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Style is About Proportion

Style is often misunderstood in art.  Intelligent artists have a difficult time understanding the term, because it is related to personal concepts like perception and intuition.

Originally the term had more to do with an author's distinctive writing hand than with art genres.  One person’s writings could be differentiated from another’s by the differences in their writing styles.  The term jumped into painting when people noticed that one artist could be differentiated from another by the small variations in the artist's strokes.  So each artist had his own style or way of handling the paint.  Style meant something about the individuality of the artist.

Then, two things happened.  First, style began referring to a high level of refinement.  Some artists brushstrokes looked more graceful or more subtle.  Second, art philosophers noticed that different groups of artists in history shared similar characteristics, or a similar styles.  Art history, historically, looked like an evolutionary tree with the primitive art at the roots and refined art at the top.  To Enlightenment thinkers, Egyptian art paled in comparison to Enlightenment art.  The style of the age differed, and as man had progressed through history, the style had gotten better and better, too.

Artist's became self-conscious about the possibility of further refinement or further styles.  What would the next level of progress look like?  Romantic artists had taken the imitation of reality as far as it had ever been taken, and used their imaginations to create grand masterpieces.  (In fact, artists like Fredrick Edwin Church and Bouguereau were later criticized heavily for both representational skills and imagination.)  Different artists strove to be that missing link that bridged the gap between the exacting Romantic style and whatever style remained beyond, waiting to be discovered. 

In the place of the very refined fine art, a group of less refined artists emerged who emphasized the power of color over the power of representation.  Monet had not the representational skills that Bouguereau commanded.  Cezanne did not know anatomy like Sargent.  The camera had taken over art's role as visual historian, and art theorists argued that detailed representation had ceased to be an important function of art.  Artists no longer needed to preserve history visually and thus relied less on reality and more on their particular style.  Style ceased to refer to representational refinement, but rather referred to some visual refinement like better use of color.  After the impressionists and post-impressionists came a melee that we now call the modern art movement where a wide variety of artistic styles were created.  In the modern art movement, style became something theoretical.

In the present post-modern art milieu, style refers to the common proportions shared by a series of artworks.  In one cartoon, the eyes are halfway down on the face and are two black dots (like Charlie Brown); in another cartoon the nose is halfway down on the face and the eyes are two giant bubbles that take up most of the space from the nose to the top of the head (like Jon Arbuckle, Garfield’s owner).  In one painting the artist uses a lot of texture to imitate the texture of reality; in another painting another artist barely uses any texture at all.  One illustrator employs lines to define his shapes; another uses value; still another uses color.  The size of a man's facial features, the placement of the features, how much color an artist uses, what colors an artist uses, the relationship of the colors to each other, and many other proportional issues differentiate one style from another.

For more information on different styles that I have used, see my article on A Beka Book Styles.

To illustrate proportion, notice in the family tree illustration above how, though each person looks like a unique personality, each family has a certain look.  I made the family on the right to have shorter faces than the family on the left.  Each face is an individual expression, but the faces in one family look similar to each other.

Style acts in the same way.  The characters within a picture must share certain characteristics, so they look as if they belong.  The elements within the painting must share certain characteristics, so they look like they belong.  If an illustration looks like an old photo through color use, it be odd for the next illustration in the story to use the colors of a modern advertisement.  The proportions of yellow to blue would be off, and the illustrations would look like they didn’t belong together.

This is the first illustration in a series on the heroic exploits of a german shepherd in WWI.  To create the look, I used a limited color scheme and kept the amount of detail to a maximum for the small amount of space each illustration occupied.


 The next illustration, showing the german shepherd finding his master in a trench.


The last illustration showing the dog at home again, herding the cattle.  Though this is the first time I introduced green, the particular shade of green fits with the other colors I have been using in this series.


In these colored pencil illustrations of tadpoles growing into frogs, I used the medium, the colors, and a realistic-yet-cartoony character shape to relate these illustrations together as a whole.  Overall, I enjoyed this project most during my time in A Beka Book.  The project presented a deadline challenge.  Not only did I get it done, but I contributed to the book beyond what had originally been assigned to me.


The next illustration showing the landing stork and some frogs jumping off the fallen log on the other side.


The next illustration showing the tadpoles watching the stork eat a fish.  Drawing the water with colored pencil took much longer than the computer would have taken.


The next illustration showing the tadpoles as almost adult frogs with their tails still.  At this time I explored any way to play with the illustration.  Pictures that show half in the water and half in the air fascinate me.


The last illustration in this batch, showing a frog in mid-hop.  I love the awkward flailing limbs of the amphibian in flight.


For the story of Gwen I chose to mimic old pen and watercolor sketches.  I kept the illustrations simple and used a limited amount of colors.  I also developed a brush in Photoshop that imitated a quill pen that kept running out of ink.


While the water does not fit the illustration style, the rest of the illustration helps keep the illustration in the stylistic family.  Sometimes little concessions like this are necessary, but illustration as a whole should not look out of place.


Of course, I looked up the exact Native American group that lived in the area referred to in the story.  I made sure the details were as accurate as possible.


This illustration never made it into the book for obvious reasons.  I still enjoy the idea of hanging from a tree spinning in the wind.  Perhaps some people are disturbed by such treatment of babies, but I imagine that it was cosy.


Notice that each illustration looks unique, like a new work of art, and yet each conforms with the overall style by using the same proportions in anatomy, color and detail rendering.  Style refers to the common proportions shared by a series of illustrations.

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