Friday, August 4, 2017

Noir Style Tutorial, Pt. 10 - Step 5: Adjust Lighting

Last time we talked about the need to adjust the Preview Shadow Map Size for each light in your scene. Failure to do so will result in rough-looking renders with blocky shadows. In general, I recommend you use either 1024 or 4096.

By the way, since we are doing PREVIEW RENDERS in (primarily) black and white, setting your lights to very high map sizes will have almost no impact on your render times. Before I upgraded to my new powerhouse computer, I created my comics on my old Pentium Dual Core system. Here are the specs for each machine:
  • System 1: Alienware 17 laptop: Windows 10 Pro, 32GB RAM | Intel Core i7-6700HQ (Quad-Core, 6MB Cache 3.5GHz) | Onboard Video: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970M 3GB GDDR5 1028 CUDA Cores | Alienware Graphics Amplifier: GeForce GTX 980 ti 6GB (006G-P4-4996-KR)  2816 CUDA Cores
  • System 2: ASUS Essentio Desktop: Windows 10 Home, 16GB DDR3 RAM | Intel Pentium E5500 Dual Core @ 2.80GHz | GeForce GTX 960 (EVGA) 4GB (04G-P4-3962-KR) 1024 CUDA Cores
Even back when my old computer only had 4GB of RAM, I could churn out a 4000-pixel wide image in less than one minute. So, even if you're using old tech, you don't need to worry about your machine grinding to a halt.

Now that you need to know how Shadow Maps affect the lighting, let's take a look at how the different types of lighting affects the scene. As I said last time, I generally stick to these types of lights.

Poser Lights
  • Infinite Lights: Like the sun, lights everything in the scene from the same direction with the same intensity (no fall-off).
  • Spot Light: Like those found on stage or in movies, it points in a specific direction with an intensity that falls off the farther the object is from it. Very useful for highlighting specific objects or parts of a scene.
  • Point Light: Similar to a light bulb; emits light in 360 degrees, and it falls off the farther things are from it. Very useful to put next to a gun to simulate muzzle flash, or with a candle or flashlight.
Source: Poser 11 manual, pages 317 - 321


For the examples below, I'm going to change the Key Light to Infinite, and then I will modify the Main light so that you can see how the type of light affects the render.

Example 1: Key Light (the green one) is set to Infinite with no Shadows.
The Main Light (pink) is set the same way.

Example 2: With the Main Light shadows turned off, notice
how much brighter her face and side are.

Example 3: Spot with Shadows. Compare this to the Infinite Light with shadows.
Note how her entire face is dark and the wing now has no highlights.

Example 4: Turning off the shadows brings out her arm and more
of her side. Also note there are more highlights on her hair.
I'm not going to provide screenshots of the Point Light at this time because, when loaded in their default positions, the Spot and Point look almost identical. The key benefit from using a point light is best seen when you have a background or the figure is interacting with other figures or props. With a single figure in a white void, there's really no reason to use a point light.

Example 5: When you want clean outlines,
the Diffuse (IDL) light is the way to go!
No matter what my project goals are, I almost always make at least one render with the Diffuse Light on. As you can see, this gives me clean lines without shadows. Even with all the other detail going on in my work, this is useful to have as a reference, or as a way of punching up the outlines. Shadows seldom have much effect on the default IDL Light.

NEXT TIME: Render Settings



Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Noir Style Tutorial, Pt. 9 - Step 4: Set up Lights

Lighting is always one of the most important things you need to deal with in ANY render. It sets the mood and lets us actually see what's going on. Since this style is all about shadows, sometimes what we don't see is as important as what we make apparent.

On this subject, I want to mention a really good book you should look for (I got mine at Half-Price Books a few years ago), but it's still available from Amazon.com.

Drawing Crime Noir: For Comics and Graphic Novels by Chistopher Hart. The book is out of print, but Amazon has used copies for around $3. This really has a lot of useful tips for lighting and character design.


Drawing Crime Noir, © 2016 by Christopher Hart
A useful source of inspiration for getting the most out of this approach
to rendering and character design.

