at that expression - I love seeing expressions like that in fantasy illustrations.  


On a different topic, here is a detail of the cityscape that's in shadow.  I find architecture intimidating, especially when it verges on texture like this (something that only more practice will solve.)


I notice some parts of it being impressionistic while other parts are a little more clear.  Even the impressionistic parts follow consistent perspective.  I also see that the windows aren't just dots of uniform yellow color, but that they vary within each window giving the illusion of depth into the buildings.

The Elements
To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  The clear focus of the painting is the boy, the flying book, and the dinosaur.

Composition and Design: The composition works based on a lot of factors, including values, hue, saturation, and directions of the edges.  I particularly like how the figure's values are bright on the bottom and darker toward the top - opposite the approach to the background.

Palette:  The painting's gamut fits that of twilight, and we see from the gamut that it is almost entirely yellows, reds, and magentas with a few blue accents.

Value: The boy's face is one of the brightest spots in the painting.  The upper part is brighter than the lower part, which is in shadow.

Mass: Values also convey the impression of weight and solidity to the boy, book, and dinosaur.  Another part of the illusion is the way Gurney fades out the crispness of many edges.  Because the edge of the boy's knee against the cloak disappears as you move down, for example, we don't get an impression of a cutout figure slapped onto cloak background.  

Texture: The texture in the sky is neat.  It suggests clouds without actually showing them explicitly.

Symbolism:  The flight metaphor is quite strong in this one.  I think that's especially appropriate if your audience is children.

Micro/Macro: The cityscape is a great example of conveying a detailed impression without actually providing the details.  Gurney saves the detail work for the objects of focus - another example of a pattern selectively broken.

Ornament: I like how Gurney's signature is worked into the cityscape.

Narrative: We're left to infer how this scene came about.  For some reason I'm reminded of David Wiesner's frogs in his book Tuesday.

Juxtaposition:  If you're familiar with Gurney's Dinotopia, the dinosaur on the book won't surprise you.

Stylization: This painting is a good example of Gurney's approach to realistic fantasy.  I prefer this realistic style because it lets us focus on the fantastic part of the image - the wonder and the awe.

Character:  We know little about the boy, but his posture, expression, and clothing combine to tell us a lot about him in this moment.  I think the clothing is more about how he sees himself, even though he's lost to the experience of flying otherwise.  

Tension: This painting isn't about tension or suspense.  I suppose there's the possibility that the boy will devour the dinosaur after a vicious struggle...

Line: Edge directions help point our attention to the focal points, and the selective blurring of edges helps to create depth and a feeling that the figures are a natural part of the background scene.

Research/Reference:  Gurney describes his preparation and research techniques in his first book, Imaginative Realism.  Sometimes it may seem like a lot of work and setup, but you can't argue with the paintings.  One thing I've been learning about illustration over the last four years is that good research and reference matters just as much or more to the finished work than outright drawing/painting skill.

Vignette: The two main characters of the painting - the boy and the dinosaur - are clear and stand out well.  While a silhouette of the two of them may be difficult to decipher, we do clearly see the boy's head, arms, and hands.  Closure fills in the rest, so we have no trouble seeing him.  See the Magritte and Leyendecker analyses for more on closure.

Perspective: Gurney uses traditional perspective aids like vanishing points, an obvious horizon, relative size, and occlusion to convey depth.

That's it for this round.  I'm thinking of one of the wonderful landscapes in Osamu Tezuka's Buddha series for the next one, but who knows at this point.
  • Listening to: Porcupine Tree
  • Watching: The Doctor
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
First off, a bunch of watchers have recently taken an interest in these write-ups.  Welcome!  I apologize for not thanking each of you in turn.

Second, they've slowed down significantly over the last several months.  I've changed jobs and also picked up a couple of paying gigs, which do take priority.  So I've had less time overall.  I'm still working on some new ones however, and am quite happy to take requests.  The next one will be a James Gurney painting, but it's taking me longer to get to than I'd like.  So in the meantime, here's a repeat of the second one I posted in case you never made it back that far.

Finally, check out :icondangercook: and :icontlcook: - they're totally Cooking with Danger now.


The Last Castle
By James Jean, Copyright DC/Vertigo
This analysis copyright 2009, Scott M. McDaniel

The Image

This is the cover for the issue of Fables titled "The Last Castle," a prestige issue that tells the story of Boy Blue's last stand against the forces of the Adversary as the fables were driven out of the Homelands.  Fables is a great comic that uses characters from classic fairy tales.  Shown here are Boy Blue (grown up from the Little Boy Blue nursery rhyme) and Red Riding Hood on the horse.  The goblins are the army of the Adversary.

I picked this image partly because it's a nice example of a conceptual illustration.  It's not showing just one specific scene but rather combines three scenes to give an overall sense of story.  That's a technique I'd like to work on and improve.  

Storytelling and Layers of Reality
I see three main layers to this image.  The first is Boy Blue.  He's depicted as calm in the face of battle – a center of sanity in the midst of chaos.  It's reinforced by his reflective posture.  The other elements in this layer are the arrows that are flying all around him.  One even seems like it's about to strike him, but I doubt it will.  There's little indication of depth in this layer, so I suspect the arrow will pass in front of him or behind him.  The other cool thing about this first layer is the graphic nature of it.  The arrows and Boy Blue himself have a thick outline and little detail.  Even Boy Blue's horn has very little detail compared to the rest of the image.  More on that in a bit, but in looking at Jean's other covers it's obvious that he likes to mix icons and symbols in with realistic painting.  That contrast between graphic/symbolic and the realistic elements is an important part of his style for these covers.

The second layer, depth-wise, is the host of goblins.  This looks to be in the midst of battle – there's confusion everywhere.  Helmets, swords, claws, teeth, and armor.  There's lots of detail here, but Boy Blue obviously isn't literally standing in their midst.  Unlike Boy Blue, there are no strong outlines and there is a lot more detail.  The colors are mainly greys and greens with red highlights.  Look at the grayscale version – you'll see that the goblins are fairly dark overall.  So their layer is dark and desaturated with lots of detail.

Finally there's the third layer with Red Riding Hood and the background.  These are warm colors, mainly reds and browns.  I went back and forth on whether the goblins and Red Riding Hood were part of the same scene and decided they weren't.  That horse and those goblins don't share the same ground, based on their sizes.  Arguably they have different lighting, too, with Red's light source being to the right based on the horse's highlights while the goblins' light source is above and to the front.

Just for added fun, the layers interact with each other just a little bit.  In the lower right, one of the graphical arrows has embedded itself in a more realistic looking morning star from one of the goblins.  There's a goblin hand clutching at Red Riding Hood's cloak.  And the right side of the horse's neck and face has a heavy outline reminiscent of Boy Blue's.  These things are conscious and purposeful – they serve to tie the whole image together even while depicting three different scenes from the story.

Contrast and Guiding the Eye
In the last analysis of Doré's illustration from Dante's Divine Comedy, just about everything in the image guided the eye right to its focal point.  Those techniques are present here but aren't as frequent.  Instead Jean uses contrast to make Boy Blue pop out of the image at us.  Look back up at the grayscale version and you'll see how bright he is compared to the dark goblin background.  The outline around him only increases the contrast.

Jean uses another type of contrast, too.  Typically in an illustration you put the highest level of detail on the focal point.  That reinforces the brightness contrast.  Here, though, Jean purposefully reverses it.  All of the detail is in the goblin layer, and there is so much of it that it forms a texture of sorts.  The lack of texture in Boy Blue and his horn draws our attention to him.  Here's a detail image showing some of the detail in the goblin hoard.  You can also see Boy Blue's lack of detail.

While I do think the brightness contrast and the details contrast is mainly responsible for guiding your eye to Boy Blue, there are other elements that help.  To start with, there's that big arrow pointing right at him from the left side.  Whether it hits him or not, it makes our eyes hit him.  Another arrow points up at him from the lower right.  Red Riding Hood's lower arm goes right to Boy Blue's head, as does her glove.  Her eyes are directed down in his direction, and there is also a goblin on the right side looking in his direction.

Now that my eyes are on Boy Blue, what next?  The blue arrows show how my eye follows the image.  The horn takes me over to the goblin looking back at him and then a shield that's just behind the goblin.  My eyes continue up the horse's neck to Red Riding Hood, then back down her arms to Boy Blue.  Only as they take time to wander the image do I start picking out other details like individual pieces of goblin armor or the mountains in the background.

The Elements
I wrap up each of these analyses with a quick run through Lee Moyer's excellent essay on the elements of a successful illustration. See The Elements, copyright Lee Moyer.

Focus: Through both contrast and eye guidance, the focus is first Boy Blue and then Red Riding Hood.

Composition and Design: Jean plays different layers here to have Boy Blue be centrally framed by goblins and Red Riding Hood.  He also mixes graphical elements (Boy Blue and arrows) with realistic ones (Goblins, Red Riding, Hood).

Palette: The goblins are dark and greenish while Red Riding Hood is browns and reds.  Boy Blue is not, in fact, white but rather a very pale blue.  The colors unify their respective layers and also work well together.

Values: Jean uses values to separate the three layers and, specifically, call out Boy Blue.

Mass: He makes Boy Blue and the arrows flat on purpose.  The goblins and Red Riding Hood, though get their sense of mass through lighting and the fact that the details wrap around forms well (ornamentation on helmets, for example).

Texture: I mentioned the mass of detail in the goblins forming a kind of texture.  Objects have their texture of course, but I also thought I'd mention areas of dry brush and spattered red paint that suggest flying blood in the battle without depicting it literally.  Look just below the horse's reins.

Symbolism: Given that it's a cover for Fables, there is certainly the symbolism of Boy Blue and Red Riding Hood.  The goblins recall standard fantasy monsters.

Micro/Macro:  This element is about getting just the right details in that give the illusion of full details everywhere.  This is fun to look at since Jean is specifically playing with details and texture.  I think I'll point out the little bit of hair and the ear on Boy Blue – they keep him from being completely flat.  He doesn't read as a silhouette because of them.

Ornament: Compare the ornament on Boy Blue's horn with all the ornament on the goblin's armor.  The arrows also serve as a kind of ornament.

Narrative: I've read the comic so I know how the image here relates to the story overall.  Without that, though, you still understand that a woman is in peril and (possibly) fleeing hordes of monsters.  Boy Blue's posture and demeanor show that he is calm, reflective, and level-headed in the face of this battle.  Still, he probably doesn't expect to survive it.

Line: Jean uses line as a design element to separate Boy Blue into his own layer in the image.  It ties the horse to Boy Blue, and it appears occasionally in the more realistic portions of the painting.

Research/Reference:  I got this from the book of Fables covers.  There you can see two of his preparatory drawings – he had the composition in place from the start.  I don't know what other prep or reference he used.

Vignette: The shape of Boy Blue against the background of goblins is the key part of this image and one of the reasons it captured my attention.

Perspective: There is no vanishing point, and the three layers don't even share a common horizon.  Instead the sense of depth comes from the way objects overlap each other and from the coloring.  There's a bit of atmospheric perspective with the background mountains.

Fun: For me part of the fun is analyzing the picture and looking at the ways the various layers interact.  The fact that he uses detail to define the background texture, for example, shows someone who is playing with the form and enjoying his work.

Next week I'll pull something from Deviant Art.  Any suggestions?
  • Listening to: Porcupine Tree
  • Watching: The Doctor
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko) by Salvador Dali, 1976.
This scan from the book Dali by Paul Moorhouse.

The Image


In 1992 I was just starting graduate school in visual perception.  One of the things they showed us in our first days was this painting by Salvador Dali.  The professor showed it on a slide projector, and asked us what it was.  Of course, we all described the woman looking through the window.  With a flourish, he spun the focus on the slide projector's lens, and we suddenly saw something else - Abraham Lincoln as seen on the U.S. $5 bill.


Today we're used to seeing things like photomosaics that take lots of individual photographs, shrink them, and put them together to create a completely different picture.  It's the same principle at work here, but Dali did this in 1976.  How did he do it without computers to do all the figuring for him?  Even more, how did he do it while at the same time creating a painting that follows principles of composition, the golden section, and values to create a painting that works whether it's blurred or not?  That's what we'll look at in this analysis, and we'll wrap it up with lessons that apply to all painting, not just tricks or optical illusions.

How All This Works
Let's start with a simple question.  Take any random painting.  How often does the value (brightness) of the picture change?  As you go from left to right right through the middle, for example, the value gets lighter and darker as you pass from background to foreground, as you pass over fine details, and as you go from foreground to background again.  At some points the change is slow and gradual.  At other points the brightness goes up and down rapidly.

To rephrase the question, what's the frequency of those value shifts as you cross the space of the painting?  This concept is called spatial frequency.  Here are a couple of examples.


In this example the brightness changes every 100 pixels.  This is a fairly low spatial frequency - there is only room for 4 bands in this 400 pixel wide graphic.  Now let's look at an example with a higher spatial frequency.


In this one, the brightness changes every 25 pixels, so here we have 16 bands.  Great, you say, but so what?  Well, our retinas and optic nerves have two subsystems.  One of them processes high spatial frequencies and color particularly well (the parvocellular pathway).  The other processes low spatial frequencies, form, and depth particularly well (the magnocellular pathway).

Those graphics up there are awfully simple.  When we look at something as complicated as a painting, though, we've actually got brightness changes going on at different rates and in all directions.  A complete picture has brightness changes over great distances (low frequency) as well as brightness changes over small distances (high frequency).  They interact with each other to produce a composite, like the graphic below that shows the examples I provided combined.  


It's our visual system that separates the low and high frequency changes and processes them differently.  There's a wonderful article by Peter Habja called The Power of the High Pass Filter that has more about how low and high frequencies interact and what that high-pass filter is in Photoshop.  It also covers some of how our visual system separates and processes the information.  

Other articles of interest include Icon Analysis that talks about the role of spatial frequency when designing icons for computer programs and Michael Bach's site on optical illusions, which also has an entry on this painting.

When Frequencies Don't Agree
Usually when we look at a scene the low spatial frequency and high spatial frequency information match and reinforce each other.  In Dali's painting, though, they don't match.  When there's a conflict, the high frequency information wins.  It effectively masks out the low spatial frequencies.

Fine detail in a picture is part of the high frequency information because the brightness levels change rapidly with all the lines and edges.  So when we're close to Dali's painting that's what we see.  When we move away, though, we can no longer make out all that fine detail, and all that's left is the completely different picture (Lincoln) that's in the low frequencies.  I've simulated the effect above by doing a Gaussian Blur on the picture.  It's a low pass filter, effectively removing all the high frequency stuff from the picture - the same thing that happens when you stand 30 feet away from the physical painting.

Here are some examples of the high frequency pieces that mask the underlying picture.  First up is the highlight on Lincoln's forehead.  Incidentally, it is a reference to one of Dali's other famous paintings, St. John of the Cross.


Next up we have Lincoln's eye, which here is the head of (Dali's wife).  The relatively crisp edges of her head and the block above it disappear when the image is blurred.


Finally, here's an example of some detail work that doesn't really mask much of anything but enhances the illusion of realism when we're up close.


At a high level that's what's going on in the visual system when we look at the painting.  But how did Dali figure all this out?

The Art, The Science, and The Math
In 1973 a couple of researchers named Harmon & Julesz published a paper in Science about spatial frequency, vision, and face recognition.  To show how low frequencies are important to basic understanding and recognition of faces, they used a picture of Lincoln from the $5 bill and sampled it down to a 16 x 16 grid.  Dali saw this and realized that if he used that grid and made sure each cell had the right value overall, we would see Lincoln.

Dali also understood (whether from the Harmon & Julesz paper or others) that high frequencies convey details and, more importantly, interfere with the low frequencies.  So, he used their picture from as the starting point and made sure each cell had the right brightness.  Then he added details within those cells that changed the brightness rapidly within the cells but didn't change their overall value.  To drive the point home (Dali was many things, but subtle wasn't one of them), he included the original picture of Lincoln right in the painting.


The Compisition and Values
Let's look at the values of the painting.  I've highlighted a couple of areas to comment on below.


A: Here we have St. John of the Cross as the highlight on Lincoln's forehead.  It's critical that this is one of the brightest parts of the painting.  Dali also used high color saturation here, but in this version it's easier to see that it is indeed relatively bright.  (Color, by the way, is processed more with the high frequency information, so high saturation may also interfere with the low frequencies somewhat as well.)

B: Here we have Gala's head again.  Along with the block above it, this forms Lincon's eye and nose.

C: This area is critical negative space.  Lincoln's hair, beard, and clothes are all dark, and this area helps define the outside of his face and beard.

Finally, according to the book I scanned the painting from, Dali was fascinated by the golden section and mathematical principles.  He specifically worked them into his paintings, and this one is no exception.  Below I've put the golden section grid over the painting.  Then I've further subdivided the corner quadrants into their golden sections.  It's interesting to see what lines up and what doesn't.


