Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Sugar Cookie Cutter

Where to begin? Anywhere I guess. So there's an inversion when you start drawing of at the very least, appreciation of lines. A craggy weathered face, where all the collagen has broken down, the skin folded is a drawing dream. The extremely old are some of the best studies. And sure, craggy old faces enjoy their time in black and white giclee print photographs, but for the most part, once you put a pen or brush down and assess what's easy on the eye - we as human beings tend to prefer the smooth contours of youth.

And this inversion applies doubly to women. In fact, when starting out there was nothing worse to draw than 'cute girls' because every mark you make blemishes their skin. It is an exercise in restraint. The nose particularly is problematic, putting in a bridge can instantly hag-ify the face, and some schools simply mark the nose with little more than a dash.

And of course, the less lines you have to work with, the less marks you make the harder it gets to differentiate. Furthermore, there's a developmental difference for any comic inspired artist in particular when drawing the big 2 genders. It's not just that you can draw in the bridge of a nose more readily and in most styles with male characters, but their boxy anatomy is kind of straight forward as well. Moving from the red and green men that inform pedestrians when to cross an intersection to drawing a superhero is not that big a stretch, most of the developmental challenge of learning to draw male characters is in learning the musculature - which for ripped superhero type characters provides vast options for articulation - and therefore variation.

Drawing an appealing female figure is a skill. A fine balancing act, and as soon as I started working on a project requiring me to draw a whole cast of females, I noticed I was stamping them out as a cookie cutter. I've been drawing for years, but it seems I just figured out once how to draw a sexy lady image, and then left it at that - my go to construction. What is more interesting than my own stalling though, is how common that is.

For example:
These are the two female cast members of Japan's number one serialized comic 'One Piece' Nami and Robin. This series has been running for over 20 years putting out about 40 issues a year averaging around 16 pages. Eichiro Oda, the writer and artist has created around about 1,000 named characters for the series and in my opinion is one of the best character designers in comics... except Nami and Robin could have been cut with the same mold from dough and simply decorated differently. In Oda's defense there are characters like Big Mom, Brulee, Miss Christmas etc. that have different body shapes, one of the first prominent female characters was Alvida, an obese pirate captain that later had a dramatic transformation into the standard Oda bikini body. the number of women that share Nami and Robin's proportions is at least 2-1.

Oda isn't the prime offender, and despite the cookie cutter effect he creates characters with distinct personalities, if not distinct busts. My impression is that many in the western art world look at Japanese comic aesthetics as 'prescriptive' there are right and wrong answers. There are generally accepted definitions of what a 'cute girl' looks like. However turning west there are artists whom are quite successful even though their cookie cutters are quite inflexible. Perhaps the most prominent in my mind is J Scott Campbell's work. Where proportions are almost entirely constant and even facial features are quite close to identical. Do a study of his works (as I briefly did) and you notice immediately that there's just one way of doing things. Campbell's the artist I would absolutely go-to for this cookie cutter effect, but many of his contemporaries like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Greg Capullo etc. do so to a greater rather then lesser extent.

Prominent female artists are a much more recent phenomena particularly in the west, but if you look at the works of Loish perhaps the best known and most internet famous new gen artist, you can see a go to facial construction in there although she has much more diverse body types and ethnic feature exploration.

blah blah blah blah blah. Just about everyone does the cookie cutter, particularly when it comes to women. While phrenology has been thoroughly debunked as a science, it still kind of applies in art, albeit not with measurements of the skull, but what features indicate which personality traits.

I suspect, for historical reasons, what is happening is that a male character is nuetral - thus you articulate your character out from a male mule - male protagonists are pretty generic if you look through comic book history and that's because they are the eyes and ears of the reader - presumed to be male. Then you thicken a male's neck and frame and they become a pin-headed thug, you make them lithe and elongated and they become the serpentine string-puller. You shorten them and emphasize the forehead they are a brainiac.

If you widen their hips, give them breasts and round their jaw off they become the character archetype of 'a woman'. And I would suggest that it is non-controversial to say that much of the roles women are given to play in most of narrative history - is a woman. A love interest, or the love interest's competition. They are little more than a macguffin, interchangeable for another precious and desirable object - including I guess, each other.

