It’s relatively easy to understand that art evokes certain emotions through the shapes and shadows that are created, however, the power of the individual elements of the artwork is often overlooked. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud enlightens readers to one of the most basic sources of emotion—the line. Although this idea may be new to some, McCloud isn’t the only one who sees these hidden emotions. Take, for example the research done at Harvard University’s Psychological Laboratory. In Helge Lundholm’s The Affective Tone of Lines, he summarizes an experiment in which he asked a group of non-artistic men and women to draw a line to express “an adjective given verbally” (Lundholm, 43). At the end of his experiments, he charted the results and summarized the emotions associated with each variety of line. Needless to say, his work goes on for pages but a few strong examples include “Sharp angles are unpleasant—weakness can never be expressed through angles. Curves denote grace and beauty, serenity and kindness. Power is expressed in big curves, even dignity” (Lundholm, 52-54). There is an undeniable truth behind the fact that before the lines even join together to resemble something, they discretely emit emotions to the viewer.
A brilliant example of this is Lynd Ward’s Vertigo. In each of the three sections, Ward combines a variety of line styles to present a powerful message without using a single word. The twenty-ninth image of “1929” in “The Girl” shows the boy and the girl riding a carousel hand in hand. Unlike some other images that will be discussed, Ward is intentionally using an assortment of techniques to illustrate multiple emotions in one work. Soft, thin lines are cheerfully sprinkled through the image. The viewer can draw a parallel between these “friendly” lines and the joy that the couple is experiencing from being together. The fragility of these lines does not interfere with the happiness that they are sharing, but is simply providing a gentle emphasis on the potential for their joyous future. In addition to this cheerful presence, Ward utilizes large curves, which convey a message of youth, innocence and grace. Even without the image of a carousel the visual of such dramatic, sweeping curves evokes a sense of playfulness. The combination of these two styles of lines results in a pleasant aura surrounding the escapades of a young couple.
Interestingly, Ward utilizes another form of lines in the same image. Amongst the gentle, comforting lines, he incorporates bold, harsh lines especially surrounding the boy. The darkness of the jagged lines interrupts the happiness otherwise present in the image and gives the viewer a sense of imperfection. Without this use of sharper lines, the viewer is presented with a fairytale consumed only by ecstasy and joy. In reality, we know that life can’t be this wonderfully simple and Ward is reminding the viewer of this fact. Even amongst the most perfect of times, there is a sense of misfortune.
Now with the knowledge of a general feeling of the lines, the compilation of them says even more. Again Ward uses contrasting methods of shading to contribute to the opposing emotions shared in a single illustration. Ward uses the technique of creating splotches to soften the image, particularly around the girl. Directly behind the girl is a collection of these small dots, which creates depth and perspective while simultaneously creating a soft cushion to support the innocent happiness she is experiencing. The softness of the shading around the girl is directly reflected in the emotion that she emits in general in this image. To continue with the girl’s innocent demeanor, Ward carries soft shading through to the horse that she is riding. The lightness and sporadic use of shading on the horse creates an angelic, free feeling.
The boy’s horse starkly contrasts this with its overall darkness and distinct shapes. By keeping the lines individual and bluntly disrupting them with solid black dividers, the horse itself carries negativity and an overwhelming unwelcomed force. It is as if the horse is forcing itself upon this perfect fairytale. Paired with this haunting depiction, we are presented with the dark angles of the boy and his clothing. The sharp edges within the clothing create tension and stiffness in the boy as to depict a sense of discomfort in the playful dream. In addition to his clothing, the contrast between the boy and the background couldn’t be more abrupt, causing this feeling of an intruding opposite emotion to the happiness occurring around him.
Within “The Girl” section of Vertigo we are confronted again with an image presenting two contrasting emotions. The sixth picture of “1932” shows the girl’s father receiving the news that he lost his job. There are fewer lines to analyze individually in this picture but that in itself tells the viewer something without delving into the shapes and shadows present. The overall darkness is a result of a lack of lines and is an immediate sign of hardship. For the distinctive lines that can be seen, they are mostly bold and sharp. The severity of each line reflects the life changing power of the news that the father is receiving.
The shadows and shapes created by the lines are especially interesting in this illustration. As mentioned earlier, Ward’s use of splotches softens the overall feeling and evokes innocence while harsh segregated lines create an unpleasant sensation. Ward intentionally separates these two methods and assigns one to each man. The soft innocent splotches surround the father while the evil individual lines encompass the businessman. Ward doesn’t miss a detail in this correlation. If we look at the upper right hand corner, where both heads meet the background we find an especially interesting aspect to Ward’s shading. The background in general consists of small dots and this continues as the background touches the father’s head however, Ward changes the shading around the boss’s head. Although his head is approaching the same dotted background, the space around his head is shaded using a grid work of lines creating severity. In order to continue the association of the boss with a harsh, negative character, Ward uses sharp angles and distinct lines. Similarly, the envelope containing this news is boldly brighter than the rest of the image, emphasizing the piercing, devastating news of unemployment.
