4. Graphic Style

Questions to ask
  • Is there coherency or homogeneity in the way the graphic narrative uses graphic style, coloring, and projection system all along the story, or are there shifts in style? 
  • If not so, by what are those variations in style motivated? For example, in a lot of graphic narratives and in animated films, the visual ontology of the characters is often quite different from the visual ontology of the backgrounds.
  • In what ways does the chosen graphic style, coloring, and projection system deviate from our natural perception? Does the artist, for instance, respect normal proportions, or does he alter them (and if so, why)? What is the effect on the interpretation of the represented character or object?
  • What are the possibilities and limitations of the chosen graphic style(s) and projection system(s)?


Music scholar Meyer (1989, 3) defines the concept of style as follows:Style is a replication of patterning, whether in human behavior or in the artifacts produced by human behavior, that results from a series of choices made within some set of constraints.”

More specifically concerning graphic style, I would suggest, three main components are constitutive:
  1. the way of drawing (such as the degree of stylization, the amount of and types of lines used, etc.)
  2. the type of coloring
  3. the projection system (usually to represent a suggested three dimensional diegetic world on the two dimensional plane of the page).
Style of drawing, type of coloring, and projection system may function in a rather coherent way, but all kinds of relations, including contrasting relations, between these main constitutive elements remain possible.
While mechanically produced pictures (like photos or film sequences) can also be stylized by special techniques (for instance by using filters in front of the lens), handmade pictures are much easier to manipulate on these three aspects, because there isn't a scene in front of a lens, but rather a empty page or canvas that has to be filled by handmade lines and colors.
In theory, everything is possible on a blank page, but in practice, not every artist can draw or paint in whatever style or is able to render certain projections; artists are often specialized in a particular way of drawing.
Furthermore it is quite difficult to describe or translate in words what a handmade drawing expresses.
One can try to distinguish between groups of related lines according to different headings, to find a definition that will at least give us some clue as to their essential qualities. But such denotations, claims Kandinsky (1982, 427), are rudimentary and cannot encompass the depth, the subtlety, the certain uncertainty, the lucid simplicity, and elaborate complexity of the innumerable forms of independent lines. Also in art practice, according to Shitao (1984, 85), a painter must not try to decipher and decompose the worlds into parts, otherwise the result will be sterile and soulless.
So, fully aware of our limitations to speak about images, we will try to discuss some aspects that may help in articulating the graphic style. In particular we will consider various levels (drawing style, coloring style, projection system) on which homogeneous or, conversely, heterogeneous relations may develop.

The 'drawn' image creates a particular world, a visual ontology
In contrast to the moving photorealistic images of live-action film that deliver a realistic impression on a big screen, drawings in graphic narratives are small, static, strongly stylized. Typical for the pictures of graphic narratives is the use of contour lines - which don't exist in reality, but are an extremely effective technique to render characters and objects more clearly and separated from each other. Such stylized images (by simplicity of shape, deformations, clear grouping, contour lines, etc.) may be less visually analogous to the ways we see reality, but they can capture, argues Arnheim (1971, 149) salient characteristics of represented objects and persons. Especially since the early 20th century, comics artists have cultivated cartoony drawing styles, whereby certain physical aspects are stressed by simplifying and exaggerating them (big feet, big noses...). Today many different graphic styles are used in graphic narratives, but the very stylized cartoony styles are still widespread and popular (also in animated series and films).
Whatever graphic style an artist uses, he is always not only depicting something, but also expressing at the same time a visual interpretation of the (fictive) world. Every drawing style implies an ontology of the representable or visualizable (Rawson 1987).
This has far reaching consequences, because the spectator has to look at the object-in-the-picture through the specific chosen form: for example two visualizations of the same story, the rat drawn by Macherot (see first illustration below) gives a quite different idea than the "same" rat drawn by Andreas (see second illustration below). While Macherot uses rather thick contour lines, Andreas uses more but thinner lines (for example, to render the hairy structure of the rat's skin). Macherot's version deforms more the look of a real rat, for instance by giving his rat some human-like traits (the animal is standing on his lower legs and has human hands rather than claws). Though Andreas' rat also presents some deviations from a real rat, on the whole his version is more analoguous to a real rat than Macherot's. So a different choice of style can change the interpretation of a similar scene.