I'm sure there are more exceptions to the rule, but in terms of facial features, the one artist I found that stands out as having distinguishable female characters is Jeremy Treece and sure, ultimately it's a matter of preference in the absence of me bothering to construct the computer models that measure non-similarity across stylized artwork...but if you scroll through his feed and find two female characters side by side, you'll be able to distinguish them by their facial features alone. To the same extent that if two women you know got identical haircuts, you'd still be able to tell them not just apart but who they were - something you can't do with J Scott Campbell.

I could speculate in a psuedo-scholarly fashion as to what historic cultural trends lead to this state of affairs, but it would be just that. I can speak from experience and say that it is simply much harder to draw an appealing beautiful woman character than it is to design an appealing old woman character.

The saying after all goes 'if at first you don't succeed, try try again.' and I suspect the moment you do succeed, that's it. You rest on your laurels. Once you've gone to all the effort to pin down a design of Veronica that 'pops' that you intuitively say 'yes' to, then are you going to start from scratch and avoid the same solutions to design Veronica?

There's two interesting things at play here - the first requires you to recall that throughout human history, the technology to draw or paint a female form developed centuries before the technology to photograph one. Sculpture preceded painted portraits as well and at the very least survived better. Hence we have venus dolls from 35-45 thousand years ago. That means that long before the fashion industry began in Louis' court of Versailles, abstracted stylized images defined the unrealistic body types of women, and possibly influenced fashion and photography, not the other way around. It's the arts since classical antiquity after all, that were based around narratives and literally defined the roles and value of female characters - fashion photography is a relative narrative vacuum by comparison.

The second interesting aspect is that if you consider the printing technology available for comic artists in the 1950's, you had a very limited color palette often applied 'paint by numbers' style by some employee at the printers, this lead to cookie cut characters all over the shop. Also a prevalence of dark haired male protagonists, like Bruce Wayne & Clark Kent, but curiously, given that you couldn't differentiate characters based on color scheme, like Ryu & Ken - why did nobody think 'Eureka! I could draw their facial features differently so they look distinct and different!' The obvious answers that come to mind are - comics in the 1950's was not where ambitious artists sought employment, deadlines meant most of the artwork was a rush job, nobody took them very seriously then starting a long term trend of people taking comics too seriously.

Now, all of this may seem to be leading into a feminist critique of how women's bodies are portrayed in popular art media. Alas no, I could concede all the criticisms in terms of the adverse affects it has on the development of women and women's esteem. I'm just not of the camp that believe ideals of feminine beauty to be arbitrary - a manufactured cultural conditioning that came about through an oppressive conspiracy.

I may as well lay out my prejudices, and keep in mind that being male I'm insulated from the ramifications of holding one belief over another, I'm also horribly horribly superficial. It's not so much that I feel ideals of beauty aren't arbitrary, but that gender roles aren't arbitrary either - even though they may be almost entirely constructed. There must be some irreducible bedrock that accounts for the fact that there are at least 2 distinct sexes and they are different.

Without actually knowing that bedrock, the most plausible explanation I defer to is an evolutionary psychology that defines male and female sex by their sex cell. (Why not chromosome combinations? I don't know, perhaps the sex cell size is consistent across species...?) Large sex cell = female, small sex cell = male. From this arises the concept of 'sexual investment' and there's a clear disparity between the sexes on this point. I forget the exact numbers but it's something like in the time it takes one female to produce one offspring, a male can sire 50-100.

Obviously, it doesn't pan out that way, but without going into too much detail - if you are interested, or interested in thoroughly debunking evolutionary psychology, you can go digging - but multiple iterations of game theory establish that if you have high sexual investment due to possessing (in humans at least) the large sex cell, your best strategy is to be discerning. If you are in possession of small sex cells your best strategy is to be resourceful and specifically command a lot of resources.

Both have to be desirable. And in an attempt to triage this post into something manageable, I'm not going to compare across sexes.