The Moral of the Story
Playing with spatial frequencies can produce some really weird effects and fun illusions.  I don't know about yours, but most of my paintings aren't of optical illusions.  These principles, however, lead to some key lessons about painting and drawing in general.

  1. Intricate detail happens in the high spatial frequencies.
  2. Form and three dimensionality happen in the low spatial frequencies.
  3. High spatial frequencies mask low frequencies.

Therefore, if you want your picture to have a clear feeling of depth and form, don't overload it with detail.  Instead, leave areas of your painting open to simply show the changes in value that convey that depth.  Use highly detailed areas judiciously, and you create the illusion of a fully detailed scene.  (Our eyes can only see spot detail anyway, so our brains are used to filling stuff in.)

If, on the other hand, you're not interested in depth and form for a particular picture then it's perfectly fine to go to town on the detail work.

The Elements

To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  The focus of the painting is Gala, Dali's wife, as she gazes out over a sea.

Composition and Design: Dali carefully composed the painting to work differently in both the low spatial frequencies and the high spatial frequencies.  He did it without the aid of computers in 1976.

Palette:  The highest saturation is in the sky where we see St. John of the Cross.  It's a warm palette with just a touch of blue thrown in on either side of Gala to help draw our focus to her.

Value: Dali set the values of the large blocks in the painting first so that we would see Lincoln from a distance.  Then within each block he was free to vary the values as much as he wanted so long as he didn't stray too far from base value and kept the changes rapid using lots of clear edges.

Mass: Despite his restrictions in value Dali manages to achieve mass in both views of the painting.  Although we see mass and form, though, it's not the point of the painting.  Plenty of others carry it further.

Texture: The texture in the orange sky is neat, and it's also an example of high spatial frequencies.  The value variations there happen quite quickly and get lost when we step back.

Symbolism:  The window is in the shape of a cross, for one.

Micro/Macro: The role of detail plays an unusual role in this painting, but the lessons we learn from it explain why it's not good to overload a painting with detail.  It can interfere with our recognition of mass and form, and therefore in understanding what we're even looking at.

Ornament: Ornament is not present in great amounts here, but you could consider the small Lincoln in the painting and the small version of Gala to be one.

Narrative: Not much here, just a woman gazing through a window.

Juxtaposition:  Juxtaposition is not the focus of the painting in a narrative sense or traditional composition sense.  It's sure there in the spatial frequency domain though.

Stylization: While not his most famous painting, I'm sure you weren't surprised when you saw it to see that it's a Dali.  The surreality and even palette are recognizably his.

Character:  Character is not an emphasis here.  We can read contentment and calm in Gala, though.

Tension: There is no narrative tension, but there is a tension between the spatial frequencies.  When viewed close, we can almost tell that there is something unusual going on, but we can't quite spot it.

Line: Edges and contrast are critical parts and help define Lincoln.

Research/Reference:  Dali was interested in visual perception and actively kept up with the scientific literature on it.  This interest formed the basis of this picture.

Vignette: We have no trouble seeing the main figure and identifying her silhouette.

Perspective: The painting's vanishing point is in the center of Gala's back.

That's it for this one.  I've gotten a number of new books and will be considering what's next, from Rowena to Velasquez to Michael Whelan.
  • Listening to: Porcupine Tree
  • Watching: The Doctor
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
I just saw that Unwrapped got a DD!  I hadn't logged in for a few days because I started a new job, and suddenly there's a bazillion comments.  I'll start in on them this evening.  :D

Many thanks to Jace-Z and kangel for the suggestion and the feature!
  • Listening to: Porcupine Tree
  • Watching: The Doctor
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
1973, Copyright Ace Books
Cover for the book by Edgar Rice Burroughs
This image from Legacy: Paintings and Drawings by Frank Frazetta

First a quick note: Obviously I've fallen way behind in doing these analyses. This is mostly because of good things like paying illustration gigs and a new job.  These will therefore be less frequent, but I'm going to aim for about one per month.  I'm also way behind on comments and such, which I'll get to as soon as I can.  Now, on with the show...

The Image


I've been wanting to do a Frank Frazetta analysis for quite a while, and finally it's time.  He was amazingly fast and produced many, many paintings.  I thought about doing the iconic Death Dealer image, but picked this one instead because of its simplicity.  I've been trying to learn more about silhouettes and values against a background, and this image makes good use of both concepts.

Values and Contrasts
Here is a black and white version of the picture reduced to 4 grey values in Photoshop.


The form is still there and is fully identifiable.  The main figure is generally darker than the background, but a few of the edges are light.  Along the back in particular the values are pretty close to the background, so we have an edge between two light areas.  This version of the picture shows where Frazetta uses light-to-light transitions and where he uses light-to-dark transitions.

<img src="…" alt="Frazetta-EdgeContrast" title="Frazetta-EdgeContrast"  />

I tend to want to define every edge in my drawings and find it difficult to choose which ones to lose or de-emphasize.  Somehow, Frazetta's warrior is anchored firmly to the ground despite the fact that we don't have any definition or form of the lower legs at all.  This guy has no feet.  Here's the detail:


Yet we do have clear edges and contrasts on the upper body:


So what effect does the transition from clearly defined edges to no edges have?  Perceptually, it pulls us into the image and makes us complete it mentally.  We use closure to fill in the bits we don't see.  Of course, all the bits we do see must line up perfectly or the illusion breaks.  (See the Magritte analysis for more on this.)

I recently learned the term "lost edges" from this post on reddit.  The person there says that low contrast edges help anchor a figure to the background and seem to really be a part of the setting.  Perhaps the similar values let the background seem to bleed into and merge with parts of the figure.  So, our visual system perceives them as part of a larger unit.  Around the figure's contour we have lost edges at the feet and lower legs.  Inside the figure we have plenty of lost edges.  For example, check out the right edge of the face and the hair.

The Composition
Frazetta describes how he likes to approach image composition this way:

I want the viewer's eye to go right where I want it to - then I want it to move around and take in everything else.  I want to lead you into the picture, take you directly to a certain point, and send you on from there to find all the neat little things that I've done.

This picture has relatively few elements, and it's easy to pick out the way edges and contrasts line up to suggest paths for the eyes.


That moon hints at an otherworldly setting, but a large part of its purpose is to frame the warrior and guide us back down to him.  It also helps that there is nothing else in the upper corners to grab our attention and spin it on out of the painting.

Like Donato Giancola, Frazetta mentions that he likes to start with very basic shapes, nearly abstract.  "When I paint I compose these wonderful shapes that are almost abstract.  I'm more concerned with achieving a balance and rhythm than I am with subject matter.  Once I've achieved that balance I start in on the details."

Even though it's not strictly composition, I'll throw in a note about the saturation here.  Frazetta uses it to reinforce the focus of the painting that he defines with the contrasts and silhouette.  The three areas of greatest saturation are the moon, the warrior's back, and the blood on his knife.


The Figures
Something I noticed while picking a picture to analyze is that so many of Frazetta's paintings happen to feature a great pose that doesn't seem to be posed.  Pinups, for example, show people in "vogue" positions that aren't natural but instead are meant to be looked at.  I don't see Frazetta's figures doing that kind of pose.  Nevertheless, they're always dramatic and often high-energy.  Somehow, he get's that vogue posture but makes it seem like a natural stance or expression.  

For some reason, I often mentally compare Boris Vallejo and Frazetta.  This is one area where they differ radically in their approach.  Many of Vallejo's paintings are specifically posed.  See my analysis of Vallejo's Snake Women for an example.  (NSFW, by the way.)

Tanar here (that's his name) is starting to relax but is still at the ready.  We see little of his expression, but his whole posture shows tension, readiness, and relief.  The victim's posture is hard to see, but we can tell enough (closure again) to see pain and death.  Here are the basic flow lines of both figures.


Frazetta gets loose, life-like gestures for his characters (even Mr. Victim).  Speaking of the victim, we know nothing about him.  He still has character, though, if only through this snippet of expression.


A key decision of any illustration is choosing the moment to illustrate.  In the book this scan is from, Frazetta describes his approach to dealing with his often violent subjects:

My paintings have a lot of action but they aren't especially violent: there's the suggestion of mayhem without being explicit. ... If I wanted to I could paint something so brutal and violent that it would make you sick - I don't need that.

The point is that if we show the moments just before or after the main action and let our viewer infer what happened, we pull our viewer into the situation.  They become an active participant because they're creating the story too - they're more engaged and find the picture more engaging.

In this illustration, the only information we really have is:

  • Blood dripping from a knife
  • Two characters' postures
  • One character's clothing (or lack thereof) and hairstyle
  • The survivor's body type
  • Mr. Victim's partial facial expression
  • The survivor's partial facial expression

So, it's not like we're being given loads of detail here for a carefully constructed scene.  Still, from these tidbits we know we're in a barbarian setting and are viewing the aftermath of what was probably a short, painful fight.  We probably don't want to mess with the survivor, I'd guess that life is cheap to him.  You see how already I'm filling in my own details here.

The Elements

To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  Frazetta combines high contrast in the figure's upper body and hair with color saturation to make the warrior the focus.

Composition and Design: There's a clear silhouette overall, and Frazetta uses both light-to-dark and light-to-light edges to fit the figures into the overall scene.  The basic design elements are simple and pleasing as abstract shapes.

Palette:  The moon and figure are warm against a cool, desaturated background.  The saturated red of the blood ensures that we won't miss that either.

Value: Values define mass and form, with some edges being clear and crisp while others are less so.

Mass: The shading of the main figure does a great job of defining his overall form and also showing anatomy.  

Texture:  Check out the moon and sky's textures, plus the texture of the foreground rocky hill.

Symbolism:  I don't think Frazetta was big on symbolism.  Put another way, this picture symbolizes life, death, and the end of a knife fight.

Micro/Macro: Frazetta isn't one for loads of detail.  Still, we see the veins on the warrior's hands and Mr. Victim's eye.  He worked very fast, though, and as he says, "When I start slashing away from scratch Im having a pretty good time because I'm watching this thing materialize.  But when I get to being about 85% done is when things slow down to a crawl.  Working on the edges, pulling the whole picture together, can take longer than I like."

Ornament: This painting isn't strong on ornament.  Maybe the moon, but that's about it.

Narrative: Tanar has come out on top of what was probably a quick, brutal encounter.

Juxtaposition:  Let's see, there's survival and death here.  From a shapes perspective the moon nicely offsets the main figure.

Stylization: Here's a quote from Burne Hogarth to his students (from the same book with the scan): "Godammit, you guys quit trying to paint like Frazetta!  There can be only one Frazetta and he's it!"

Character:  Whether he's a badass fighter or an underhanded sneak, this guy isn't someone to mess with.

Tension: The main tension I see is in Tanar's figure.  He's won, but he's still realizing it.

Line: Take a look at the line along Tanar's back.  It's a light-to-light transition, but Frazetta has put a little bit of darkness along the border.  How would the picture be different if he hadn't?

Research/Reference:  Here is a watercolor rough that Frazetta did in preparation for the painting:


Vignette: This painting has a strong silhouette and feels quite a bit like a vignette save for the filled in background.

Perspective: The moon and background provide some depth.  The lighting also provides depth in the way it wraps around the forms.
  • Listening to: Porcupine Tree
  • Watching: The Doctor
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
The Archer of the Rose, by Donato Giancola.
Copyright 2008, Donato Giancola.
This scan from Spectrum 16.
This analysis copyright 2010 by Scott M. McDaniel.

The Image


As I recently said on Facebook, "How have I not been aware of Donato Giancola before now?"  This one stopped me as I was going through Spectrum 16, and I've kept coming back to it.  The Archer of the Rose is the cover for Kathleen Bryan's The Last Paladin by Tor books.  We'll look at the picture's development and its use as a cover.  Giancola likes to start with strong abstract compositions as the base and then work toward strong realism.  We'll look at the abstract patterns he uses and how they guide the eye, and we'll also look at some of his finely detailed rendering.  Finally, we'll look at the thought and research that went into the narrative and characterization.  For example, Persian manuscript covers inspired the patterns on the shields, yet the armor styles are more western European.  What does this tell us about the events in the scene, and how does it contribute to mood and theme?

Time for a different format.  Normally I wrap up with Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.  This time I'll use them all the way through.

The focus of the painting is the archer, her bow, and the arrow.  The person behind the archer, looking up at her and her target, is a secondary focus.  While these two are the visual focus of the painting, I'd say the narrative focus is the archer and her target.  We only have half the story here, and we're left to speculate on the rest - to fill in the target ourselves.

Giancola uses contrast and color saturation to attract our eyes to the archer.  See that glint on the shield right behind the archer and how her dark forearm stands out against it?  Then there's the bright arrowhead against the dark background.  These techniques make that area of the painting jump out at us.

Composition and Design
Let's look at the basic, abstract construction of the picture.  It sets up movement, and it also reinforces the archer as the focus.  


The shapes of the shields dominate the picture.  Though they look realistic and have weight and mass, their basic shapes form an interesting pattern in the abstract - a set of diagonal blocks that give the picture an overall grain of upper left to lower right.

One of the ways that Giancola draws attention to the archer is by having her and the person behind her break that pattern.  Their gaze (and the archer's aim) are diagonal to the upper right.


By setting up an overall pattern and then breaking it specifically at the right place, Giancola reinforces the archer as the picture's focus.  Let's look at one other aspect of the picture: how the golden sections line up.  It's always hard to be sure how conscious artists are about how they place things according to the golden ratio.  Whether through intuitive design sense or calculation we can see that Giancola has placed the archer's hand at the intersection of the upper right intersection of golden sections.  The arrow passes right through that point as well.


The archer's body itself takes up the center of this golden section grid, and her head and torso are in the lower left part of the center section.  My guess is that Giancola consciously considered the golden sections at an early stage of his composition but didn't feel compelled to stick to them precisely after that.

It's certainly a warm painting, dominated by reds and yellows.  I'm not going to spend much time on the colors here, but I do think the green on the shield just above the archer gives a nice accent.  It draws attention to the area and leads our eye down into the focus.  Contrast it to the dark red area that forms the background.


A little side note here.  Despite the overall impression of detail and realism, the background area of that dark red is a swirling abstract texture.  It's purpose is to drop back in the picture, to NOT draw the eye.  Even in realism it's counterproductive to render every last part of a scene.

Giancola gives us a dark painting with the brightest area being the shield behind the archer.  The other highlights around the painting serve two purposes that I see.  The first is to enhance the realism by giving the illusion of solidity and mass.  The glints on the armor are a good example of this.  Second, some of the shields are generally brighter than the background.  They don't compete with the focus, but as our eye wanders from the focus those brighter areas give us someplace to go.  They also show off the shield designs.

What a teaming throng!  I've already mentioned how the highlights enhance the illusion of mass, and really Giancola's whole approach to values and color give us a sense of the solid.  Something else, though, that gives a sense of mass and weight is seeing evidence of objects bouncing off of each other.  The three shields in the upper right corner are a good example - they overlap and it looks like they're jostling each other.  Their owners are trying to maintain good coverage despite being bumped around.  The soldier who holds the shield right behind the archer isn't just peeking out from it, he's bent way over and spending effort to keep it where it is.  Logically, then, we interpret it as a heavy shield, thick enough to ward off rocks or arrows.

Again, I won't spend much time here.  Giancola uses textures in the background and on a few of the shields around the border to give us an overall sense of the lighting, but he doesn't bog us down with details.  The sheen on some of the shields indicate smooth, reflective paint.  There is no sheen on the clothing, though, since it doesn't reflect light the same way.

I'll get to the Persian styling here in a minute, but in the meantime I'll let Giancola speak for himself.  He comments on the painting on his Tor books Hugo nominee profile page, where he says:

'Archer' was a tremendous challenge compositionally and technically, and a pure pleasure to render the shields as Persian manuscript covers. I love the subtlety that there are book covers within the book cover, and that knights might love to read rather than fight.

This topic is about enhancing the illusion of reality by including just the right details and excluding the wrong ones.  Here is a detail of one of the shields.


As we look at it we see that some parts of it are bright and crisp while others are impressionistic - almost blurry.  The corner on the left side, for example, is not as precise and detailed as the rose in the center where the highlighting is.  As our eyes move around the painting they will come to rest on this shield.  Not every aspect of the shield, mind you, but rather its focal point.  Our peripheral vision can't take in the detail as we move away from the shield's focal point anyway.  So, Giancola upholds the illusion of fine detail everywhere by giving each object a focus that does have detail but then fading it out as you move away from it.

It's a fractal idea - the painting as whole has a focus, but so does each object that makes up the painting.  Giancola sometimes works in triptychs (three paintings together), so in that sense the entire set will have a single focal point.