Macherot, Chlorophylle contre les rats noirs, Raymond Macherot, Lombard 1954.

version of Andreas of Chlorophylle contre les rats noirs, Lombard 1981, published in weekly Kuifje, September 29 1981)

The viewer/reader looks at images with prior knowledge and uses that context to make sense of visual styles. The contextual knowledge the reader can draw on, including his or her familiarity with the range of visual styles used in graphic narratives, is thus also of considerable importance when it comes to the study of drawing styles. Indeed, how a particular reader reacts to a particular style may be quite personal, since it will be influenced by previous experiences with similar styles. An average reader has seen thousands of images and has learned to associate a cartoony style with humorous content. Research has shown that even young children make such associations and are very consistent in linking photographs with “real” things, while connecting the cartoon style to “pretend” things (Ramsey 1982).

Graphic Style traditions in graphic narratives
In the course of time, some dominant graphic styles were formed and became popular in the field of graphic narratives, such as the round, simplified cartoony style with big eyes (Disney, Tezuka, Peyo), the stylized clear line style (McManus, Kabashima, Hergé), or the more naturalistic approach that respects the natural proportions (Foster, Raymond, Otomo, Taniguchi, Bellamy, Kresse). An important sub-tradition in popular visual culture is the cute style, which seems to have a socio-biological impetus (see the analysis of the Japanese comic strip Fukuchan).
All these popular styles in comics have something in common, because to varying degrees they are all meant to be "communicative," to tell a story visually. Traditionally comics are in fact designed to be read quite quickly, which explains the dominant preference for stereotypical elements that foster easy recognition. Therefore the main characters are often dressed in typical outfits (with familiar colors) and are rendered with typified bodily and facial features: think of the rounded forms of Mickey Mouse, of the visual simplicity of the Tintin character, and the quite basic features of Astro Boy. The ease of identification is not limited to the main characters; in fact, the complete design of a canonical comic needs to be clear and accessible, especially in the case of comics for young children. Only in a minority of graphic narratives—for example, in graphic novels—are artists allowed to deviate from these rather strict standards.

Homogeneity or heterogeneity of graphic style
Usually in a graphic narrative one coherent graphic style is applied (artists are often specialized in a particular style), but there are also works that are composed of alternations between various graphic styles like Daniel Clowes' Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010). In scores of comics and animated films, a different style is used for the characters and the backgrounds (so you get two visual ontologies combined): for example in the later Corto Maltese stories, the cars are rendered with many details, while the characters are strongly stylized with a few lines. Or in exceptional cases such as Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp two explicitly different graphic styles are contrasted within the borders of one panel to express the divergence between two characters (for a more extended analysis see Duncan 2012).

Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp, Pantheon Books 2009.

Of course, the graphic style of an artist can evolve strongly in the course of time; the first episodes of long running series are often drawn in a quite different way from the later episodes (e.g. Caniff's Terry and the Pirates or Derib's Buddy Longway).

Colors in graphic narratives can be analyzed from various perspectives: choice of technique, naturalistic coloring or not, flat coloring or not, the relation with line drawing, types of colors, functions, etc.
To describe colors one can use the three-dimensional system of Munsell, who defined in 1905 colors on the basis of three parameters: hue, saturation and brightness (these are related to physical properties of wavelength, purity, and intensity). For example, children's comics may prefer soft pastel hues (like Tintin) or limit the amount of colors to a few basic colors (as in the picture books of Miffy).
In real life, direct light produces both shadows and shading, which gives the viewer an idea about the form and texture of the object and the direction of the light source. Artists may suggest shadows and shading by simple drawing techniques, like grouping a lot of lines which produces a darker effect (as in the work of Crumb).
Some comics artists (Don Lawrence, Vincente Segrelles, Jean Torton, Alex Ross) seem, like painters of the hyperrealism school, to imitate the colors of daily life, but this quite naturalistic coloring is not the dominant mode in graphic narratives. In a large majority of works, colors deliberately differ in at least a few aspects from reality. There is for instance an important group of works (like Tintin) that use only flat coloring (the same saturation and brightness of a hue). In other graphic narratives, certain objects and characters can receive unnaturalistic colors, even if temporally (as in Lucky Luke or Blueberry). In the illustration below of a 1970s story of the French western Blueberry, characters are contrasted from each other by the use of almost flat coloring of a character (or small group of characters). The differences in colors can not be motivated by the light conditions of the scene or the 'natural' colors of the characters, but are instead deliberate choices in organizing the mise-en-scène of the panels, by grouping entities. There's a strong opposition at work: while the line drawing of the characters aims at some kind of naturalism, the coloring is indicating strongly its materiality and artificiality.