Without a doubt culture has an impact on the ideals of beauty, the past 30 years has seen a continental shift from t - a in the t'n'a equation. It's hard to find a picture of Elle Macpherson, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista that emphasizes their posterior, inconceivable for any current modelling shoot.

However, certain themes seem constant throughout history, not even recent history. The big one being hip to waist ratio, full breasts are always popular, and symmetrical or 'average' faces and long lustrous hair. There's other interesting tidbits, like this one about gender and contrast, walking motions, helpfulness, exoticness etc.

I have time for this camp because evolutionary theory produces coherent explanations - they all center around fertility and health. Furthermore, the kinds of people that advocate these explanations of beauty ideals tend to not be the kind of spokespeople I'd be inclined to distrust. You know, if it was former Whitehouse Communications Director Anthony 'The Mooch' Scaramucci saying that the reason men only dig broads with a hip to waist ratio of 0.7 because that means you wanna bang them and any other chicks are disgusting.

Instead you tend to get a bunch of middle aged academics calmly outlining their research and generally don't have much of a horse in the race.

While I don't believe that 'ideals of beauty' are arbitrary, there's two things that are clear to me - narratives are important and context is important.

Last first, context. I remember being a young uppity upstart employee at a typical corporate environment and having a chat with a middle manager. At some point in the chat, even though it was a positive exchange I realized I was being evaluated - as was he - but I inparticular was being evaluated through the context of the managers own ambitions. Namely, if he had the education I had the things he would do with it. However having had the education I had, his ambitions were ambitions that didn't even occur to me. Just as if I was meeting a 6'8" person and I got stuck on how good they could be at basketball, when they just want to be an artisan breadmaker. Or if you are a woman and men treat you nice because you are attractive or poorly because you aren't.

Being evaluated on your appearance - your reproductive value - in the wrong context ie. school or employment, is problematic for numerous entangled reasons. Such a predisposition if common, and it is common, results in both false positives and false negatives. There's the halo effect, where your attractiveness creates a bias in how intelligent, trustworthy, honest etc. you are percieved to be, and also the likelihood that you received more attention and better grades from teachers in your schooling further skewing your actual merits. On the inverse there's the glass ceiling, the threshold at which stereotypes about beautiful people obstruct your ability to be taken seriously. I haven't done enough research to see how these play out, but I suspect they certainly don't cancel each other out.

As for narrative, well you only have to look at the history of Disney films, particularly pre Tangled-Frozen. The Disney Princesses are ostensibly main or titular characters, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White etc. but often their role is just to stand around looking pretty, pass out and then be rescued by a prince. They also all fit in the same mold, slightly different accessories.

Before giving too many props to Disney's recent change of pace, self-consciousness. It's worth noting that they are making live action adaptations of all their old films and reviving them as such. The characters from Frozen although being partially explained by being sisters share the exact same build and proportions just one is blond and the other a red head. And they both have close to identical proportions to Rapunzel in Tangled. Google 'Moana Frozen Tangled' and you get composite images like this one that kind of demonstrate that the cookie cutter is still in effect design wise. Moana has a slightly broader nose but otherwise identical head to her fellow princesses such that the design team at Disney has very little work ahead of them as essentially needing to adjust skin tones and render a different hair style.

I'm not sure I have a beef, I simply noticed in myself an inability to draw a diverse female cast, and that in turn limits my ability to tell a story with a female cast. Since of the turn of the century, the standard tale of male hero rescues 'the girl' has generally put in some token scene where the woman in need of rescuing aids and abets the hero through her own initiative. She isn't completely helpless, she deceives a gaurd, stamps on his instep pushes him down a staircase and has her cuffs off ready to escape with the hero by the time he's cleared a path to her.

This is a hangover from years of design contentedness. We don't quite yet have a John McClane and Hans Gruber dynamic for women. It's usually sassy fox vs a cruel bitch. There are more diversity of womens roles generally speaking in a tarot deck than in most fiction.

And maybe, just maybe it starts with figuring out how to draw a feminine nose bridge.

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