Before the Anomaly Webinar, I didn't understand how important the light settings are to this type of work. Specifically the settings we will use to create crisp shadows.

First, select the light controls, located in the lower-left of the Poser 11 window. You will see confirmation of the light selection (and its name) in the upper-right.

There are multiple ways to select the lights in Poser 11.

Since noir is all about light and shadow, I usually only have two lights in a scene (sometimes I add a third, but that's for special situations or when I want to keep one as a helper tool). With the light controls, delete all the other lights you're not going to use. You do this by selecting the light control and then clicking the trash can icon.

I usually rename my lights by using the Hierarchy Editor

Now I've only got two lights left, I usually rename them so they are easy to track. Opening the Hierarchy Editor and clicking on the name of the light there is a fast way to change its name (note here, in the screenshot I'm only showing Lights, which is why you don't see V4, the wings or the other stuff in this scene). When i have more than two lights (or two sets of lights), I might give them a little hint of color so I can tell which is which. This is just a helper though, as it doesn't really affect the output.

If you're working in black & white exclusively,
you can add a little color to the lights
without affecting your render.

Understanding the types of lights you have available will make it easier to light your scenes.

Poser Lights
  • Infinite Lights: Like the sun, lights everything in the scene from the same direction with the same intensity (no fall-off).
  • Spotlight: Like those found on stage or in movies, it points in a specific direction with an intensity that falls off the farther the object is from it. Very useful for highlighting specific objects or parts of a scene.
  • Point Light: Similar to a light bulb; emits light in 360 degrees, and it falls off the farther things are from it. Very useful to put next to a gun to simulate muzzle flash, or with a candle or flashlight.
  • IBL (Diffuse Image Based Lights): Takes a light probe and creates a map to illuminate the scene. Requires you set up the light probe in the Materials Room and requires Raytracing. NOT USED FOR LINE ART RENDERS (except when you want to blow out all shadows).
  • Area Lights: Area lights simulate real lights more accurately. They work a lot like a photographer’s “soft box” light. You can adjust the size to control the amount of light that is emitted. Area lights are represented by a square outline that depicts the light position in 3D space. A dotted line protruding from the light shows the direction that the light is pointing.
Source: Poser 11 manual, pages 317 - 321


In general, I use the lights that I have marked in RED. I find these to be the most useful. My fallback light is always Infinite Light, though, as it tends to provide strong, even illumination across my entire scene. It also does a decent job of casting shadows.

And, speaking of Shadows, we need to discuss the Map Size and Preview Shadow Map Size. Their technical definitions are provided below, but in general, the one we care most about the the Preview Shadow Map Size.

Shadow Maps
  • Map Size: The Map Size parameter dial sets the size of the selected light’s shadow map in pixels (shadow maps are square). Poser uses image maps to apply shadows to objects in the scene, and applies these shadows during rendering. Larger map sizes increase the accuracy and detail of shadow maps, but at a cost in memory and render time. For example, each 1024x1024 map requires about 4MB of space, while a 2048 x 2048 map requires 16MB. You cannot animate the shadow map’s size. 
  • Preview Shadow Map Size: Sets the amount of detail in the shadows that are displayed by the preview render. Default is 512. Higher values will make the shadow preview more detailed and accurate but will increase usage of system resources.
Source: Poser 11 manual, pages 327 - 334


SIDE NOTE; If you are only going to work with Preview renders, you may completely ignore the Map Size setting. While I'm editing the lights, though, I always increase it to at least 1024, just in case I want to do a Firefly or Superfly render of the scene. Sometimes I do this to get some grayscale data to work with in the scene.

In general, the bigger your Preview Shadow Map Size, the better/smoother your renders will look. Here are some examples of the type of detail I'm talking about:

128k is the lowest possible setting: Blow this up
to note the speckling on her wings.

Smoother details become apparent at 1024 k.

Preview Shadow Map Size tops out at 4096.
Notice that this got significantly darker.

As you can see, there is a lot of difference to be found simply by adjusting the Shadow Preview Map Size from just one of the lights. In production, you will need to adjust the map size for ALL lights in the scene, and they don't have to be identical. My fallbacks are usually 1024 and 4096.

