Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Art School 101: TANGENTS

09/23/2012 UPDATE: Since I wrote this post, it has come to my attention that some are coming away with the lesson that I am recommending  "zero tolerance" for any tangent under any condition.

This is not true. I regret some of the wording that leads to this conclusion. I have no plan to re-edit the text below, but let this disclaimer serve as reminder that no "rules" are absolute.

 As Martin Fagan mentions in the comments of this very post, key aspects of the design of THE SECRET OF  KELLS movie were based entirely on tangents and they are very well worked out.  In a particularly stylized design system, intelligent tangents are not only possible but necessary and desirable. The operative word is intelligent. Very linear, very geometric stylization can tolerate tangents galore. 

The SCOOBY and FLINTSTONE examples here are used because the kind of drawing is not particularly stylized and the tangents are clumsily done. They're supposed to be volumetric (in a sort of default generic way) which in and of itself isn't bad but the awkward collisions of various shapes and lines are all the more conspicuous because of it. 

Friend, colleague and teacher MARK KENNEDY has done a series of art instruction refresher posts lately under the heading "A kick in the head" parts one, two and three on his essential " TEMPLE OF THE 7 GOLDEN CAMELS" blog.

Mark's first post concerns, fittingly enough, silhouette: probably the single most important of all art rules. I highly recommend it. He covers the subject so thoroughly I don't have much to add other than the anecdotal remark that I don't ever recall hearing anyone stress it's importance until my first week as a professional, back in Eric Larson's animation training course at Disney. As far as I can recall, even Preston Blair fails to mention it in his first ANIMATION book (he gets around to it in the second) and I don't even remember it being brought up much in art school, though we did cover negative space quite a bit, which is a roundabout way of thinking of silhouette.

Silhouette is one of those rules that is so important, so fundamental, that it isn't just important to animation: it is essential to clarity in all graphic art, including painting, sculpture and photography. I confess like many "bullheads" when I first heard about it: I immediately questioned whether it was 100 per cent valid in every circumstance. After all, when we are animating, we will have to draw many angles of a figure and many phases of action. True enough, but for that reason, it is important to remember to keep silhouette in mind for all key poses, unless the angle and composition forbids it. If you need (or want) to make an exception to this rule, you better know what you are doing and follow through intelligently.

To put it more simply:

If you can put something in silhouette, you should.

It invariably makes it read better. If it is impossible, make sure that your overlapping forms have good silhouette within the contour of the whole figure.

Allow me now, with Mark's permission, to sidetrack onto the related subject of tangents.

If silhouette is desirable, tangents are not. Tangents occur when lines or shapes begin to collide hap-hazardly, usually right on the contours they are describing.

Here's the Oxford definition of a tangent:

"a straight line or plane that touches a curve or curved surface at a point, but if extended does not cross it at that point."

I also expand the definition to include shapes that collide awkwardly and uneccesarilly, almost invariably compromising silhouette.

To illustrate, here are some examples from a glossy catalog of a Hanna-Barbera museum show that toured in the 1990's. First up: a classic image of the SCOOBY DOO cast on the run.

Never mind that I hate this show and the characters, let's note that there is an incredibly noticeable tangent at the point "Shaggy's" nose encounters the back of "Velma's" head. Forgivable one might say, since this is derived from a cycle of animation containing five characters all running.

Well, yes and no. While it would not be a crime in a single transitional frame of animation, as a key, it is less forgivable, and as a piece of art clearly cleaned up and codified as an icon, it just doesn't make sense. Someone either didn't know enough or care enough to rectify it. These are the sort of errors that always push H-B into the second rate category, even when they are trying to be first class.

In any event, as a still image, and even as a key, it would be better if there were any perceptible "air" between his nose and her head, or, failing that, if these two forms overlapped each other definitively, even if only slightly.

The area where "Fred's" arm encounters "Daphne's" torso is also awkward and technically a tangent, though less obvious than the one just observed, but again, in these circumstances, hard to rationalize.

