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Appreciating Speculative Art Part 2: Parts and Layout of a Pictureby Elizabeth Barrette
Enjoying art begins with understanding the components and structure of an image. First, look at the individual parts of a picture. Second, consider how those parts come together to form the layout. Then you can think about how well those aspects work and how you feel about the picture.
The Parts of a Picture
Rather than try to analyze or describe an entire picture at once, break it down into more manageable pieces. The main parts of a picture include its subject, action, setting, theme, and mood. When an artist-friend asks you for feedback, use those terms as a guideline -- if you say something about each of them, your friend will probably be satisfied that you've covered the bases.
First let's look at the subject of the picture. This is simply what the artist is drawing: the character(s) or object(s) that seems most important. It might be a person, a tree, a castle, and so forth. More particularly, a character is a living creature, such as a person or an animal, which appears in the picture. Speculative artwork often features a magical subject like a wizard, a unicorn, or an enchanted artifact; or a scientific subject like a nebula, an alien, or a starship. The character's clothing, pose, and other details provide much information. Here are some questions to consider:
Are there any people or animals in this picture?
Are they looking at you, at each other, or something else?
How do they relate to each other?
What are the subjects wearing or holding?
Do they seem to have a particular occupation or social role?
Do they blend into their surroundings, or stand out?
Would you like to meet these characters, or not?
Expressions and Body Language
Does the character show a specific emotion, and if so, what?
Does the emotion seem related to something else in the picture?
How do the character's eyes and mouth look?
How are the hands, feet, ears, wings, tail, etc. posed?
How is the character standing or sitting?
What else makes you think that the character feels a certain way?
Every picture has a setting the location shown such as a forest, desert, city, kitchen, starscape, dragon's lair, etc. This is another way to distinguish between speculative and mundane art; while some settings can appear in either, if you see a mad scientist's laboratory then you know you're looking at something speculative. Most pictures also contain action something that is happening in the scene. Vehicles may be moving, characters may be playing or fighting, rain may be falling, and so on. Try to figure out what's going on and why; a good picture often tells a story. Here are some thoughts:
Where does this picture take place?
Is it indoors or outdoors, urban or rural or wilderness, land or water or sky?
Can you tell what world it's in -- the everyday world, or a more exotic one?
Are the characters staying in one place, or heading somewhere else?
What makes this place different from others of its type?
Does this seem like a place you'd like to visit?
Does the picture seem to tell a story?
What do you think just happened here, is happening now, or is about to happen?
What is the subject doing?
How do the parts of the subject's body move in relation to each other?
Do other parts of the picture show motion besides the subject?
Does the action take place in the background or foreground?
Does the action move toward or away from the viewer, or sideways?
Captured in the content is the picture's meaning. Although the previous parts are things you can point to, the meaning is something you have to infer from clues such as objects and actions. The theme concerns what the picture is about, its central message or idea. Popular art themes include Love, Justice, Loss, Beauty, Magic, Order, Chaos, and Politics. The mood concerns what emotional feeling a picture seems to have, or what it evokes in the viewer. This could be cheerful, introspective, romantic, macabre, humorous, and so forth.
Theme and Topic
What is this picture about?
What is going on in this picture?
Which aspects of the picture convey this information?
What does it seem to say?
Do you agree with its message?
How do you feel when you look at this picture?
Do you enjoy looking at it, or does it make you uncomfortable?
How powerful is its impact on you?
Does it seem upbeat, somber, funny, romantic, scary, sad, heartwarming, etc.?
Does the picture feel real to you, or otherworldly?
What conveys the mood: colors, characters, action, symbolism, etc.?
Action What is happening in the picture; vehicles may be moving, characters may be cuddling or fighting, rain may be falling, etc.
In "Dancer With Bones" by M.C.A. Hogarth, motion is indicated through body pose and the flow of hair and fabric.
Character A living creature, such as a person or an animal, which appears in the picture.
In "Dareg" by Laura Jean Melis, a ranger of Itrelir is the character. His clothing, pose, and expression suggest that he's capable but a bit edgy.
Mood The emotional feeling a picture seems to have, or what it evokes in the viewer; pictures can be cheerful, introspective, sexy, macabre, humorous, etc.
In "Ghost" by M.C.A. Hogarth the dark colors, cloudy shapes, and Raezha's serious expression, create a somber mood.
Setting The location shown in the picture: forest, desert, city, bedroom, starscape, dragon's lair, etc.
In "Dolls and Starships" by M.C.A. Hogarth, tiny details in the setting reveal the girl's character.
Subject What the artist is drawing, the character(s) or object(s) that seems most important in the picture.
In "Masks - Harat-Shar" by M.C.A. Hogarth, the girl is the subject, despite the intricate setting.
Theme What the picture is about, its central message or idea; popular art themes include Love, Justice, Loss, Beauty, Order, Chaos, and Politics.
In "Unfolding Wings" by LiveJournal user Meeksp, the theme is Discovery. It is symbolized by the paper crane taking flight as the young protagonist discovers her gift for origami magic
Layout of a Picture
Each picture divides into several important areas: not so much the things in the picture, as where in the picture things are. They fit together like a map. They have their own names, which makes it easier to describe the layout of a picture.