In the previous examples, I only edited the size for the Main Light. Here, I'm setting both lights to 1024, and you can see that we're now getting a funky jagged shadow on her wing. That's because, at this size and angle, we're actually picking up artifacts from where the polygons are joining together. In the right situation, this could be a cool effect (or I could use it as the basis for some stroked inking during the clean-up phase).

In this one, I set the Preview Shadow Map Size for BOTH lights.

But, in this instance, I don't want it, so I'll increase my Preview Shadow Map Sizes up to maximum: 4096, and then I'll start moving the lights around to bring out the features and details on which I wish to focus.

So, in summary, here's what we covered:

  • Delete most of your lights: you only want two or three.
  • Rename your lights so you know what function they will serve (main and key)
  • You can add color to your lights to help you quickly figure out which is which
  • Increase your Map Size to 1024
  • Increase your Preview Shadow Map Size to either 1024 or 4096


NEXT TIME: Adjust Lights

Friday, July 28, 2017

Noir Style Tutorial, Pt. 8 - Step 3: Edit Materials

There are a few people I've spoken to who think this step is kind of optional, and for them, it might be. If you're trying to preserve the color in the underlying base image, you can definitely get away with only tweaking the textures, or not editing them at all. I, however, find that the more time spent on the textures, especially the hair, the less post work & clean-up you'll need later. If I'm only going to use a character in one or two panels, and don't think I'll ever need him again, I will skip this process (or go through it quickly). However, for all my principle characters, I can spend days editing the materials and creating custom textures.

For this example, I turned off the Comic Book Preview so you could
see the base textures without any modification.
Get started by opening the Materials Room, and then use the Material Select tool to start editing the materials and textures of each figure.

Here we see the Rose Fairy V4 (available from Daz3D.com) textures and materials.
Here you can see there are the expected channels for Diffuse (that's where the color image is added), Bump & Diffuse (adds texture and little details, like the leaf patterns that appear when light plays across the object). As I said before, you should already be at least familiar (if not comfortable) with the Materials Room. It is out of the scope of this tutorial to explain how to use it in detail. What I will do is explain a few key concepts and point out some of the main things you need to know.

One of the most difficult things that experienced Poser artists need to get used to is, that when creating comic book line art,
BUMP MAPS AND COMPLEX TEXTURES
ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS
.

In photo-realistic renders, bump maps and cool things like sub-surface scattering have the potential to add incredible life-like detail to your images. In line art, which is more about shape and shadow, those cool things you used to rely on will slow down the render process and create unpredictable results. 

Most of the people I know who have tried the Anomaly method and discarded it because they received poor results ignored this key element. They wanted to leave the textures alone and then complained that they were not getting good results.  Once you master this approach, I think you can get good results with some bump and displacement maps in place, because they can add a lot of detail to your line art. But when you are starting out, I really think you'll get better results by deleting most (if not all) of the textures and replacing them with simple colors or leaving them white.

Time to delete the Bump and Displacement Channels. At the VERY least,
you should delete these, otherwise you'll get speckled and bumpy looking shadow edges.

TIP: To delete the material, right-click on the little "Node Connector" icon in the upper-left of each material group. If the "Delete" option is grayed out (and this happens a lot), try clicking on the eye icon to toggle the size of the panel off/on real quick, or make a small change to one of the dials or any other setting. For some reason, sometimes Poser protects the nodes until you make a small change, then it lets you delete the texture.

Most of the time, I delete all the textures and replace them with white. I also adjust the Specular Value way down so I don't get large highlights. Admittedly, this is one of the areas I have the most trouble with, and it takes me a while to find just the right values for the character I'm working on.

I am now going to point out one of the COOLEST features to the Comic Book Preview. If you're familiar with the Cartoon Style wLines Display Style, you may be wondering what the heck is so cool about this. After all, we make simple line art with that setting. But, Poser 11 adds the ability to define each material group's Geometric Edge thickness and color.

