Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tangents In Illustration

Off On A Tangent

It's time to transgress about tangents; those stealthy compositional gremlins that sneak into illustration compositions and cause all manner of visual mischief; those linear leprechaun's that leap out and steal a viewers attention; those pictorial pixies that spoil a pastoral scene for young and old viewers alike; those magnetic mystics that overpower a center of interest with the simplest touch; those confusing cherubs that place a spell on a viewer who then looses the ability to direct their attention to anything else; those mesmerizing medusas that place viewers in a trance and turn their gaze to stone; those gob smacking ghosts that invade the imagination of illustrators who unknowingly apply them to their canvases.

Illustrators know what they are, and at one point or another, have fallen under their influence. And, some illustrators who have taken to the tangent habit have become unsuspectingly addicted to composing tangents. Indeed, some severely afflicted illustrators mainline their tangents through the point of a very sharp pencil. And the most tragic cases succumb to tangents through the use of indelible India ink.

Acting as if a Las Vegas Justice of the Peace, an illustrator joins two objects in holy matrimony; and as the saying goes, "until death do they part". With surprising regularity, illustrators are able to put two and two together, without ever realizing they actually had any trigonometry skills in the first place. They fly their pictorial planes on autopilot resulting in unforeseen collisions. To put it mildly, shit happens.

The Trouble With Tangents

When it comes to pictorial composition, few things are as powerful as a tangent. Tangents have the power to glue a cloud to a tree or even to a person's head. A tangent can cause a man and a woman who don't even know one another to suddenly be in love. The old familiar phrase "attached at the hip" was a result of a rash of tangents that suddenly appeared in children's books in the 1930's. I once saw a tangent graft a monkey to a dolphin. Sadly the monkey was drowned, appearing to be underwater and all.

Tangential Meditation

Scientists and physicians discovered about 75 years ago that tangents come from an area of the brain called the cerebellum, or "little brain". So with the use of little brain, it is possible for any illustrator to produce an impressive tangent. When, in the 1960's, mind-altering drugs were introduced to illustration, their effect on the little brain could be seen all across the profession. All of a sudden fields of paisley patterned tangents were locked in a floating oil stain of fluorescent color. The profound power of the tangent had finally come to fruition. Why, viewers who gazed upon these tangential explosions actually lost their ability to think. This tangent induced, momentary lapse of reason even influenced one of the best-known rock bands of all time, forcing them to string together a series of hit albums.

From Tangent to Tangent

Like the human race, which has grown from two billion people in 1930 to seven billion people in 2010, tangent use has grown from a mere five or six hundred at the beginnings of art school education a little over 150 years ago, to as of one minute ago, 2.5 trillion and counting. One art school in a European country that shall remain nameless, last year produced 47,722 tangents, with 36,453 from the freshman class alone.


Identified in the late 1930's, tangentitus was brought to the attention of the medical community by, believe it or not, mothers, who upon reading picture book stories with their children, became noticeably annoyed with the number of illustrations that depicted children tangentially tangled in their mother's apron strings. This was exacerbated by the fact that their own children began to mimic the tangents they saw in the illustrations, thus always being under foot. The immediate conclusion was that tangents were contagious, and that they could be spread from an image to a person in a single glance. This explained how a single illustration with a bad case of tangents, when displayed in a showcase, could spread tangentitis to the entire student body of an art school. Even sculpture students were infected. All of a sudden, in abstract work, cubes began to be balanced on one and other by their corners. In figurative sculpture, fingertips began touching nipples and worse. The situation became ugly, not only in sculpture, but printmaking, illustration,  etc. Tangentitis even showed up in industrial design where students began designed vehicles with doors that couldn't be opened.

7 Warning Signs of Tangentitus

1.     The never-ending line. Where lines connect to other objects beyond the object they depict.
2.     The letter "K". Where a shape or a line touches another forming a K.
3.      "X" marks. Where lines cross and form an X.
4.     Edge tapping. Where shapes touch the edge of other shapes or the picture plane.
5.     Fused forms. Where two shapes converge to form a single shape.
6.     Common edges. Where two objects share a single edge.
7.     Implied alignment. Where two separated lines or shapes form a visual grouping.

Never ending line. © 2013 Don Arday.
The letter "K". © 2013 Don Arday.
"X" marks the spot. © 2013 Don Arday.
Edge tapping. © 2013 Don Arday.
Fused forms. © 2013 Don Arday.
Common edge. © 2013 Don Arday.
Implied line. © 2013 Don Arday.

Tangent Therapy

All kidding aside, tangents can, and do, disturb the harmony of a pictorial composition. And the only way to control them is to recognize them when they occur, and to make adjustments as needed. Below are some tips and tricks for identifying and developing sensitivity to tangents.  

7 Treatments to Cure Tangents

1.     Produce refined sketches. Define shapes and lines clearly to improve the readability and recognition of tangents.
2.     Examine object relationships. Look for awkward interactions between shapes and/or lines.
3.     Examine sketch perimeters. Look at the relationship of lines and objects in proximity to all edges.
4.     Turn the sketch upside down. The change of attitude will impose a focused examination of form relationships and minimize distractions related to content.
5.     Flop the sketch. The reorientation will draw attention to uncomfortable or problematic shape or line relationships.
6.     Mask off portions of the sketch. Cut a 1” square whole in a piece of plain paper to mask out all but a small portion of the composition for examination.
7.     View in outline form. An outline version makes it easier to see tangents that are caused by shapes. 

Tangents Can Be Our Friends

Not all tangents are bad. Tangents can also be used to deliberately and very effectively focus a viewer’s attention. They can even be used to form relationships between elements within an arrangement. To do this, tangential relationships of shape and line must be thoughtfully considered and intentionally designed into a composition. Like medicinal vaccines, recognizing tangents; using them sparingly; and/or controlling them completely; can result in an illustration that is immune to boredom.

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