Another piece for the Umerica Survival Guide, this time revolving around a market (of sorts) selling all kinds of weird and wonderful contraband. I thought it might be interesting to put together a little blog post describing some of the design decisions I made along the way (for even a modest little image like this!).
First, I knock some ideas around on scrap paper and sketchbooks. I know the image commissioned is going to be used at 1/4 page, so a wide establishing ‘landscape’ would be a bit lost (any details becoming incredibly minute on the page as used). The image above shows me trying out a variety of scenes, where I get a bit closer into the action. There’s an early idea (bottom right), using the market stalls to tonally frame a series of little portraits depicting sellers and customers. Above that – the focus is entirely on some kind of robot butcher, perhaps selling dodgy alien meat. On the next page I start to combine the two ideas, but using perspective to pull visual focus towards the market seller (who is now out from behind the stall, which felt like a barrier between the viewer and the experience).
I gave quite a lot of thought to the composition here. There’s a lot going on, and if this wasn’t orchestrated with due consideration, things would get a bit messy. I wanted a visceral sense of market smells and noises. The main focus of the image should be the eyeball vendor, shouting out to the customers – maybe an offer relating to his dubious product (notice his fingers are signalling ‘three’ – indicating some kind of numeric significance – rather than an open hand or a pointing finger). I established a rough one point perspective, which converges close to his mouth. The straps of his little basket also lead the eye in this direction. The original sketch was wider, and devided the picture into three planes – which is a classic compositional device. It left the image looking a bit too symmetrical though (given there were stalls on both the left and right hand sides), so I lopped off the right hand third. The robot customer at Dirty Dongles was then introduced as a strong vertical element (notice that ariel!) to re-establish ‘thirds’, but one that didn’t mirror the opposite side.
If you’re used to reading books from left to right, the odds are you read paintings in the same way. Humans are also predisposed to look at faces and eyes. There’s a little trail here, all roughly the same horizontal, to lead you to Mr Eyeballs. If you go too far, the final face looks back into the picture at the vendor… and by design – so should you!
Triangles take you to their peak…
Spirals do the same job. The eyeballs are a big visual draw here, but if that’s where your eye has ended up, it needs directing back upwards. The shadow that cuts across the box joins the stick that the robot on the right carries, then up the arm, and round the face. The accumulative effect of all this is that despite their being a multitude of little narrative details and distractions in the picture…
… to name but a few; the image should feel cohesive and harmonious – with a clear point of focus.
And the feet? Taking inspiration from the master of composition in his tour-de-force: Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet knows to show more than he tells, and includes any number of mysteries and ambiguities to breathe life into his work…
(detail from the top right hand corner of Manet’s masterpiece).