Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tuesday Cartooning Tips: The White Halo

We've all seen that some cartoonists like to put a thin white halo around their characters to set them off from the background. As a younger cartoonist, I always considered this cheating, because obviously your character will stand out when you literally separate him or her from the background; the challenge is to compose your drawing well enough that you don't have to resort to such trickery. In the ensuing years, I found that this mode of thinking was rather shortsighted, because I realized that the white halo is not just a function of laziness, it replicates three things that are hard to communicate in comics.

1. Light
Image: Crowded Comics single panel image by Kevin
This would be the obvious one. If your subject is in bright sunlight and things behind it are dimmer, there would be a literal white halo of light that separates them. Not really a cheat, since that is what one would actually see. In more illustrative and/or single-panel drawings, featured characters need to stand out boldly from the background, and so can be used to great advantage here.

2. Focal shift 
Image: layouts for "A Magic Life" from Fables #113, written by Bill Willingham.
In a camera, when you are zoomed in, your focal depth is very shallow; only your subject is in sharp focus, while the background is fuzzy. This is also true of the naked eye, but the instant that you move your eye off of one thing and onto another, you automatically focus on the new object, so you don't notice.  The white halo in this situation replicates the focal shift as you move your eye from a foreground object to a background one. 

3. Movement
Image: pencils from upcoming chapter of The Replacement God.
In real life, when we observe something moving in a large field of vision, our attention is drawn to it and momentarily shuts out the surrounding detail. In comics, we don't have the option of having something move in a panel, and so there is an advantage to slightly dropping out certain nearby details to draw the eye to this one subject that is moving. It works particularly well when the object on which we're focusing is in a position that shows that it's moving: e.g. a running person, a bouncing ball, a train with trailing smoke, etc.

In dark environments, the equivalent rule works, in which you can drop out details in the darkness as they come close to a foreground character or object, so that there is a halo of black around the character.

Speaking personally, I felt that coming to realize this was extremely liberating from a layout perspective.  Everything I'd learned in the last 20 years was still intact, but there was now one more thing that would allow me to make my panel layouts just that much more effective. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the insight. As a relative newbie to the hobby, I'm finding that my artistic sensibilities lag far behind my literary experience. I often miss the finer details.