|TOTH'S LINE 2: INFORMALITY
||[Feb. 27th, 2013|05:26 am]
Artists often complain that their sketchbook scribbles look more lively and authentic than their finished work. "Why can't I get that magic into my finished work?," we complain, laboriously draining our finished work of that magic.
I believe part of the answer lies in the formality of the lines. Formal lines -- lines with a mechanical smoothness afforded by careful rendering -- demand attention. Their precision grants them each an air of importance. But when all of a drawing's lines carry the same regal air, IT'S LIKE A SENTENCE WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPS. The eye tires of all that "importance." As artists, we sense this, and yet we keep returning to that rigid formality. Why?
For one thing, we worry that imprecision will look unprofessional. Just as we wouldn't want to address an audience with slurred speech or mussed hair, we don't want to present readers with sloppy lines -- so we compensate with fussy formality. Few subjects (and there ARE a few) warrant that suit & tie approach.
Another reason is that we tend to treat each line as its own drawing, instead of as a part of a whole. In the act of creation, when our noses are glued to the page, every square inch seems to merit great care and precision. But, as screenwriter David Mamet observes, a nail needn't look like a house to do its job. Neither must a line look finished for the whole drawing to look finished.
Young Alex Toth was guilty of such over-formality...
...but mature Toth relaxed into a more casual approach:
In fact, though Toth's work is often characterized as neat and orderly, I think this describes the feeling his work conveys, rather than the work itself. When you examine his work up-close it often looks surprisingly messy, with dashed-in lines that overlap or fail to meet:
He didn't care whether each line was perfect, so neither do we. The looseness of his lines signifies to our brains that the lines are of little importance, individually. And since they don't compete with each other for our attention, we are free to ignore them individually and contemplate the whole. The result is a whole with greater power than that of pictures in which every line clamors for respect.
Compare this Toth panel with this portion of a drawing by Burne Hogarth:
Though the foliage is dense in each image, Toth's lines appear random, excusing us from paying them much attention, whereas Hogarth's lines look deliberate and demand attention. So the informality of Toth's linework lessens the workload we bear as we interpret his image, even though each of the images above contains roughly the same amount of raw information (the number of lines) and narrative information ("heroes & foliage"). (See my prior entry on the relationship of raw-to-narrative info.)
Not only does it decrease our reading workload, informality increases the narrative information we take from the drawing. By being vague, informality frees us from locking in on the lines themselves. It instead evokes the pictured object with all the detail our imaginations can muster:
Here's how this might break down in terms of the artist/reader dynamic. I suspect Toth thought of his drawings as a sort of tent that loosely covered and thereby revealed the imaginary objects they were meant to portray. Since his lines don't always meet up precisely, the reader cannot perceive them as an object on the page, and must therefore infer the real-world object that those lines represent:
"Remember, in simple line drawings (sketches/finishes) it is often what is NOT drawn that creates visual interest! Forces the viewer to SEE AS YOU DID, the shapes of the subject matter! The viewer's EYE will 'draw in' the rest! It INVOLVES him -- he PARTICIPATES!" ~Alex Toth
By contrast, artists who create a neatly packaged object out of their lines encourage their readers to think of the group of lines itself as an object, without a real-world referent.
(This is also why the corners of eyes don't meet in manga drawings. Since the eyes are not portrayed as physical objects on the page, they more readily "live" in the mind of the reader.)
Is the lesson simply that artists should loosen their lines? Not quite. There's a difference between loose -- or informal -- lines, and plain ol' sloppiness.
When Toth's lines stray from precise accuracy, they generally err toward a "telling" curve (a curve that characterizes the depicted object) rather than away from it. The 'swing' of his loose lines emphasizes the object's basic shape. Compare his portrayal of Edd "Kookie" Byrnes with that of Russ Manning:
Manning achieves a more literal likeness, but his too-precise linework tells us his drawings were a struggle (which pulls our attention toward his process and away from the subject), and his timid shapes belie Kookie's flippant demeanor.
By contrast, Toth's shapes emphasize Kookie's jutting bangs and vulpine grin, offering a portrayal which is livelier and more faithful to Kookie's persona.
How was Toth able to emphasize the right curves? By constant observational drawing (drawing from life or photos), which filled his brain with reliable imagery. This gave him a clear mental image of the objects he drew...
...rather than the blurry, unreliable imagery retained by a less practiced artist.
Toth's hard-earned, superior knowledge of objects' appearances enabled him to hustle lines along their telling curves -- as though racing along a familiar route, instead of plodding or swerving like a driver on an unfamiliar track. This is the difference between sloppiness and informality.
Speaking of driving, join me in a week or so when we'll take a look at Toth's Hot Wheels!
Previous essays on Toth and other artists can be read at my website.
2013-03-05 04:44 pm (UTC)
Holy crow, Jesse, this is fantastic. You're all over it, man. Keep these Toth essays coming, as you're able/inspired.
