Illustration vs. Cartoon Styles

Many people have observed that the rough sketches of artists are usually more exciting than their ART NOTE:
why the graphic style in my latest cartoon story looks somewhat different from my regular illustration style.
finished work. For example, in his definitive book Facial Expression, Gary Faigin compared a rough sketch for Rembrandt’s Ganymede to the finished painting. Faigin pointed out that the expression on the terrified infant’s face is far more intense in the rough sketch than it is in the painting, and observed that “Nothing is more difficult than retaining the vitality of a sketch in a finished piece.”

That vitality the natural superiority of sketches, one might say is something I’ve been aware of for a long time. In fact, it was part of my motivation for working so hard in recent years to improve my underlying drawing skills. That in turn has allowed my drawing style to loosen up recently (become more sketch-like) while simultaneously becoming more realistic. Does that sound like a contradiction? Drawing is something like making love: doing it well requires a lot of skill, but not the beginner’s awkward proud skill, nor the journeyman’s polished-but-still-conscious skill mastered skills are internalized, almost “forgotten,” because too much conscious control can be counterproductive.

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In other words, I’d have loosened up my drawing sooner if I’d been able to. Actually, it’s not that hard to fake looseness, but to the discerning eye there’s a marked difference between bogus random “spontaneity” which, in art as in love, generally comes across as a kind of feverish scratchiness and the kind of meaningful spontaneity that results from the rapid-fire explosions of a truly informed subconscious. Wow, that’s a mouthful. Put simply, I’m trying to achieve honest finished work that retains the excitement of my rough sketches. I’m not claiming that I’ve really succeeded; I suspect I’ll keep striving for that until I die. But relatively few illustrators even try.

This naturally raises two questions, one general and one specific: If so many people prefer rough sketches to finished illustrations, why don’t art directors just use artists’ rough sketches as finished illustrations? And why don’t I use my new-found, hard-won, looser illustration style in my cartoon stories?

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The answer to the first question is that sketches which look fine in relative isolation for example, in the original sketchbook they were drawn in, or on a portfolio page on a web site, or as a reprinted “sketch” sample in an art history book usually look awful if used as an illustration for an article, book, or marketing piece. Obviously this has something to do with the importance of context; but the precise reason is aesthetically complex and somewhat elusive, and I haven’t thought it through completely. Perhaps at some point, if I feel that I understand this better, I’ll write something more about this interesting subject.

The answer to the second question is a little easier. Given that I’ve put so much effort into creating an illustration style that tries to retain the excitement of a sketch, yet still works as a finished illustration and given the extreme value placed by art directors on consistency in all of an illustrator’s work why not use that same illustration style in cartoon stories?

The most obvious answer is that, although I’ve been doing illustration for a long time, I’ve only developed my current loose style recently, and most of my cartoon stories were done long before that. Even my most recent cartoon story was mostly completed just prior to my new illustration style finally coming together.

There are major differences between the storytelling requirements of single- panel vs. sequential cartoon illustration…

There’s also a deeper answer: again, context. A cartoon story is not a book or article (the kind of use for which my illustration style was designed). Telling a story via sequential panels of art is difficult, as any comic-strip artist can tell you, and has numerous technical and logistical requirements that are quite different from those of general illustration. The need to make clear the plot progression; to make the characters instantly recognizable from panel to panel, yet still varied in their facial expressions and attitudes; to include readable lettering or typography and to cram all this into a small area would make loose artistic effects a kind of luxury that the sequential artist can rarely afford.

…and, in this case, that gap is intensified by the technical differences between print and Web reproduction.

If each panel were rendered in high resolution (for example, to fill a single page in a printed book), I probably could employ the looser style that I’d prefer. In fact, even at six or eight panels per page, some of today’s better printed comic books manage to sustain story continuity with a loose graphic style that can be quite exciting. But those are printed panels. A web panel is quite low-resolution, with very few pixels (digital dots of information) available to the artist: literally, a coarse-grained experience. In a “continuity” situation (an ongoing story with characters who must be recognizable from one panel to the next), every pixel counts in the goal of achieving clarity in the story line. Looseness, delicious and evocative as it may be, is a second cousin to ambiguity, which is almost the opposite of clarity.

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For most art directors, any inconsistency of style by an illustrator is the ultimate sin. (Maurice Sendak and a few others seem to have earned exemption from this rule.) There are perfectly good and valid reasons for this attitude; but I’m still not sure I’ll ever be able to work as loosely as I’d like in my cartoon stories for the Web. We’ll see. In the meantime, any “Web-comics” fans and any art directors reading this who haven’t already turned away in disdain are cordially invited to write and tell me what they think.