This week we’re going to do some detective work and breakdown a Tintin page.
But first I want to demo an easy way to find the harmonic points on any size paper – or canvas or computer screen. I call this “finding the squares” or “squaring the paper”.
Take an 11 x 17-inch piece of paper (or use graph paper like diagram below) and look at the paper so that the long sides are east & west – meaning “portrait” as opposed to “landscape” orientation. Measure 11 inches up from each bottom corner – creating an 11-inch square area. Draw a line from edge to edge to define the square. Now find the center of this square by drawing diagonals from corner to corner within the square. You have drawn the “bottom square.” Repeat the same process to define the top square and its center.
Find the center vertical line for the whole page by connecting the two centers of the squares – draw the vertical line from page edge to page edge. Find the center horizontal axis by connecting the east and west points that define the center diamond that surrounds the center axis of the page. Draw the horizontal line from page edge to page edge.
Now with compass point at the top square’s center and radius to the top of the vertical center line, swing an arc to describe the circle that is contained within the square. Repeat for the bottom square. See diagram below. You have now defined the most important points of any rectangle: the center axis and the centers of the top and bottom squares along the vertical axis. You’ve also mapped what is “static” within the rectangle (the square) and what is “dynamic” (the circle). Understanding the spatial relations between the two squares is key to any understanding of visual harmonic progressions.
This isn’t a shortcut method, but a very simple & direct way to accustom oneself to the basic architecture of any page proportion. This method can be applied to any size paper. The circle, triangle, and square are the building blocks of all proportions – not just in book page sizes, but in everything. Think Cubism. Think Platonic solids.
Now, let’s look at a Tintin page (page 13 from King Ottokar’s Sceptre). I measured the top (short side) of the live area from corner to corner, then measured down the same length, and found the top square. Next, I found the center of that square and used that to define the purple circle you see below, drawn on the actual printed page (my compass slipped a little because of the slick paper). Look at how everything lines up like sheet music. The center of the top square is beautifully articulated with a triangular composition of figures.
Remember, the Tintin page is not a traditional grid – but the static area is defined in part by the squares. The top and bottom tier’s gutters are the edges of each square defined within the page’s live area. The circle – the dynamic area – in the top square defines the composition and placement of the figures. There is a tension between the dynamic symmetry of the figures and the static symmetry of the live area rectangle.
I traced the page and left out the panel borders in order to show how the architecture of the page itself – the circles, triangles, and squares – define the composition. Notice how the majority of the action is contained within the intersection of the two purple circles. This is the absolute center of the page. And Hergé wastes none of it. It’s gorgeous. Music.
If you look closely at the tracing – you will see how clearly Hergé was aware of the spatial relations that divide the live area. He’s very deliberately moving the reader’s eye along the dividing lines and through the fractured space. The space is fractured and unified by the harmonic points. There is a measured and even sense of timing and precision between the panels. Each action unfolds within its own space & relates directly to the next. There is nothing spontaneous or accidental about the composition. It’s a unified whole defined by its very fracture points. Look at how the top edge of the bottom square is precisely the horizontal line where the words are placed within the balloons on that tier – and notice how the “ley lines” almost define the placement of the word balloons across the entire page.
The painters Poussin and Degas both documented using this method of composing and arranging figures in their paintings – a French tradition. I’m not insisting that Hergé used it but rather I am diagramming the page to show that the figures and landscapes line up with the nexus points on the page. I would wager, though, that he was aware of such diagramming.
Now look at the margins. I took the tracing of the Tintin page and placed it over a piece of A4 paper (A4 is 8.69 x 11.69 inches). The A4 paper had its nexus points defined and drawn – meaning I had “found the squares” – so I lined up the center of the tracing’s top square precisely over the center of the A4’s top square. It immediately revealed the margin area and this replicates the margin on the printed comic. Then with a compass (or string) I measured an arc from the top square’s right edge – the center of the square’s right edge line – and passed the arc through the square’s opposite corner on the left edge. It lines up exactly with the A4’s paper’s bottom edge at the lower right corner and defines the bottom margin. This is exactly the same method that I used to measure the margins of North American comics in Layout Workbook 2.
Also, for those who don’t know, two sheets of A4 paper together – like a double page spread – equals the A3 paper size. If you turn the spread, the A3 paper size becomes a possible proportion for drawing one page of original art. They line up precisely. That’s the nice thing about the International paper sizes.
So, to review, no matter the size of the paper you are working with – or if you are working with metric measurements – you can always “find the squares.” Finding the squares within any rectangular area will allow you to map the harmonic points that are contained within the area. This is where to begin when wanting to understand dynamic and static symmetry.
Also, this same method can be applied to existing “old masters” comic book pages to help one understand why some comics pages read better or more clearly than others. And this is true whether the artist consciously used methods similar to the ones demonstrated here or not. There is an intuitive sense of visual design that sees harmonious progressions that is not unlike someone composing music “by ear.” One can hear progressions in music without reading the accompanying sheet music that spells out those progressions. The intuitive arrangements can all be measured and unseen patterns and relationships can be revealed – in art and in music. The measured method of composition and the intuitive method of composition are very much related.
Over and out.