First we have the border, which defines the edges of a picture. The border may be regular most are rectangular or square, occasionally rounded or irregular following the contours of the subject(s). Most are also solid and uninterrupted. Some artists create a smooth border which they then interrupt at several points for extra interest and emphasis, such as having a character's ears and tail extend outside an oval background. Next, the foreground covers that part of the picture which seems closest to the viewer, usually appearing towards the bottom of the picture. Subjects here are usually larger, more detailed, and rendered in brighter colors than those in the background. The midground (also called "middle distance") covers the part of the picture between the foreground and the background, which seems neither near nor far. Finally, the background covers the part of a picture which seems farthest away from the viewer, usually appearing towards the top of the picture. Subjects are usually smaller, less detailed, and done in muted colors as contrasted to the foreground.
Certain lines and points relate closely to the layout of the picture. (We'll discuss more lines in the next Lesson.) The horizon line marks where the land or water gives way to sky. It can occur near the bottom, cutting off most of the foreground and emphasizing the background; more often, it occurs near the top. The vanishing point is where perspective causes parallel lines, such as the sides of a road, to "converge" as a means of suggesting distance within a flat picture. This usually happens at or near the horizon line. The focal point is the most important part of the picture, where the artist directs the viewer's attention. It can be anywhere, but is most often in the foreground, since we tend to pay most attention to what lies closest to us.
Artists often use these elements of layout when planning a picture. They may draw in the horizon line and sketch a subject at the focal point; or they may start a portrait and then experiment with different shapes of border; and so forth. Art collectors and teachers use the same terms to tell people where to look in a picture as the discussion moves along. Here are some questions to help you map a picture.
What shape is the border?
Is the border regular or irregular, solid or interrupted?
What is the ratio of foreground to midground to background?
Where are the subjects in this picture?
Where is the horizon line?
Is there a vanishing point, and if so, what makes it (a road, river, etc.)?
What is the most important part of this picture?
Background The part of a picture which seems farthest away from the viewer, usually appearing towards the top of the picture; objects are usually smaller, less detailed, and done in muted colors.
In "Morgan by the Sea" by M.C.A. Hogarth, the sea with its islands fades away into the distance, a dim background behind the sharp, bright foreground.
In "Against the Wall" by M.C.A. Hogarth, the intricate background completely dominates the picture.
In "Ekanoi" by M.C.A. Hogarth, the character extends past the edges of the background.
Border The edges of a picture, which may be arbitrary and even, or irregular following the contours of the subject(s). Some artists create a regular border which they then interrupt at several points for extra interest and emphasis, such as having a character's ears and tail extend outside an oval background.
In "To Outlast Eternity" by M.C.A. Hogarth, gold lines create a border which is broken just at the bottom by the trailing hair.
Focal Point The most important part of the picture, where the artist directs the viewer's attention.
In "Judge's Oak" by Ellen Million, the tree is the focal point: the path and pointing hand draw the viewer's eye there.
Foreground The part of the picture which seems closest to the viewer, usually appearing towards the bottom of the picture; objects are usually larger, more detailed, and done in brighter colors.
In "Elemental" by LiveJournal user Meeksp, Jenny and the fire elemental stand out in the foreground against the distant mountains in the background.
Horizon Line Where the land or water gives way to sky, and usually where perspective causes parallel lines to "converge" at the vanishing point.
In "Birches and Stream" by Ellen Million, trees and mountains define the horizon. You can also see the stream narrowing as it flows away.
After Man: A Zoology of the Future by Dougal Dixon, illustrated by various artists. St. Martin's Press, 1981. Black-and-white, black-white-cream, and full-color. Dixon takes us on a tour of evolution, showing us how the world might look after 50 million years. Unique predators and prey frolic across strange landscapes. Although the colorplates are eye-catching, the subtler tricolor pages feature some of the most interesting details.
"Background, Foreground & Midground" by Linda Carson discusses the layers of a picture, with many examples.
Girl Genius by Phil Foglio, ongoing. Originally in black-and-white comics, this science fantasy series is now available online and in full-color graphic novels.
It features Agatha Heterodyne, a young woman with the "spark" for making amazing gadgets.
"Glossary Resources" lists several art glossaries.
"Setting: Painting a Picture with Words" is a batch of exercises for exploring the effects of setting in an image.
A Tolkien Bestiary by David Day. Chancellor Press, 1979, 2001. Mostly black-and-white ink drawings with some color pictures, in several different styles. Features many characters, creatures, and places beloved of Tolkien fans.
World Tree: A Roleplaying Game of Species and Civilization by Bard Bloom and Victoria Borah Bloom, illustrated by various artists. Padwolf Publishing, 2000. Black-and-white with full-color cover. Introduces a unique setting, character races, wildlife, etc. The illustrations display a charming array of styles and interpretations and skill.
This article began as a presentation with M.C.A Hogarth at the Midwest FurFest convention in 2003, plus discussions with her and with Jonathan Fesmire. It became the class "Art Appreciation for Wizards" in the Grey School of Wizardry in 2007. It has been revised for reprint in EMG-zine in 2011.
Elizabeth Barrette writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in the fields of speculative fiction, gender studies, and alternative spirituality. Recent publications include the short story "Clouds in the Morning" in Torn World and poem "The Forest of Infinity" in Star*Line. She serves on the Canon Board, editing and selecting material at Torn World. She hosts a monthly Poetry Fishbowl on her blog, The Wordsmiths Forge (http://ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com), writing poems based on audience prompts. She enjoys suspension-of-disbelief bungee-jumping and spelunking in other people's reality tunnels.
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