All right, now it's time to get to the Persian motif.  I'd already noticed it before reading the quote above, particularly in the green shield just above the archer.  All of the shields have a rose in some form, and it's neat to see the different ways that Giancola has portrayed them.  Each is different, yet they all seem to come from the same culture.  I'm not sure of the specific references that Giancola used, but the link below is a picture that comes from this page and shows a 16th century Q'uran manuscript cover.  You can see more pages at their site.

Click to see really big picture of a 16th century Persian Q'uran cover.

The introduction to Giancola's first collection explains how he likes to set up scenes that make viewers fill in the blanks about what's going on.  We become active participants in the painting's story, imagining what's going on and making assumptions.  I "see" three main characters in this scene, only two of which are visible.  

The archer is aiming at something or somebody, and we have clues about the situation.  Soldiers wouldn't hold their shields like that unless they were expecting attack from above, and the archer's aim is quite high.  I think they're attacking a castle of some sort and our archer is aiming at someone high up on the walls.  Perhaps she's trying to take out a catapult operator or someone about to spill boiling oil.  Whoever the target is, the archer's companion seems to have some reservations.

Speaking of that companion, let's have a closer look.


This detail could go in the Characterization section just as well, but I'm putting it here because I like the contrast between the subtle fear in the companion's expression an the archer's calm assurance.  Each person has a distinct look, bearing, and expression, but putting them next to each other strengthens those impressions.

There are other juxtapositions in the painting, both conceptual and visual.  One of the most striking to me is that I read the archer as having Asian features but blond hair.  I also like the flowery, ornate shields contrasted with the fairly simple armor of the knights and horses.  

Giancola specifically cites Velázquez as an influence.  A clear part of his style is the marriage of Velázquez's realism with modern notions from abstract art.  Giancola uses abstract shapes and textures as the foundation and then constructs realism on top of it.

I've already mentioned how the two main characters are foils for each other.  Costuming is another aspect of character, so let's take a look at the archer's clothes.


The cut and patterns of her clothing also suggest a Persian influence.  It's a little difficult to see, but her belt is braided.  Giancola gives us the detail here because we're looking at a center of interest.  The fabric's colors and patterns, along with the sleeve fringe, tell us that this person is pretty well off and probably quite respected.  She's at least minor nobility.

Back to her companion, I love his expression.  It's an ambiguous and subtle mix, but I read both fear and hope in it.  And frankly, we don't usually see subtlety or complex expressions in most fantasy art.  It's one of the reasons I wish I'd come across Giancola sooner.

Oh yeah, almost forgot.  That archer?  She's pretty cute, too.

There's narrative tension around whether the archer will hit her mark or be on the receiving end of some giant rock.  Will the siege be successful?  Will those beautiful shields get scratched?  Mood-wise I think the deep reds in the background add a mood of danger and tension.

Since it's a realistic painting we don't see lines, at least not in the Mucha or Dürer sense.  There are, however, edges that tend to direct our gaze through painting.  I suppose I could have put this back up in the composition and design section, but I'm putting it here instead.  Here are some of the paths I see.


Irene Gallo, art director for Tor books, has a blog page on The Archer of the Rose.  Giancola initially submitted this sketch as a possibility for the first book in the series.  Gallo didn't use it, but liked the sketch enough that she brought it back for the third book.


We can see at this point that the basic concept is there.  Giancola already knows where the light and focus will be.  On the other hand, things like the details of the shields and the full idea of the companion are still unformed.  Next up we see the finished drawing Giancola worked out prior to painting.


Here's he's worked things out completely.  There is detail where he wants it.  The background areas without detail are simple shading - that comes as part of the painting process.  Notice that the companion's face and expression aren't yet final, though.  Here, his mouth is closed and the hair is different.

One final thought on this progression: the painting above looks complete as it is, but we have to remember its ultimate purpose as a book cover.  Here is a look at the book itself.  How do you feel that the title and other graphic elements change the picture?  How did the cover designer use the arrow head?


We get a strong silhouette and posture from the archer.  The rest of the people in the painting are only shown in bits and pieces.  I'm sure, however, that Giancola worked out the complete positions for each person and the horses.  You'd have to in order to get everything to look like it's part of the same scene.

Most of the perspective cues here use occlusion - that is, overlapping.  The archer's figure overlaps a shield and is therefore in front of it.  One thing to note is the viewpoint.  We're obviously up above the action, but probably not on the defenses themselves.  The horizon line is a ways above the top of the painting.  This kind of angle is a modern technique to make pictures more dynamic.

Wrap Up
One of the major ideas I take from this painting, which I hadn't thought of like this before, is the notion of building up a composition from abstract shapes and ending up with realism.  I really like that.  In this painting, at least, that foundation sets up motion and flow through the whole picture even before we get to elements like value and color.

The Archer of the Rose is also a prime example of thinking your picture through completely.  It's no easy task to work all those people and horses into a crowded scene, but we clearly see how the objects interact with each other.  There's a coherent cultural feel to the painting coming from the combination of Persian and European influences.  Giancola works out enough of the narrative to help us figure out what's going on.  On the other hand he leaves us free to fill in large parts of the story.  The whole approach is a standard to emulate.
  • Listening to: Porcupine Tree
  • Watching: The Doctor
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
The White Goddess, by Charles Vess, both versions copyright 1986.
In Drawing Down the Moon: The Art of Charles Vess.
This analysis copyright Scott M. McDaniel, 2010.

The Images
There are two versions of The White Goddess.  This one is colored inks.

And this one is pen and ink:

So I'm finally back after the hiatus.  I've been antsy about the time off, so I'm glad to get to this one.  I first ran into Charles Vess' work in the Sandman comics and his association with Neil Gaiman (Stardust, The Blueberry Girl, etc.).  I find it easy to pick out his art based on style alone, and I also think it draws heavily on golden age illustrators like Rackham and Dulac.  (I just picked up a good book on Dulac, so I'll be doing one of his soon).

Vess' book Drawing Down the Moon is a great overview of his work.  (Great production values too - the chapter division pages are really cool.)  I picked The White Goddess because it's a rare opportunity to see two finished versions of the same piece - one in color and one in black and white.  What decisions does Vess make differently based on the choice of medium?  We'll look at several examples, plus we'll check out the overall composition.

The Overlay
The first thing I did was scan both pieces and then overlay them to get an idea of where the similarity and differences are.  Here is a graphic that switches back and forth between the two versions.  See what you notice, and then continue on below to look at a few image details in the same way.


The first thing to notice is that the black and white version isn't just a monochrome version of the color image.  To show this a little better I took the color version and converted it to greyscale.  Then I posterized it down to four values.  Here it is next to the pen and ink version.


Look, for example, at the dragon's body in the lower left part of the picture.  In the pen and ink version on the left, the body is white against the dark background.  In the version on the right, though, which came from the color, the dragon's body is darker than the background.  Why?  

When you're not working with color, contrast is the main tool available to define forms and edges.  With color, though, not only do you have values in the toolbox, you've also got hue.  In the color version the dark dragon's body is blue.  Even though the value is pretty close to the background's, the fact that the background is a warm yellow/brown gives our eyes another difference to latch onto.

The Detail Images
First up let's look at the dragon's head.  I find the black and white version easier to read.  I didn't realize that its head is rolled away from us until I looked at the black and white version.  The color version doesn't work for me quite as well in that regard.


On the other hand, I think the red of the blood dripping from the dragon's head comes through better in the color version.  Here are some other differences I see.

  • The background shading in the B&W version is fine cross hatching.  The color version is more like a wash.  There's still a texture, but it's different.
  • Vess still users lines extensively for contour, but he largely drops them out inside the objects.  It's quite obvious on the branches.
  • The color version offers more chances for subtlety.  In the detail's upper left is a "J" shaped part that is the dragon's body draped from the tree.  In the B&W version it's white with a little bit of hatching to suggest form.  In the color version Vess puts in a shadow pattern to more fully round out the form.  They're both suggestions of form.
  • The dragon has fur.  I think that comes through better in the B&W version because the hatching lines Vess uses to suggest the fur are more visible.

Now let's look over at the left side of the image where the light strikes several branches and root structures.


Look carefully at the contour lines.  The little breaks and twists in the twigs are just a little bit different.  I suspect that Vess started from the same drawing for each of these but then executed them separately in each medium.  Like the dragon head, we see Vess dropping out much of the texture lines but keeping the contour lines.  Which version do you think gives you a better sense of form and depth?  For me it's the B&W version - it's easier to see which branches pass in front of or behind each other (occlusion).  The hatching on the main branch also suggests reflected light from right side where the main tree trunk is.  It's there in the color version too, but there it's more subtle.  Other notes:

  • The vine hanging down in the center right part of the detail is white in the B&W version but dark in the color version.  More specifically, in the color version the vine generally takes on the value of what's behind it.  It's the line that's marking it out.
  • The tufts of weed at the bottom of the detail are simply white in the B&W version but look more rounded in the color version.  Object silhouettes are important in both color and B&W, but in a B&W drawing they are often enough by themselves to suggest a form.  Part of the art of it is deciding which objects to fill in with hatching and texture and which ones to leave as silhouette.
  • The root swirls on the right side are more detailed in the B&W version, but that level of line texture doesn't work in the color version.  So, Vess reduced the number of individual branch/roots to make it easier for us to tell what's going on there.

Finally, let's look at the white queen herself.


She's our focal point, so I'd expect high contrast here and, in the color version, high saturation as well.  The B&W version darkens the area behind her completely and makes her almost completely white.  She really does stand out with all that contrast.  There are a few spare lines inside the figure that show where she's bleeding and outline the loincloth, which is also white.  In the color version, the figure's value is a lot closer to that of the background, and the loincloth is also a dark blue.  That works against the warm color of her skin.  Look at how the wound and the blood pops out so much more because of the saturation.  It's also taking a slightly different course down her leg.  The important thing in the B&W version is the contrast - we need to see it.  The color version has saturation to play with, so it's OK if the line of the blood forms a tangent with the leg and wraps around it.  A few other notes:

  • I think her left hand gets lost in the hair in both versions.  It's a little easier to see in the color version because it sticks out from the hair a little more.
  • They're not detailed, but I like the hints of light and shadow patterns cast by the tree leaves on the figure.
  • Even though the values on the figure's body are darker in the color version, he still keeps high contrast in the hair.  So it's not like he's thrown contrast out of the toolbox just because he's moved to color.

The Composition
Here's the color version with the golden section grid overlaid.  Whether by intuition or intention, several elements line up very well with it.  The queen herself is on the left section line, and the dragon's head and neck are at the intersection of the right line and the lower line.  The dragon's body in the lower left rectangle points right up to another intersection.


Here's a graphic showing some of the major edges in the picture.  The left side in particular is a good example of what James Gurney calls "spokewheeling."  That is, the branches point us right to the picture's focal point.


The other thing I wanted to point out was the vertical figure eight curves in the picture.  The dragon's body forms its lower part, and the figure and left bough form the upper part.  There are plenty of other loops and paths for our eyes to follow, but this is the key one for the picture.

The Elements

To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  The White Queen is the focus of the picture, with the dragon being a strong secondary focus.

Composition and Design: There is a diagonal relationship between the two foci, and a figure eight loop takes us back and forth between them.  Branch patterns also suggest paths to our eyes and bring our gaze back to the foci.

Palette:  Muted warm colors for the most part.  The few small bits of saturation are at the foci.  The cool colors are the dragon and the queen's clothing.  Both choices reinforce those objects as foci.

Value: Vess gets a more complete value range in the B&W version through hatching and some textures.  He still uses value in the color version, of course, but he shifts the emphasis over to color and texture as well.

Mass:   I get a better sense of mass in the B&W version.  

Texture:  Likewise I prefer the texture in the B&W version.  This is personal taste, because it's certainly there in the color version too.

Symbolism:  I'm not familiar with the original context.  To read in a couple of things that may or may not be intended, I could see a Biblical theme in which Eve finally defeats the serpent (though not unscathed), and there's also the possibility of feminist themes.  In this case the dragon would be phallic (though not sexual) and the woman has defeated it.

Micro/Macro: I like how Vess uses detail and texture on the branches and roots of the tree but leaves much of the dragon's body as simple silhouette.  It both gives us a lot of fun stuff to look at in the trees, but it also drops it back and gives it a mid-tone value.  The silhouette gives us the contrast.

Ornament: Take a gander at the pattern on the dragon's back in the B&W version.  It's gone in the color.  Yeah, I just said "gander."  What?

Narrative: Like a lot of good illustration, this picture doesn't show the heat of the action.  Instead, it shows us its immediate aftermath and lets us fill in the details.

Juxtaposition:  The size difference between the woman and the dragon is effective both as storytelling and visually in the image.

Stylization: Part of Vess' style is a love of trees and branches and plants.  Compare this picture with Ian Miller's THD.

Character: This isn't a subtle posture.  That, plus her clothing and bloody dagger tell us she's pretty bad ass.  Oh yeah.  And that ginsu'd dragon.  

Tension: As an aftermath picture, it's the release of the narrative tension.

Line: Vess uses line for contour, texture, and form in the B&W version.  He uses it for contour in the color version but uses the colors to handle texture and some of the form.

Research/Reference:  I'm not certain.  I'd guess no specific model or reference, because I'm sure Vess has drawn thousands of figures (human and dragon).

Vignette: There are strong silhouettes, but there's a fully rendered background in both versions.

Perspective: I get a clearer sense of depth in the B&W version because of the occlusion in the linework.

Well, that's it for this one.  I'll aim to get the next one out in a week, but I have business trip coming up after that so there will be at least a week's gap again.  I think I'll do something by Jessica Oyhenart.
  • Listening to: Porcupine Tree
  • Watching: True Blood
  • Playing: Super smash bros. brawl
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
"Once there was a poor old woman who lived in a village," by Arthur Rackham, 1920.
Originally in Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm, 1920.
This scan from Rackham's Fairy Tale Illustrations in Full Color, edited by Jeff Menges, 2002.
This analysis copyright Scott M. McDaniel, 2010.

The Image


What a difficult choice!  There are a lot of great illustrations in the Dover book Rackham's Fairy Tale Illustrations in Full Color, and it was hard to decide which one to look at for an analysis.  If you're a fan of golden age illustration, you should definitely check this one out.  I chose this one in the end for a few reasons.  For one, we get a clear sense of character - to me this seems like more than just your generic old woman.  She's been through a lot.  Also, Rackham gives us lots of texture and line work that is fun to get lost in.  The recent analysis of Dürer was an example of highly precise, controlled linework.  This drawing, though, shows linework that is loose and flowing, yet still controlled.  Rackham's picture has clearly separated foreground, midground, and background elements, and it also has an effective silhouette and composition.

The Composition
Let's take those things in reverse order.  First off, we have a profile of the old woman, and it's an effective silhouette.


Starting with the woman, we can see that her head and shoulders are darker than the background - Rackham sets her apart with contrast.  Except for her, the rest of the foreground is light.  The midground is darker in value, and the distant background is again light.  Looking back up at the silhouette version again, it's obvious (to me, at least) that Rackham is using the midground elements to put a curved frame around the woman.

Here's a detail image of the boat.


To boat is particularly dark.  Logically it makes sense since it falls in the shadow of the building above it.  This detail also shows the lightness of the distant background, the darkness of the midground, and the lightness of the foreground.  The main reason I show it, though, is to point out the boat's role in the overall composition.  Because it's so dark, the contrast with the distant background draws our eye.  It's a secondary focal point of the drawing, and I think it keeps the drawing more interesting visually.  There is, in fact, somewhere else for our eye to go once we've taken in the old woman.  The boat is small, though, and clearly secondary.

The Line Directions
Contrast isn't always just about light and dark.  If you look back at the drawing, how many curved lines can you find, and where are they?  Yes, there are lots of little curved lines in the rooftop, but for now I'm talking about the lines that define shape - contour lines.  The woman's entire figure is a curve - she herself is bent.  Plus her dress flutters in the wind, resulting in more curves.  The only other curved lines I see in the picture are the boat and one part of the gas lantern at the top.  Neither of those are very large elements.  So, Rackham draws attention to the old woman by contrasting her flowing, curved lines with the straight lines of the architecture all around her.


Now let's look at the diagonal lines.  If we start at the top of the illustration and follow the diagonal lines down, we see a pattern.  Rackham uses perspective so that the diagonal lines we see mostly point down and left.  As we get to the other side of the picture, though, the single point perspective means that the lines reverse and start pointing us down and to the right.  That takes our gaze right to the old woman.  In particular, the support braces just above the old woman's head point us right to her.

Because of the buildings, most of the lines are either vertical or horizontal.  Rackham's selective use of curved lines and diagonal lines contrasts with the overall horizontal and vertical sense, and he uses those contrasts to make the woman the drawing's focal point.

