Transformers, Elements And Principles Of Design – Introduction

By Hwikaa.

I love Halloween. Partly because of the tradition, the ghost stories, and the candies… but mostly because it’s my birthday.

This year, I got literally spoiled:

Halloween loot 2020.

Oh, see this guy in the top left corner? This is Starscream, the coolest character in the Transformers franchise. In my opinion.

The coolest Transformer in the universe.

I don’t particularly like robots. I’m not a huge fan of airplanes either. And this particular robot can shape-shift into a jet. But between us, I can’t really tell why, it was love at first sight. I’m still keeping preciously a drawing I made of him in 1987, when I was barely 8.

Little Hwikaa’s 1987 “Starscrim” drawing. ^^

So you might be wondering why I’m annoying you with my childhood memories. Well, it’s all about this particular drawing. OK, it was made 33 years ago by an 8 year-old kid. But while you can roughly guess what I tried to convey in this image (the character is a powerful robot warrior that can transform into a plane), you can tell it’s not a great piece.

I’ve seen many recent CPC images showing a single character, not really well drawn, with a lack of perspective, a lack of basic anatomy understanding, standing in the middle of an empty background. Just like this drawing of mine.

An illustration tells a story. Whatever it is. It can be a very simple one (Starscream is about to shoot an enemy as he’s transforming from plane to robot, for instance) or a more elaborate one:

The man with the hatful of cards picked a hand out of his reserves, put the hat on his head and raised Bill a hundred. Bill came back with a raise of two hundred, and as the other covered it he shoved a pistol into his face observing: “I’m calling the hand that is in your hat.” by N.C. Wyeth

To tell its story, every image – whatever the media – uses a mix of technique and composition.

Technique is everything related to lines, structure, style, texture, rendering, anatomy, perspective, color, etc.
Composition is how you arrange your image, how you combine your different parts into a whole: camera angle, element location, lighting, balance, contrast, etc.

These are called the Elements and Principles of Design, and they help us control where the viewer’s eye is going to go, and thus to tell our story.

What I want to do with this series of articles is to try and explain you guys what I’ve learned during my journey as a professional artist for the video game industry, and to demonstrate how we can improve an image (my crappy Starscream drawing in this case) and turn it into a nice illustration for the Amstrad CPC, using both technique and composition, the Elements and Principles of Design.

So, let’s just dig into it.

Principle Of Design #1: Balance

It’s hard to explain, it’s not quite measurable, but most of us are able to tell whether an image is balanced or not. It’s a gut feeling. And creating a pleasant composition that achieves unity and harmony, heavily relies on balance.
Let me try and demonstrate that.

So, yeah. Here’s a scale:

Oh my. What a nice scale.

If I were to put my Starscream on the left side of the scale, like this:

What do you think would happen? What would you expect? Yeah. Absolutely.

That’s right, the left side would go down and the right side would go up. I would need to place another object of the same weight on the right side to have balance again:

Easy. OK, that’s enough Transformers for now.
Let’s repeat the experience with simple, graphic shapes.
So here’s my scale:

If I put an objet right in the middle:

Well, as expected, nothing happens.
If I move this object to the left side…

… the image feels unbalanced. That’s because in real life, something like this would happen:

If I place a similar object on the right side…

… balance is back.
Now let’s replace one of the spheres with a bigger one:

Again, as expected, it’s unbalanced.
To have balance again, you could move the bigger sphere closer to the center. This way:

Or you could stack several smaller spheres on the left.

This shows that every part of your image has visual weight. And, whether you want it or not, your eye is drawn towards the object that feels visually dominant. Therefore the purpose of the exercise is to achieve balance, with a composition that is not overly dominant on one side or the other.

Now let’s try one last time with some CPC graphics… For the demonstration, I’ll steal some Crazy Cars II background and a couple of Final Fight sprites:

Balanced… yet boring. Generally speaking, we tend to find things that are too symmetrical boring. So let’s use what we’ve learned and inject some asymmetrical balance into this piece. First, as we did with the spheres, let’s enlarge the guy on the left, and move him closer to the center:

Now that’s already more dynamic and less boring. OK then, let’s push the idea a bit further: let’s have a huge good guy in the foreground, counterbalanced by a group of smaller bad guys:

See how it works? Ain’t that cool? ^^

If you are able to consider those guys as abstract objects, each carrying its own visual weight, then you are able to see balance at work. And you can start playing around this idea, for practice is the best way to understand it, to feel what’s working and what’s not working.

So, this was a first, very basic approach to composition. In the next article, we’ll elaborate a little bit on that and introduce a new concept: emphasis.

Talk to you soon. Bye!