Sunday Mailbag

January 17th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: My question is about the placement of the people you draw in a humorous illustration. I know you have to deal with art directors that probably help a little, but how do you decide where to place the people, props, etc? And is there a way to learn how to get to the “placement” decision faster and at the same time relaying the message you are trying to make to the viewer? Is there a book or coarse that will help, or just keep looking at the art of other artist like yourself?

A: Composition is one of those things that is difficult to teach to someone because there are so many elements that come into play yet there are few hard and fast rules to adhere to. It’s a little like trying to explain how to ride a bike. When you are on a bike, you can feel when you are balanced and you can feel when you are going to tip over. I follow no real conscious formula when it comes to composing an illustration… it’s all about achieving that feeling of “it’s working”. Yet composition is the weakness of many a terrific artist.

When I consider the composition of a single illustration I really have no rules or guidelines or anything I can explain as to where my composition comes from. Basically I read over the art direction, start visualizing in my head and then do several sketches as experiments for composition. It is very much a feel-as-I-go process. The only things I really consciously think about are three main elements: focus, balance and tangents.


Focus is simply what is supposed to be the most important thing about the illustration… what is the message? What is the element I want people to focus on? That should be be the centerpiece of the illustration. That means it’s literally in the center or where ever your eye is drawn to in the piece. This can be accomplished in so many ways it’s impossible to list them all. You can have the eyes and reactions of any figures in the image leading to the focus. You can position objects or negative space between objects to lead to the focus. You can use contrast, color or lighting to bring attention to the focus. Every “scene” presents some way of accomplishing this, so it is a matter of solving the problem for a specific illustration.


This is simply the overall solid and substantial feel of an image… the balance. Like my bike riding analogy, this is really more of a sense than it is a calculation. Just like you sense yourself being balanced or tipping over on the edge of some object, looking at an illustration I sense if things are not balanced. Then I adjust things by adding or subtracting elements to the illustration, until that sense of balance returns. Like focus, each image is different and how you achieve balance is unique to the illustration.


Finally I check things over to try and make sure I avoid tangents, which are bad for composition. A tangent is when the contours of two objects touch or almost touch in a given image, creating an awkward juxtaposition which interferes with the depth and readability of the illustration. It creates confusion as to what object is in front of what other object, and is distracting. You fix this by either separating the objects in question or by overlapping them more significantly.

Avoiding tangents is composition 101, but that’s the only composition class I had and the rest has been all faking it for 20 some odd years.

The best I can tell  you is when you have a sketch of an illustration laid out, tack it up on the wall, step back from it and take a good look. Is it awkward? Is it heavy on some side or another? If so you need to work on the composition.

Thanks to Lee Fortuna for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


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New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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