Aug 25, 2016

5 Elements of Art We Think We’re All Experts On (And Aren’t Even Close)

5 Elements of Art We Think We’re All Experts On (And Aren’t Even Close)
Travis Hedge Coke

I’m not an art expert. I had three years of art school and dropped out. My hands get worse with age, and my interest in doing art that doesn’t appeal to me, immediately, has waned over the years. But, I’ve got opinions. And, all of you have opinions. And, all of you have your education and your experience with art, too.

This is not an article for shitting on your art expertise. I am, here, not speaking specifically of any of us, but a collective “we” that is emblematic of us at our laziest, or generalized moments, because we all do this stuff. Moments of weakness. Poor education. Out of our wheelhouse. Maybe, in some instances, we are simply going with the flow. I’d like to think, four times out of five, when I’m guilty of oversimplifying the following five aspects of visual art, I am going along with someone’s “look at the awkward anatomy on this!” post or “how much does the color even matter?” article because they made several other good points, or their main issue is one I agree with.

But, in reality, I have been, at different times, guilty of it because of every reason I listed above.


Lifts are when an artist copies figurework, posing, a design element or entire scene/piece and transposes it into their new work. The artist is “lifting” an image or design element from someone else, for their own work, without credit. Stealing.

And, yeah, it’s a thing and it can be theft, or feel like theft, certainly.

But, it is also one of the oldest practices in visual art and to one degree or another, used by every artist ever.

There are reasons to criticize lifts. They’re incongruous with the rest of the image or comic. They fail to communicate what they need to in terms of story. Even more so, if the lift is the bulk of the piece and they have just, basically traced or photocopied the original and splashed some paint across it or added a Photoshop filter. Outright theft and plagiarism are real, they do happen. Stealing a cool space soldier helmet design from Jim Lee isn’t really theft on that level, to me. Stealing an entire page from Jim Lee, or a splash would be. Using an entire page layout from Jack Kirby, figures and everything, for no apparent reason, that’s theft. Using a pieta arrangement in a panel or on a cover, that’s not theft, that’s tradition.


Howard Porter refuses to recognize traditional or real life perspective in most of his art. So, for most of his career, did Jack Kirby. Kirby’s vanishing points don’t line up. They shouldn’t.

Drawing by Jack Kirby. Perspective lines by Erik Larsen.

Perspective is cool and all. Any competent visual artist has to have at least a working awareness of vanishing points and line of sight, of how to foreshorten and why. But, beyond that, they have to know when and why they’d want to not do it the traditional way, why imitating reality might not be the best approach in a picture.

All decent artists break from realistic portrayals of perspective and probably do so regularly. It can lend a sense of motion, of dynamism, it can help bring an outstretched arm closer to us, it can make the difference between a dog’s head and a bear’s head clearer, because from certain angles, in real life, bears and their faces can look like dogs. You have to deal with that.

When and if ignoring proper perspective has no upside, no benefits, or when it simply scatters the audience’s focus too many places at once, then there’s a problem. If it loses too much of the audience, that is a problem. Losing you or me? Not a problem if there are fifty or fifteen thousand other folks who are satisfied and appropriately moved.


Like perspective, anatomy gets cartooned and exaggerated constantly in artwork. It has to be. But, because on base levels, we want art to be a reflection or reproduction of reality, we are - as a general audience - trained to believe this is what “good” art is, we dismiss these alterations when we notice them or use them as examples of incompetence. Not being anatomically correct is, as an act on its own, no more a sign of incompetence in art than a woman stopping in her walk to hit a little dimpled white ball with a club then walking some more is a sign that she is incompetent at walking. She’s just playing golf.

This is the go-to attack for “sexy” artwork we don’t approve of, and what those generally ignore is that it is not the anatomy that’s the problem, it’s what the poor or accurate anatomy communicates in terms of audience-identification, what angle or presentation the exaggeration is in aid of, and other aspects. Milo Manara’s Spider-Woman cover wasn’t bad because Spider-Woman’s butt is in the air. Her butt is often in the air. So is Spider-Man’s. It’s not bad because her neck is craned in a way that would uncomfortable for us, or her butt-cheeks are spread further that a non-airbrushed woman’s probably goes without tape.

That cover bugs me, as an individual, because the uncomfortable neck bend to get her face where it is looks viscerally painful for me, not sexy. That’s a horror-cover neck bend. It’s an uncanny, creepy bodily position. But, it’s these things seemingly in service to being sexy and sexualized.

Those shots where huge breasts are flying away from a character in skintight boob-socks built into their costume, one breast going up to the left, the other out to the right? That looks painful to me. And, awkward. I’m not gigantically concerned with the physics or the physiology of it, but with what it communicates and why the artist chose to go that route. And, the artist always chooses.

Pro Forma Colors

Especially in comics, we get dismissive of colorists and color. They get credited way below the penciler or writer. Special editions exist where their work, and no one else’s, is removed and we act like it’s more artsy, all the sudden, more about craft. Like black and white movies made in the modern era, a lack of color immediately adds a sense of artistry and seriousness.

We tend to treat color in comics as we do color in reality; there until removed. Naturally present and naturally organized.

Colors, in a comic, are chosen. They are chosen for their representational capabilities, their contrast to one another, the reactions they evoke in people on sight. There is as much consideration, technique, and trial and error in quality comics color work as there is in the pencils and inks, in the writing or the editing. A good colorist works on a comic. There isn't a button in an art program that they click and all the skies go not just blue, but a variety of blues and whites with varicolored highlights to represent city lights on the underside of clouds or sun shafts breaking through from above.

Colors are not chosen, generally, to replicate reality, either. The colors on tv are not, the colors in your comics are not. They are selected, mostly, to represent and enhance the sensibility of an experience. To sell danger or excitement, wealth or beauty, cold, heat, sickness, romance, bad taste, injury to the eye of the beholder. The colors are selected and utilized for reasons beyond “sky, blue; grass, green; sun is yellow.” The sun isn’t even yellow, not the real one in the sky. Look at it. That does not look yellow up there, unless you’re right at sunrise/sunset or you have weird pollution. The sun is white. Whitish. But, fictional suns, often, are yellowed, because white even without real illumination behind it can easily come off as too bright to the audience. We wince at the simulation of brightness and a colorist, a good colorist knows this so that you don’t ever have to even think about it.

Show vs Imply

Drawing every rivet in every girder across a structure shows commitment and how small you can go and still draw clearly, but not drawing every rivet or even every girder does not mean the artist is lazy. If three rivets lead the audience to inferring the other twenty or more that, in real life, they could see, then those three rivets have done the total job.

Artists are not cameras. They are not automated sketch machines making photocopies of a scene directly in front of them. That Batman fight didn’t actually happen. There is no blood under the skin in a drawing of Charlie Brown. These things are all implication, some more directly illustrated than others. We can feel like characters really breathe or have emotions, but they do not. We might get swept up by the existence of Gotham City and where the bat-lines tether to a building’s top floor so Batman and Robin can swing around, but there is no city, there are no bat-ropes. Artists are not building working realities, they’re making affective facades.

That the facades feel true can make things better, make our experience stronger and more emotional, more rewarding, but it’s a facade, every time. Even nonfiction comics are facades. Documentaries are facades. The moment you add in edits and representations, it’s faked. Fake is okeh. Fake is good. Fake is, in many ways, superior to how things would be if artists we just copy machines and pencilers had to draw in the bones and blood under Hal Jordan’s face or Goku’s arms, before they could draw a smile or a flexing bicep.

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