A primer on how to buy “Rusty Riley” original art: Part 5 — Composition . . .

Note:  As I mentioned at the beginning of earlier posts in this series, I may be selling some of my original Rusty Riley art in the near future, probably starting within the next few months — maybe about fifteen daily strips and maybe about four Sunday strips.  Also, I may sell a few of my Frank Godwin paintings in the near future as well.  I suppose it was largely with that in mind that I decided to put together a little guide to purchasing Rusty Riley original art.

This post is Part 5.

In this post, I will continue to go through my “Six ‘Cs’ of Collecting Rusty Riley Original Art.”

3.  Composition

One of Frank Godwin’s many areas of particular skill was that of composition.  I’ll start out with the following image from a beautiful two-panel Rusty Riley daily strip by Godwin (original art for April 5, 1955).  This is one of Godwin’s more complex daily Rusty Riley compositions.  Notice the uniformly complex background for the three characters at the left, who have focussed their attention (and the viewer’s) on Rusty.  In turn, Rusty is framed by two of the characters in the background (including a man at the far right).  None of that is accidental.

An example of a compelling and complex composition, from the April 5, 1955, episode of Frank Godwin's "Rusty Riley."

An example of a compelling and complex composition, from the April 5, 1955, episode of Frank Godwin’s “Rusty Riley.”

In an earlier post (not presently viewable), I wrote, in part (the quotation is in boldface):

In some ways, though, even more crucial than technique is composition. Though good composition can probably be taught, it is probably also true that some people have a special knack that allows them to come up with masterful compositions seemingly without effort.  Probably many artists work for a lifetime without any special capabilities in composition, while others, picture after picture, come up with brilliant work.

Comic-strip authority Maurice Horn certainly appreciates this aspect of Godwin’s work.  In his article on Godwin in The World Encyclopedia of Comics, he wrote:  “Connie is an undisputed masterpiece of draftsmanship, composition and design, and Rusty Riley is not too far behind.”

With this in mind, it is interesting to consider something that Frank Godwin himself set forth on the topic of composition:

Composition never gets easy and the time never arrives when an artist may feel that he has mastered it.  My opinion is that a simple composition is always to be preferred to an elaborate one.  You can’t make anything poor any better by having a lot of it.  A composition which is restless and full of movement is confusing to the observer.

The foregoing is from a lengthier quotation of Godwin by Sid Hydeman, in the latter’s book How to Illustrate for Money (New York, 1936). Godwin also briefly discusses Howard Pyle in connection with Pyle’s composition. The book contains a few other interesting references to Godwin as well.

Okay, then.  I don’t want to turn this post into a detailed discussion of composition.  I have my own theories on composition — which are pretty mainstream, I suppose.  And I am not going to state many examples.  But Godwin often comes up with inventive compositions that are amazing to behold.  He does not often use highly unusual angles, to which many comic-book artists are attached.  Instead, his compositions are from largely orthodox points of view and are set apart by dramatic balance or theatrical framing.

Godwin above speaks of simple compositions, but many of his own compositions are at least moderately complex.  And if you are judging a Rusty Riley strip, on some level you are going to want to contemplate the composition.  Does the strip involve simple profiles of two people talking?  Does it show an elaborate tableaux of many characters arranged dynamically?  Usually, in Godwin’s case, the more complex and detailed compositions are going to be preferred by collectors.

And, yes, when two characters are sitting across from each other, talking, it is hard for the artist to do much with it.  I know that some artists will resort to visual “tricks,” I guess you could call them, to inject interest into a scene.  Like, hey, I’ll do an overhead view — straight down, from above.  Or, I’ll pretend I’m a mouse in the corner of the room, and show what he sees!  Or, idea:  I’ll show the back of the speaker’s chair, and we’ll just see the top of the speaker’s head!  Or, another idea:  I’ll show a moody silhouette of the hero, contemplating is next move.

Suck “gimmicks” actually draw attention to themselves and to the artist, and tend to take the reader out of the story.  They leave the viewer thinking, “Hey, this guy is a polished professional illustrator.  He could probably have done great, stylish advertisements for the 1957 De Soto!”  Godwin rarely, if ever, engaged in such techniques in the course of Rusty Riley.

—Tom Sawyer

November 2, 2013

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