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Estrangement and Engagement

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In composing a piece of visual work (let’s call it “art” for lack of a better word) certain considerations must be made by the artist before the first stroke even touches paper. What are the materials to be used? How do the materials interact? Have you used them together in this combination before, and are you planning to add new media to them? What kind of technique will be used- will you be working quickly, loosely, gesturally covering the page and allowing for ‘happy accidents’ to occur? Or will you use a tightly controlled line, carefully orchestrating every mark that you make on the paper? Take the image below- three sheets of paper- a thick bristol  for heavy inks, a sheet of bleed-proof for copic markers, and a piece of watercolour paper. All ready to go, all media specific. It should be easy.


The challenging stare of blank paper

In beginning to draw the pages for my graphic novel I thought I’d solved most of the problems of media and medium selection. The diary comics were my place of practice and experimentation, and after two years of them I, upon advice of my supervisor Andi Spark, settled upon a certain visual style.


17/08/15. Blue pencil and marker on bleed proof paper. 17x9cm

Andi suggested leaving the blue lines in to give a sense of the construction, (the ‘ghost’ of the drawing) as well as lending an extra dimension of energy perhaps lost in the somewhat simplified inked line. Building on this advice I worked in this way from time to time within the context of the diary comics, and experimented a little further with Copic markers. A series I completed gave rise to some of the ‘happy accidents’ that most artists appreciate, this accident rather one of a workflow discovery.


26/11/15. Copic marker on Bleedproof paper. 25x30cm

This image was produced with the aim of increasing drawing speed and decreasing the amount of time required for each of the diary comics. To this end, the initial linework/construction was extremely crude, only a suggestion of shapes with a vague idea of what I wanted the end result to be. Then, instead of going in with carefully controlled ink lines, I instead used the chisel end of a Copic marker to block in shapes and forms, working  quickly and roughly.  The shape to the right of the figure was made during an unthinking flourish of the wrist, forming something that the thinking mind may not have been able to create. A happy accident. Similarly, the forms of the rider’s body were brought into relief much more quickly and effectively using this fast creation of tone; not completely bypassing, but somewhat circumventing, the most time-consuming part of this type of drawing (that of anatomical construction) and instead allowing the subconscious mind to guide the hand. Allowing the hand and eye to work together, gently observed, instead of tightly controlled, by the mind. Without the opportunity to erase ‘mistakes’ I was locked into whatever my hand had created. The addition of a simple line to further delineate forms and I was done, quickly and with a certain amount of satisfaction.

A variation on this workflow was implemented within the pages of the graphic novel (see here for more info). Some of the pages are rougher then others and there is a great temptation to overwork images, tightly controlling their appearance. However I wonder, what effect does the quality of line leave on the reader, and is it necessary, or even helpful, to carefully delineate every form, every character and environment? Ludovic Debeurme in his wonderful book Lucille illustrates the effectiveness of such an approach (see here). Take the examples below, showing the first and final draft of a page from a short I recently completed, The First Time. Despite the crudeness of the initial image, have I necessarily enhanced the reading enough to justify the hours spent refining the image? Does the reader even need a finished image, if the story is strong enough?


`Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky maintained that the job of art is to intensify our sensations.  He argued that art was best used to intensify our experiences, by slowing down our perceptions through estrangement; making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.  Art should therefore lead us somewhere indirectly, thus making the arrival a surprise. In terms of poetry, an in art, and in narratives, this is perhaps also important.  Narratives rely on surprise and plot twist in order to keep the audience guessing, and therefore engaged. An obvious plot is boring, and we tend to discontinue boring experiences wherever possible. Similarly, while we can appreciate the clean lines and clear forms of the master draftsman, should we not, at least when appropriate, attempt to adhere to this concept of estrangement within the page of the humble comic?

The journey is the key. Painting the focal point on a canvas immediately dead centre makes for an unengaging piece.  Through composition and layering we let the reader’s eye find it’s target, in time, while drawing them through a series of focal points. In the case of sequential art this is often achieved via the use of word balloons, white spaces to guide the reader through a maze of panel constructions and transitions. Perhaps estrangement, making the familiar unfamiliar, is possible by the simple act of instituting a loose, rough line. Of not filling in every background. Of drawing the intention and mindset of a character, rather than aiming for a photographic reproduction of the world we are representing. By allowing some aspect of chaos to seep into the page, we can give the reader a moving target. The question is, can we trust their ability to engage? Will they invest the effort to follow along?