The Line Textures
OK, here we go with quite a few detail images.  As we go through each one take a look at how the individual line strokes are often imprecise.  It looks like his muscles were relaxed and he was setting the lines down on the paper quickly, without making sure each one was individually perfect.  Some of the brick texture, for example, almost looks like scribbling.  In each detail, look at how Rackham made sure that the overall spacing and direction of the lines combines to build up a texture that gives just the impression he was after.

First up, let's take a look at the roof in the midground:


In terms of directions and lines, we have:

A: Contour lines that define the top and the chimney.
B: Diagonal lines that follow the slant of the roof.  These are for shading and values.
C: Diagonal lines that slant the other way, showing the form of the ridge at the roof top.
D: Cross hatched diagonal lines in the window for shading, values, and texture.
E: Small curved "C" lines that suggest shingles and provide texture.  Sometimes they chain together diagonally, and other times horizontally.  This keeps the texture from getting geometric.

Finally, there is a wash beneath all of the lines that contributes to the values and the texture of the area.  All of these elements combine to give an immediate impression of a village rooftop.  It's in decent repair, but it's obviously not the high precision work that we might see on an expensive, upper class home.

Here's another detail that shows a door, steps, railing, and stonework.  See if you can pick out the different ways Rackham used lines to show form, value, and texture.  How does he differentiate the wooden door from the stone wall?  What does he do to communicate that the steps are worn?


One thing to notice is that Rackham doesn't use line thickness much in this drawing.  Mucha, for example, used line thickness to help the basic shapes of his drawings pop out at us.  Rackham keeps his line thicknesses the same and instead varies direction and spacing to show value and texture.


This detail above of the the street is a good example of Lee Moyer's Macro/Micro principle.  Rackham really only gives us a few cobblestones, yet we understand the whole street to be made of them.  Most of the stones he outlines for us form a dip in the road which, because of the perspective, lead our eye to the old woman.  Also take a look at the transition from street to water and the few quick strokes that effectively read as ripples.


The lamp is a good example of how Rackham uses line direction to show the form of different surfaces.  The lines on the wall both outline bricks and provide an overall texture for them.  He obviously drew them quickly and loosely.

The Woman
Since this is a character portrait, let's take a closer look at her.


The lines in the upper part of her body and face are more defined and clear than those in the lower part of her body where the dress is fluttering.


One of the things that makes her the drawing's focus is how Rackham handles her textures.  Everywhere else he uses lines to show the texture, from the water to cobblestone street, to the roof.  For the old woman, though, he uses ink wash.  Look at the pattern on her dress or the way her scarf wraps around her head.  He's still using lines, but they serve more as contour lines.  At least, they do around the top.  I love the bottom of her dress and how the scribbles show that it's tattered and blowing around in the wind.  There's a floral pattern painted in wash on the dress, but it's far from crisp and clean.  All these details contribute to her character.  The match her bent posture and downcast eyes.  She seems to be holding something, though.  Maybe it offers some hope.

The Elements

To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  The woman is the primary focus, and the boat is a secondary focus.  Visually, the secondary focus makes the drawing more interesting and turns it into more than a simple portrait.

Composition and Design: The woman in the lower right is darker than her background.  There's another darker arc that frames her.  As we move from the woman to the background the overall values alternate: dark (woman), light (street around her), dark (midground buildings/boat), light (distant background).

Palette:  Mostly monochromatic, though Rackham did use muted reds as part of the wash.

Value: Rackham uses line more than values to define form.  Instead, he uses values to establish the basic composition.

Mass:   The sense of form comes from line direction, as seen in the lamp and the rooftop shading.

Texture:  There are two sources of texture, line and ink wash.  The wash contributes to the downtrodden, dirty feel of the setting.

Symbolism:  I don't see much.  The illustration's purpose is to introduce us to a character and setting.  Not having read the story, though, I'm missing some context.

Micro/Macro: I pointed out the cobblestones on the street.  Also see the suggestions of buildings and trees in the distance and the worn shape of the steps leading up to the wooden door.

Ornament: Check out the bracket for the gas lamp.

Narrative: This illustration is the equivalent of the establishing shot in movies, TV shows, and comics.  It sets up the story and gives us a framework on which to hang the action.

Juxtaposition:  There's not much conceptual juxtaposition - perhaps the gaslamp's bracket is nicer than the surroundings would suggest.  It's not opulent, though.

Stylization: Rackham's loose, almost scribbled lines give this drawing a clear style.  The wash adds to it.  

Character:   The woman's posture, expression, and clothing all reinforce an image of a worn down person with faded hopes.  

Tension: Not much yet.  As an establishing scene, the only hint of tension I see is to wonder what's in her bag.

Line: Rackham uses lines to outline objects (contour) as well as for texture, values, and form.

Research/Reference:  It wouldn't surprise me if Rackham used reference for the village architecture or sketched it from life beforehand.  I don't know if he used a model for the woman's figure, but I wouldn't be surprised either way.

Vignette: There are clear silhouettes, but this is a full illustration that shows a complete setting.

Perspective: Rackham uses single point perspective, and the directions of the lines follow the rules of perspective to guide our eyes to the old woman.

Coming up in the next week or two will be a painting by Charles Vess with lots of mysterious cats.
  • Listening to: 30 Seconds to Mars
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Super smash bros. brawl
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
Seven Handed Musician by Artur Sadlos, copyright 2008.
This analysis by Scott M. McDaniel, copyright 2010.

The Image


I added Seven Handed Musician to my favorites the day it was featured as a Daily Deviation on  I'd never seen anything like it.  Here's what Sadlos has to say about it in the image's description:

Cover for new album of some multiinstrumentalist. The idea of giant creature, ancient and multihanded with different instruments is clients idea. Ive done all in photoshop using some textures of stones and trees. Hope You like it C&C most welcome.
Best Regards

I'm particularly impressed by the sense of scale Sadlos gets into the picture.  There's no doubt that this guy is huge, but in the wilderness setting we don't have normal geometric cues like vanishing points to help us.  We'll look at the image's perspective, plus its lighting, colors, textures, and overall design.  I'll also point out a probable mistake and take a guess as to how it came about.

The Scale
To start things off, let's look at the musician here without all of the surrounding background.


There are few size cues, but at a quick glance he's pretty normal sized for a dude with seven arms and a skin condition.  The reason we read him as being so massive in the picture is his size in relation to the other things around him.  For example, is that a river in the background on the left?  And what about the Mayan pyramid near the thigh on the right?


Then there's a couple of bird flocks flying around.  Oh, and a tree growing out of the end of the guitar's neck.


Finally we have the cloud formations both in front of and behind the figure.  Because we have preconceived notions of how big each of these things usually are, we assemble the whole picture in our head and come to the conclusion that this stone musician could compete in size with any skyscraper.  No one size comparison does it - Sadlos had to think through the image and make decisions about each element so they would all hang together and add up to the right impression.

I initially thought that the drummer behind the kit in the hand on the upper right was a the size of a normal person.  Now I'm not so sure.  Compare him with the birds nearby and that tree from the guitar's neck.  How big do you think he actually is?


The Composition and Design
As those of you who have read other columns know, I often look at golden sections and eye guidance in paintings like this.  (See, for example, the Moyer/Kaluta and James Jean columns.)  This time I thought I'd apply a different principle I hear regularly, that of using triangles in the composition.  That is, it's a good idea to arrange the areas of major focus so that they form triangles.  Often more than one.

Look back up at the original picture and pick out the parts that you think are the areas of major visual interest.  What are their relationships?  My answer to that question is in the picture below.

I see six triangles that form a loose hexagon.  The musician's face is the only element that's a part of all six triangles, and it's at the center of the hexagon.  I think this is one of several reasons that his face stands out as the focal point of the entire painting.


I can certainly understand objections to this kind of breakdown.  For instance, I didn't include the hand on the guitar's neck as a focal point.  Personally, I don't think it is one - it has no distinct highlights and there aren't any points of high contrast.  It blends into the area around it fairly easily.  You could make a better case, though, for the hand on the violin's neck.  I could see moving the circle at the end of the violin's neck in to the hand.

Also, I have no idea if this is the kind of thing that Sadlos deliberately planned out or if it just emerged as a happy coincidence in his design.  Either way, though, I can easily see a number of different triangles in the picture.

Before moving on to textures, let's look at a couple of other things that I think establish the musician's face as the painting's focal point.  First there's the color saturation.  Sadlos uses a few areas of (relatively) intense color.  One of them is the jungle canopy.  It forms a semicircular frame around the figure on the bottom.  Second, the "hair" on the musician is a more intense green than anything else in the surrounding area.  The violin is noticeably more saturated than the surrounding areas, plus it's one of only two areas to feature a warm color.  Those two facts draw our eyes to the face and violin.

Sadlos also uses values to bring our eyes to the figure and its head.  Here is a greyscale version of the picture that alternates with a posterized version (only 4 gray values).


What I notice here is that the jungle canopy is darker than the figure, so its semicircle shape uses both value and saturation to frame the figure.  The other thing I notice is that the clouds behind and above the figure's head are the brightest part of the image.  The contrast with the face and hair also draws our attention to the area.

A final note on composition.  This is a CD cover.  There are two things that draw our eyes to the place that the musician's name and CD name will go: the conductor's baton and the yellow patch of clouds just above the statue's head.  That second area of warm, saturated color should help integrate the painting with whatever logos or typography will appear toward the top.

The Textures
This painting uses a wide variety of textures, and it's a good job that Sadlos has managed to make them all work together.  Let's start off with the musician's face.


The cracked stonework is neat.  The cracks effectively suggest stone, but they also suggest to me that the figure might actually be in motion.  That brings up logical paradoxes when you look at the vines and plantlife, which suggests that it's been still for a very long time.  (The figure's stance also looks like it's in motion, and the contradiction is one of my favorite things about the painting.)  This detail also has the brightest spots in the painting - namely the highlight on the nose and lower lip.  These highlights are small and reasonably sharp, which suggests a moist coating on the whole statue.  We can also see the birds nearby for a size comparison.

Now let's look at the jungle canopy.


What I see here is an impressionistic texture of greens as a background.  Sadlos has then painted a few specific leaves and plants over that, though not in great detail.  The effect, though, is sufficient to get us to read it as a massive, detailed jungle canopy.

The clouds form yet a third texture.  Sadlos uses them both to suggest size and to create layers of depth in the picture.  Some clouds are in front of the figure, others are behind it, and some surround parts of it.

The Problem
So, now to the possible mistake.  While it may have been intentional, I think it is probably an example of getting so into the details of working on a painting that you forget to step back occasionally and let it rest.  Here's a detail of it.


The arm holding the drummer seems to disappear.  We ought to be able to see the rest of the forearm and elbow behind the violin and the hand on the violin's neck.  Now, that shape below the violin is a nice bit of negative space, and I think it helps us read the figure overall.  It's possible that Sadlos left it like that because filling it in would be visually confusing.  Still, I find the disappearing arm to be jarring.  I didn't actually notice it until I'd been looking at the picture for a while, so at least for me it wasn't immediately obvious.  The easiest fix, I think, would be to have some cloud behind the violin but obscuring the part of the far arm that forms an edge with the violin's neck.  Then I'd darken the negative space below the violin some to suggest vague forms back there but nothing definite.

The Elements

To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  The musician's face and violin are the piece's focus.  A secondary focus doesn't actually appear - the title and artist's logo.  The conductor's baton, though, points to where it would go.

Composition and Design: Sadlos arranges the picture with a series of triangles that keep our eyes moving around the picture.  Also, the brightest area of the image appears just above (and overlapping) the musician's head, right where the title and logo would appear.  One other thing - it's an interesting point of view.  Where might we be, observing this scene?

Palette:  Cool greens and greys, with areas of spot saturation to frame the lower part of the painting (the jungle) and the musician's head.  The violin also has some saturation and has the most notable warm color in the painting.  That draws our eyes to it and makes it pop.

Value: Dark overall, though a few specific highlights on the musician contribute to the wet, humid atmosphere.  Sadlos uses values to define the musician's form.  The bottom jungle is dark and forms a semicircle around the musician - a frame for him.  The clouds above the musician are brighter and draw our eyes to the musician's face and the logo area.

Mass:   The musician in particular look solid and heavy.  It's not just the values that make this happen, though they do most of the work.  The rock texture, crags, and cracks effectively convey stone, and therefore solidity.

Texture:  Lots of textures going on here.  Compare the textures of these different areas: musician's body, jungle canopy, violin, saxophone, and clouds.  They all work together to add realism and a humid, sticky atmosphere.

Symbolism:  The most obvious symbolism to me is a reference to the multi-armed Hindu gods.  The setting and background pyramid, though, suggest a Mayan, central-American setting.  Because it's a CD cover for a multi-instrumental musician, the instruments probably match those that the musician plays.

Micro/Macro: The jungle canopy is a great example of using spot details over a texture to create a realistic looking setting.  Sadlos doesn't go in and try to paint every leaf of every plant - that way lies madness.  There are enough detailed plants, though, that our eyes fill in the rest.

Ornament: Not a lot to speak of, but I'm sure the musician's name and CD title will have some.

Narrative: Not a strong one, but we do wonder things like whether this musician was built or is supernatural?  Is it still, moving very slowly, or moving in real time?  What did the Mayans have to do with this?

Juxtaposition:  There are many indications that the musician has been in that exact pose for many, many years.  Yet, the pose is fluid and music is associated with time.  I keep wanting to assume that the stone musician is playing in real time, and that contradiction makes the picture for me.

Stylization: It's a mostly realistic painting with texture and impressionistic touches in the jungle.

Character: I have no idea of the stone musician's face resembles that of the actual musician, but it wouldn't surprise me.  It's got a great expression and the hair style adds to the character.  

Tension: I'd call this a peaceful picture.  If the musician is in fact a statue, then not much is about to happen next.

Line: There are relatively few clear, high-contrast edges in the picture.  I think that adds to the misty, humid atmosphere.

Research/Reference:  I'm not certain, but wouldn't be at all surprised if Sadlos used a series of reference photographs of the musician holding different instruments.  It's one of the ways I'd have approached it.

Vignette: The pure silhouette is a little difficult to read, but the with the values added the figure easily resolves into the seven handed musician.

Perspective: Given the setting, Sadlos doesn't need to use vanishing points and other elements of geometric perspective.  Instead, he relies on relative sizes and atmospheric perspective to make us see the scale and space in the painting.

Next week I'll be doing an illustration by Arthur Rackham (assuming I get the book from Amazon in time).  About time, yes?
  • Listening to: 30 Seconds to Mars
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Super smash bros. brawl
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
Snake Women by Boris Vallejo, copyright 1980.  From his book Mirage.
This analysis copyright 2010 by Scott M. McDaniel.

The Image


When I decided to do a Vallejo picture here I asked my Facebook friends list what kind of cheese they thought best represented his art.  Answers were generally high-end or gourmet: Raclette, Manchego, Pont-l'Évêque, Gouda.  Someone threw out "processed cheese food," but I think I'd have to go with Havarti.  I like Havarti.  And the cheese enthusiast in me likes Vallejo.  He's the first artist I learned to identify based on style alone.

Unfortunately I can't find a link, but I once saw a cartoon with a woman in a +5 chain mail bikini.  She had half a dozen arrows stuck in the chinks on her bosom, and she was saying how glad she was she wore her armor.  (I think it was in a Dragon magazine.)  Anyway, Vallejo epitomizes that barely-there style of fantasy clothing.  It fails in providing warmth or protection, but it allows publishers to put naked babes and guys on book covers without being sued.  I also think it dovetailed with Vallejo's love of painting the ideal human form.  This painting, Snake Women, is from his book Mirage.  Here he dispenses with the chain mail bikini level entirely to create fantasy erotica.

The Composition
I'm going to get into more specifics of style shortly, but first lets start with the basics of the composition.  The image is a vignette that shows three snake women, apparently identical.  The basic shape is a triangle with the middle woman's head at the top and the mass of snakes at the bottom as the base.  


As a vignette there is a hint of background, but this picture isn't part of a larger scene or narrative.  It's a character study.  As such, Vallejo sets up several pathways to guide our eyes from snake-person to snake-person.  The tallest woman's hands take us directly to the women on either side, and their poses generally guide us across the picture to each other.  The one exception is the arm of the woman on the left.  It points down and left, out of the painting.  It's certainly necessary for balance in the pose, though, and it's not that hard to get back into the main painting.

The Values and Color
This is a very dark painting.  Take a look at the greyscale version:


Vallejo also goes with a narrow color palette:


He ranges from yellow to reds, with just a couple of purples.  What is remarkable, though, is how much saturation he uses.  This is the most saturated image I've analyzed up to this point.  The dark, intense reds create a mood of danger and give us an other-worldly, hellish setting.  

