Sunday, October 20, 2013

Narrative Art, Part One: Sequencing

The concept of  narrative and sequencing in art is important (to me, anyway) and I'm going to have to break it down into several blog posts, so please bear with me, this is going to be... well, sequential.

Photo of Will Eisner, taken from Amazon's site about him.

Will Eisner (1917 -2005) was the author of the seminal book Comics and Sequential Art (that's the Amazon link to the book). Eisner was a genius and he broke new ground in trying to take a serious, scholarly look at the process of  telling a story that unfolds over time. Mr. Eisner taught for many years at New York's School of Visual Arts and  is famous among comic fans for his groundbreaking role in the comic industry, inventing The Spirit, Sheena, and other characters. Incidentally, one of my favorite novels, Michael Chaboun's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is reported to be based partially on the life of Will Eisner.

I'm primarily an easel painter but I'm fascinated by the concept of narrative in painting and the implications of the passage of time. Sequential art has prehistoric roots, encompassing such forms of expression as petroglyphs, Egyptian hieroglyphics and ancient friezes from many cultures. To a large degree, easel painting has evolved into an art form which depicts one moment selected from a long chain of potential moments. The unspoken assumption about easel painting is that the painted image is basically a moment in time, frozen so that we can go back and revisit that moment, if we chose to. Artists talk about the "timelessness" of certain moments, usually involving beauty. But comics and other forms of visual sequential art (the classic illustrated children's book is one form; movies are another) aren't about "timeless moments", because they function within time. They must not only build interesting visual patterns in a single frame but link each frame in a convincing fashion so that we are taken from image to image in the narrative.

Eisner wrote some interesting things about the concept of time and "framing time":

"Albert Einstein in his Special Theory (Relativity) states that time is not absolute but relative to the position of the observer. In essence the panel (or box) makes that postulate a reality for the comic book reader. The act of paneling or boxing the action not only defines its perimeters but establishes the position of the reader in relation to the scene and indicates the duration of the event." - Eiser, Comics and Sequential Art, p. 28

Eisner is thinking cinematically, not necessarily like an easel painter, who in a traditional sense sets up objects or people and works near them and tries to "capture" some element of reality. Eisner's not thinking, "how accurately can I paint this passage?", he's thinking, "is this what I want to portray in order to advance my narrative?"

He is, however, thinking about how to compose within the frame:

Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art, p. 88 (my scan)

He's thinking, how can I compose this panel to convey the emotion I'm trying to describe?

Eisner is also thinking in terms of perspective, but not really in the sense that easel painters think about perspective. He's trying to manipulate the viewer's orientation for a specific purpose:

Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art, p. 89 (my scan)

Even if you're not interested in narration or content in particular, simply by adjusting your point of view to another location in space changes everything you might want to convey to the viewer. As in everything else in life, what you see as an artist depends upon where you stand.

More on this later.

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