In my upcoming on-line class about depth and details I will not be talking about the above image… though I should be. The truth is, I should have been including this image every year… but I haven’t. So, here it is now, a spectacular Wally Wood splash page. It’s not only chock-full of great details, it’s not only brilliantly and consciously composed and executed, it also demonstrates some methods of arranging details and visual elements in a way I won’t really be covering in class, which is ideal for a sneak preview.
A lot of young artists become dazzled by art that contains a lot of details, then again, so does the general public. The mystified general public and young artist, believing themselves astounded before the master artist and his rich world of details are actually witnessing a tremendous slight of hand. The artist, in all their detailed glory, are hiding from the viewer what it is that has actually engaged them… CLARITY!
That’s really the thing, any half-ass artist can cram their work full of meaningless and confusing details, but a real master uses those details to not only enhance, but maintain clarity. Without clarity, a dazzlingly detailed work of art simply becomes an ordeal to look at, like a cacophony of sound that creates nothing but a headache.
What I am about to say about the above drawing will seem painfully obvious to a well-trained eye, but ultimately I have found that most of my students have come to me less to learn to draw than to develop a trained eye. My basic teaching philosophy is that you can’t really teach someone to draw, that they do at home in their long hours of private study and practice. We teach them to forget, if they are willing, but the bottom-line practical value in an art education is teaching students to see, because if they can’t see it, they can’t do it. In other words, besides forgetting what they think they know, seeing is the most essential step. If you are doing the fundamental work of learning to draw on your own, if I can not only teach a student to see it, but understand it, eventually they will be able to do it. So, for those of you with an untrained eye, here are the simple tools and tricks Wally Wood used to make the above image work.
First off, for all its stunning glory, the drawing is elegant in its simplicity in that it essentially is a composition broken down into three simple large shapes, or areas of interest. By breaking down each of those elements we will be able to see how Wally Wood has controlled the details and maintained clarity.
Firstly, the background elements are almost entirely composed of horizontally and vertically arranged shapes and lines. Yes, it is a cityscape, so that is rather conveniently an aspect of a cityscape, but those static verticals and horizontals recede. Additionally, though the contrast is high, the background is composed of a few large white rectangles, but mostly is dark, and therefore recedes.
Secondly, the crowd, which is dazzlingly energetic, is masterfully rendered. Squint your eyes at the drawing… what do you see? Essentially 3 values, the dark of the background, the light of the plane, and the gray tone of the crowd. That gray also recedes behind the plane, but pops up in front of the dark cityscape. The shapes and sizes of the shapes (black and white areas) in the crowd are all about the same size. The spotted blacks and white areas are fairly uniform in size, and as they go back in space, the black and white shapes that make up the crowd grow smaller and become visually grayer.
So what Wally Wood has done here is he has taken the background cityscape and created a pattern of horizontals and verticals. He has taken the crowd scene and created a pattern of gray that goes from light to medium dark as it recedes, and that crowd scene, unlike the cityscape, has no horizontal or vertical axis, it is simply a rolling field of gray, a ramp.
Thirdly, and this is brilliant, the plane and its clouds become not only the most brilliant areas of white, but the areas of most intense contrast and expression. Look at those BOLD active lines that make up the trailing smoke, so energetic as they pop up off the static grid that is the background. Similarly, there are lovely spotted blacks under the body of the plane itself, and a fabulous shadow that creates weight under the brilliant white plane. Then, of course, the plane and the smoke are arranged diagonally, creating energy in both diagonal axes! It positively pops, not just off the grid of the cityscape, but off the smooth gray pattern created by the crowd.
The simple construction itself is a dazzling example of mastery of vision and clarity, and to a trained eye, far more impressive even than the rich details.
Yep, I can see it, but it still dazzles me! Could I reproduce it now that I have seen it? Well, to say so would be hubris, as Wally was GOD, but at least now that I see it and understand it… perhaps, just perhaps one day I will be able to create a drawing as brilliant as this one, and if I can’t, maybe you will!