As artists, when we create stories in a visual medium, we control the look of everything. Every character, every background, every prop and every detail has to be designed. We have to make a choice about how each and every thing will look, and why. It can seem overwhelming,
So how do you know which way to make those decisions? For me, everything always seems to go back to the story and what will tell it in the best possible way. Each and every detail you draw can contribute to the story you're telling, if you put enough thought into your work and design it right. And if you don't think ahead and don't put much thought into what you're doing, you can undermine what you're trying to say.
Here's an example: our story (be it an animated film, comic book, whatever) opens on our main character's house, before we even see him.
Our character's house has walls that seem to be falling in and a roof that appears to be sagging. Most of the windows are too dirty to see in, but the ones that we can see through have old sheets hung in front of them instead of curtains or blinds. The house is in dire need of a paint job, and the front lawn hasn't been mowed in forever - the grass is waist high. Piles of old newspapers lie on the front step - the owner is too lazy to collect them and they continue to pile up day after day.
When we see a house like that, we make a lot of assumptions about the type of person that lives there. We ascribe a lot of qualities to them based on the way their house is kept. It doesn't have to be a house, of course...the character's car, their clothing, their posture, etc....all these things are choices we have to make as artists and each one can have a real effect on how the audience perceives our characters.
By contrast, picture a house with a fresh clean paint job with brightly painted shutters on the windows. The roof is clean and perfectly straight, and the windows are all sparkly clean. The lush, thick grass of the front yard is trimmed neatly and the whole house is surrounded by a perfectly even white picket fence.
In both types of houses we get a strong feeling about the person that lives there and takes care (or doesn't take care) of their home. We've made strong decisions that help tell our story and inform the audience about our characters.
Many times I feel like I see stories where people think "Okay, I need to show my character's house before we meet him" and then they'll just draw a bland, nondescipt house. The house doesn't tell anything about the character - it's not being used as story ammunition to tell the story in a more powerful, involving way. It's just a graphic symbol that says, "house". And it's a totally missed opportunity.
Or on the other hand, sometimes you see artists make a choice that doesn't quite feel right. For example, imagine if Elmer Fudd pulled out a rifle and pointed it at Bugs Bunny, but instead of his usual cartoon hunting rifle, the gun was a completely realistic looking gun, covered with detail and even tiny flecks of rust. It would feel totally jarring and it would take you out of the cartoon. You'd definitely be done laughing at the cartoon. You would be reminded of the fact that you're watching something made by artists that made weird choice that doesn't fit....the spell has been broken.
Good artistic choices feel like they weren't even choices that were "made", they just happened naturally. A good story where everything is designed properly just feels right, and it feels inevitable....like it's a real, actual place where everything actually exists. It doesn't have to be a realistic world, everything just has to relate to everything else properly. Everything has to be at the same level of caricature. Everything in Bugs Bunny's world should relate to Bugs Bunny. Everything in Pinocchio's world should relate to Pinocchio.
As an example, I'd like to point out something I saw in an issue of Jordi Bernet's "Jonah Hex" that inspired me to write about this subject.
First, though, here are some random pages from Bernet's "Hex" work to give an idea of the level of realism and grittiness he usually employs, which help give the story its tone and mood.
For contrast, imagine the page where Jonah is attacked by wolves drawn in the "Peanuts" style...the drawing style would feel really inappropriate for the subject matter. You'd never really worry that Charlie Brown would be killed by ravenous wolves. Just as, if "Peanuts" were drawn in the Jonah Hex style, they'd be a lot less funny!
So here's the section that made me think about this topic and inspired me to write.
In the spread below, Jonah is a young boy. His father kicks him into the sewage of the family outhouse and Jonah is forced to spend a long night climbing his way out.
Here's the particular choice that caught my eye and surprised me when I saw it: the stylized treatment of the stars in the panel when the camera shows the exterior of the outhouse.
Now don't get me wrong: this is entirely my opinion, and there's no right or wrong to this stuff, and I completely love Bernet's stuff - I always have.
But as I always say: the best way to learn is to look at other people's artwork and ask yourself why they did what they did, and what you might have done differently. More than anything, this is the method I used to learn whatever I have learned in life...it's the best method that I know to learn anything.
And here's the thing: personally I find the stylized treatment of the stars doesn't quite fit the narrative. The stylized stars are very charming, quirky and quaint. They work great for other types of stories that have more of that kind of feel. But "Jonah Hex" is about as far away as you can get from that kind of story. Particularly when the main beat is about being kicked into a pit of raw sewage (by your Dad, no less) and having to climb your way out. The sewage is certainly handled with a level of detail and rendering that sells the idea that the sewage is disgusting (a great choice, by the way). So why not handle the stars in a more realistic way to underscore the reality and the severity of the moment? Why handle them in a way that (at least to me) lends more of a charm and whimsy to a story?
Here are some pages from the same artist (Bernet) but completely different characters and subject matter: these are from "Claire de Nuit". The characters are more broad and cartoony, which fits the more comedic subject matter, and the stylized stars fit really well. As I said before, those kind of stars are charming and whimsical. They fit better here.
Of course I should warn you that if you go looking for more "Claire de Nuit" examples, they tend to be very NSFW!
Anyway hopefully you will all take this the way I intended: I am not at all criticizing Bernet. I love his stuff. But when I look at any movie, TV show, painting or drawing, I am always asking myself the same questions:
What choices did the artist make?
Why did they make that choice?
What would I have done differently?
Some people get outraged when they think you are questioning other artists, and that is not my intent. I have simply trained myself to ask these questions to learn from other artists and improve my own tastes by learning from what they've done. Agree or disagree with me on this post - that's not the point. The point is to inspire you to ask the same questions. Too many times we look at a great piece of art and just admire it. To get better and learn, we should always be asking ourselves: what did that artist do that I agree with, and what did they do that I might have done differently?
After all, that's what makes us all individual and why every artist is interesting and amazing in their own way!