Friday, December 13, 2013

How The Grinch Designed Christmas

I will admit I am a big kid when it comes to Christmas.  As a matter of fact, my beautiful Ellen will frequently say, "When are you going to grow up?"  Even when it's not Christmas!  Strange...

Anyway, one of the things I like about the Yuletide Season is sitting around the TV, mug of nog in hand and watching the Christmas Specials.  Not necessarily the singing and dancing ones, (Although I'd love to see a repeat of an old Andy Williams Christmas Special) but the cartoons;  Charlie Brown and Snoopy.  Rudolph.  And of course Chuck Jones' masterpiece, Dr. Seuss's How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

Jones was a Loony Tunes animator from way back.  He brought Bugs Bunny to life in some of the funniest cartoons ever made, but he was really the man behind Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.  If you didn't know that before now, go back and watch the Grinch again and see the similarities.  Jones once admitted that at it's heart-- especially in the scenes with the Grinch's dog Max-- it's a Loony Tunes cartoon.

The other night while I was watching the Grinch, I noticed one thing I hadn't paid attention to for all these years until now:  Every scene that had a static shot (you know, the ones where the camera is not moving along) was designed as if it were a painting.

One more reason for me to love the Grinch!

The design used over and over again was what I call "One Third".  I do not have a doubt there is an official Art Name for it, but it goes like this:

Divide your composition into three unequal parts with one part being the dominant large shape, another part being one third the size of the big shape, and the last piece being one third the size of the second.  Get it?

Here's a couple of examples:

In the one above, Max is leaning against the house which is the dominant shape, while the snow is secondary and the sky is third.

Below, The sky is the dominant shape, the Grinch second and the rock he's drumming his fingers on is third.

One thing to keep in mind was that Jones didn't use the biggest shape as his Point of Interest, but rather to draw attention to the Point of Interest.  Look at the two examples above:  The house envelopes Max at the window, and in the other the sky is larger than the Grinch.

Another thing that Jones's artists did was incorporate a value pattern into these designs. Jones went with a basic four value scheme:  A Dark, a Dark Mid-Tone, a Light Mid-Tone and a Light.  I guess I could use up a ton of precious internet space trying to put into words the concept I'm thinking of, but Andrew Loomis in his awesome book Creative Illustration diagrams it best.  Check out these basic value patterns, because Jones used them in the Grinch:

There are more combinations possible than what Loomis showed, but he beautifully gives the idea of how to make a  Value Plan.  Now look and see how Jones used a value plan for these scenes:

In keeping with the "One Third" look, he was very careful to mass his values and not break them up willy-nilly, making a cohesive and engaging look.  But whether he used a Light surrounded by Mid-Tones, or a Dark surrounded by Light and Mid-tones--  whatever the Value Plan and Composition being used for a scene, have no doubt that it was carefully thought-out first.

Do you think of these things in your paintings?

I mention all of this not so that we all can make a better cartoon, but to show how basic compositional and design elements can effectively be used in any painting.  Be they cartoons, or my own work! 

So thank you Chuck Jones and thank you, Mr. Grinch for giving me a lovely lesson for Christmas--

I think my heart just grew three sizes...


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