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

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