Here, I've made the line very thick and changed
it to red so you can see this cool option.
At the very bottom of the Poser Surface parameters, you'll see the settings for Geometric_Edge and Geometric_Edge_Color. By using the selector (eyedropper) tool, you can tweak each of materials individually, and these settings will override the default setting that is in the Comic Book Preview panel.

Materials are set by group, so if you want to strip the color off of the Victoria Model, that can be very time consuming. Fortunately, some nice soul out there created a material preset that converts all of Victoria 4's materials to White, and turns the eyelashes transparent (trust me, this last bit is a blessing, because you don't want funky blocky eyelashes – they look weird in line art).

Link to All White Utility (and it works on M4, too!):
I will provide it when I find the source link. In the meantime, if you need it, email me and I will send it.

This useful utility pose can save a lot of time by stripping out all image textures
and bump maps, replacing them with simple white, which can then be edited for b&w.

As you can see here, the results are simple, but clean.

Now that she's very simple, you can go in and adjust colors so they
look great in b&w. Or you could then apply a simple skin tone that would
work well for basic toon and comic book work.

Now that I've got a white figure, it's time to add some custom textures. I edited the existing wing textures in Photoshop and created this:

Custom Texture for Enchanted Wings, © 2017 Mike Mitchell
You may download and use this, but may not redistribute it or provide
move it to your own computer to host the image.



Notice that I created textures even for the wings I'm not using right now. I did this in case I change my mind later and want to show them.

In addition to the wings, I always use a custom map for Victoria 4's  face, with only the eyebrows drawn on. Since women often stylize their eyebrows, this simple map works quite well, especially in medium and long shots.

Her lips, as you'll see below, are simple black color. Again, this works well in the highly stylized, stark lighting approach I use in my noir comics.

The lips were set up by just editing the material group for her limps, and then changing the defuse color to black. Sometimes I increase the specular value (i.e. shine) on the lips when I do a close-up, or need more detail.

The usefulness for that sort of thing will become more apparent as we move into the lighting next time. For now, though, it's important to remember what I said earlier: Bump Maps are not your friends. Attempting to create art like this calls for simplification, so that the geometry is the star and the textures, like those wings, are there to provide support.

I'm not also going to contradict myself. When you look at the screenshot below, you'll see that I actually left most of the textures intact on her necklace. I broke my own rules here because my initial test showed that the details on the necklace were actually helping make it stand out more, rather than just fade into her skin.

After stripping out all the other textures, I applied a custom image map
to the wings and her face (eyebrows only). I then left a little color on her
dress and hair so I can see them easier while adjusting the pose.

I did the same thing for her dress and hair. Even though I will be creating b&w art, having these bits of color help me adjust these items while posing the scene. The color makes it easy for me to spot geometry intersections between the props and her body.

I know this section covered a lot, but this is where a big part of the power of the Comic Book Preview comes from. Its key advantages being:

  • You can set the geometric edge width for each material group (selections/assignments made by Material ID)
  • You can easily apply textures that will work in b&w. If you go back and look at Part 5, you can see where I applied the custom stockings pattern and the diamond pattern to her skirt. 
  • Since the geometry is the star, you can add simple colors to either carry over to the final image, or just as helpers.

NEXT TIME: Set-Up Lights

UPDATE 08-18-2017: I cannot get into it here and now, but we do need to talk about hair at some point. Dynamic hair and any sort of strand-based hair is not going to work well with this process. You should look for "toon" hair, or use older hair that is based on geometry shells, rather than hair that replies heavily on transmaps.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Noir Style Tutorial, Pt. 7 - Step 2: Turn on Live Comic Book Preview

IMPORTANT: This tutorial only works with Poser 11 and up.
It will NOT work with Daz Studio or earlier versions of Poser.

Now that I've got the figure loaded and have some of the various morphs applied, it's time to see what she'll look like in the Live Comic Book Preview Mode. First, locate the Comic Book Preview icon at the bottom of the preview window and click it.

BTW: All the examples in this article, unless otherwise indicated, are completed using the Document Display Style of Texture Shaded.