The subject matter reinforces the hellish mood - snakes symbolize danger and cunning.  Not only is there the serpent in the garden of Eden, but snakes can also be physically dangerous.  The combination of color and snakes puts us on our guard, and I'd say even the posture of the snake women provide warning.  It's a little too inviting.  The open arms and gorgeous women are an invitation, of course, and that conflict is what Vallejo is playing with here.  It's the central concept of the painting.  Not all erotica is safe and romantic - the danger can be a turn on.

The Style
Wikipedia refers to Vallejo's "hyper-representational paintings."  The style appeals to me in part because I like the contrast between fantastical creatures and realistic painting.  A heavily stylized picture of these same snake women wouldn't carry the same impact.  Imagine a Picasso version of them.  We'd be so focused on the style and shapes that we'd only get to the snake women later, once we parsed the picture.  So much for the sense of danger and wonder.

So what is it that makes this painting classically "Vallejo"?  Here are some elements that I see repeated over and over again in his work:

  • Realistic modeling of form and volume
  • Smooth painting - that is, no visible brush strokes or lines
  • High color saturation
  • Minimal or absent clothing
  • Fantasy anatomy - whether muscles or curves the bodies are his idea of perfect
  • Spot-on anatomy - he loves to paint the human form and he is good at it
  • Contemporary hair and make-up styles
  • Neutral or de-emphasized facial expressions
  • Pin-up postures, often dramatic
  • Combination of human and animal forms, drawing heavily on mythology and fantasy

When I say pin-up postures, what I mean is that often it seems as if the figures are carefully posed and often aware of being watched.  In this case, the snake women are aware of the viewer and want us to look at them.  (I keep hearing Madonna's "Vogue" in my head.)  Vallejo does action illustrations too, of course, but even those have a quality of the posture being arranged more to show off the body than to convey the action.  While I don't know him, my guess is that this part of his style reflects what he enjoys painting.

It's interesting to look through the pictures on his site and watch how he handles facial expressions.  The expressions in this painting are typical of his late '70's and early '80's work.  You either see neutral, slightly come-hither looks or expressions that are inward-focused: closed-eyes and blissing out on sensation.  




There are exceptions, like A Season at Brighton that shows he can certainly paint expression.  You can also see a wider range of expression in his more recent work.  Again, this part of his style probably comes from what he's more interested in painting.

I'll comment on just one other part of Vallejo's style.  Mythology and folklore loves to take different animals and mash them together, as in the griffin or Pegasus.  People are no exception, and the combination of person with animal immediately puts us in a fantastic, mythological frame of mind.  Vallejo drew on Nagas for this image, or perhaps the lamia.  To someone who paints anatomy like Vallejo does, the puzzles of fitting together human forms with animal ones must present some awfully fun challenges.



Notice how many aspects of his style have nothing to do with actual drawing or painting technique.  Most of them are in his choice of subject matter and approach to the image itself.  I often find Vallejo's choices to be unabashedly cheesy, but awfully fun nevertheless.

The Elements

To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  The snake woman in the center is the focus.

Composition and Design: There are two basic loops in play, and the snake woman in the middle as part of both of them.  The overall shape is a triangle, and it's framed by the semicircle border at the top.

Palette:  Red, and highly saturated.

Value: It's a very dark painting, but within the limited range Vallejo uses value to effectively create mass and volume.

Mass:   The snake women have weight and presence.  The painting would not work if they didn't.

Texture:  The painting is smooth and realistic.  Look at the texture of the snake scales in the detail above.

Symbolism:  I mentioned the naga and lamia possibilities, as well as the biblical associations that snakes have.  There might be an allusion to the Trinity or the three fates, but that's probably stretching it.

Micro/Macro: I see the most detail in the snake scales and the transitions from snake to human.  The actual skin has little detail, and of course there's not a mole or birthmark to be found.  That would be just... weird.

Ornament: Vallejo often uses ornamental and graphic design as part of his work, but there's not much of it here.  The semicircle at the top serves that kind of function, though subtly.

Narrative: This isn't really the illustration of a specific scene, but we can certainly wonder how we, the viewer, got to this place.  If we actually accepted the invitation from these three, would it end as badly as I suspect?

Juxtaposition:  Not only is the human/animal combination interesting by itself, but Vallejo purposefully gives us something creepy associations combined with something quite attractive.  In the end, I think that serves to increase the creepiness.  

Stylization: I addressed this above, but I'll point you to this picture to see another example of his style.  How many of the stylistic elements I listed above do you find in it?

Character: The three women above are more like archetypes than specific individuals.

Tension: The tension between danger and beauty is this painting's core concept.

Line: No lines in the sense of Mucha or Moore, but Vallejo uses crisp and clear edges where he needs to and lets things get ill defined in other places, like the mass of snakes.

Research/Reference:  I believe that Vallejo carefully lights and poses his models.  It's one of the reasons we don't see many mid-air leaps in his paintings.  In this case it wouldn't surprise me if he actually went to India and got some nagas to pose for him.

Vignette: Strong poses and a focus on the characters make this a compelling vignette.

Perspective: Perspective is not a major part of this painting.  The background is misty and indistinct.

That's it for this time.  Next up will be Seven Handed Musician, from Deviant Art.  It's also back to my weekly schedule, assuming the minor life-upheavals are done for now.
  • Listening to: Mago de Oz
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Super smash bros. brawl
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell, 1964
This analysis copyright Scott M. McDaniel, 2010

The Image

Larger Version

Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras. I really didn't realize until I got into the school that something else was going on.  - Ruby Bridges Hall

On November 14, 1960 federal marshals escorted Ruby Hall to her first day of kindergarten.  She was the only black child to attend the school, and after entering the building she and her mother went to the principal's office while the white parents came in and took their children out.  Thereafter she was the only student in her class.  You can read more about the story at the link above or at her entry in Wikipedia.

Norman Rockwell painted this picture for Look magazine.  Though J. C. Leyendecker did more covers for the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell is best known for his long run with them.  Their art direction and editorial guidelines constrained his work, however, and after his last painting for them in 1963 he moved in a more socially outspoken direction, and Look was buying.  In this analysis I'll look at what makes this very simple painting so powerful.

Black and White
A good illustration needs a clear silhouette.  Rockwell certainly provides us with one.  In the greyscale version of the picture below, we can see that Rockwell gave her far and away the highest contrast.  He does this partly by giving her a white dress, even though she probably wasn't wearing one at the time.  Whenever we illustrate actual events we have to balance accurate depiction of event with the needs of the picture.  Here I think the white dress serves several purposes, one of which is creating an area of high contrast that draws our eyes to Ruby first.


Ruby's white dress works with her dark skin to create the high contrast and to create the silhouette that all by itself communicates the idea of a walking African American schoolgirl.  Rather than painting her figure all with dark tones or all with light ones, he instead gives her the extremes of the values range.  Everything else appears in the mid-tones, including the marshals.  Ruby pops out of the painting at us because she's the most interesting thing in the painting values-wise.

I'm not going to go into color palette and choices very much, but I do want to point out how Rockwell uses saturation.  If he makes Ruby the focus of the painting using values, he guides our eyes around the painting with saturation.  Here is the painting with the areas of high saturation highlighted.


Everything is greyscale except for the areas inside the ovals, which I left as they appear in the painting.  Look at the yellow armbands.  It may appear that I dropped the color out of the sleeves around them, but I didn't.  Rockwell gave just a few well placed areas of intense color and kept everything else desaturated.  Now let's look at the path our eyes take around the picture.


My eye starts at A.  Like I said before, this is the highest contrast place in the painting.  Not only that, it has a person's face, which also draws the attention.  Because of the interplay between Ruby's skin and the dress, as well as the edges formed by the marshal to the left, my eye travels down the figure and back up.  That completes a basic loop, and we may follow that several times.

Once we've taken in Ruby herself, the values and contrast have done their job.  Now the color saturation takes over and we head into a widening spiral.  First up, we see the yellow marshal armbands at B.  See how they're arranged to keep our eye moving down and left?  From B, we follow the marshal's figure down, with both the folds in the fabric and his leg position redirecting us from the left back to the right.

From C, we can either look back at Ruby again or continue across the painting to the trailing marshals.  Once that happens, we see the splattered tomato and the yellow marshal armband, both areas of high color saturation.  Once we're up at the armband, the splatter on the wall at D draws us back across the painting, to the racial slur, and to Ruby.

The colors, values, and composition of this painting are all simple.  They keep the picture clear so that Rockwell can focus on the real points of the painting: illustrating an event and attacking racism.  Just because these things are done simply, however, doesn't mean that they're done without thought and consideration.  Here is the golden section grid overlaid on the painting.  Where does Ruby appear?


Sometimes artists use the golden section consciously and other times their natural sense of design leads them to it unconsciously.  Though not certain, I believe Rockwell used the ratio consciously, putting Ruby where he did because it's on the left golden section line.  One reason I say this is that the picture's aspect ratio itself is the golden ratio.  That is, the scan I used is 2000 pixels wide and 1481 pixels tall.  2600 / 1481 is 1.62, the golden ratio.

Message and Symbolism
Symbolism pretty much has to smack me upside the head for me to notice it.  In The Problem We All Live With, I think ideas are pretty out in the open.  The use of the word "nigger" on the wall and the "KKK" to the left of the lead marshal clearly make this a painting about race and relations.  Not only do they set context, I believe they help us identify with Ruby.  She's the visual focus of the painting, and she's also the only person we can see all of.  It's natural to wonder what it must have been like to walk past those words - to have tomatoes thrown at us.


I take several points from the depiction of the marshals.  They're faceless; representing an institution.  Yes, they're protecting her, but they also box her in.  Visually they frame her and define her space, just as they do conceptually.  In this painting it is the white people who both keep her safe and keep her in a box.  Personally, I like the fact that Rockwell doesn't treat the marshals as heroes.  Consider how in the movie Avatar it's the Na'vi who are oppressed by humans, but it's a white human who becomes the focus of the picture. It would have been quite racist indeed to make the marshals the focus of the event instead of the girl.


<img src="…" alt="Rockwell-DetailSpatter" title="Rockwell-DetailSpatter"  />

The Elements

To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  Ruby is the focus of the painting.  Rockwell uses values to make her so.

Composition and Design: The painting is a golden rectangle, and Ruby is on the left golden section of that rectangle.  There are strong horizontals and verticals.  The simplicity of the composition serves the message.

Palette:  Yellows and greys dominate with the tomato as a spot red.  Rockwell uses a few spots of high saturation to guide our eye.

Value: Ruby is the focus, and Rockwell does this by giving her the brightest and darkest values.  Everything else is a mid-tone.

Mass:   Rockwell uses shading to define mass.  He also makes Ruby seem small in comparison to the marshals by contrasting their size.

Texture:  I love the texture in the wall and the sidewalk particularly.

Symbolism:  As I said earlier, the white figures visually block Ruby in, both protecting her and constraining her at the same time.  Ruby is not the one with power here.

Micro/Macro: Rockwell keeps the details sparing but telling.  The tomato.  The graffiti.  The integration order in the lead marshal's pocket.  Ruby's schoolbooks.  There is no detail that doesn't add to the story.

Ornament: There is no ornament for visual flair or style.  That would get in the way of the message, so Rockwell doesn't include it.

Narrative: The painting depicts an actual event.  The details reinforce the narrative, but it carries extra resonance for people from the U.S.

Juxtaposition:  The immediate juxtaposition is Ruby's size as compared to the marshals.  There is also a contrast in the way Ruby is personalized while the marshals are depersonalized and represent institutions of both racism and attempts by the government to end racism.

Stylization: Rockwell goes realistic.  It's not quite as cartoony as some of his covers for the Saturday Evening Post, but it's recognizably his style.

Character: We feel strong empathy for the girl, and we also admire her calm.

Tension: The tomato, the graffiti, and the need for marshals in the first place all point to the tension of the situation.

Line: Rockwell uses clear, distinct edges.

Research/Reference:  This site shows several studies and sketches, as well as a girl posing as a model for the painting.

Vignette: The vignette is simple and strong, and it supports the message.  

Perspective: Perspective is the illusion of space and depth.  The lines of the sidewalk go to a common vanishing point, and the size and relationships of the figures also define the space.

Next week, we'll shift gears completely and look at a mirage by Boris.
  • Listening to: Oysterband
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Super smash bros. brawl
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
The Steampunk Harem, by Aly Fell, copyright 2009.
This analysis copyright 2010 by Scott M. McDaniel.

The Image


The website has, among other things, an activity called "Character of the Week."  In November of 2009, one of the topics was "Steampunk Harem."  Participants have one week to produce a painting from scratch that satisfies the brief, which for this one was:

They are pampered and preened for the Sultan and Sultana. Doused with pungent oils, washed with lavender and cinnamon scented perfumes, their skins perfect and their complexions refined and painted to reflect the whim of their master and mistress.

They are treated with respect and adoring attention, but they are prisoners; birds in a gilded-cage. They are the concubines of the king and queen, the harem slaves of oriental fantasy. But the world these particular chattels inhabit is a Steampunk world.

This week design a Steampunk harem boy or girl. Either gender, it’s up to you; and environment is also at your own discretion. This harem is fantasy, and we suggest looking at odalisques and Victorian Orientalist painting as inspiration, but keep in mind their costume and world they inhabit is Steampunk.

I'm familiar with Aly Fell (aka Poshspice) from his long-time participation in the Character of the Week activities, and he is one of the current moderators.  This is the painting he did for the activity, and in addition to capturing the brief I think it's a fine example of the classic pinup.  For this analysis, I'll look at several things, including what makes something a pinup, composition and rhythm, and the role of details in creating a finished piece.

Composition and Rhythm
OK, here's a smaller version of the picture with a lot of stuff packed into it:


Stage 1: Blank Grey.  We're about to look at how Fell uses the silhouette and frames the figure with it.  So, next up is...

Stage 2: The dark frame.  The curtains are dark and they create a frame in which Fell will put his figure.  Even at this stage look at how our eyes are drawn to the contrast and basic foreground shape created by the frame.

Stage 3: The light frame.  When is the last time you saw a waning gibous moon in an illustration?  Circles are a classic framing device to draw our attention to something.  Here it's not a moon, of course, but rather a bright porthole window framing a beautiful woman.  A bright circle is a simple, pleasing shape.  It also gives Fell a way to create some high contrast and bring our attention to the figure inside.

Stage 4: The silhouette.  So the figure now has our attention what with all that framing.  From just the silhouette we can easily tell that it's a woman and see that she is sitting/leaning.  The arms are little more ambiguous.  One of them doesn't appear in the silhouette at all, and the other is partially obscured by the curtain.  Overall, though, we've clearly identified the woman her posture, and even her basic attitude.

Stage 5: Alternating Value.  Like Howard Pyle, Fell sets up a rhythm of light and dark that alternates between each.  At a large scale you don't see something dark next to something even darker.

Stage 6: Alternating Values Part 2.  This is to let you see that alternating pattern in the actual picture.

Something else to notice is the simplicity of the overall layout and composition.  It recalls J.C. Leyendecker's Couple Descending a Staircase.  The basic layout is a sweeping curve moving downward and to the left.  Aside from the woman's pose, the shapes of the curtains and bed also move us that way.  Before our eye leaves the painting, however, we end up going back up the woman's leg.  Her shoe comes a little close to edge of the painting for my taste, but doesn't touch it.


Let's take a look at the values too.  Here is the picture with saturation dropped to zero.


Even the framing window is not actually that bright.  The brightest parts are the highlights on her goggles and other machinery.  Aside from adding depth, putting the highlights there and, for example, on the gear mid-thigh brings our attention to the steampunk nature of the setting.  The brightest spot I found had a brightness of 94% (on her goggles).  The sky behind her, though, is around 65-70%.

Now that we've looked at values, try looking back up at the main version and looking at where Fell put his most saturated colors.

The Pinup Formula
Here's my developing theory of what makes a good pinup.  (At some point I'll do one of these for Alberto Vargas and revise it further.)

Simple, graphical composition. The curtains above form a basic arc in this picture, and then the window puts a nice clean circle around the woman's head.  Pinups aren't the place to get creative with compositions - keep it simple.  

Clear silhouette. We've got to be able to easily read the picture and separate figure (the person) from background.  Silhouette is critical to that, and we should be able to tell the person's shape, posture, and attitude just from the silhouette.

Revealing Pose. But not too revealing.  We should clearly see the shape of legs, hips, chest, or back.  We're not talking about what I've seen figure photographers refer to as an "open leg pose" - we're not giving away the store.  The level of clothing varies, but it will always show off the figure.

Self-conscious Pose.  In this picture the woman isn't looking at us, but in many pinup paintings she is.  Regardless, the person is aware of being watched on some level and is giving us an exaggerated posture that shows off the physique.  Sometimes the model breaks the fourth wall and flirts with us directly.  Other times, like in The Steampunk Harem, we see a melodramatic pose of the damsel in distress.

