Art: What works?

(And what doesn’t…)

I’ve been asked to write something that is actually very tricky for me; a client wants to know some general rules for art. What ‘works’? That’s really hard, because the first order answer is, “Well, what is your art like, and what is your manuscript like, and what sort of layout do *you* like?” At which point it’s a whole big project.

However, there are a few things that I think are definitely true. The first is that mountains are better than valleys… Let me illustrate that with some images, including links to where you can get these beauties.

Cover of Gifts of Prax

Here’s a mountain, Erhehta from The Gifts of Prax. I admit he doesn’t look a *lot* like a mountain, but he shares some important characteristics. He’s got sides, a top, and a bottom. A ‘mountain’ image is one that stands up from its surroundings and has clear edges. It may or may not also have a clear base. A post-box in the street is a mountain, and so is a sword sticking into a tuft of grass.

When you have a mountain, you have a relatively easy task in sticking things into your work, but you do also have a small spot which doesn’t always naturally relate to what is around it. It can seem slightly out of place and draw attention more than it should for its size. Sometimes, that’s what you want. Sometimes, it isn’t.

Cover of The Cups of Clearwine

Meanwhile, there is another entire form of image, and if you’ve been following along you already know it. It’s the valley cover from Cups of Clearwine. This form has sides that come up and frame the rest, and may be a big part of the image. The well *could* be shown in isolation, but it would change everything, and the cover would have to be shown. Cell walls, forests, and many of the general scenes of life can be valleys. Sometimes you have to have high-rising walls, and then you’re going to have to deal with that cut-off. There are a few ways to do it. This cover was designed particularly to go from edge to edge, and top to bottom. I was lucky enough to be able to tell the artist where the clouds should go after I had played with the title for a while. A lot of your art works will be able to go up to edges, but sometimes you’ll have the side of a bit of art with no edge to nestle against and you’ll wonder what to do with it.

The options as I see them are full framing, semi-framing, fading, and just ignoring the problem.

Here’s Grugnah, from Rocks Fall. She has a full frame around her, and I decided on that because she’s a character. I want to make her existence official. She breaks out of the frame bottom left, but that’s an optical illusion and everyone knows that the frame is there. It’s just that she’s coming forward through it. This is full framing, with an extra visual effect so that she seems more personal and realistic. The trolls all pop out of their frames a little. The trollkin, compressed two to a page and therefore two to a frame, do not. It’s an art-based way of saying which NPCs are most powerful and important, and looking back I really hope I did it on purpose.

One shortcoming of this tactic is that you may find you have a large picture with a lot of transparency. That’s awkward when you’re writing it up in WordPress. Thanks, WYSIWYG editor… At least you can do it better in an actual layout program.

This nice young man is Indromast, also from Cups of Clearwine. He’s got two lines that are an added frame. They’re lovingly hand-crafted lines, but ultimately they are just lines. They fade out and thin down. The bottom one is a full column width, because I like to use columns exactly, but it doesn’t have to be. Just don’t let it be *nearly* the same width and not quite. That’s really annoying.

This is what I think of as semi-framed. It’s like business-casual, neither here nor there; not a suit, but definitely not jeans. It’s effective for making things be non-formal, but having the same style of frame around all the NPCs in a book means they all form a set, like having the same style of header for the start of each chapter.

Here’s a fade-out from The Lifethief. The mud was needed to show the terrible situation but then the image had to be this size to fit everything else in, so I could not stretch it to the edges. Even if I had, I’d still have had art meeting background at the top of the image. This fade is all-round, but we often fade out into the sky and have the rest of the image go to the sides of the page. A different sort of fade is to have flat shading at the back, so there are silhouettes but not fully-realised or rendered items. That works well with gradient fills that provide a backing while being a half-step between the subject of the art and the page. The gradient also serves to show what is important; it highlights the things that are flat coloured or rendered, making them more dramatic.

