Saturday, September 20, 2008


I'm sure there's a technical name for those squiggly black lines that artists put in the background to complete a picture.

Frank Godwin

Stan Drake

Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson

Unfortunately, I have no idea what they're called. More importantly, what rules govern their use? How does the artist know what shape to make them? How large or small should they be? What kind of lines work best in a particular situation?

Feliks Topolski

The great William Oberhardt (below) explained the rules about as well as they can be explained: "I follow only my feeling of harmony."

William Oberhardt

It's fun to watch the most tightly controlled, "realistic" artists use totally abstract splotches in order to round out a picture.

John Cullen Murphy

Al Williamson

I often think artists use this device the same way many animals use a tail. A tail provides counterweight and balance for animals, enabling them to walk along tree branches or make sharp turns at high speeds. It keeps the animal stabilized and on target. Similarly, once an artist has completed the primary subject of a drawing, he or she sizes it up and often adds whatever abstract shape or weight is necessary to keep the picture in balance. When the artist finds that the demands of content and realism have tugged a picture away from a good design, those little black squiggles often restore what Oberhardt called "harmony."

Plus, a tail often serves another function: when a dog (or an artist) is happy or proud, a tail is something to wag.


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Seems to me it's basically an abstract background. If these drawings or paintings had fully developed environments where the characters are placed in, perhaps the artist would use a shadow, or a lamp, or a tree, or a closet to serve as a balance or a contrast to make the other shapes jump out. When there's no need for a background or environment, an abstract shape will do the trick.

Andreas Schuster said...

must be ghosts!
one day, all blackness and weird lines will combine and rule the world!

Li-An said...

Very interesting question. I use and abuse of this kind of stuff in my work. Il think the abstraction comes from a photography approach: the background is not so "clean" than foreground and can be "impressionist" (only shodows and light). So, giving some idea of the background with abstraction is not a problem for the modern eye. I think it would be confused for somebody of the XVIII Century.

David Apatoff said...

Benjamin, that's right-- these are abstract enhancements to pictures which are, for the most part, very meticulous representational drawings. The pictures would not be nearly as effective without these additions. Fine linework is offset by thick, black brushwork. Careful, detailed images are surrounded by impulsive, almost random marks. These artists all knew perfectly well how to draw a lamp or a tree in the background, but chose abstraction instead. Each artist knew exactly how to work abstractly. What does that tell you about the difference (if any) between abstract and representational art?

Anonymous said...

oh yeah Al Williamson " in the name of the great Alex raymond " the Raffaello of comics.
For me Al is the best of all Raymond's disciples.

Piya said...

Come to think of it, we've never really had a name for it. I use it to add contrast to the important parts of a painting. Usually, the focal point has a nice loud light source shining on it, so some black on the negative shape helps to bring it out.

Plus, we're taught to hate/despise/sneer at/persecute with extreme prejudice blank white paper.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

@ David: I guess my first answer would be that generally, abstract art is purely about beauty, harmony, while representational art is about storytelling. If any of these artists had put in a lamp instead of an abstract shape, we would automatically assume the lamp has some kind of importance. And if it doesn't, we, the "audience", might get confused. Maybe this is why a painter such as Van Eyck would make sure every object in the scene has some kind of symbolic meaning. One of the most memorable art history classes in high school to me, was when we analyzed Van Eyck's painting of Arnolfini's wedding (among others). Before I (and anyone else in my class) would've thought that dog and those oranges were just there to liven the scene, or maybe because they happened to be there when Van Eyck painted that work.

This puts me on an interesting train of thought: I think there is no such thing as a purely representational painting. All representational paintings are also abstract, in terms of composition, colour, etc. If our minds were wired differently, maybe all we could see in paintings were blotches of color, whether the painting's representational or not. I think those abstract elements take care of the experiental part of storytelling, while the representational part takes care of the objective part. I realized this only a few days ago, because I have just started working with color, and in some research I read this post: Gurney Journey: Color
It's so interesting how the B&W is almost completely objective storytelling, while the color versions really add feeling. It's like an added abstract element.

So back to the tails on drawings: I'd say they're there to make the drawings more alive (make us feel that moment more) without adding any unnecessary story elements.

