Composition as Binary Code

Since we're on the subject of simplifying large quantities of detail into simple patches of color, let's take the subject a step further, and look at perhaps the ultimate degree of simplification. Here's our motif once more:


Tonally, this is a pretty simple composition already, with three or four simple areas of value. But it can be simplified further still:

Here, the image has been manipulated for maximum contrast. Everything is either pure white or pure black. This sort of simplification has been a fad in graphic design in various epochs; Peter Max made a career out of the schtick. Colonel Sanders' portrait on every KFC sign uses a similar trick.

Composition is more about areas of tone than lines, although the books one might have read on the subject might suggest otherwise. This sort of treatment pares a composition down to its least common denominator. Few photographs or painted images are good enough to withstand that sort of treatment. For example, our photograph only looks more vapid when so simplified.

But a well composed image will not only survive that kind of simplification, but will often look absolutely terrific. Compositionally, a high contrast treatment separates the men from the boys.


For example, the famous photo of US soldiers raising the flag over Iwo Jima is about as iconic as a piece of photojournalism is ever likely to be. Whether the photographer had time to think about what he was seeing or not, the image stands.


Its beauty is unimpaired by the elimination of middle tones. Alexander Pope was once asked if it was really possible to translate a great poem. He answered that only a great poem can be translated. This makes sense. Only a work of art with great depth can survive the process of translation, whether of Homer's Greek into English, or of gray tones into the language of pure black and white.

The Baroque landscape painter Claude Lorrain specialized in simple designs of strong darks and strong lights. He may or may not have actually invented the tool which bears his name, a sheet of glass painted on one side with with black paint. The so-called "Claude Glass" is a very helpful tool, found in ateliers and studios everywhere these days. An image reflected in such a glass is reduced to a simple pattern of lights and darks. (If you're leery about carrying around a piece of glass, a piece of black plexiglas will do the job just fine.)


The simplified image really displays Lorrain's poetry by omission. The delicacy of his transitional tones are completely lost here. Ironically, in the work of an artist whose procedure was closest to the sort of binary code we are examining, the simplification process does his work no favors.


Most of us would agree that Hans Holbein was among the greatest portraitists of all time; the linear accuracy of his faces has never been improved upon. How does something this tight survive the acid test of total contrast?


Quite beautifully, I'd have to say. The composition is monumental, even without the beautifully realized likeness of Sir Thomas More. The simple blobs of light and dark tell us something about the sitter's wisdom, his gravitas. The fact that virtually nothing survives of that which Holbein is most noted — his staggeringly beautiful drawing of the human face — tells us that the master was far more than simply the greatest portrait painter of all time. He was also a composer, par excellence. Give that some thought the next time you stop in at the Frick collection for another look at this portrait of The Man for All Seasons.


Well, if we're examining composition as a matter of blobs of dark and light, artfully positioned and juxtaposed, we can't ignore Rembrandt. Surely no painter, except perhaps Caravaggio, gained more notoriety in the binary code of dark and light.


This lovely self-portrait is a nice example of simple zones of black and white. The only place where its playing-card simplicity is violated is exactly where it should have been violated, at the point of focus, where the painter's face is described with a few spots of dark, and a terminator line almost lost against the blast of reflected light. Thomas Craven wrote that the language of oil paint may be incapable of greater description than this. I think maybe it can be, but don't get me wrong when i use one of my own pieces as a case in point. I am making no attempt whatever to square off with Van Rijn.

We ought to take a look at the art of the comic book. In the film Chasing Amy, a comic book artist referred to inkers as "tracers". However, comic book inking distinguishes itself, more than in any other respect, by the inker's understanding of composition as a matter of blobs of black and of white. A professionally inked page shouts from across the room. The inker's blobs of black are descriptive, and architectural. They provide the armature upon which the movement of the story hangs. Inking is so complex a procedure that it is a wonder how many competent inkers there are. Scott Hanna, Rodney Ramos, Joe Sinnott, DIck Giordano, Wally Wood, Klaus Janson, Mike Royer, Josef Rubenstein and others come to mind. A skilled inker can bring a marvelous breadth and excitement to a well-pencilled page.

Still, a lot of comic book artists refuse to surrender their pencil sketches to someone else's interpretation. One of the best is Mike Mignola, whose compositional and storytelling style cannot be divorced from his sensitivity to the architecture of black and white spaces. This example, from his miniseries Hellboy in Hell, defies any explanation on my part. Without context, without lettering, and without color, the page tells its story with simplicity and beauty. Already drawn in black ink, with no attempt at modeling, the page needs no Photoshop manipulation.

HBYIH #1 PG 21.jpg

Since we're talking about comic book art, I should mention something the great comic book artist Gil Kane told me. In the period leading up to his maturity, in the late 1960s, Gil began each workday by purchasing a copy of the New York Daily News. He brought it to his studio and spent half an hour with it, holding a fat Magic Marker. He used the News because it featured more photographs than any other New York paper. Kane went over each photograph with the blobby Magic Marker, going over the dark areas of each photo. With time, he acquired a sense for how large areas of black supplied a sense of modeling that no tricks of cross hatching could ever equal. The story, Gil learned, lay in the pattern of large blacks and large whites. It was soon after he began this exercise that he refused to allow others to ink his pencils. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he grew to provide effects of reality that would otherwise have lain way, way beyond his ability to draw.

I'm somewhat hesitant to place my own work in this august company, but i guess it would be an act of cowardice to refrain. Here is a picture from last summer, Spillway Girl, done in the open air from a posed model and a recurring background. Very little attempt on my part to manipulate anything except cropping:

Spillway Girl.jpg

How does it survive the black and white acid test? Not as well as Rembrandt or Holbein or Mignola, but not entirely badly, either:

Looking back in this stark black and white world, I wonder if my purposes might have been better served by cropping more tightly on the left, so that the dark blob of the graffiti glyph might have formed the left-hand border of the upper reaches of the picture. a big L-shaped black blob could well have been more satisfying. But the streaks of dry pavement in the lower left ring true. The girl's silhouette works nicely. The spotlight formed where the water cascades from the sluice gate, bathing the girl's foot, pleases me.

It's a good test.

It's so good a test, in fact, that I think I'd be wise to add the broadest Magic Marker one can purchase to my sketching kit. Once a composition has been worked out in pencil, why not take it one step further? Try redrawing it with a blobby Magic Marker. Draw big shapes, see if they please the world's most critical eye: one's own.