I've got about 3 more chapters in this series. Got some unexpected work commitments to fulfill, so the next one will take another week or two to finalize.
2013-03-20 02:11 pm (UTC)
Very nice work. You crystallized a lot of heavy-duty stuff here that i've struggled to express all my life– well done sir!
2013-04-23 07:34 pm (UTC)
I love Alex Toth's figure drawing, perspective, composition, design, and storytelling, but his inks---especially once he started using markers---I've always found most unappealing, and even ugly. Line is such an important element of design, and too often Toth would opt for a dead line with no variation of width to indicate volume and light source on a single figure or object, or depth with multiple objects. Unfortunately a lot of younger artists tend to emulate the surfaces of their heroes at first before (if ever) getting to the heart of what makes those artists great, and imitating that dead marker line is not a good idea. Bernie Krigstein had a similar sense of design and was more innovative as a storyteller than Toth (in the '50s, that is---Toth's greatest panel innovations came some time later), but Krigstein's linework is much more varied and interesting---and still not at all the glamorous, lush type of line that many commercial artists and comics artists employed. When I look at Alfredo Alcala's "Voltar" komiks of the '60s with its stunning detail I can only imagine Toth cringing, as it was the very sort of thing he hated artistically (though I don't know why).
Hey Alec -- sorry I didn't approve this comment sooner. LiveJournal behaves unpredictably these days; hard to manage.
Me, I love Toth's dead line (and that of other guys like Mike Mignola, Nicolas Bentley, etc). Emphasizes his use of shape and positioning to show form and space, eschewing the easier route of varied line-widths. Like Hemingway avoiding dressy words, or singers who perform a cappella.
Still, Toth did use lush, varied lines in many jobs. His brushwork on Zorro, for example.
thanks for these awesome articles. I started looking for "Alex Toth lessons" and came across your website(s). I was hooked, and passed the last two days reading through them. The series on Alex Toth is great, but I am enjoying actually all your essays and art posts, and loved your "8 Things I'd like to See More in Comics".
I have a question which I wanted to send you via e-mail but thought would have been inappropriate. I am not a kid anymore, far from it, but after years of half-assed attempts I am trying to learn to draw comics and visual arts in general. My final purpose would be to draw some stories I have had in mind for years and years; not saying they are great, just that I need a way to express them using my own skills and not somebody's else. It is late for me to learn and I have been told it will be very difficult for me to become good at my age and without huge amount of time to study, but I will try.
I saw some mentions on your blog of many books about composition and a mention of the Famous Artists School Course. I have been recommended Bridgman and Andrew Loomis and I am studying through some of their books even though they are certainly too advanced for me. But is there some course or method YOU would recommend to a late learner? As you wrote, Alex Toth said that "There came a time when I had to unlearn many things" - but is there some guidance one can find to learn to draw comics that you would recommend?
I am not asking any detailed list or post or anything as I know that your time is valuable. But I just wanted to know if you have one or two books, courses, online schools you would recommend to a person starting from zero, nothing.
Thanks for your time and for the awesome work you are doing.
Hey man, thanks for the feedback. I'm very glad you're enjoying my articles. My response is below; I've also posted it at my website, in case visitors there find it useful.
I don't think it's ever too late to learn to draw. The biggest obstacle adult students face isn't the learning itself, but rather carving time in their schedules for art. Most people who take up art in adulthood will fail at it -- not because they can't grasp the information, but because patterns of how they spend time are hard to change. They practice art regularly for awhile, but eventually their old lifestyle asserts itself, their art is pushed aside, and their skills never improve. If you can overcome that problem, and fit some hours of drawing into your weekly schedule for the next few years, you'll do fine. (Artist Harley Brown tells of a lady he once met who drew so well that he assumed she must have studied art from early childhood. To his surprise, she revealed that she had only been drawing for a few years. Her secret: she'd practiced for several hours a day. Few have THAT much free time, but the point is that age doesn't matter.) Pick some activity that currently takes up a few hours of your weekly schedule, kiss it goodbye, and replace it with art.
Another common myth is that cartoonists must master draftsmanship (anatomy, perspective, shading, etc) before they can draw comics. So, students get bogged down with learning how to shade spheres and memorize bones and plot vanishing points, when they should really just be cartooning. Those other skills may be necessary to move on to the more ambitious levels of cartooning, but they aren't primary. At its foundation, cartooning is about picking the right objects in the right moments, and drawing those -- even if only badly. That's how cartoonists like Cathy Guisewite, Chris Onstad, and Scott Adams are able to craft effective comics without drawing well. They aren't draftsmen; they are object-and-moment-choosers. Cartoonist John Campbell takes this to its extreme: Pictures for Sad Children
You should be able to follow his lead and begin cartooning your story ideas immediately. Just divide your written scenes into the fewest essential moments (panels), and ask yourself which characters, body parts, and props ABSOLUTELY need to be in each panel. Then draw only those, as simply and clearly as you can. (continued...)
