Do you know what aggravates my obsessive, compulsive nature? Trying to decide between a sketchy or clean design. Whether painting or cartooning, I vacillate between these two approaches. Both have their charms, and it's tough to embrace one over the other.
I envy artists who don't suffer this confliction. They naturally adopt a loose or tight approach. From there, they're free to concentrate on improving their craft. But for undecided artists like me, creative development can be stalled by indecision.
Check out the gorgeous painting above by the late James Reynolds. I consider this a very clean, refined piece. Reynolds has brought this painting to a high degree of finish, resulting in a somewhat photographic look. It's not hyper realistic, but clearly not a loosely painted picture.
In the painting above by the late Thomas Kinkade (an accomplished painter despite the kitschy cottages) we see a much looser, sketchy work. Unlike James Reynolds painting, this piece contains obvious brush strokes. Like many plein air and impressionistic works, the image comes together the further you step back and view it.
If you examine the above close up, you can clearly see those juicy brushstrokes that were used to sculpt the rocks and small background details. I find this kind of painterly brushwork to be very exciting and expressive. But I also admire the realism that can be achieved from more refined, subtle brushwork.
Let's turn our attention now to the world of cartooning. I spent many years drawing editorial cartoons for various newspapers. My idol in those days was three time Pulitzer prize winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. I emulated Jeff's style because he was such an exquisite draftsman. He had amazing detail and exquisite cross-hatching technique.
Jeff MacNelly passed away in 2000, and there are few political cartoonists today who can match his draftsmanship and sketchy perfection. Done correctly, complex crosshatching can result in a pleasing richness and depth to a cartoon. Done haphazardly, crosshatching can devolve into a disconnected mess.
In the closeup above we get a better view of MacNelly's tightly controlled yet sketchy cross-hatching. I spent many years working on my own cross-hatching, and enjoyed producing cartoons that conveyed this loose, sketchy look. But then I started noticing the work of Bill Watterson. If the name's not familiar, I'm sure his comic strip "Calvin & Hobbes" will ring a bell.
I used my iPhone to take the above close up from one of my many Calvin & Hobbes books. Note that Bill Watterson adopts a very clean cartoon style, largely devoid of cross-hatching and the kind of sketchy look Jeff MacNelly employs.
In the above example, we see Bill Watterson's masterful use of black and white, high contrast imagery. Again, Watterson steers clear of cross-hatching. As a result, his comics are very clean and readable. Further, Watterson understood how to use negative space very well.
Bill Watterson was influenced by both clean and sketchy cartoonists. He admired the spare "Peanuts" comic strip by Charles Schulz and the scratchy comics of George Herriman's famous "Krazy Kat."
The photo above shows the scratchy, delightful cartooning of the late George Herriman. Even though Herriman's work delighted Bill Watterson to no end, Watterson's personal cartooning aesthetic leaned more towards the simplicity and clean look of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip.
So you're probably wondering what all this "sketchy" versus "clean" artwork has to do with improving your own art. Here's the answer. It doesn't matter what approach you lean towards, or even if you employ both from time to time. What matters is one thing, and that's variety. Variety of line, shapes, color and composition.
Variety is the secret sauce that will vastly improve your work, be it painting, cartooning, photography, music, sculpture or even writing. People get bored looking at or experiencing a monochromatic image or monotone song. Same holds true for a book that is all dialogue and no description. Or all description and no dialogue. Boring!
You can get away with crafting a monochromatic or limited palette painting, so long as there is variety within the design.
Equally true for the minimalist writer who eschews description. So long as there is variety within the structure of the story, it'll hold up. A spare story with just enough turns in the plot, or unexpected emotional salvos, will help carry the day. Otherwise, the storyline becomes predictable or pedestrian.
Variety of lines and shapes is what makes a cartoon, drawing or painting interesting. Even with my confliction over sketchy versus clean style, I figured out that both approaches need variety to succeed. Of course, one must employ some reserve or the variety can run riot over the work.
Even our personal styles tend to reflect a clean versus complex style. For example, some artists have minimalistic, orderly studios. Others have cluttered studios filled with objects of interest and inspiration. Neither is right or wrong.
The trick is to tease the best out of either, personal aesthetic. And the best usually has some sort of variety. Some balance of unexpected and mundane. Colorful and bland. Sharp and soft. It's what makes a hot fudge sundae so spectacular. The cold ice cream alone would be dull without that explosion of hot fudge!
As you pursue your creative passion or artistic craft, remember the importance of variety. Look for it in the work of artists, musicians and writers you admire. Study how they wield this tool to improve their work.
Variety is the one thing that, once mastered, will greatly improve your work. It can take you to the next level.
And somebody once said, it's even the "spice of life."