And here’s me ignoring the problem, earlier on in Lifethief. This is my least favourite solution but for this image it seems to work. The edges of the image stop sharply, you can tell that there is a portrait and then no portrait… and that’s it. Maserelt’s close to her own write-up, but she risks looking pasted there. I used this method because all of the others ones didn’t seem right. Maybe Maserelt just needed to be free. Maybe I could not find exactly the right shade of brown to make the frame – I don’t know. It’s how she ended up, because in the end this choice is pretty inoffensive, non-intrusive, and dependable. It’s also quick and easy to do. In general I prefer to design the pages and the art to avoid this solution.

You can make your frames and semi-frames and fades as complex or as simple as you like, but remember that you want to concentrate on the art work, not the frame, so unless the frame is part of it, resist the temptation to create with layout tools. The creating comes at an earlier stage.

That said, here is me messing with the frame, again from Lifethief. I’m doing it because that table is a bit too small for the space it is in, and I don’t want to leave it sad and lonely in the middle of the ocean. I’ve put the Chaos Rune inside the frame and the Death Runes outside, on the top. I’ve done some little repeated reverse banners for the bottom. The decoration supports the idea that this is a Bad Place to Be, while being made up only of the Glorantha Core Rune Font and some rectangles and lines. The frame itself is one I asked my artist to whip up for me, but it’s literally just lines with some texture – you could use lines without. I like to make the tables have outlines, in part because it means I don’t need to add in more line items…

So, that’s a quick rundown of some of the things I can do, and now I’ll talk about what I try to do and when, which is, well really really tricky. But I’ll start with three precepts:

  • Never leave empty space at the bottom of columns, except at the end of a chapter.
  • Never break the column edges except on purpose.
  • You will have breaks; use art to dictate where.

Let us assume you are laying out a thing complex enough to have multiple parts. You’ll have chapter breaks, and tables, and stat blocks, and in laying those out you may find that you end up with big spaces in the middle of the chapter. Those are ugly, and should be avoided or filled.

Humans are pretty good at reading books, and books have conventions. We’ve learned that if your text goes to the bottom of the page you’re finished and can turn over, but when the text can’t do that, I find it’s important to fill in what is missing. These stat blocks could not be laid out any other way, so there were some spaces. I’ve put in art here as a placeholder; I later got some simplified bolo lizard art from my co-author, and put it together with some tufts of grass in the same colour, so that the lizards are on the right and the grass is on the left. I’d fill in something in the big gap if I had to, probably not in that dark colour, but instead in a dark red or dark grey. I’m fortunate in having an artist to work with and in being an artist myself, but even if I were not, I’d be putting something there – that space is not the end of a chapter, and therefore we need to fill it in. I tend to use art, but some people use big pink rectangles or large text that says ‘ART GOES HERE’. (My finished layout is in The Gifts of Prax.. The lizards are awesome.)

Here, I got rid of an ugly gap at the bottom of a page with a different method. This text was originally part of the run of the document, but it works well on its own, because it does not add to the plot. It’s also a GM reference, so putting it into a frame makes sense for helping people to see it as they flick through. The Runes also help to show the theme and provide something that people can look for as they go. They are a block of something that is not text, and that provides visual interest. They are also exactly the right size to get the text to wrap around so that there are no ugly gaps at the bottom. Sometimes getting the bottom to line up is a matter of moving the top. I could have added more about the Dead Place, but that ended up with one solid box of text. I deleted some sentences and added the Death Runes. In the end something that had had a gap was padded out in a way that drew attention to its importance.

In general I try for at least one bit of art on every double-page spread. Many of them are tiny – hand-drawn lines or squiggles or pictures of frogs or simple weaponry or ribbons. They break up the solid text where you, the layout artist, want a break. So above Maserelt I have a little row of beads on a necklace. It’s not complex, and it took me a few minutes, but it’s a break before an NPC so that the reader knows there is a change coming. If those Death Runes were in the middle of the text box above, or at the end, it would look different, and maybe feel different. Use art as a change of pace, and a break between things. It should generally go at a column end, or a page top or bottom.

Another way to maintain visual interest is with highly transparent Runes or shapes in the background, at huge scale. The Core Rulebook uses Glorantha’s Runes. For the Lifethief Trilogy, we used the sigil that gave me the idea for the Lifethief as a central thing with tentacles. It’s there all the time, as an Easter Egg, but it’s also there to add a little variety to the pages.