Of course, to increase the appeal and nuance of your stories, you'll want to layer in more detail as your skills allow it. A good "first steps" book to study is DRAW 50 FAMOUS CARTOON CHARACTERS
, by Lee J. Ames. Ames's books show how to draw characters beginning with simple shapes and adding more complex details. This book in particular is useful because the characters are familiar and they range from the simple (The Little King, Felix the Cat) to the complex (Blondie, Flash Gordon). After working through these, you could move on to designing and drawing cartoon characters of your own.
From there, the next step would be realistic draftsmanship. The best book to start with here is DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN
, by Betty Edwards. Edwards teaches techniques that artists use for overcoming the mental obstacles to realistic drawing. I plan to cover this in a future Toth article, but for now, in brief: the system our brains use to handle imagery is good for storing and recalling ideas, but bad for drawing. It's like a biological version of the the difference between hi-res jpegs and low-res bitmaps. Typical thinking works best with "lo-res," but realistic drawing requires "hi-res," so artists must use certain thought tricks to switch their thought mode over to the "hi-res" way of thinking. This may sound complicated and Jedi-like, but Edwards explains it well, and it's frankly crucial to realistic drawing. You can see the effectiveness of her techniques in this "before and after" gallery
of her students' work, spanning a five-day period. Using Edwards's techniques, you can begin drawing by observation (drawing objects you see before you, or in photos), which is every artist's most valuable calisthenic.
After working through those books, you'll be in a good position to absorb what Loomis has to offer. His books (especially FIGURE DRAWING FOR ALL IT'S WORTH [anatomy], SUCCESSFUL DRAWING [perspective], and CREATIVE ILLUSTRATION [the best one, about picture-making in general]) are great (and back in print!) and should provide a sound foundation for everything else your comics might need. If he's still a bit beyond your grasp, I recommend any of Jack Hamm's excellent how-to books, which are simpler but top-notch, and cover similar ground.
But above all, keep cartooning. Pick the crucial story moments, pick the props and body parts that illustrate them, and jot those down.
Wow Jesse, just wow! I was not expecting a reply so soon, and certainly not a reply like this: this is a great gift. Thanks for the recommendation and the encouragement!
2013-06-20 11:30 pm (UTC)
Loomis was terrific, but I warn my students that his anatomy from the middle of the shins down to the feet is absolutely wrong in FIGURE DRAWING FOR ALL ITS WORTH. He does not draw the tibialis anticus ending on the side of the big toe, or the deep tendon of the extensor hallucis longus (which operates the big toe) correctly, nor does he properly distinguish the peroneus longus, peroneus brevis, and peroneus tertius/extensor digitorum longus one from another. Still, a great picture maker, and a finely encouraging book. Much else is useful in it! Dr. Paul Richer (for whom the band of Richer above the knees was named) put together a fine anatomy book about a century ago.
Thanks for the warning, Alec. Yeah, Loomis's approach to anatomy is skewed toward beauty ideals of 1940s advertising, and isn't strictly accurate, though I think it provides a good foundation for students who aren't ready to jump into the deep end of real-life life drawing. Ultimately, after absorbing what Loomis or Jack Hamm have to offer, I'd recommend that the student spend as much time as possible drawing from life and from photos of actual people.
The silhouette analysis was particularly stunning for me because it helped me understand something I felt while looking at the drawing but was not able to put into words or explain. I have heard Mignola (whom you mentioned in a previous article, as well, and which I think has a sensibility in common with Toth: even though I wonder what Toth thought about Mignola's angular style) talking about the importance of silhouette in his work and in the artists he loves (he mentioned also Frazetta as a great silhouette artist).
Cool, thanks for the feedback. Glad I could be helpful!
I can't recall whether Toth ever remarked on Mignola's work in print. Somebody once showed him Hellboy, and reported that Toth didn't care for it, but I don't know whether Toth disliked the subject matter or the style or storytelling or what. Certainly they have similar sensibilities.
Interesting! But do you know which were the artists he admired? I have read about Toth's harsh critiques of other artists working in comics (but he was also very harsh when critiquing his own art) - but is there record of Toth's love for some comic artists, especially late in his career?
Oh, absolutely. He praised lots of artists, toward the end of his career and throughout. Most of his favorites were most active during his formative years ('30s-'60s), but among the more recent artists he liked were David Mazzucchelli, Paul Grist, Paul Gillon, Darwyn Cooke, Richard Corben, Frank Thorne, and Moebius.
His biggest influences were cartoonists Noel Sickles, Frank Robbins, Milt Caniff, and Roy Crane, and illustrators Al Dorne and Robert Fawcett.
2013-06-20 11:32 pm (UTC)
Surprised Alex Toth liked Corben, as his proportions were all over the map, and the subject matter certainly fit the "dark and warpy" vision that Toth condemned in comics' latter days.
Thanks for the note, Alec. I opted to respond at my site.