Certain Type of Physique. For pinups of women, we usually see a person who is voluptuous and curvy.  She's at least moderately endowed and in her 20's or 30's.  Makeup will be obviously present (red lips, mascara).  (Whether or not that's what the artist finds sexy is irrelevant in a way.)  Hair will usually be styled and between shoulder and back length.  That's certainly what we've got in this painting.  See the Mucha analysis for another example.  I'm sure there is a similar formula for men.

The Details
I mentioned how pinups should be simple.  Sometimes there is only the barest suggestion of a background, like Vargas' cover to the Cars album Candy-O.  Steampunk, on the other hand, calls for gears and machinery and intricate patterns.  Fell had to keep things simple but still provide enough of the fine detail that we'd see the steampunk in the situation.

His composition is simple and pure pinup.  To keep from overwhelming the picture, he chose to put just about all of the steampunk details on the figure with the exception of the gears on the floor tiles.  The style of the porthole and the fact that we're in an airship also feeds the steampunk atmosphere.  Other details come from the orientalist painting tradition, like the trim along the bottom of the bed, the translucent curtains, and the hookah.

Here is an example of the detail we can see in the head and shoulders.  Compare the level of detail to the pillows and bed linen below.



(Am I the only one that finds the idea of a pierced upper arm just a bit unsettling?)

When it comes right down to it, even the hair net, gears, collar, and hand-thing look more complicated than they are.  The simplicity in them fits the pinup idea.  Like all Character of the Week drawings, Fell only had a week do this, so only a certain level of detail is possible.  Even so, the glove appears intricate though it's composed of simple cylinders and circles.  The key is to pick the right details and let the viewer mentally fill in others.

Here are two more details that I'll toss out because I think they're cool.  The corset and hips are neat:


Finally, don't miss Fell's signature in the lower right corner:


The Elements
To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  As with all pinups, there is only one focus and it's on the figure.

Composition and Design: Fell keeps the composition clean and simple, framing the figure with both light and dark shapes.

Palette:  Warm reds and browns take up most of the picture.  The sky through the window gives a nice cool accent from the complementary blue.

Value: Not as bright as I'd first thought.  It's a dark to mid-tone painting for the most part, which bright highlights reserved for only a few key details.

Mass:   Fell gets a nice sense of volume through values, lighting, and shadow placement.

Texture:  I like the textures we see on the floor and the pillows particularly.  They're subtle but help keep things from feeling too slick.

Symbolism:  Consider the shape and placement of the hookah?  Conscious?  I don't know, but pinups generally aren't known for subtlety.  Or maybe my mind's just in the gutter.

Micro/Macro: Fell does a good job of giving us just the right details.  A moorish geometric pattern on the bedsheets may make logical sense but would just confuse our eyes.

Ornament: It's steampunk.

Narrative: Pinups tend to be light on narrative, but that doesn't mean story is absent.  We see she is on an airship, and her pose and expression indicate Hollywood-style distress.

Juxtaposition:   The color and placement of the window contrast with the figure.

Stylization: How often do you see a mix of pinup, orientalist painting, and steampunk?

Character: Pinups aren't about plumbing the depths of the soul.  They paint with broad strokes, so we get a broad impression of the woman's character based on posture and costume.

Tension: Well, there's that distress I mentioned.  I somehow doubt she's about plunge to her doom.  A dark and mysterious sultan from high pulp tradition is likely in her future, though.

Line: The clearest edges are around the woman and window.  The further we get from the focus the less defined the edges need to be.

Research/Reference:  Since he posted the topic in the first place, I know that Fell looked for and pointed the participants to resources involving both steampunk and orientalist painting.

Vignette: We see background but the silhouette is clear.  

Perspective: Perspective is not a major part of the painting.  Most of the painting is midground, with only clouds and sky in the distance.

That's it for this (belated) analysis.  I'm going to take this weekend off to deal with some other art related things that have come up and will be back the following weekend.
  • Listening to: Marillion
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Super smash bros. brawl
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
THD, by Ian Miller.  Copyright Ian Miller.
This analysis copyright 2010 by Scott M. McDaniel

The Image


Last week I told how Ian Miller pointed me to Albrecht Dürer.  He had a table at the first Illuxcon and had some of his fantastic ink drawings on display.  It was great to be able to get up close to see just what was going on, because unlike most comics inking you couldn't really see the individual lines until you got up close.  For example, I remember looking at Castles for quite a while.

I'd like to thank him for providing a high resolution version of THD for the analysis.  I first saw it on his web site, and he was kind enough to send a version I could use to take detail images.  THD is an ink drawing, but then he colored it, I'm guessing with watercolor.  I'll go into the color choices and linework, but I'll also touch on the composition, concept, and ways he guides our eyes through the picture.

The Composition
Before diving into the linework and detail images, let's look at the design of the image.  Great execution in any medium doesn't matter if the picture itself doesn't work.  The first thing to do is pull the color out and look at the arrangement of lights and darks.


The first thing I looked at in the image was the face of the... thing... underground.  Often what we look at first is the area of highest contrast, but there are two reasons I saw the face before the tree above it.  First, as people we're primed to see faces, and our eyes go to them before most other things.  Second, I saw it on Miller's web site on the artwork page.  It's the middle thumbnail in the second row.  Because I'd already seen that part of the picture, once I clicked through I was primed to look for and recognize that part it.

More of the picture is dark than light.  The exception is the sky around the tree that's above ground.  There's still plenty of variation, but that tree is the thing with the clearest silhouette.  In the version below I started at the tree since it's the object of highest contrast.  To show how values (brightness) guide us around the picture, I've plotted the course that my eyes take from there.


In this version, I've simplified the greyscale version down even further.  We see only black, white, and mid-level grey.  Even broken down that much we clearly see what's going on.  Starting at the tree (1), we follow its course down and right, along the ground.  As we get to the right side of the picture, a closer tree (2) frames the image and guides our eye down.  The tree's root system sets up the first loop, in the middle of which resides the face in the roots (3).

As we spin out of that loop we enter another one created by the root systems and rock formations (4) of the ground.  The center of this loop is empty save for the claw that probably (?) belongs to the creature we just looked at.  Coming out of that loop, the downward slope of the ground takes us over to the lower left part of the picture, where another framing tree (5) brings us back up above ground.  Finally the denuded canopy brings us back to where we began.

The other aspect of THD's design I'll touch on is the golden section grid.  I think most artists use the golden section concept unconsciously.  Some, like Terry Moore use it explicitly.  I could see an argument either way for THD.  Several elements line up perfectly with the grid, but others don't.


We can see that the horizon lies exactly on the upper golden section.  Then there's the left side of the tree above ground - that lines up with the left golden section.  The big guy underground is ambiguous, though.  The face itself doesn't lie on any of the grid lines, though it's close to the lower line.  Neither is there anything in particular at the grid's intersection points.  My guess, then, is that Miller's years of design experience led to him creating this naturally.  That is, without actually overlaying the grid or figuring out the exact measurements needed.  Still, I'd only bet the price of a cup of coffee on that.

The Lines
Let's shift gears.  We've been looking at THD as a whole.  Now let's zoom way in to see how Miller is getting these values and defining his forms.  I'll go ahead and get this out of the way now: yes, there's an insane amount of detail work.  How can he possibly do that?  Won't he go blind?

For example, let's look at the roots/tentacles around the creature's face:


Yes, he drew each tentacle.  Then, he hatched each one with simple C's.  The spacing and thickness of those lines establish value, while their curve defines the form and turns them from flat wiggles into tubes.  Or look at the rock formation to our left of the critter.  Miller uses cross hatching and line direction to establish form and shading there.

While I'm not completely sure, I think that Miller probably did most of this drawing in ink first and only then went back to add color.  To get an idea of what that might have looked like, I tried to remove the color and leave the black parts of the drawing in this next detail.  It shows the claw that probably belongs to that face.  Here is the color version, followed by the black and white simulation of the ink-only image.



The second detail here is a reasonable approximation of what Miller's inkwork looked like to me in person.  I'll come back to color more later.  Here, I think it's interesting that Miller uses a contour line around the claws but doesn't use them around the roots and rocks right next to it.  That helps the claws stand out - we should notice them before we notice some random roots.  Not even the toes behind the claws have them.  Miller is sparing with contour lines.

Why, then, can we clearly see the change in planes on the rock surface next to the claws?  He gives each facet its own hatching direction.  Sometimes we see a slight curve to the lines that define form.  Other times the lines are straight.  For darker values he cross hatches in 2 or 3 directions.  Line thickness also comes into play - the lines on the left side of the claws are thicker than the same lines on the top side.

Here is an example of a face on the right-most tree.


This is another example of lines following the form of an object.  The lines around the mouth, for example, remind me of Doré's linework.  The forehead has an interesting mix of curved lines that suggest the form and straight horizontal lines that don't.  Something else to notice here is that Miller didn't do all of the hatching work in black.  The grooves on the right side have lines that are green, as does the face's cheek.  These lines are lower contrast than black lines would be, so they help define form while reducing the impression of shade and darkness.

Now let's look at something I didn't notice until I saw the larger version of the picture.


These people stand at the foot of the upper tree.  It dwarfs them.  Completely.  Suddenly the tree and creature beneath it take on a completely different scale.  Miller just uses silhouette to suggest them, but they still have a lifelike gesture (posture).    Like the last detail image, we can see green hatching here as well.  It also shows a good example of how Miller handles the finer parts of the tree branches.

Finally, here is a close up of the creature in the lower left corner of the picture.  See if you can pick out the lines that suggest the creatures form.  How about the straight hatching lines that contribute to shading but not form?


The Colors
We've looked at the colored hatching lines above, but what about the larger role of color?  A quick look shows that greens and blues dominate.  What's your impression of how Miller uses brightness and saturation?  Did you notice the small bits of red that show up in the creatures' eyes?

Those trace amounts of red as an accent color complete a triad on the color wheel.  I sampled the picture down to 32 colors and plotted them on the color wheel below.  You can get a sense of the brightness by each dot.  The dots closer in to the center are less saturated, tending toward grey.  The ones toward the outside are more saturated, vibrant.


It's easy to see the trend on the wheel from blue to green.  For the most part the saturation is at the 50% mark or below.  I find that interesting because I look at the picture and find it to be pretty saturated.  More of the colors are dark than light, also.  By putting lines around the dots we can see the triad that Miller used.  While I doubt that he sat down and thought, "I'm going to use a triad today!" that's the color scheme that he ended up with.  My guess is that he instinctively knew that a deep red was the right accent color to use with the green and blue scheme of the picture.  Yellow, while bright, wouldn't have balanced the blue and green nearly as well.  It would also produce a much narrower triangle on the color wheel.

The Elements
To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  It's a landscape, and the focus is on the tree above ground and the creature with the root/tentacle system underground.

Composition and Design: There is a clear path for our eyes through the painting.  Some elements of it line up exactly with the golden sections, while others don't.

Palette:  Blues and greens, with the accent color (red) balancing the two of them on the color wheel.  It's got moderate saturation and wide range of light and dark values.

Value: Miller controls value mostly through his hatching and lines.

Mass:   Often the hatching lines indicate the volume of the objects.  Miller uses thickness, spacing, direction, and color of the lines to get subtle effects.

Texture: The detailed linework gives us a consistent texture throughout the work.  Even when reduced to the point where we can't see individual lines they combine to produce a distinctive look.  

Symbolism:  I'm not really sure.  Since I don't know the original context I can only guess.  It's got enigmatic symbols, how's that?

Micro/Macro: Miller is certainly one for the detail work.  This micro/macro concept is about knowing which details to leave out and which ones to include.  For now I'll just mention the pair of people at the base of the tree.  I mentioned that above.  There are also two more people in the lower section, who I didn't show.  This one small thing makes us re-evaluate the scale of the entire picture.

Ornament: It's easy to get lost in the finely rendered plants and rocks and trees.

Narrative: I don't see a specific story in this one picture, but there is certainly a mood of foreboding.  Dark things move beneath the bright surface world.

Juxtaposition: Speaking of dark things and bright surfaces, that juxtaposition of light and dark parts is what this picture is all about.  

Stylization: Miller's style is distinctive for both his fine and precise linework as well as a certain viewpoint.  See his artwork page for more examples of what I mean, but it should hardly surprise you to know that he has done many covers and illustrations for Lovecraft stories.  

Character: The creatures we see in this painting seem more like forces than specific individuals.  It's the landscape itself that has the character.

Tension: When and how will the darkness underneath come into the open?  How will it affect the tree above and the people's world?

Line: Miller's lines provide texture, values, and form.  The one thing Miller doesn't use them for extensively is outline.

Research/Reference:  I don't know, but my guess is that Miller did not use much reference for this.  He knows his plants (real and imagined) as well as his geology.

Vignette: The real silhouette for us to see is the central tree.  As a landscape, vignette is not a major part of the painting.

Perspective: There is no need for vanishing points and formal perspective here, but Miller does use atmospheric perspective.  There is a structure of some sort in the far distance.  Also, Miller uses fewer black lines on the central tree.  It's further from our viewpoint than the creatures in the foreground.  He still hatches the tree to define form, it's just that more of the lines are green rather than black.  The reduced contrast pushes the tree further into the distance.

Next week, something by Aly Fell.
  • Listening to: Marillion
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Super smash bros. brawl
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
The Men's Bathhouse, by Albrecht Dürer, 1498
In The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer by Dover Press.
This analysis copyright 2010, Scott M. McDaniel

The Image


Last week I said that this time I'd write about something old.  I hope 1498 qualifies.  Thanks to a timely birthday present from my brother, I'm doing a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, a German painter and engraver best known at the time for his highly skilled prints.  At Illuxcon a couple of years ago I saw some fantastic ink work by Ian Miller, like Trees and Insects.  He was kind enough to do a portfolio review for me, and during the process recommended that I start with Dürer.  So, here we are.

I chose The Men's Bath because we can clearly see the techniques Dürer used in the linework.  This in a medium in which the artist and craftsmen who then cut the blocks had to be aware of and consider every line, every mark.  We'll look at examples of how Dürer handled form of the body, textures like wood and stone, and background elements like buildings and trees.  He used hatching, feathering, and cross-hatching to establish values in what is basically a black and white medium.  While that medium may be woodcut, the principles apply equally well to inking with brush and pen today.

In this print I can see lines fulfilling several purposes:

  • Outline (showing edges)
  • Shading (showing values)
  • Texture (indicating how objects might feel)
  • Form (wrapping around objects)

Let's look at different parts of the print to see how Dürer has combined these purposes.

The People
Three people share the focus.  The first is the musician playing the flute, and the second and third are the men talking in the foreground.  Let's start out by taking a look at the musician.


Dürer surrounds the musician with a dark area so that the contrast with his face and figure makes him stand out.  We can see that the light source is in front of the figures and a bit to our left.  It's a key thing to decide before putting lines down so that he knew where to have the shading.  Look at the musician's arm and biceps on the right side.  We see a heavy line defining the outline.  In the right side of the arm, that line is crisp and clear on the arm side but a little less clear on the background side.  Also, we can see that the forearm is in front of the biceps because its line occludes (interrupts) the line of the biceps.  So, based on line weight and occlusion we're already getting a sense of form.

Now for the shading.  Dürer uses feathering to build up shadow.  Feathering (also called hatching) is a series of lines parallel to each other that, when viewed from a distance, combine to form grey.  Now, the darkness of that grey depends on how thick those lines are and how close together they are.  The musician's pectoral muscle on the chest is pretty dark because it is both in the shadow side generally and also under a shadow cast by the forearm.  So it's lines are thick and close together.  Compare that to the feathering on the forearm, where the lines are thinner and further apart.

The hatching does double duty because it lets Dürer show the form of the arm and chest there.  He curves the lines so that they seem to wrap around the forms, almost like a contour map.  This is a bedrock technique that's used extensively in comics today.  We'll look at more examples of it here shortly.  Finally, the musician's beard and cap are examples of how Dürer used lines for texture.

Let's also look at one of the men in conversation.


We can easily see the outline around him.  On the right side of the rib cage we see a thick line with a white line just inside it.  Since the hatching lines don't come right up to the outline, we see a little bit of reflected light.  Outlines aren't just for the outside of the figure, though.  This kind of line symbolizes an edge, and we can see lots of internal edges.  As artists we have to decide which internal things merit a line and which don't.  Some of the things Dürer chose to give lines to include the eyes, mouth, nose, jawline, nipples, and veins in the hand.  He chose not to put down a single line for the cheekbone but instead used light hatching.