Click the icon to open the Comic Book Preview Options pane.
The panel will open and you will see a surprisingly small number of options.
[Checkbox]: Geometic Edge Lines (turns edge lines on/off)
[Dial]: Multiplier (set the default line width)
    [Checkbox]: Weld (modifies how seams are handled)
Comic Book Filer (three options)
    [ ] None
    [ ] Black And White
    [ ] Color
[Dial]: Threshold (big number = darker, small number = lighter)

Turning on the Geometric Edge does exactly
what you think it will do: it outlines all geometry.

You can play around with the settings and quickly get a good idea of what they do. Keep in mind, out of the box, the default settings are rough and you're going to get very bad results. You'll need to explore and experiment a little to find something that works for you.

Selecting Black and White has predictable results.

Here's an example of a thinner line combined with color and a significantly lower threshold.

For this image, Geometric Edges are turned on, the line Modifier is set to 0.450000
Color is selected, and the Threshold is set to 0.370000

If you've ever used the Threshold Adjustment in Photoshop (or GiMP), then the dial in the control panel shouldn't come as a surprise. It converts the image to, essentially, a 2-tone graphic, turning grays white when they fall below the threshold setting you select, and simultaneously turning the darker colors black.

You can get an almost pure outline (little shading) simply by adjusting
Threshold setting. Here, we see it set to 0.10000. As you can see,
Poser 11 does a pretty good job of giving you clean, simple outlines.
Something else to remember, this uses the OpenGL drivers on your computer. That means you can combine it with all of the other Document Display modes, such as the wireframe, as seen below.
Geometric Edge Lines are on, Multiplier = 0.660000
Comic Book Filter is set to Color, Threshold = 0.400000


TIP: The line settings use very small numbers. I usually select something between 0.45 and 0.65. Although sometimes I do go as high as 0.80 as my default Geometric Edge thickness.

Keep in mind, you can override this setting in the Materials Room,
as we'll see in the next part of this tutorial.

One of my favorites, especially when I don't want to do a lot of exiting on the materials, is to combine Comic Book Preview with Cartoon w/Line. This creates very dramatic shadows. This is my fallback for when I'm in a hurry.

Close the Comic Book Preview Options window
by clicking on the "X" in the upper-right corner.


THIS IS IMPORTANT:
The Comic Book Preview Options window does not close automatically when you click on another item in the interface (such as when you try to adjust lights or Document Display Style). To close this pane, you must click on the "X" in the upper-right corner.



NOTE: There is a Poser video that also covers this. It's worth checking out:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jE3_V_D1ScE 

NEXT TIME: Step 3: Edit Materials

Friday, July 21, 2017

Noir Style Tutorial, Pt. 6 - Step 1: Figure Set-Up

Enough intro text. It's time to dive right in.

As with any new scene, you open Poser 11, create a new scene (if one wasn't created automatically) and then load your figure, hair, props, etc.

Poser 11 with Victoria 4.2 loaded, along with hair and wings.
DISCLAIMER: I know I said this earlier, but it bears repeating. This is an intermediate tutorial. I'm not going into detail on how to load a figure, load hair and size it to fit the figure, or how to load the props (like these wings). There are scores of tutorials that cover these subjects, so go check with them first before contacting me for more details.

Now, moving right along.

In this screen capture, you can see that I have loaded Victoria 4.2 (hereafter referred to as V4), the Girl 4 Hair, and Enchanted Wings. I will also load the Morphs ++ and Expressions, which are all available in the Victoria 4.2 Starter Bundle from Daz3D.com.

Of course, you can use any figures and wardrobe you want for your own work (if you're following along). The key is to stick with figures that are easy to use in Poser, which means avoiding the Genesis (and all their many descendants) figures.

Detail of screen capture.

Right now, everything in the scene is still default. And, if you look closely, you can see that the wings are semi-transparent (which is something we'll have to deal with, eventually) and that there are these funky little stalks coming out of them. There's nothing wrong with them, per se, but I don't like them and they don't quite match my character concept.