Anonymous said...

I've heard such things described as "abstract elements" but I'm not sure if that's their official name.

I've studied these doohickeys as well. And used them. And one thing I know for sure is that sometimes it is required to pop the main figures forward, acting as a kind of shadow... as a way to create a stronger edge on an important figure where otherwise it would fade into the white of the paper, but without having to deal with perspective or furniture design or anything that might a) take too much time to draw, or b) attract the eye too much, or c)not fit in the area in question.

But there's lots of reasons for it besides that. There's a metaphoric-semiotic aspect to the shapes, they can loosely indicate or emphasize the emotional state of the drawing (from boxing to romance) at the same time as framing it. They can be part of larger rhythms or eye paths that continue into the drawing. They can create a more interesting surface pattern or be purely decorative. A way to incorporate looseness in an otherwise tight drawing. To suggest other objects that are blurred in the distance, or an indistinct backdrop, or a shadow coming in from off-camera. Maybe the artist is feeling bored and cramped and just wanted to swish his brush around a bit on the paper, to remind himself to play. The Frazetta looks like he was loving the brush strokes he was getting and how beautifully they render the girl. So he just echoed those strokes as backdrop, toning the picture with the beautiful strokes, which also lead the eye into the girl rhythmically.

There's probably a whole boatload of reasons to dash in a little abstraction to finish off a picture, but I would guess it happens mostly for the sake of "The Engineering of the Storytelling" ... also known as, "I just felt something went there."


Ben said...

David, I love your blog.
You write about such specific, and tangible aspects of art. I suspect if you were a music writer you would opine at length about note bending or something.
I find this approach so refreshing. I'm tired of reading interviews or critiques that go on and on about social context, the meaning of art, the inspiration behind it all - such broad strokes!

I want to read about how Giacometti painted with long skinny brushes or how DeKooning boiled his brushes. I want to talk about how Frazetta used underpaintings.

There's honesty in the minutia, and it sure beats pompous FINE art speak.

Mark said...

I think some of you guys are reading to much into this. In the examples given the abstract elements not only balance the composition but are necessary story telling elements. They provide contrast to the focal point of the image. It's composition 101, light against dark, dark against light.Simple against complex.

On another point some of the examples are from comics or cartoon strips and who has the time to draw a complete background when some simple contrast in either texture or value will get the job done.Deadlines, deadlines.

Duh!, I guess I'm just echoing Ben's comments, I'll just shut up now.

Anonymous said...

Never thought about it- I guess I would call it a "lackground" because it lets you get the value contrast of a background without drawing a background!

Anonymous said...

I've always called that abstract rhythmic filler “foil”. I believe I first heard the term from Mort Leav when I took a cartooning class as a kid, but can't be sure. Foil's job is to reinforce the rhythms of the picture and direct the viewer's eye to the stars of the illustration without up-staging them.

Jack Ruttan said...

It's black but not black all the way.

Dominic Bugatto said...

Ideally , in lieu of drawing a background, I think they're primarily done to separate the figure from the blank space , and make them 'pop' .

It's 'gestural filler ' .

At least that's how I use them.

I would agree that deadlines can often dictate this approach , but also it adds another visual element that may be a good counter point to a previously detailed panel.

David Apatoff said...

Andreas, they couldn't do a worse job than the people ruling it now.

li-an, a number of the old masters used squiggly lines in the background but I agree with you, ever since abstract art became legitimate, artists have taken many more liberties with that part of the picture.

Clara, Al Williamson is a very interesting case. In the early 1950s I think he was every bit as good as his buddy Frank Frazetta. Their paths diverged, and Frazetta became an international phenomenon while Williamson ended up a comic book artist inking lesser artists like Curt Swan. Both of them had plenty of opportunities to go astray in their careers. Frazetta could have ended up an anonymous ghost artist for Al Capp. There's no telling what life has in store for us. But back in the days of EC comics, they sure combined for some fine work.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree with your take on the equivalency of Williamson to Frazetta in the 1950s.