Like the cheekbone, Dürer handled the borders between muscle groups with shading.  On the figure's left side (toward the light), we have open expanses of white.  The feathering is light, with thin lines.  As before, the lines both provide shadow and describe the muscle's form.  On the right side of the figure, where the shadow is darkest, we see some fine examples of cross hatching.  What I think is neat to note is that even when the areas of hatching intersect to form that cross hatch pattern, each individual set of lines is still describing a form.  On the lower part of that rib cage, for example. the vertical lines show where the rib cage curves down into the abdomen while the horizontal lines show the curvature from the man's side to his mid-line.

Here's another shading technique.  Just above the rib cage's darkest part is some hatching heading up into the chest.  It's basically two columns of horizontal lines, though they don't connect (except for a single line).  There are other examples of close-but-not-touching groups of hatching throughout the print.  There is relatively little texture on this person, but look at his hair wrap on the upper right side.  Perhaps those lines are edges that show each individual fold in the wrap.  As we get to the right side, though, they begin to merge into texture.

The Structures

Speaking of columns of hatching, take a look at the stones of the foreground wall.


On this stone we see outlines of the sides.  The light source is above the blocks, so we see no shading or texture on their upper surfaces.  The surface facing us, though, is in shade.  Overall we see a curved grain to the stone.  Inside that overall grain  the groups of lines give us additional texture.  On the left half of the stone there are what look to be several white lines - they're formed by the border between the groups of feathered lines.  This is one way to get keep the overall grey value the same while still injecting some texture.  Another technique is to change the curvature of the lines, like Dürer does on the left side.

When using all these lines for shading, it's quite easy for everything to just start merging together into ill-defined blobs.  It gets hard to tell the different objects apart.  (I know this from personal experience.)  Thick outlines around objects help with this, but another important technique is to have the hatching lines go in different directions on different objects.  In the detail above, see how the plant's shading lines are generally up-and-down while the stone's shading lines are horizontal?  Parts of the plant are white and therefore easy to see against the stone.  The parts that are in shade, though, have a shadow pattern that clearly differentiates the plant from the stone behind it.

Dürer also gives us some wooden structures, and these show the clearest use of lines that illustrate texture.  The first case is the water pump on the left side of the print.


Here the lines obviously depict not edges but the wood grain itself.  On the side we still see the wood grain pattern but the lines are closer together.  They're not any thicker, but the closer spacing makes the side of the block appear to be more in shadow.  Because the grain also follows the form of the wood, we can also say that these lines are doing triple duty: texture, shading, and form.

(As a side note, I have no idea if the German translation holds, but I wonder if Dürer was throwing in a little joke what with the placement of the water pump's spout next to the person behind it.  It even has a rooster as the handle.  I got a laugh out of it, anyway.)

Now let's look at a more complicated wooden structure, the join of beams in the shelter's roof.


Right here we all four purposes for the lines.  

  • The beams have clear outlines around the edges.  There is an internal edge representing the crack in the beam coming in from the roof.
  • The thick and close lines of the roof thatching provide a dark value, while beams all have light and dark sides according to the light source.
  • We see the lines following the form of the thatching and curving around the beams.  So we don't confuse the structures, the lines on the various beams change direction at the borders between them or at the very least change curvature.
  • The horizontal beam in particular uses rows of feathering to both indicate shade and provide some texture.  We can see that it's a smooth surface overall, but kind of bumpy as well.

The Background


Dürer certainly put a fair amount of detail into the buildings back there.  As it turns out Dürer was one of those interested in perspective theories and did some writing on the topic, but at this point in the Renaissance they were still working out the details.  In this print, anyway, we don't see lines converging on a vanishing point.  Nevertheless we get a good sense of space and distance.

Dürer uses feathering to shade the buildings, and the direction of the hatch lines helps us tell the buildings apart.  Because they're in the distance, though, the objects are more flat than the people and structures in the foreground.  So, we don't see shading lines that curve around the buildings or define forms.  Even further back we see the hillside and trees.  These have no details and only the barest hint of shading.  Though he may not have used the term, that's clearly atmospheric perspective in play.

So, in this background detail we see Dürer using lines for outline and shading, but not form.  Actually, that's not entirely true.  The direction of the shading lines do help us distinguish the buildings' forms.  We can also see texture in the form of the bricks in the far wall and the indication of thatching (that "W" on one of the roofs).

Before wrapping up I wanted to point out that while Dürer is certainly best known for his prints, he was a quite talented and well-rounded artist in other media as well.  Take a look at his gouache and watercolor hare, study for praying hands - more good hatching reference, and his self-portrait.

The Elements
To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  The main focus is on the flute player, which is helped by the contrast with the trees and bushes behind him.  His flute points to the left conversationalist, who we consider next.

Composition and Design: I didn't go into composition, but Dürer's compositions were quite advanced.  Look at the placement of the figures, for example.  There are many triangles, like the one made by the heads of the observer on the left, the flute player, and the left conversationalist.  Then there is the one formed by the two conversationalists and the flute player.  The two musicans and the right conversationalist.  The beer guzzler and the...  Well, you get the idea.  Sometimes objects like the flute or the beer tankard direct our eye, and other times its people's gazes.

Palette:  Black.  Oh, and white too.

Value: Value happens with feathering and occasional cross hatching.  This kind of shading depends on the spacing and weight of the lines as well as a certain distance from the picture.

Mass:   Lines wrap around bodies and structures.  Combined with shading we see volume and mass.

Texture: We see wood, stone, thatch, bricks, plants, and fabric.  All of these have their distinct textures, all accomplished with lines.

Symbolism:  Dürer produced lots of religious work, along with the religious symbolism common at the time.  As others did, he would work local dignitaries into those pictures to enhance their social status.  I'm probably missing things, but this print doesn't seem to have much in the way of symbolism.  It depicts local life.

Micro/Macro: Dürer includes a lot of detail in his prints and in the linework.  Sometimes I have difficulty telling what's going on in a print at first glance.  One of the reasons I chose this one is that we're not overwhelmed with detail and can clearly differentiate the figures.

Ornament: Take a look at Dürer's monogram just above the lower border.  It serves as both an attractive decoration and as a signature.

Narrative: While a relaxed scene, we see various things going on.  It's not a stiff, static scene, and the focus is on the two musicians.

Juxtaposition: I think I already commented on the water pump.  

Stylization: Dürer's linework set the standard for generations to come - his approach obviously still relevant today.  

Character: Each person has distinct personality.  The guy next to the water pump is intriguing, and I imagine that the two men in conversation are discussing local Nuremburg politics.

Tension: There's little tension - it's a relaxed scene.  If you want some tension take a look at some of his depictions of the Apocalypse, like this one of the four horsemen.

Line: They fulfill a variety of functions, as I noted above.

Research/Reference:  I'm not sure.  I did read that outdoor baths like this one were fairly uncommon at the time - it's likely that Dürer was looking for an opportunity to work with landscape and perspective.

Vignette: We can easily see the figures and get an idea of their mood and actions based on posture.  I'm amused by the large guy guzzling his beer.

Perspective: Occlusion and relative sizes do most of the work here, with some atmospheric perspective.  I don't believe he used vanishing points to line things up, however.

That's it for this round.  Next week I'll do something new (compared to 1498), but I'm not sure what yet.  Maybe I'll do a companion piece to this one from Ian Miller.
  • Listening to: Marillion
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Super smash bros. brawl
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
Spewing Rubik's Cubes by Kimberly Hermesch
In The Museum of Bad Art - Masterworks, by Michael Frank and Louise Reilly Sacco.
This analysis copyright Scott M. McDaniel, 2010.

The Image


This painting is... awesome.  It's a great example from the collection of the Museum of Bad Art.  It fills me with wonder.  Among other things I wonder what on earth the artist was thinking.  Because I certainly can't tell from the painting.  It's horrific.  Yet... you can't look away.  Like many pieces of art, this image poses more questions than it answers.  It's a visual train accident that spins our heads on their rubber necks.  Somehow mixed metaphors seem appropriate.  As its source implies, this is one bad painting, and I'll go into why below.  But you know what?  I'm glad somebody made it.

That "somebody," according to MoBA Curator-In-Chief Michael Frank is Kimberly Hermesch.  The museum acquired it at a thrift store in 2007.  In an e-mail, Frank said that after the painting was featured in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine in June of 2008, the following letter appeared in the July 20 edition:

“I am speechless. I just opened the Globe Magazine and saw a painting I made for a co-worker six or seven years ago staring back at me. Not only that, but it won(?) worst of the worst in your reader poll! I completed the piece for a friend who was a master Rubik’s solver. He apparently decided to give it to a thrift store, where it was found by the curator of the Museum of Bad Art…I’m honored. I contacted the museum and spoke to a staffer, who will sign me up as a member. Only fitting considering I’m in the gallery.” Kimberly Hermesch, Watertown, MA

We know in our gut that it's a bad painting the moment we see it.  But why is it bad?  What about it is so bad that it qualifies for the MoBA collection?  Let's see.

The Design
Conventional wisdom has it that when you're doing a painting, viewers should be able to tell the basics of what's going on by the silhouette alone.  It's a core part of the composition.  Let's take a look at the silhouette for the painting.


That's pretty indecipherable - kind of an asymmetrical Rorschach blot.  The cube on the right approaches a recognizable shape, but overall we can't tell what the main figures are based on the silhouette.  Now let's look at the placement of items according to the golden section.


Usually we look for the key items of interest to either appear on the intersections of the four lines here or to clearly take up certain blocks.  The face actually does take up the lower left rectangles here.  It may be pure accident, and it may be that the artist does have enough of a grasp of design to give the face a decent size compared to the rest of the picture.  The other focal point, though, is the largest cube.  It doesn't seem to have any relation to the grid, which makes me think that the placement of the face was a lucky break.  

One problem with that cube is that it forms a tangent with the edge of the painting.  It usually works better if the edge of the picture clearly cuts off the elements that don't fit completely inside.  That way we know there is more to the object outside what we see.  As it is, it looks like the artist started work on the cube without deciding how big it would be.

Let's look at one other aspect of the design: how Koch directs our eyes around the painting.  Many other illustrations that we've looked at are laid out so that our gazes follow edges, contrasts, and objects around the painting in a big loop.  Sometimes there are several interlocking loops.  For examples, see the analyses for Brian Bolland, David Weisner, and Mort Künstler.  Occasionally, though, we do see paintings that direct our eyes off the canvas, like David Mack's.


For "Spewing", I've put a (1) at the place of highest contrast - the face's mouth.  My gaze follows its lower curve and then travels along the arc of cubes (2) to the large cube on the right (3).  Once at the large cube, though, our eyes have no place to go.  Either we keep going off the picture or follow the edge of the cube down past the tangent and off the bottom.  Maybe if we're lucky the horizontal light streak at the bottom will bring us back to the face.  For the most part, though, Koch leaves us stranded on the right edge of the picture.

The Values and Color
Speaking of contrast and eye movement, let's see how it looks in greyscale, with the saturation dropped to zero.


The face of the large cube is darkest, but the contrast is fairly low with its background.  Even though the face's mouth isn't as dark as the cube, the contrast there is greater.  That's why our eyes start over with the face.  Values do the heavy lifting when it comes to defining shape and mass.  Squint your eyes a bit and look at that greyscale version above.  Do you see any shapes?  A square, maybe, though certainly not a cube.  One of the things that makes this a bad painting is that the values are all over the map but don't work to create overall forms.

Most of the paintings I've analyzed use brightness like they're on a tight budget.  That is, more often than not when we sample the colors and plot them on a color wheel only a few are even above 50% brightness.  They're dark paintings with bits of lighter colors in key places to give us the illusion of mass and objects.  The reverse can be true also - if the painting is mostly bright then we'll see a few darker colors here and there to create the illusion.

The problem with it is that its brightness levels are all over the place and are used indiscriminately.  Look at the color wheel here.  I reduced the image to 32 colors and plotted them on the wheel.  The further out a dot is, the brighter it is.  What do you notice?


On balance there are more bright colors than dark ones, but the range is wide.  If I had to give it an average, I'd say it's pretty close to that yellow 50% brightness ring.  That might be OK if Koch had used the lights and darks form cohesive shapes, but no such luck.

In terms of color scheme, Koch seems to have concentrated in the blues and reds.  They are complementary, and that may have been purposeful.  The occasional yellow and green spots, though, keep me from saying that there's a clear color scheme in play.  The chart doesn't explicitly show saturation, but you can see from the colors of the dots that Koch generally went with saturated colors.  As with brightness, it's often best to keep yourself on a strict saturation budget, using it to highlight the areas of focus.

The Perspective
Guidelines of perspective tell us to establish a horizon and then create vanishing points.  As parallel lines recede toward the vanishing point, they converge.  At the very least, parallel lines going away from us should get closer to each other.  Let's look at the cube.


We'd expect the edges of the yellow side of the cube to converge a little bit on the back side.  Instead they get further apart.  We'd also expect the green part of the cube to be a square.  Actually it's a rhombus.  Each cube, in fact, exists in its own dimension of perspective.  Van Gogh's Bedroom is an example of an artist playing with the guidelines of perspective, but in his case it seems purposeful.

The Concept
Here is a detail of the face.


To paraphrase them, not just any bad painting descends to the Museum of Bad Art's low standards.  It's true that the execution of this idea is bad.  But what about the idea itself?  As my daughter might say, "It's so random!"  The word I'd use is "bizarre."  "Enigma" might be good.  It's hard to say exactly what, but there is a hint of a concept there - some statement or illustration of a thought.  If this were an ordinary concept executed badly this picture would be worth nothing more than a brief shake of the head.  If it were abstract doodles that represented nothing we'd pass right by.

The thing that makes me stop and look at this painting is that the idea is there.  It's like trying to see through the cloth just before a sculpture is unveiled.  What makes me linger is that combination of the random, the bizarre, and the strange idea obscured by a veil of technique.  It's wonderful in the sense that it inspires wonder, and it's awesome in the sense that it inspires awe.  And in that sense, I'm glad it's here.

The Elements
To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  The initial focus is on the face, with the second one being all the way across the painting on the right edge.

Composition and Design: The design is not completely hopeless, but the odds are against it.  The face's width does take up the smaller section of the golden ratio, horizontally.

Palette:  There is almost a color scheme based on the complementary colors of red and blue.  Enough other colors are there, though, to muddy the waters.

Value: All over the place, but not used with any plan or pattern.

Mass:   There is little sense of mass.  Values and consistent edges are nowhere in sight.

Texture: The large, quick brush strokes provide a texture.

Symbolism:  Lord, I hope not.

Micro/Macro: I find it odd that the green squares on the large cube have a highlight, indicating a light source.  Nothing else does, though.

Ornament: The tendrils emerging from the head may or may not be hair.  They appear to be an attempt at ornament.

Narrative: This is an imaginary narrative in the same way that "i" is the square root of negative 1.

Juxtaposition: Rubik's cubes and a laughing gargoyle are not something you see every day.  

Stylization: I have no idea what to say for this one.

Character: The face might belong to Pennywise, but there's little indication of personality.

Tension: Is the laughing man barfing Rubik's cubes or are they... no, never mind.  The tension is of the WTF variety.

Line: Edges are here, but no lines.

Research/Reference:  No idea.  None, I hope.

Vignette: This is a vignette in the sense that the background is abstract.  The silhouette, though, makes no sense.

Perspective: Wonky and inconsistent.

That's it for this round.  Next week I'll do something old, but I'm not sure what yet.  Maybe Dulac.
  • Listening to: Nightwish
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Super smash bros. brawl
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
Page from Daredevil, by David Mack.
From Kabuki Reflections #5, 2005.
This analysis copyright Scott M. McDaniel, 2010.

The Image


This painting is from David Mack and Brian Michael Bendis' Daredevil story Wake Up.  I happened by Mack's table at the New York Comic Con last year and liked the art on the Kabuki books he had out on his table.  At first I wanted to do a Kabuki painting for the analysis, but as I was looking for one I realized that he sets up a rhythm and visual language that builds on itself.  It's a case of the individual parts being strong, but the sum being more than those parts.  Eventually I settled on this image from his sketchbook series Reflections because it seems more self-contained.  Then again, I haven't read much Daredevil so maybe I'm just not bringing outside context.

(As a side note, David himself impressed me at the NYCC.  Despite the chaos that is the exhibit hall floor in artist's alley, he had the time to talk to a total stranger without seeming hurried.  I appreciated that, and the goodwill there probably also helped me along toward picking up the rest of the Kabuki series.)

Here's what Mack has to say about this painting:

First, I added gesso to the pencil drawing (everywhere except the figure so that the water color would react differently on the gesso to give the figure a contrast in texture from the background sky and foreground building).  I added white tape and razor scratches to outline the panels.

The Rhythm: Figure

Mack likes rhythm.  We'll look at it at several levels in this painting, but he also extends it to repeating motifs across pages and issues.  He uses it to create his own "visual language," as Scott McCloud might say.  For now, though, we can see an excellent example of rhythm in the figure itself.