The fifth image of “An Elderly Gentleman” illustrates the unveiling of the statue to the city. The entire image is engulfed by dark, sharp individual lines coming from a multitude of angles. The intersecting boldness of so many lines immediately screams chaos. The lines coming from the top right corner are abruptly met by a forceful barrier attributing to a sense of an imposing strength and control. Although the majority of the image is consumed by sharp edges, some curving lines in the upper left corner briefly interrupt this. But these curves are nothing like the ones seen, for example in “The Girl”. Instead of emitting happiness, the curves are pointed and sharply meet a set of individual lines jutting into the image. The viewer is presented with an idea that the sharpness of bold lines is forcing its power upon the flowing softness of a stereotypical curve.
Again, when we take a step back from the simple lines and observe the general shapes and shadows, Ward mimics the bold harshness. The shading used on the statue is void of any gradient between black and white. The definitive barriers between every shape of the statue create an overwhelming sense of dominance as they contrast the lighter variations of the surroundings. Nowhere else in this image do we see such contrast which emphasizes the presence of the statue. Similarly, the lines and shadows of the cover for the statue are harsher than one would expect for fabric. Rather than a smooth flowing of soft fabric, the dark zigzags crumble under the might of the statue.
The twelfth picture of “The Boy” depicts an embrace between the girl and boy. Almost every line is thin and delicate as to accentuate the romantic feeling evoked by this young love. Although the lines create contrast, there is no sense of harshness or sharpness within the boy and girl. The “friendly” feeling of the lines is drawing a parallel to the love and kindness shared between the two of them. Similarly, there are very few places where there is a bold line piercing the image. On the left side of the picture, individual lines frame the couple but because the lines are so thin and compacted together, they provide a soft shield rather than a harsh barrier.
Now upon further analysis, one can look at the actual shadows and shapes created by the lines. One of the strongest elements that softens the picture is the way in which Lynd Ward decides to create shadows. Rather than continuing the pattern of thin lines, Ward begins to use dots or splotches. In doing so, he is able to create depth while also producing a comfortable, supportive halo to surround the couple. This passion is mimicked in the way that the two bodies gently merge into one. Ward intentionally used this splotchy pattern close to the bodies so that there were no severe lines splitting the two of them. This can especially be seen where her arm is touching his right shoulder, and around their legs—her leg seems to become part of the shadows and wrinkles in his.
This feeling is starkly contrasted by the first image of “Monday” where the boy somberly stands amongst the advertisements. Again, the first source of emotion in this image is in the simple lines. The sheer quantity of individual lines creates an emotionally strong and powerful image in itself. Having so many distinct visuals create chaos and harshness for the viewer even if there were no other elements to the image. Although there were individual lines in the previous image discussed, there is a huge difference in the emotion that they evoke. In the previous image, all of the lines had a source that united them, almost like the lines were pouring into the picture. In the first illustration of “Monday”, the lines shooting up from behind the building are missing this unity. Because of that they appear as cold splinters forcing themselves into the subject matter.
Again, applying these small lines to the big picture, more emotion can be seen in the image. The shadows and wrinkles of his clothing reflect his disheartened mentality due to his unemployment. There is a sense of chaos and desperateness in his clothing alone. Another specific use of dark shading, is the shadows used around the boy’s face. They are not only extremely dark but have glimpses of the lines that compose them. Breaking the shading up like this and the darkness of his face are more elements that evoke this feeling of overwhelming pressure that the boy has as he learns the reality of his world. Then when looking at the shadows in general in this picture, the viewer is presented with a much more harsh and cold feeling than in the previous illustration discussed. Ward replaces his use of soft splotches with a sort of grid work. When looking closely enough, the viewer can see the individual lines that make up the gradients for each shadow. With so many lines intersecting and weaving through one another, the image becomes more hectic and severe. Just as the world around the boy is desperately attempting to survive in this tumultuous time, every aspect of the image surrounding the figure is buzzing around him as he tries to keep his head above water.
So now, after almost three whole pages of whittling down five of Ward’s masterpieces to their very core we must take a step back and apply these theories to Vertigo as a whole. The bittersweet reality of this task is that there is a never-ending array of options for interpretation. In general, it seemed to me that Ward maintained a pattern throughout his work. In the majority of “The Girl” we are presented with an overall sense of happiness and optimism but Ward strategically incorporates a harsh reality as to foreshadow the gloom of the following sections. Next, “An Elderly Gentleman” is consumed by dark, harshness as a reflection of the negative force he is bringing upon society. And finally, “The Boy” illustrates the result of the first two sections. By incorporating some innocence from “The Girl” and the brutal reality of “An Elderly Gentleman” we are presented with the lasting effects of The Great Depression on a society unprepared for reality.
Lundholm, Helge. Harvard Psychological Studies. 5. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1922. Print.
Ward, Lynd. Vertigo: A Novel in Woodcuts. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art. Harper Paperbacks, 1993.