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Jesse Hamm

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TOTH'S LINE 2: INFORMALITY [Feb. 27th, 2013|05:26 am]
Jesse Hamm

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.

From: (Anonymous)
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).

Alec Stevens

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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2013-06-05 08:03 am (UTC)
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.
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