Giraud & Charlier, Blueberry, L'Homme qui valait 500 000 $, Dargaud, 1973.

In Le Tueur des Cafards (1983), Jacques Tardi uses only sparsely the color red in a dominant grey environment: by this remarkable contrast, Tardi isolates his main character from the others and from the grey decor of a seemingly inhumane metropolis.
And there's an important group of publications that don't use colors at all. Especially before the 1930, most graphic narratives were only published in black and white. And in Japan the tradition of black and white is still mainstream (but can be used in quite special ways as in the Nananan example).
In most graphic narratives, colors combine some realism and functionalism; they are to a certain extent analogous to reality (e.g. the grass is green, the sky is blue), but on the other hand the colors have to achieve a good legibility for the panel: by respecting the contour lines and the use of contrasting colors, crucial parts of the image are stressed. Think of the various (super)heroes whose costume had a striking, saturated hue: for example the red of the bellboy costume of Spirou, or the blue costume (and red cape) of Superman.
In American superhero comic books and in some European comics of the 1940s and 1950s, the coloring was often very contrasting and not really sophisticated. In more contemporary graphic novels, artists rather shun such cacophonous palettes. Mazzucchelli uses in Asterios Polyp colors in a quite particular way, by associating quite contrasting colors for the two main characters (see illustration above).
The "meaning" of colors is very complex: an artist can use some hues for their physical characteristics, or for their specific meaning and use in a culture; or a work can charge a particular color with a particular meaning (such as the color red in Yslaire's and Balac's Sambre). The experience of colors is therefore rather complex and cannot be reduced to simple laws. In works of art, it is no use to consult some kind of color dictionary which would fix the meaning of a particular color. Colors are seldom experienced in isolation; normally there is a mixture of various colors. Since these contexts can vary strongly, we have to consider each case separately.
An analysis of the use of blacks, whites and greys in Nananan's Kisses demonstrates how volatile the "coloring" may be.

Projection systems, suggesting depth on a flat surface
Part of the graphic style is the way the supposed three-dimensional world of the diegesis is translated onto the two-dimensional plane of the page. Every projection system has its possibilities and limitations: objects that appear on a flat surface can never show the complete reality of that three-dimensional object. In the course of history, visual artists have developed several means or tricks to suggest a voluminous space on a flat surface: interposition or overlapping, convergence, relative size, density gradient, etc. Spatial relations between figures or objects in a picture can be described by projection systems. Willats (1997) following Booker (1963) defines projection systems in terms of primary and secondary geometry. Primary geometry is viewer-centered and describes pictures in terms of projection rays: “The geometry of projection of lines or rays from objects in the scene and their intersection with the picture plane to form an image or picture.” (Willats 1997, 369). Most technical drawings can be described by primary geometry, but other formal projection systems, such as the reversed perspective, cannot be described by primary geometry. In those cases an object-centered system is needed, like secondary geometry, which Willats (1997, 369) defines as: “The two-dimensional geometry of the picture surface, obtained without recourse to the idea of projection.” From the Renaissance until the end of the nineteenth century, linear and aerial perspective was the most used projection system in European art, but in other periods and other places other projection systems were popular: for example, the reversed perspective in Byzantine and Russian icons (Willats 1997, 12) or the 45° oblique in Asian paintings and drawings. Each method has its possibilities and limitations, so the choice of a certain projection system has many consequences. While linear perspective offers only one possible view on an object, object-centered projection systems can offer various views on the same object (e.g. cubist effects) or respect the relative distances (e.g. 45° oblique). The intrinsic qualities of the object to represent can play a role in the choice of the projection system (Palmer 1999, 370). The flat and unmoving image can only use monocular cues to suggest depth.
Not all depth cues were used everywhere and in all times (for an historical overview see Solso 1994, 192). While various depth cues can lead to the same conclusion, sometimes they can contradict each other, which can cause tension (Arnheim 1971, 126).
In graphic narratives various projection systems can be used: in naturalistic style comics (often perspective projections), in cartoony style graphic narratives (often orthogonal projections, with the characters standing on the lower border of the panel). Sometimes artists may opt for unusual projections; think of axonometric projections and cut-aways in the work of Chris Ware (Building Stories, 2012).
In most comics a two-dimensional composition represents a three-dimensional space in which the action occurs by means of monocular cues like overlapping, convergence, relative size, etc. However, not all comics rely on the same amount of visualized space: in funnies (e.g. Peanuts or Garfield) the backgrounds are quite minimal or even absent, while in adventure stories (eg. Tarzan, Flash Gordon) lavish backgrounds of exotic places can be prominent and detailed. Some comics like Trondheim's Bleu (2003) even accentuate the flatness of the pictures.
As an interesting example of the heterogeneous use of projection systems, see the analysis of Winsor McCay's Walking Bed from Little Nemo in Slumberland.
(Pascal Lefèvre)