Al Williamson's work has always referred rather superficially to reality, symbolizing forms using pre-established "indicators" on the surfaces of his pictures.... usually cribbed from Raymond, Foster or the Cooper Studio guys. Or Frazetta or Wood or Hogarth, even.

Frazetta's work has always functioned at the level of the metaphor, which has a much more direct relation to life. His figures seem to be moving, seem to be experiencing emotion, stress, threat, impingement, conflict.

As Rick Berry put it, Frazetta thinks pantographically. He can previsualize his scenes, according to Pyle's Brandywine Method, as if they were real, in the process imagining the form and lighting in his mind. And this is why Frazetta's images come out as whole entities from his imagination, have an "inner life", have believable action, and work on the emotions in unity. This ability to imagine strongly is also why Frazetta could do great work in any medium, while Williamson only could do black and white and had to rely heavily on photo reference... because Williamson, as far as I can tell, could not project imaginary light onto imaginary form in his mind.

This is why Frazetta is an art god, and was always an art god, even before he was known to the public. And Williamson had to become "a pro".

Anyway, I think Williamson is still great. Just not in the same category as a talent, in my opinion, as Frazetta. Just as Alex Raymond wasn't in the same category as NC Wyeth.


David Blaine Clemons said...

Portrait painters often use a similar effect. It creates a look that is more sketchy or unfinished. In fact, you may often notice how the figures in these drawings are incomplete, as with the Williamson or Oberhardt examples. It makes a sort of short-hand for the background, placing the figures in an undefined space without having to render details, and allows the artist to be more expressive with the medium.

Jack R said...

This is an interesting issue. I've seen examples of illustrators who use these background squiggles to awful effect. It's immediately evident that they don't know where to begin or end and the hatching comes off as jarring or worse, pops out of the composition instead of settling back as it should. My own favorite example of this is Enoch Bolles who never used squiggles in his backgrounds but instead composed lovely amorphic shadows that achived the same effect with no lines.

The Social Reformer said...

wowowwow! good stuff

David Apatoff said...

Piya, I agree some artists are taught to hate blank space, but many others seem to fill it out of a natural born lack of discipline. Whatever the cause, I agree it is definitely there. That's one reason I admire artists who appreciate understatement and restraint.

Benjamin, when you say "there is no such thing as a purely representational painting," you are singing my song! As for James Gurney's great blog, I could easily get lost in there and not come out for a month.

Kev, I understand your point about Frazetta and Williamson, but I am one of those who thinks that Frazetta made some pretty awful drawings in the early 1950s at a time when Williamson was doing some highly imaginative and sophisticated (although erratic) work for EC. In fairness to Frazetta, I think a large part of his problem was that he hadn't learned to harness his amazing talent so many of his drawings seemed unsuccessful because they were lopsided or excessive. I think he had to learn to bring it under control and preserve a balance. I'm also one of those who was unimpressed with his ghost work for Al Capp, and who has seen some of the photographs and illustrations he used as a crutch in the early days. Yes, he did turn out to be a phenomenal talent and he deserves every bit of his success, but I believe that it could have turned out otherwise (both for Frazetta and for Wiliamson).

David Apatoff said...

Ben, thanks for your comment. Like you, I am really interested in what makes these pictures work, and I am happy to say that I learn a lot from commenters on this subject.

Mark, I follow you and agree with you about the balance provided by abstract elements, although I'm not sure what you think their "storytelling" role is.

Anonymous, jackinthebox and dominic, "lackground," "foil" and "gestural filler" seem like three pretty good candidates.

adebanji said...

I just love the insight into this. As, sometimes I have found myself using it but didn't know it had more depth and meaning!

Anonymous said...

I think balance is as good a description as any but there's also an aspect of signature stroke. Once the subject is dealt with, the forms rendered as I like (or as the job dictates), the marks around and behind are purely what I think need to be there. They are often the most joyous part of the painting for me. And the effects they have - to offset smooth textures with rough, to pop the lights forward with darkness behind, to introduce a colour harmonic - perhaps with the merest fleck... Take a look at John Singer Sargent's portrait studies. I find them so much stronger than his complete oils because it is in the drawing that we see his real interaction with the subject and it's where we see the artist.

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