Let’s look at space and padding around art now. This is Deveval, a brave, honourable, rather fragile Humakti. He’s waving because he wants to be friends.

For Vinga’s Ford, a lockdown project written and edited in about a month, I embedded images in the flow instead of having them on their own, because I didn’t have much art. This meant that they stuck out a bit, as well as being sizeable to take up slack in the text. I altered the text box outlines to flow around the art, and kept everything simple. Once I knew where the end of the paragraphs were, I could move the image of Deveval, make him bigger or smaller, and so on. Embedding like this means that the lines get very short, so it’s not a solution to use a lot, but it’s effective when done from time to time, in particular at the ends of columns. It’s an example of breaking the line of the column on purpose.

To me, the flow of a document is much easier when straight lines follow straight lines. Avoiding doglegs is pretty important, I think.

With thanks to Nick Brooke for permission to use his works, here’s something I wouldn’t have done. It’s not art, exactly, but it’s a case where there’s a dogleg – a line comes down on the left, and then it stops, and then a different line goes down on the left. What’s happened is that the upper text is bullet points, which push over the left margin, and then the footnotes re-establish the original margin. When looking straight up and down the page, that’s visually jarring. It’s something to avoid in text and art, if possible. In fact, I’ve gone up and down this page to try to stop it from happening despite WordPress’s best attempts to help me. (Nick did know it was happening, but did not have a solution for it, and was still new to InDesign.)

Incidentally, The Duel at Dangerford is a fantastic bit of writing, and I learned some GMing tricks from it. It’s also packed full of lore, and worth picking up just for that.

Here’s another dogleg, and one where I think there’s another problem as well. The image breaks the right-hand margin, but even more obviously it pushes over to the far side of the page, where it crowds the text. This is sort of amusing to me (and hopefully to Nick as well) because one of the key bits of advice he gives is ‘give things room to breathe’. In Duel at Dangerford he was still working out how to lay things into place.

‘Room to breathe’ is why Nick prefers not to use outlines around images, as well. That lets them sit more lightly on the page and stops the eye from being grabbed by heavy outlining. That sits in opposition to what I prefer, but I think either works as long as you keep to the document flow.

It would be unfair to demonstrate on Nick’s earlier work without pointing out that as we learn more, we change what we are doing. Here, demonstrating both space to breathe, and line flow without doglegs, is a snippet from Crimson King, Nick’s latest work. (It can be used by any GM, and is his usual mix of deep lore, zany plotting, and high-octane special effects, and I helped edit it, but he hasn’t paid me to say that.)

You can see the difference. The work still cuts across two columns, but there are no broken lines. Instead, there are curves. The space around the image and the irregular outline makes it much more successful. The room between the text and the image means you do not run from mentally processing one kind of thing into mentally processing another. (I work with people who do a lot of research on this, and all I can say is ‘complicated. do not do it’.)

There is a lot more I COULD say here, but I’m going to add only that you should attempt to keep your layout simple, keep your use of colour in text to a minimum, and reduce the number of fonts and curly bits and special clever stuff you’re doing, if you can. That’ll make a beautiful document that people can’t read.

Let me know in comments if you have any particular questions.


Add Yours →

I’d also advise looking at spreads, if you’re planning ahead for a print release.

The left-hand and right-hand pages will always be seen together; for preference, displace boxes to the outside margin (LH column on a LH page, RH column on a RH page), and for preference put artwork on a RH page (and in the RH column) so it’s most visible to anyone flicking through the book.

Make section titles big, and give them plenty of room to breathe. You’re not writing a poky technical document, you’re making something that’s beautiful and navigable.

Stick to a limited range of carefully chosen fonts. Don’t go overboard with fancy swashes and ligatures: except in big display headers, less is usually more. (If you think what I publish is OTT, you should see the rejected draft versions.)

And don’t feel compelled to use ugly spiky thin header fonts “because they’re in the template” – you are expected to use your own skill and judgement to create beautiful things.

Two text columns are standard for a reason: they cause less eye-strain and result in greater comprehension when reading lengthy text passages. Ignore the basics at your peril!

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