Friday, July 10, 2009

Outcomes assessment #2

This is the second in a series of analyses of exercises and activities from the Graphic Novel Intensive class at PNCA.

Number 1 is here.
Number 3 is here.
Number 4 is here.
Number 5 is here.
Number 6 is here.
Number 7 is here.

Dan's exercise in character development:
(In-class, day 2)
We engaged in a rather brief in-class discussion of the communication of character through visual design, with Bluto/Brutus from Popeye being the primary example of connection between physical appearance and personality. We talked about shorthand methods for characterization, through clothing or body types, as well as playing against stereotypes for effect. After the discussion, the students were given an assignment: pick three descriptors from a list of words and draw one figure to represent each characteristic. No context or other characters were allowed, only clothing and hand props. We had about 15 minutes.

Here's the list. I checked off the ones I wanted to attempt.

And here are my figures:

I did the "stealthy" ninja twice, because the first guy looked a little too much like he was settling in for a nap, not like he was sneaking around a corner. And the "bullying" guy does have a bald head, but I couldn't get the pencil lines to show in the scan.

After we pinned those up to the wall and critiqued each other's, we tried the exercise again, this time with a selection of character descriptions taken from novels. We had another 15 minutes to illustrate two of them.

I picked number three, the "new fellow," and the last one, Alice. Here they are:

We again did the pin-up-and-critique thing, and then Dan gave us a final exercise. We were to take one character from the first exercise and one character from the second exercise and have them meet in a six-panel strip, following this script (the stuff in the bubble was our reading assignment, not part of the exercise):

We had about 45 minutes to complete the exercise, which was to be handed in for review, not pinned up. I picked the bully and the new fellow and came up with this:

The point of the exercise was to work on ways to communicate personality and characterization using only a figure's physical appearance. To that end, it was very instructive. When we looked around the figures chosen to represent different characteristics, certain tropes and conventions came forward: an exaggerated upturn of the nose for haughty, certain clothing, such as a roll-neck sweater, for the (child) bully. It was also somewhat of a sociological study at the same time; although it wasn't the main point, we found that certain descriptors were universally gender-biased: only women were demure or naughty, for example. This kind of response is probably a good thing to be aware of when designing characters.

There was one severe limitation on the exercise: it seemed critically dependent on a student's ability at figure drawing. Using Scott McCloud's schema, it's all about choice of image:

If we examine these five choices, we can see that four of them could be determined by the writer, (if we broke the cartoonist into two people, a writer and an illustrator). A full script could specify the kind of transition (moment), the type of shot (frame), the text and kind of balloons (word), and the page layout (flow). Even an unimaginative or uninvolved artist could follow the script to produce the desired effect; even stick figures could be used to have the panels "read" in these aspects.

What the script cannot blueprint, but only suggest, is the representation of character through physical appearance. "He was a tough man who looked like he'd just as soon punch you as talk to you." That was easy to write, and I might even have a mental picture of how to convey it, but my figure drawing or cartooning skills are nowhere near competent enough to execute it. Even if I rely heavily on stereotyping and shorthand, I am not sure I could draw them well enough for a reader to recognize the signals.

Take a look at my sketches. You can probably tell the bully is tattooed (although I don't know how his right arm would look any different if a snake was in fact crawling on it), but can you tell he is wearing steel-toed boots? Do the new fellow's clothes accentuate his lankiness (my goal) or does it just look like he's wearing high-waters? Does Alice's over-large head look intentional (as it was supposed to) or does it just look like I got the proportions wrong? Does her face convey any "inner ferment," or does she just look pissed? Without evidence of my own control of line drawing, it's hard for the reader to tell.

As for doing it with stick figures, I think that would take even more talent. Perhaps Randall Munroe or John Porcellino can get across such subtle emotion with lines and curves and gesture, but that appears to take even more talent than "realistic" illustration.

It's not creativity, it's technique that is the problem. I gave the characters different haircuts, but I am not sure it's really noticeable. I tried to give the characters different walks to represent their different natures, but the whole thing is so awkward I'm not sure it shows. Look at the instructions for the strip: it says to "represent each character w/ a distinct texture/line quality." I really had no idea how to do this, so I drew the bully with a soft (4B) pencil, the new fellow with a hard (2H) pencil, and everything else with an in-between HB. I'm not sure there's much difference besides one being darker than the other. In any event, Dan didn't seem to be overwhelmed by my representation of character; here are his comments:

"Nice simple story w/ a good progression. It's very clear." Yeah, I like the story, and in the forty-five minutes we had, I think I did a pretty good job with four of the five choices; it's just that the exercise was really concerned with the fifth. Comics are the combination of art and writing, and this exercise throws that into clear relief. As much as we can examine comics as a "literary" form, good comics have to have competent and controlled artwork to convey a message, and this cannot be overlooked.

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