© 2017 Daz Productions, Inc.
For clothing, I will be loading the Rose Fairy V4. By the way, if you're a member of the Daz Platinum Club, you can pick these props up for $1.99 each. In other words, the whole fairy outfit is less than $5, and that includes license to publish images and animations for profit. Here's a look at the promotional art for the combined wings and fairy costume.

For my design, I decided to dispense with the skirt. Considering my intended use for the character in a comic book story I'm working on, the skirt really isn't needed. In fact, I played around with it for a full day before deciding that it just got in the way. The leaf top is low enough to cover her groin, so as long as I'm careful with my camera angles, I shouldn't need the petal skirt. I will have to be careful about shots from the rear, though, as there is no petal back there. Unless I watch it, this rose fairy could become a moon fairy.

As you can see from the promo image for the wings and costume, they're pretty detailed. In fact, I think they look pretty good. But my final character is going to be rendered small (think Tinkerbell size), and all those other details are just going to be distractions. That's why I hid the elements I don't want to see in the final renders.


On the left side of the figure, you can see where I've selected the top wing (identified as  rTopWing at the top of the Properties panel, and I am going to toggle off its Visibility. I already did this for the extraneous items on the other side of the figure. I hid the stalks and two of the wings, leaving me a simple profile that will work well in the finished comic book I'm working on.

NEXT TIME: Turn on Live Comic Book Preview



Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Noir Style Tutorial, Pt. 5 - Process At a Glance

Base Figure Image created in Poser 11, post work in Manga Studio 5,
Background created in Manga Studio 5
Custom legging and skirt textures created in Photoshop
© 2016 Mike Mitchell, Hatta Mari TM 2015 Mike Mitchell
Looking back, I can see that I really haven't put these sections in the proper order. Or, at the very least, I should have included an overview of the workflow when I discussed the required software.

But what's done is done.

At long last, here is a very basic overview of the procedure that I'm calling the Anomaly Process: 
  1. Figure Set-Up (Select & Pose Figure)  [Poser 11]
  2. Turn on Live Comic Book Preview  [Poser 11]
  3. Edit Materials  [Poser 11 & optionally Photoshop]
  4. Set up Lights  [Poser 11]
  5. Adjust Lighting  [Poser 11]
    1. Sidebar: The difference between light types in Poser
  6. Render Settings [Poser 11]
  7. Creating Render Passes  [Poser 11]
  8. Cleaning up Renders  [Photoshop]
  9. Combining Renders  [Manga Studio / Clip Studio]
  10. Image Clean-Up / Hand-Work / Post Work  [Manga Studio / Clip Studio]
    1. Sidebar: A quick tip on adding contour lines to your figure [MS/CS or Photoshop]
  11. Saving Your Final Image
Sounds like a lot, but some of those steps are pretty darned easy, and the first 6 or 7 should be second nature to all Poser users.

NEXT TIME: Step 1: Figure Set-Up

Friday, July 14, 2017

Noir Style Tutorial, Pt. 4 - Inspiration

I'm going to take a quick detour in this post and discuss my inspiration for my noir style. A lot of people have compared my work to Frank Miller's seminal work, Sin City. I cannot deny that he's an influence on the look I'm striving (and usually failing) to achieve. But truth be told, he's not my main inspiration. That would fall on other artists like the groundbreaking godfather of modern comics, Will Eisner. Eisner was a true visionary – someone who pushed the bounds of what comics could (and eventually did) become: a legitimate art form.

But as much as I love Will Eisner's line work, amazing use of lines, shadows and soft panels, and as much inspiration as I draw from him, h'es out of my league. I'm not that good. I know that. I accept it; it doesn't bother me. But even though I can't actively copy from it, it does inspire me to always seek to do more with my art, to somehow strive beyond my (very) humble skillset to TRY to achieve "art."