One of the principles on display is setting straighter edges against more curved edges.  It helps that the human body is set up like that - while a bulging biceps is curved the relaxed triceps is straighter.  The picture above shows that in action, as well as opposing groups in the forearm and legs.  Playing straight against curved edges in a picture sets up a more pleasing visual impression - try experimenting with it to see.

If the opposing muscle groups is a fine-grained level of rhythm, we can also see more examples of it in the figure at a higher level.  


This picture shows the overall curve of the body.  As with most drawings of the figure that look natural, the main body masses aren't lined up perfectly (green).  As George Bridgman shows us, there is a back-and-forth tilt to the body's main masses: head, torso, and pelvis.  Particularly the relationship between the torso and pelvis (orange) shows a curve on the front and a straighter line on the back.  At the transition between torso and pelvis we see the uninterrupted curve on one side and a crease or corner on the other.

If we look at the figure from Mike Mattesi's perspective, we'll also see rhythm in the lines of force in the drawing.  Where is the weight falling and where does that force change direction?


In this case we see that the main lines of force oscillate back and forth, but there is also a clear center of balance.

The Rhythm: Background & Repetition

As you'll find if you read Kabuki among others, Mack uses repetition to set up ideas.  Sometimes it's the same actual drawing or painting.  Other times it will be a pencil sketch followed by a collage followed by a watercolor of a character in the same pose with the same objects.  In this painting there are three panels at the bottom of the page that use this technique.


The first and third panel are the same image with a different size and cropping.  The center image is of Daredevil in shadows.  One of the nice things about setting up a rhythm is that it lets you break it for a targeted effect.  I see these alternations here:

  • Light, dark, light
  • Blue, red, blue
  • Lit, in shadow, lit (slightly different from light-dark-light)
  • Looking left, right, and left
  • Determination, defeat, determination

The triangles above and below the second panel call it out as different - a counterpoint to the others.  If you look at much of Mack's work you'll also see that he incorporates them as a graphic element regularly - another aspect of repetition.

Now let's look at another rhythm Mack sets up - the background buildings.  They're certainly impressionistic, but their spacing, height, and direction contrast with the straight edge of the building on which Daredevil stands.


The Direction & Design
See how the skyline dips on the right side of the picture?  There are plenty of other elements that lead our eye to that part of the page.  The building's edge, the gaze of the person in the first and third panel, Daredevil's posture, and even some of the abstract textures contribute.


Why is the focus of attention off the painting?  I'm not sure, but I have a couple of guesses.  The entire mood of this painting is brooding contemplation - a low point.  That fits with the focus being down.  Also, in comic books it's generally a good idea to focus the attention there on a layout to get the person to turn the page and continue the story.  I don't know if that's what Mack intended here, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Just because it seems I have to look at it every week, here's the picture with the golden ratio grid overlaid.


Daredevil takes up the two center and upper rectangles.  The moon-symbol-blob is right in the center of the upper left rectangle.  Because it's so bright it gives our eyes a place to start and sweep over the rest of the image on the way to the lower right corner.

The Color & Value
Obviously Mack uses a limited palette and dark values for this painting.  Here's what it looks like with the saturation zeroed out.


There's really not that much brightness variation at all.  As I said, the moon-thing is brightest while parts of the building and background are darkest.  Usually we see brightness used to draw attention to the picture's focus by putting high contrast at the key places.  Not so here, though.  Instead, Mack uses hue - red for the figure and blues for just about everything else.  I sampled the image to 32 colors and then plotted them on the color wheel below.


The further out in the circle the dot is, the brighter the color.  It's easy to see how dark most of the colors are; only a few go much beyond the 50% ring.  The colors do form a tetrad (triangle on the color wheel), but really it's mostly reds and shades of blue.  Color-wise, a couple of yellows would complete the triad if they were needed.

The Texture
The last thing I want to talk about is the texture that Mack uses in the painting.  Here are a couple of details that show the area in the upper right and Daredevil's upper figure.


This set of textures is abstract and provides interesting shapes and interactions all on their own.  The whole region accomplishes the purpose of guiding our eye down and to the right because of the "border" with the darker background on the left side of this detail.  It's other purpose, I believe, is to give us something of visual interest to look at if our eye decides to settle there.  Personally, I like it.


Here we see similar shapes and watercolor bleeding effects.  This time, though, Mack controls them to define the form of the legs, arms, and anatomy.  What we see, then, is texture and watercolor technique used for its own sake in the first example and purposefully in the second.

The Elements
To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  The visual focus of what's there is the figure of Daredevil standing on a rooftop.

Composition and Design: Our eyes start at the moon and move down and to the left through the image.  Mack does this with everything from the page's textures to the figure's pose and panel designs.

Palette:  Blues and reds with moderate saturation.

Value: Dark overall.  Mack uses value to define form on Daredevil, but unlike many illustrations it's not the most important part of making the figure stand out.

Mass:   Daredevil is the only part of the main picture that appears to be solid and 3D.  The person in panels 1 and 3 does as well.

Texture: This is mainly a watercolor painting, and Mack does a great job with making texture serve his purpose.  He also uses tape and razor scratches around the panels for additional texture.

Symbolism:  I'm not familiar with the story, but here's an obvious bit to me: Daredevil is blind.  The fact that the overall panel cuts off his head just below his eyes is surely not accidental.  It also suggests that he's not just physically blind but that he can't see his way out of whatever situation he's in

Micro/Macro: This isn't the kind of painting to show lots of realistic detail.  The man in panels 1 and 3, though, is more detailed and realistic than the main picture.

Ornament: I mentioned the triangles that Mack put above and below the second panel.  They are a very simple ornament, but they can do a lot of work.  For example, they form arrows that direct attention or - in this case - give an impression of being pulled in different directions.  They also form a border to outline and emphasize something.

Narrative: Though I haven't read the story, I'd say that this picture's narrative purpose is to provide a down beat between more intense scenes.  Those may be action scenes, but I suspect that the intensity may be more along a dramatic or emotional line than straight up fighting.

Juxtaposition: The most obvious juxtaposition to me is the one between the man in panels 1 and 3 with Daredevil in panel 2, who is in the dark and looking the other direction.  

Stylization: Mack has a distinctive style with a propensity for watercolor and multimedia.  The non-traditional panel borders, for example, are no surprise when you've seen other examples of his work.  Repetition and rhythm is also a fundamental part of his style.  MC Mack?

Character: This is a character study, and we certainly get a sense of his mood from the posture and from the lighting in the panels.

Tension: The tension here seems to be internal.  Whatever his situation is, there are no easy choices.

Line: The most obvious lines here are the razor scratches.  They're not a major component of the finished piece, but take a look at the preparatory drawing below for the initial line drawing.

Research/Reference:  Mack also includes a preparatory drawing in Kabuki Reflections #5.  There were several changes on the way to the final piece.  The one I notice first is the person sitting on the right side of the picture.


Vignette: This painting is more than a vignette, but only just.  There is enough of a background and setting to know that it's an urban environment and skyline.

Perspective: Perspective isn't a major part of the painting, but the background buildings do certainly seem to be far away.  That's mainly because they are so indistinct, especially compared to the main figure.

That's it for this time.  Next up, a painting from the masterwork collection at MoBA.
  • Listening to: Nightwish
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Playing: Super smash bros. brawl
  • Drinking: Iced Tea
Relativity, by M. C. Escher, 1953
This analysis copyright Scott M. McDaniel, 2010.

The Image


Click here to see a larger version.

Man, I love M. C. Escher's stuff!  I know I'm hardly alone in that, but I thought I'd get it out of the way right in the beginning.  And Relativity is one of my favorites.  In college I had a poster of it, and I'd bring in dorm-mates after they'd been drinking too much and sit them down in front of it saying, "Look at this, man!"  OK, college humor.

A few years back the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC had a showing of Escher's work.  Something that really caught me by surprise was how much you could see on the actual pieces that doesn't show up even in the good quality, coffee table books of Escher's work.  Sure, he's known for the perspective tricks, tessellation, and space warping, but he's also a great artist and draftsman.  I love Relativity because of the wonder and imagination, but it's also a great example of things like lighting and defining mass and form.  We'll look at all of these things in this analysis.

The Perspective
Escher uses three point perspective for Relativity.  That's not too unusual.  When you've got three vanishing points they form a triangle.  Usually when we use three point perspective two of the vanishing points are on the horizon and the third is either above (the zenith) or below (the nadir).

In Relativity Escher played with this concept.  Because he set up the vanishing points as an equilateral triangle, it meant he could build a structure in perspective that didn't look distorted if you changed the horizon from one side of the triangle to the others.  Here's a preparatory drawing that he did to work out the vanishing points.  (From The Magic Mirror of M. C. Escher by Bruno Ernst.)


In the actual version, these vanishing points are about two meters outside the picture's borders.  The first perspective most of us notice is the one with the vanishing point triangle's horizon at the bottom and the zenith directly above.  It's only natural, that's how we usually see the world.  The other two orientations, though, treat the other lines of the triangle as the horizon.  Let's spin the picture to see what it looks like when each of the other sides serves as the horizon.

Rotating the basic triangle counter-clockwise we have:


Rotating it clockwise we have:


The building, stonework, and doors all appear to make visual sense from any of the three orientations.  It may not make logical sense to put a door in the floor, but visually we can see that it doesn't look distorted.  The three points are just three points.  Assigning "up" and "down" happens in our heads - at least when it comes to the building.  One other thing to mention - my first assumption was that the triangle of stairs at the core of Relativity's composition was one of those impossible shapes that Escher uses so well in other pieces.  It's not.  It doesn't need to be because the structure isn't an impossible one.  To prove the point, if you haven't already seen it, here's a link to Andrew Lipson's Lego version of Relativity.

When it came to the people, Escher had to go ahead and choose an up and down for each one.  Regardless of their orientation, though, none of the figures appear stretched or pinched.  They make visual sense too.  This is all possible because the vanishing points form an equilateral triangle.

The Lighting
What initially fascinates us about this picture is the illusion of three "ups" and the way they're all mixed in together.  Working out the perspective isn't enough, though.  If Escher hadn't given the scene a sense of depth, mass, and solidity Relativity wouldn't have nearly the impact it does.  Values and shading are critical to this sense, but how do you handle light sources in a scene with three different horizons?  He could have used sculptural lighting - a general non-defined light source, kind of like being outside on a cloudy day.  Instead, though, Escher chose the three outside areas as light sources and then added two others to help with the composition.

Here are the light sources in Relativity.


The light coming from the outside makes sense.  In fact, we even see the sun itself (or a sun symbol, anyway) through one of the windows.


There's another light source that I find curious - it's the most enigmatic in the whole picture.  See the guy who has just come up the staircase from a basement carrying a sack?  He's lit from the front and is about to walk off down a hall, heading into the light.  Where is that light coming from?  What's down that hall?  The space down there would seem to be a tunnel beneath a sidewalk or perhaps a chimney above the sun.  I've indicated that light source and one other with yellow in the graphic above to show that those sources are more ambiguous than the daylight coming through the three windows/porches.

One of the effects of that mystery light is to create a nice curve of sharp contrast in the upper center of the picture.  Our eyes can follow that arch in either direction and we end up traveling around the picture in many loops.  That curve of contrast, though, is critical to getting us started, and it depends upon an unseen light source that seems to come from some other dimension.

The Lines
Now that we know where the light sources are we can look at the shading Escher used to create forms that look solid.  He uses lots of cross hatching and feathering in both the figures and the structures.  In just about every case we can see that the direction of those shading lines acts as a contour map that indicates a 3D shape.  Here are some examples.


This is the guy at the bottom of the picture in it's normal orientation.  He's our gateway into the image and our viewpoint character.  He's lit most strongly from the front right, although the window with the sun and tree provides secondary lighting.  Let's look at the hatching on the figure's legs, back, and head.  They all clearly follow the figure's form like a contour map or wood grain, which helps us see it as a rounded shape rather than a flat one.

Now notice the white outline on the left side of his legs.  That lines up well with the secondary light source and keeps the form of the legs crisp.  As the lines wrap around the legs their number and thickness drop away until we have a highlight on the right side of the legs corresponding to the strongest lighting.  There is a thin outline to the figure on that side - most noticeable on the arm and head.  The line their symbolizes an edge.  On the darker side of the head and arm, though, there is no outline.  Just an edge, chiaroscuro style.  Escher follows this general approach on all of the figures, using both lighting and the direction of the hatching lines to define the form.

Now let's look at the the guy in the center with the sack, emerging from the basement.


This time let's focus on the texture and shading of the walls.  Escher uses a basic cross-hatch to give them a mid-value grey.  Going "down" that stairwell we see that the lines get thicker to produce a darker tone.  There aren't more lines, though, just thicker ones.  For the most part the hatch lines point to one of the three vanishing points.  Despite the fact that they're the same grey tone it's easy to tell which way the walls are going.  In the arch in the lower corner of the picture, we can see some hatch lines pointing to a vanishing point down and to the left.  On the side of the arch, though, we see the hatch lines curve to follow the arch's form.  They start off headed toward the zenith but then bend around to the left where they thicken into darkness.


Now we're in the upper left corner of the picture.  Here's an interesting lighting choice.  Why are the walking figures so much lighter than the one with his hands on the balcony?  We can see from the shadow that the light is coming from the couple's right side.  Logically I'd think that the shadows on them should be nearly as strong on them as on the other figure, but he's much darker.  I think the main reason is that Escher wanted to push them into the background detail and bring the other figure forward.  A second reason could be that there's reflected light from the building on the walking couple but not on the single figure.

Here's a final detail of the couple at the table in the right of the picture.  Once again, see how the shading and lines wrap around the forms.


I believe this shading and linework is just as important to the illusion as the perspective.  Without the impression of solidity and mass we'd get the idea about the perspective intellectually but it wouldn't seem as real and powerful as this version does.

The Elements
To wrap up we'll go through Lee Moyer's Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus:  The initial focus is just about in the center - it's the guy walking vertically up the wall carrying the sack.  After that, the strong contrast curve above him begins to move our eye around the picture where it is supposed to wander and take in the contradictory details.

Composition and Design: Like most of Escher's work, it's got a strong theoretical and geometric design.  The core pattern is a triangle of stairs that's a flipped version of the unseen triangle of vanishing points.  (Unseen because they are beyond the border of the drawing.)

Palette:  Greyscale, defined through hatching.

Value: Escher carefully controls the light source and value to enhance the illusion of 3D, solid figures moving around a spacious interior.

Mass:   Defined through value and line direction.

Texture: Escher uses the hatching to produce a clear texture formed from cross-hatching in the walls and structures.  He wraps the lines around the figures to produce a wooden texture on them.

Symbolism:  Why do you suppose that Escher didn't give the figures individual identities?  Perhaps he didn't want to distract us from the main idea of the painting.  Maybe, from a certain perspective, people are interchangeable.

Micro/Macro: Escher chose not to draw every stone in every wall.  The texture takes care of most of that.  There are stones in the archways over the doors, however.  For the most part, though, lots of detail would distract us from looking at the perspective paradox.

Ornament: There is only minimal ornament.  The figures wear a loincloth of sorts, but you won't see knobs on the stair rails or other decorations.  They're not the point.

Narrative: A story isn't the point here, but there are a few hints.  The walking couple have their arms around each other.  There seems to be a servant or waiter.  Is the guy with the sack on his shoulder stealing something or just retrieving it.  We don't know the answers, but we have enough information to pose the questions.

Juxtaposition: The main juxtaposition here is the perspective itself.  

Stylization: Normally I talk here about how people handle lines and shapes.  Like Magritte, though, a key part of Escher's style is how he thinks and presents us with an image.  We see something that, try as we might, we just cannot take for granted.  While he often did lithography, prints, and woodcuts, Escher's most identifiable style is a sense of awe and wonder.

Character: Like the narration comment above, we see only enough about these figures to make some assumptions and ask questions.

Tension: The tension here is a perceptual one.  We know that there can't be more than one "up" in a single scene, yet there we see it before us.  We feel compelled to resolve the problem.

Line: Discussed above.

Research/Reference:  I showed the preparatory drawing above, and I got to see more of them for other works at the Escher exhibition at the National Art Gallery a few years back.  Rest assured that he did not produce these images from the air on his first try.  

Vignette: While the lighting is critical, there is not a single silhouette that is key to the picture.  The core of it, however, is the triangle of stairs in the center.

Perspective: There are three vanishing points set in an equilateral triangle.  Pick any two and you will see evidence of the line between them as a horizon line.  It's the foundation of the drawing.

That's it for this time.  Next time we'll venture into multimedia and symbolism with David Mack.
  • Listening to: Marillion
  • Watching: Farscape
  • Drinking: Iced Tea