Ironically, this complicated little area between "Scooby's" 'up' legs and the figures behind him has been relatively intelligently worked out. Also, For clarity's sake, someone has either wisely or accidentally kept a few legs from breaking Scooby's silhouette any more than necessary, although it's a toss up who's leg that is back there. Someone has decided to paint it as the "Daphne's" leg, but it looks more like "Velma's".

Also, this area, where "Scooby's" tail drags along the same line as "Shaggy's" leg is nearly a tangent, but avoids tangenting by slight degrees, which is all it takes to rectify such errors.

The fact that the tangent rule has been so haphazardly applied is something both to ponder and also to be avoided. Similar to the rule of thumb for silhouette:

If you can eliminate a tangent, do it.
If your tangents are intentional (or otherwise unavoidable), strive to make them as elegant as possible (or at least inconspicuous). (added 01/04/13)

Here's another example, from the same catalog: a group shot of the FLINTSTONES, characters I love, but from some crappy TV special done decades after the characters lost all spark. Probably the single worst tangent here is where "Wilma's mom's" hair intersects "Betty's" eye and collides with her pupil. Given that this is a slick cell setup, signed, published and probably sold at a premium price, this is just sloppy and stupid, beyond the weakness of even the artwork.

Likewise is the improbable way "Dino's" nose slips behind "Mom's" arm, despite the fact he is sitting clearly in front of her. Probably just an error of stacking or registration, but it is not the kind of error you want in an image that's supposed to be any kind of icon.

I'll have a little more to add about this image next time.


RooniMan said...

Oh man. I should go look at my drawings and look for tangents. And if I do, I'll be mortified.

Will Finn said...

Rooniman--Don't be mortified, just make sure to lose them when you clean up.

The more complex a drawing gets (particularly with multiple characters), the more potential for tangents occur. I don't worry about them when I am ruffing something out overly much, but when I am doing a finished drawing, that's the time to edit.

RooniMan said...

Oh thanks, Will.

A.M.Bush said...

Great post. I'm shocked by those super obvious tangents, they would have all been pretty easy to rectify. Whoever threw those together must have really not cared.

Michael said...

"If you can put something in silhouette, you should."... great quote, Will. One that should be obeyed. Great approach to clarity and identity. A bit of the K.I.S.S. principle... - Gillett

Martin Fagan said...

Those HB drawings are pretty lazy. I agree, there's no need to concern yourself too much if there's a lot of action going on. But on a Publicity Drawing?!? As you rightly pointed out, there's a lot of schoolboy errors going on there.

I recently supervised the Clean-up on the film The Secret of Kells where the objective of the final design was to create as many tangents and parallels as we could.
It was tricky to pull off at times but I think we were successful more often than not.

Will Finn said...

Hi Martin, KELLS looks like a wonderful film (i am embarrassed to confess I have not seen it yet but will catch up with the rest of the world eventually). Congratulations on it's success...

It's always interesting when someone who knows what they are doing defies a rule intentionally. Can you give us a bit of insight on the reasoning behind generating intentional tangents?

Eric Scales said...

Great post Will!

Could it be the reason that Silhouettes weren't really brought but before you got into Animation is because it's so much more crucial there than in other art? I mean, so much can be taken from a painting- you can appreciate texture, lighting, color, etc... the point of a painting is not always to communicate what a figure is doing. It may not have been till animation came around with it's very graphic look, that the importance of silhouette was even realized. Or sometimes these things sound so rudimentary to the artists that discover them that they aren't even necessarily codified the way they are nowadays.

Roberto Severino said...

Tangents sure sound like a pain in the ass for sure. Sometimes, I still find myself accidentally drawing tangents in my own work without realizing it. It gets very frustrating erasing them and drawing the line all over again. I'm only 15, but even I know there's something wrong with a drawing when the lines touch each other like that like in that crappy Scooby Doo drawing (yuck. That burned my eyes).

Will Finn said...

Eric--My guess is silhouette has always been desirable, but maybe it's so elemental that it gets taken for granted. Especially in the fine arts. Even for composing action on stage.