revised from 
Pascal Lefèvre (2012) & (2003) 

Further Reading
  • Rudolf Arnheim (1971) Art and Visual Perception, a Psychology of the Creative Eye, University of California Press.
  • James E. Cutting & Manfredo Massironi (1998) 'Pictures and Their Special Status in Perceptual and Cognitive Inquiry.' in: Julian Hochberg (ed.) Perception and Cognition at Century's End. Academic Press, pp. 137-68.
  • Randy Duncan (2012) 'Image Functions: Shape and Color as Hermeneutic Images in Asterios Polyp,' in: Matthew J. Smith & Randy Duncan (eds.) Critical Approaches to Comics, Theories and Methods, Routledge, pp. 43-54.
  • Ernst H. Gombrich (2002) The Preference for the Primitive, Phaidon.
  • Stephen Jay Gould (1980) Panda's Thumb, W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Wassily Kandinsky,  Complete Writings on Art, Volume One (1901-1921), G. K. Hall & Co., Boston, 1982, p. 427.
  • Pascal Lefèvre (2012) 'Some medium-specific qualities of graphic sequences,' Substance 124, Vol. 40, no. 1, 2011, pp. 14-33.
  • Pascal Lefèvre (1999) ‘Recovering Sensuality in Comic Theory’, International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 1, N° 1, Spring 1999, pp. 140-149.
  • Pascal Lefèvre (2003) Willy Vandersteens Suske en Wiske in de krant (1945-1971). Een theoretisch kader voor een vormelijke analyse van strips [Willy Vandersteen's Suske en Wiske in the dailies (1945-1971): A theoretical framework for the formal analysis of comics], Doctorate Sociale Wetenschappen, KU Leuven.
  • Pascal Lefèvre (2015 forthcoming) 'No Content without Form. Graphic Style as the Primary Entrance to a Story', in: Neil Cohn (ed.) The Visual Narrative Reader, Bloomsbury.
  • Philippe Marion (1993) Traces en cases. Travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur. Essai sur la bande dessinée. Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia.
  • Leonard B. Meyer (1989) Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology, University of Chicago Press.
  • Stephen E. Palmer (1999) Vision Science. Photons to Phenomenology. MIT Press.
  • Jan-Marie Peters (1981) Pictorial Signs and the Language of Film. Rodopi.
  • Inez L. Ramsey (1982) “Effect of Art Style on Children’s Picture Preferences.” The Journal of Educational Research 75.4 (Mar. - Apr. 1982): 237-240. Web 2 May 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27539901>
  • Philip Rawson (1987/1969) Drawing. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania.
  • Joseph H. Schwarcz (1982) Ways of the Illustrator. Visual Communication in Children’s Literature. American Library Association.
  • Shitao, Les Propos sur la peinture du moine Citrouille-amère, Hermann, Paris, 1984, p. 85.
  • Robert L. Solso (1994) Cognition and the visual arts. MIT Press.
  • Pamela H. Smith (2000) ‘Artists as scientists: nature and realism in early modern Europe,’ Endeavour  24(1), pp. 13-21.
  • John Willats (1997) Art and Representation. New Principles in the Analysis of Pictures. Princeton University Press. 
  • Joseph Witek (2012) 'Comics Modes: Caricature and Illustration in the Crumb Family's Dirty Laundry,' in: Matthew J. Smith & Randy Duncan (eds.) Critical Approaches to Comics, Theories and Methods, Routledge, pp. 27-4
Subpages (3): McCay Nananan Yokoyama