Sunday, June 07, 2009

Pinging Art #2: Back in Black: It's Not About What's Black and What's White

I've done a couple of different styles of comics, from full colour to sepia-tinted greyscale. But pure black and white is not something that I've really explored or practiced, so it's only been recently that I've really paid it close attention.

I actually did fine-art for my A-Levels, but I try not to talk about it too much lest I be mistaken for a "snotty fine artist". IMHO that fine art attainment is nothing if it doesn't help me improve my comics, and fortunately, something I learnt back then does actually help, even though I didn't figure out how to apply it until recently.

Because I'm lazy, I'm just going to repeat something I said in a discussion over at Bengo's blog about what I discovered about doing art black and white. It's mainly my observation, but:

The bottomline is: doing good black and white requires the artist understand very well the concept of positive and negative space, and how to use it.

So what is this positive and negative space anyway?

The easiest way to describe it is thus:

positive space = important parts of the picture that we want to focus on.
negative space = the parts that are not parts of the important parts.

A lot of people will mistake positive space as "white" and negative space as "black" or vice versa. This is NOT the case and it took me a while to break out of this kind of thinking as well. What I really needed to know is that it changes according to context. Take this example below:

In both cases, the lines and shapes that make up the mouse are the "positive spaces". The background, whether white or black is the negative... the key point is the positive space needs to be in a contrasting colour from the negative space.

So now that we've shattered that particular mental barrier, black and white art suddenly becomes easier to understand, because we know it's not about whether the object we are trying to depict IS black or white. It's about conveying the important information to the reader in the correct contrasting colour.

We're used to drawing black on white, so we naturally define our positive space lines and shapes by drawing in black. But if the background is supposed to be black, use white for the lines. It's that simple. Or if you want it put the other way, fill in the negative spaces with black, so that the white left over is the positive.

Sometimes the rules aren't so clear cut. When two objects that are black are drawn next to each other, what does one do? Colour the whole thing black with white lines in-between? Or keep them black? Or for the sake of visibility, we need to defy reality and pick one and turn it white to they they form a contrast?

For this there is no set answer. It comes back to what we want to communicate to the reader.

Let's look at this example of a shady-looking guy. For the sake of the setting we want his face shrouded in shadow and he wears dark glasses to boot.

If he's a regular member of the cast, maybe the sunglasses are his identifying feature. To make sure the reader is able to tell it is him, sometimes the artist is obliged to flip the colours to make it clear he has a pair of sunglasses on his eyes.

On the other hand he could be a vital plot point and we don't want his identity to be revealed yet. So in this case we forget about contrast and all that and blend the face (glasses and all) into the shadows.

Like I said, it depends on what you want to convey.

Of course black and white art isn't just that simple, else anyone could just draw something and use and invert the colours to make it look cool. 

There are different techniques such as crosshatching, screentones etc. etc. But they're advanced techniques, not a base principle.

So the few things I learned about black and white art:

1. It's not about picturing black as black and white as white.
2. The choice of whether you want to use black or white depends on what message you are trying to convey.
3. Having both large areas of black and white spaces provides a pleasing visual balance to an image.

Anyway that's what I learned so far. Hope that came in handy, and as usual feedback and additions are always welcome.

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