Layout Workbook 4

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.

Finding the Squares

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.

tracing of Tintin page without panel borders



the vertical purple line is the half mark between center and edge of area



tracing shows composition more clearly

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.

Architecture of live area and figure placement

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.

A4 size - I placed tracing over this template


lightbox view: the center of the top squares line up


red mark on string defines arc from right side center of square


arc from top square defines bottom margin


close up of bottom right margin - equals printed comic


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.

A4 size double page spread equals A3 size

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.

finding squares method works with any size page

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.





12 comments on “Layout Workbook 4

  1. pizzaisland on

    I love the idea that this kind of layout-math can come naturally to artists with a good sense of composition. Do you think that that's really a rare trait (like people with "perfect pitch") or that most people just kind of know when something "looks right" without understanding the ratios and mapping behind it? Or maybe the people who can do this are just the ones who become artists.

    I dont know if you covered this in past layout posts (probably. sorry) but how does this relate to the "rule of thirds" if at all?

  2. pizzaisland on

    I love the idea that this kind of layout-math can come naturally to artists with a good sense of composition. Do you think that that's really a rare trait (like people with "perfect pitch") or that most people just kind of know when something "looks right" without understanding the ratios and mapping behind it? Or maybe the people who can do this are just the ones who become artists.

  3. SeanMRob on

    I realize that you're not responding in comments, and I don't have the energy for a full rebuttal here anyway, but I thought I would toss this out regardless. I really don't think these kinds of compositional tricks that attempt to analyze an entire page are very useful in comics terms. Although the whole page does function as an entire image with its own compositional superstructure, it's only very briefly- when someone first glances at a page, prior to reading, and perhaps when someone exits a page. This overall structure, once again IMHO, is almost completely subservient to 1. mechanics of in-panel and between panel leading (guiding the eye through balloon placement, areas of thick contour or high contrast or unique color, tangents etc), and 2. inner-panel composition/direction/interior flow. I think, with those two more primary factors subtracted out, total page composition's effect on readability is negligible.

    Of course, the only real way to test this is to hook up some readers with eye movement scanners. Similar tests with paintings yielded some incredible (and incredibly unexpected, for painters) views into the types of eye movements associated with looking at a single image, and how those movements varied with stimulus.

    Anyway, still enjoying the series, but wanted to throw some skepticism into the mix.

  4. FrankSantoro on

    Yes, skepticism is good! I will try and address such concerns in the future. I have the next couple weeks planned out – I will get to it. But, the truth is all I'm trying to demo is a method of finding a consistent "metronome" for each page – regardless of proportion. Think music – some instruments are heard louder than others – but the beat is constant – regardless of the "time" being played.

  5. pofomail on

    Well , I have been following your 4 layout posts and after this one feel I'm just getting what you are getting at! I under stood the theory but struggled to apply it to comic work. This post helped a lot. Thanks for all the effort. The comment 'some instruments are heard louder than others – but the beat is constant' in particular rang a bell for me. thx

  6. TonySolomun on

    Hi Frank,massive follower of your work and columns,first let me ask will you be releasing a Cold Heat graphic novel collecting all 10 issues when they're completed as well as the Cold Heat Specials as well ?
    because I'm not sure where else to ask you,

    also,regarding the column,how many parts will it be ? do you plan on researching Chris Ware's layouts ?

    take care,all the best,

    Tony Solomun

  7. FrankSantoro on

    I will do a "personal" post one of these weeks and riff on Cold Heat and Ben Jones mania.

    and, I don't plan on researching F.C. Ware's layouts. But if you "find the squares" I bet you'd see some nice progressions in his work.

  8. SeanMRob on

    Sorry, Daniel, missed this reply.

    Here's a link to an english translation of the Russian-language research that kicked eye fixation analysis off- http://wexler.free.fr/library/files/yarbus%20%281…. If you skip through to the very poor painting reproduction a little more than halfway through and read that section, it'll give you a good overview of the early research. Some further studies have been done with this particular painting that suggest that I person can be "primed" for a different reaction as well- i.e., if you ask them before hand a question about the economic class of the people in the painting, the eyes will tend to cluster around the people's clothing and furnishings in the room more than usual. Anyway, the really basic gist of this early study is that we have quick, involuntary, almost continuous tracking, even when we believe our eyes are at rest, and that we tend to dive towards faces almost compulsively.

    Here's a lot less technical of an evaluation, that the painter himself paid for- three parts- the link to the next part is on the bottom of the page. http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2009/09/eye-tra

    It's interesting that virtually no work, as far as I know, has been done actually linking these studies to specific art practices, or conventional wisdom re: composition. Most of the study so far has been of an optical or sociological nature. For instance- men, when presented with a full-body photo, will after an initial face analysis, almost invariably flick their eyes briefly to study the crotch of the figure. I think it would be fascinating for someone to do these kinds of tracking studies with a comics page.

Comments are closed.