Kevin O'Neill, Part 2: Simplifying and Dynamics!

Kevin O'Neill's advice spans more than just the intense focus and attention to detail he has for light, as was covered in the last blog.

Once again, All of the following quotes were written by Kevin, as advice to fellow forumers.  I've tried to order his images into a little mini lesson. His original posts are linked at the bottom each quote, and I recommend checking out his original

Cartoons are fun! 

Yes, they are! But this collection of crits isn't just about cartoons, simplification and design apply to all sorts of illustration and art styles. Sometimes artists get caught up in how complicated things seem, and overload on details without knowing the underlaying structure of what they are working on. Of course, anatomy is generally where this comes out, but this applies to everything: environments, still lives, every composition you make will have some core elements that can be broken down. Here, Kevin starts with design on a portrait:

Below is a portrait by Jeremy Lipking. I've reduced the portrait down to 3 flat values, in order to demonstrate how the picture is designed. It is designed very clearly, that the side plane of the head is clearly lit, and the front plane is in shadow. The bottom planes of the nose, lips, and jaw are dark to show the form. The hair and the blue background are given darker values in order to frame and provide contrast to the face. The eye is reduced to a simple dark shape- he could have made the whites of the eyes white, but doing so would have been unrealistic and led to a garish, overly contrasty effect in that area.

It's a very simple, but very effective setup. It's well designed.
 Now, I went and repeated the process on one of your paintings. As a result of the straight-on lighting, strange things start to happen when reduced down. The lips disappear. The nose seems to be lit from both the front and the bottom. Creases in the cheek get overemphasized, the distinction between neck and jaw gets lost. 
Now, it's one thing to blame the photo, but sometimes (for whatever reason) you can't get a really good shot of your subject, and you have to work with it. What do you do? Well, in a scenario like the one above, it means looking at the problems presented when reduced down, and working around them. For example, the creases in the left cheek- if you make a decision to play the individual creases down, and play up the broader grey area on that cheek as a whole, you take away attention from the weirdness of individual features, and bring more attention to the head's form as a whole. Similarly, you could invent a shadow under the jaw to emphasize the head, similar to the Lipking- or any number of things that could improve the overall read.
What I might suggest as an exercise is to put away the photoref for awhile, and instead paint some copies of master paintings, as best you can. Doing this with an eye towards what design choices the artist makes-what they put in, what they leave out, what lighting they choose, etc. will help you more quickly figure out what's possible and what's effective in paint, rather than assuming trying to do what a camera does in paint is the only and best choice (it's not). Then when you go back to working from photos, that extra understanding will help a lot in determining your choice of photo, and what you choose to do with that photo. 

Here is the same basic concept, but applied to composition.
your best bet on learning composition is simply to look at picutres and try to figure out why the artist has composed the picture as he has. Probably the easiest place to start is with screenshots of films by all-time great directors: Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Welles, Leone, Kubrick, Coppola, Ridley Scott, Speilberg, etc. When you strip out all the details, usually it becomes very clear where your eye is supposed to go. In the Shining and the Yojimbo shots down there, it's as simple as just basically putting an arrow towards what's important. The hallway makes an arrow towards the girls, the opposing mobs create an arrow towards the lookout post where the main character is observing from.
(OP goes into much more detail about composition in general, and is a good read)

In the above examples, simplifying mainly helps you see where the focus of the viewer should be, taking a complex looking image and breaking it down to its basic building blocks. When this information starts to translate into comics and cartoons, we start talking about line of action, following curves, and silhouettes. The concepts are similar, but it is easier to see the effects of making strong design choices on iconic characters

Bob Flynn's famous characters silhouettes
Here, you can see how much of the characters essence is captured in just the simple shapes that make them up. Starting with a silhouette can help you assess if you are overloading a character with details with out an interesting foundation. 

Applying the silhouette method to both the character design and the image composition can be a great way to refresh your view of a comic panel. As Kevin shows here:
Original Panel, top left. Kevin's draw-over, top right. Bottom row, both drawings silhouetted to compare.

Details can also be streamlined to soften characters. We can see that design choices are not the same as raw technical knowledge about anatomy and light, 
The basic thing is that you appear to have a difficult time knowing when to simplify things for a stronger statement- not in the sense of making it more cartoony or less realistic, but being able to effectively emphasize that which strengthens the overall read, and de-emphasize that which hinders it. 
A good place to see what I'm on about it how you're drawing your women, since drawing women effectively- especially ones that are supposed to look fairly attractive- relies a lot on being able to pare things down in a flattering way. For example, in the two examples below you've put very hard edges indicating planar changes in the face- which is fine on an Asaro head, but not so great for drawing an attractive woman's head. Playing up the planar changes with hard edges will tend to age and make the woman look more masculine. By either softening the edges significantly, or eliminating them entirely, you'll end up with a much more feminine look. Look at some vintage black and white Hollywood actress photos sometime- you'd be hard pressed to find one where you'll find a lot of hard edged halftones. 
This goes for the body as well- I can see exactly what you're trying to do with all the detail you've added to the second drawing- you want to show the scapula edging over the back, you want to show the deltoid and the biceps and the triceps and how the muscles of the forearm insert above the elbow, you want to show how the fabric is wrapping around the body- but all of these things are overemphasized, and getting in the way of the broader statement: attractive young woman, wearing a dress, proffering her hand. Drawing that means simple, graceful curves, not lots of anatomical detail. 

This process of breaking things down also helps you see how well your characters are posed, and if they are efficiently telling the viewer what is happening. Movement and action are generally better conveyed buy smooth curves and unbroken lines. Kevin emphasizes how anatomy should aid this process and not over ride it:
 I feel like the read of a body part or a pose is being sacrificed for the sake making sure the audience knows that you know your anatomy. Don't get me wrong, knowing anatomy is great, but it's not the end-all be-all that people make it out to be, and drawing as if it is is going to lead to problems.
 I'm not sure if I know how to articulate this point all that clearly, but I feel like you tend to design your bodies as stick figures, with purely straight lines in between joints, and then expanding out some spherical-type muscles outwards from those lines. It achieves a certain sense of volume, yes- but this by itself tends to draw the eye outwards from a form, rather than down the main flow of a form. One of Erik's demos shows pretty well how to start with a sense of simple flow. These are ultra-simple quick sketches, yeah- but look at how he's designing the limbs there- not as a mass of muscles and bones, but as very simple curves and straights- establishing the flow that all subsequent anatomical detail will be subservient to, making sure the strength of the action will be preserved down the line. This isn't the only way to draw gesture, but I bring it up because understanding the principle behind it will help prevent your figures from becoming disjointed feeling. 
Exploring this concept further, we can see how posing can effect a picture overall

Here Kevin's images here are pretty self explanatory. By removing complications, it is easy to find lines that follow through the characters, helping distribute weight and define an action. 

I think this blog has become long enough. Thanks to Kevin for letting me cherry pick through his critiques and construct these two posts! Hopefully we can convince him to sit down and write some more general tutorials on specific topics. If you have any ideas for something, please comment! 

If you'd like to look through his crits and other links we pass around to each other on the forum, please check out this huge post http://forums.penny-arcade.com/showpost.php?p=12465355&postcount=1 There are many links to excellent books, posts, online tutorials and videos there.