Will Eisner, A Contract With God © 1978
"More than any other book in my collection, A Contract With God transports me to a very specific time in comics history: the late ’70s, when the art form of comics felt alive with possibilities to me but dead as a doornail to Americans in general — a musty, decaying relic of a bygone era. Eisner’s book connected with me as a sign of what comics could be. It wasn’t a product of its time, nor did it seem to rebel against its time. It existed in its own continuum, patiently waiting for the rest of its kind to quietly arrive — by the thousands as it turned out — on the shelves of North American bookstores... The style was cartoony, the body language and facial expressions nearly operatic in their intensity, but there were odd narrative turns and moral ambiguity at play too. The cityscapes and interiors created a strong sense of place, with the authority of a sharp and vivid memory; yet somehow, whatever nostalgia they might’ve evoked, the human drama at the heart of it all felt fresh and new..."
- Introduction to "A Contract With God" by Scott McCloud
So, I think about pose. I think about light. I think about creating pages that move the story forward.

Another influence for me, and probably a more visibly direct one, would be Alex Toth, who is someone who's work I've always been aware of and respected, but I didn't develop a sense of awe for what he accomplished until I was well into my 40s. Despite his use of heavy blacks, he mastered negative space and created a sense of focus that just leaves me in awe. Actual awe. It takes me forever to "read" one of his comics because I keep stopping to admire the lines and brushwork for so long that I lose track of the story and have to go back and read it again.

Recently, I purchased his amazingly fun book, Bravo for Adventure, and I still haven't finished it because I keep stopping to admire the art. This is just such a fun book, and many historians consider it to be Toth's most important single work. I mean, just look at this cover: His body language just conveys a sense of strength and swagger, which is amazing because he's standing still. And notice the single eye and sweet rump of the woman walking by, who is obviously checking out his backside. The bi-planes and his clothing instantly let us know the time period. And his outfit and proximity to the plane tell us he's a pilot. And, dig if you will, that scarf. If this were realistically lit, it should be half in shadow. But Toth uses it as a design element to lengthen his body. That is a LOT of information conveyed in a single image. (Buy it at Amazon; you can get it for $18 - $25 and you'll love it!)

And these are the sort of mindful details I'm trying to bring to my work now. Poses need to advance character or story. People don't stand, they POSE. Shoulders and stance need to convey emotion.

© Alex Toth 1980
I'm not interested in naturalism, I'm interested in STORY. Even if it's a single panel, like the one above, I want to convey something about what's going on. Who is there (and at a glance you should be able to tell who's who). And, of course, there are the shadows. Deep, rich shadows that frame the action and guide our eyes to the focal point of the action.

Finally, and this may come as a surprise, I draw so much inspiration from the man who is without peer as the premier illustrator of the 20th Century: Norman Rockwell.

© 1958 Saturday Evening Post
I've read Rockwell's amazing "autobiography" (if you ever read it, you'll know why I put it in quotes), been fortunate enough to see his work in a museum, and have really enjoyed reviewing it online. The man knew how to tell a story in a single illustration, probably better than anyone else from his era (and, for that matter, he still has few peers). Just look at this classic cover from The Saturday Evening Post.

Even without knowing the painting is titled "The Runaway," we can see that from the iconic bundle-on-a-stick that's lying beneath the kid's stool. And notice that the kid is clean, has a nice haircut, and good clothes. He's not homeless or an orphan. Even the plumpness of the cop gives him a non-threatening "dad body," which means he's probably got kids and knows exactly how to talk to the boy. And that's what's happening here, he's talking and the kid is listening. Oh, and take a look at those motorcycle cop boots. The kid probably made it to the edge of town before the friendly peace officer picked him up and took him to the diner for a soda and a chat.


And look at that bemused expression on the counter man. The story is all here: middle-class kid ran away, friendly cop found him, and you know it's going to be okay. He's going to get home and everything will be okay. And we get all this from a single picture. Note the even more subtle details: bright lights make this a non-threatening location. All the shoulders are slumped/relaxed. No one is yelling or scared. Even the text, "Special Today," tells us something special (or unusual) is happening here at the diner today. These are all subtle indicators that tell the story, and we pick up on them, whether we know it or not.

Even though I'm not trying to imitate Norman Rockwell's style in any way, he is definitely a source of inspiration for me.

NEXT TIME: Process At a Glance