Solo #8 (2006), page 11 panel 3. Drawn by Teddy Kristiansen.
No less a dean of comics art than Alex Toth once said: "I spent the first half of my career learning what to put into my work, and the second half learning what to leave out." He wasn't the only one. All great comics art is concerned on some level with subtraction, with suggesting things rather than actually showing them. Sequential art should never be confused with illustration, in which high-focus, all-encompassing "total visualization" of a scene is a legitimate goal. Too much visual detail, too much put in, makes for bad comics -- but you can never say too much with a picture. Often the masters of the medium are the ones who find ways to do the most with the least.
I've been looking at Teddy Kristiansen a lot lately. As a comics painter, he's about as top-notch as it gets before reaching Jerry Moriarty territory. He's almost the anti-Alex Ross, letting a flat area of monotone brushing stand in for figurative detail or realistic lighting whenever possible, blurring the focus of his panels' non-essential elements like crazy, slapping banks of rough texture into place and turning them into Cubist-style figure drawings with a few spiderwebby lines around their borders. Kristiansen's painted work always looks like it's coming at you through some kind of atmospheric filter; a sheet of water, maybe, or waves of dry heat.
For all the smeared glory of his work in paint, though, I like his more traditionally drawn art even better. Kristiansen is a rarity among modern comics artists in that he colors his own work -- and it's only by exercising that control over all the visual elements of the page that he is able to achieve what he does. Look at this panel in thumbnail before you click through to the big image. It's got a cohesion, a tightness, that can't be gotten from paint. The flat colors, abrupt shapes packed neatly right up against one another, a perfectly composed dappling of spotted shadows and lights that give a real depth and dimensionality to the cluster of angular figures. It's a fairly stunning use of the computer coloring process -- three-dimensional modeling of figures without ugly rendering or lame attempts at "digital paint". And the color choices are also exquisite, four earthy tones and the page's yellowed background working in perfect tandem with one another to create the deep shadow of a jungle. The purple and orange should by all rights scream off the page, but their application is so well considered they blend in deeply enough that you have to want to notice them at all. The effect of the orange, especially, is wonderful, indicating the dress-cloth's whiteness and the way the light falls across it better than actual white space possibly could. Even using flat, textureless slabs of color that are about as far from brushstrokes as it gets, Kristiansen's art is painterly.
What's most impressive about this panel, though, is how much Kristiansen gets out of an incredibly minimal framework. Focus on the parts instead of the whole and it's almost effervescent how little is there. The figures are bare outlines, depthless, largely faceless, drawn with a scratchy, wavering line that looks like a strong wind would blow it away. The detail is all in the elegance of the shapes, the lines' assured contours and the vital body language Kristiansen brings to his spare figures. More lines would say nothing further, so there aren't any. Up close, too, the color application begins to look abstract, almost random -- stripes of green mowed over sketchy outlines, the gorgeous dappled lighting effect revealed as a random sprinkling of purple dots over the proceedings. The thick jungle in the background becomes a chaos of scrubbed-on jade that would carry no information at all if not for the context of the scene playing out in front of it. And yet... move back and it's all there again, rife with detail, perfectly considered, a flawless composition.
It's zen acts of drawing like these that are the real spine and heart of comics visuals. It's this synthesis of line, form, shape, and mechanical color processes. It's this creation of something that hangs together for the reader and then flies apart for the observer. It's this lightness of touch, this ease of suggestion, this elegance, this leaving things out, that makes comics a unique medium -- a place of drawings that stand for ideas more than things, a place of pictures that tell stories like words. Panels like this one are pure artistic bravery, the willingness to stand before the world clothed in barest line and color and still say what they have to say as loud and clear as possible.