Robert S.--Like I said above, there are so many rules, they can tense you up when you are working loose, ruff and just thinking on paper. Old masters worked out dozens of little thumbnails to get their various elements right. Preliminary work is not always the best time to be so much on guard that you forget to have a good time drawing. Just look for these things any time you are trying to tie down an image. They are often as easy to fix as they are to make, once you know what to watch out for.

Sami said...

This was just an excellent read. May be I need to go and give a second look at my drawings.

Thanks Will :)

Mike Moloney said...

Great post Will! This should be required reading when you start in animation 101. Tangents with the frame is another huge tangent problem, i see it a lot in storyboards.

Daryl T said...

Hi Will,

Thanks for this psot. It si very informative. I'm sure if I look back at some of my drawings and I will, that I've screwed up somewhere. Thanks and all the best.

Raven M. Molisee said...

Tangents bug the sh*t out of me. Maybe its just because they're so easy to fix if you notice them and the places I always see them are in places that should have been noticed! Every one of them in those Hanna-Barbera images popped out at me.

The funny thing about silhouettes is that even though I went to an "animation college" the importance of them really wasn't stressed until I wound up in my first studio job.. So I'm still sort of coming out of that "are they ALWAYS important" mentality (slowly but surely I am!)... but I think that's also because there is a "wrong" way to do it. I've seen lots of really emotional/intense acting broken up because the person cleaning it didn't have the skill to fix the sillo while maintaining that intensity of drawings. Clearly there is a balance to be achieved. "If you can put it in silhouette you should" is a perfectly accommodating motto.

Great, great blog you have here by the way. Its a pleasure to read!

Brent A said...

Mr Finn, enjoy your posts & work for quite sometime. Those LE "cells" seem to appeal to certain enthusiasts who are woefully ignorant to the basics of animation & art (and have a limitless cash flow or credit).
As far as this abomination is concerned (missing is a "Happy Mother-In Laws Day 1997" banner) it looks as if the characters were positioned based on the distance of their eyes. The artist drew all the pupils first, perfectly spaced apart, and then fleshed out the characters willy-nilly.
Completely missing the point of the eyes being the window to one’s soul.

Virgil said...

I don't agree with your post. Saying that tangents are generally wrong in any kind of drawing is silly and very untrue.
Also, I think the main problem with that Scooby-Doo image is the character design and overall graphical quality, which are both awful.

Eric Scales said...

Virgil, I don't think Will's saying that Tangents are bad in any drawing, but that in most character animation, it's undesirable. The trouble with Tangents is that they confuse the eye. Overlapping forms tell you instantly what is in front and what is behind. When a shape touches another and they share that tangent, it deprives the viewers brain of that information about the characters in space. Now, one might make the arguement that the whole point of simple graphic animation such as the Flintstones or Yogi (I wouldn't lump Scooby in with these), is to appear flat and not give the illusion of round forms that Disney did. However, those flat characters still have to exist in a world that the audience can understand, one which uses most of the laws of space, and therefore they must be able to move through that space. You show this by using overlap, and eliminating tangents.

The other thing that should be noted is that the tangents to be eliminated are accidents. These are not intentional design elements that the animator or character designer has deliberately put there. To say that it doesn't matter if there are tangents is to minimize the importance of the very deliberate lines that the animator has created and where he/she put them. Anyone who's designed or drawn characters knows that this precision is crucial; the slightest pencil width difference can ruin an expression or sometimes the drawing. So if it is important where you put the lines, and you have the choice of creating a tangent (which confuses your viewer) or not (which makes the drawing clearer) which would you choose?

I'll also agree that Scooby and the Gang never had a particularly appealing look to me, but awful character designs? I don't think I could go that far. They were a product of their times. Now King of the Hill...

Will Finn said...

No rule is unbreakable. As Martin Fagan notes above, tangents were consciously incorporated into the design of what looks to be a very attractive film THE SECRET OF KELLS.

This is very different from the awkward flattening effect of an accidental tangent in a drawing that is not anywhere near as stylized as KELLS.

Pokey said...

Makes a perfectly good companion to your Flintstones mother in law vs early 60s one that you would post on in June, Will.:)