In Comics: Simplification and Recognition

First, a disclaimer: This is going to be a rambling post with no real “thesis” or conclusion–just some random semi-related thoughts.  That said, read on at your own risk…

Not too long ago, floating all about the internets were a lot of links to cartoonist John Martz’s fantastic pixel art of Star Trek characters.
What’s really interesting about them (besides how nicely-done they are) is that they’re all quite recognizable. Simplification and exaggeration are a cartoonist’s stock and trade and pixel art like this really gets at the simplification part in a major way.  Seeing how far you can pare down something while keeping it recognizable is an interesting experiment that tests both the artist’s skill and the viewer’s familiarity with the subject. Here’s a great example–the cast of The Simpsons in three or fewer pixels (I have no idea who did the image, or I’d give proper credit):

I remember hearing a story (maybe apocryphal) about a New Yorker cartoonist whose editor complained that he was paying him handsomely for an image with so little line-work. The cartoonist’s response was that he should be payed more for pulling off an image with as few lines as possible.  In the modern era, I see this kind of ethos in things like Chris Ware’s newly-manifested “circle people” style:

I’m not positive when this style made its first appearance–maybe the cover Ware did for McSweeny’s?–but it’s become enough of a stylistic fixture for him that it was recently parodied/saluted during Conan O’Brien’s run on The Tonight Show:

I have to admit, I don’t find this style particularly appealing on a purely aesthetic level, but it’s interesting as a sort of “paring down” experiment. Following in similar footsteps is fellow Chicagoan Ivan Brunetti, who over the years has gone from this…

… to this:

Back to the original pixel art: What’s most interesting about it for me is that you can actually recognize who most of those characters are (depending on your familiarity with the show, of course).  Pixel art is a relatively recent phenomenon, being an offshoot of video games, but interest in minimalist recognition is not a new phenomenon.  The most well-known scientific exploration of this is probably the November 1973 issue of Scientific American, which featured this now-iconic cover:

For the record, George Washington there is depicted with 624 pixels. The issue contained Leon D. Harmon’s article, “The Recognition of Faces.”   In June of that same year Harmon and Julesz published a paper called “Masking in visual recognition: effects of two-dimensional filtered noise” in the journal Science. The issue featured a pixelated Abraham Lincoln on the cover.  Harmon and Julesz determined that Lincoln could be easily recognized using only 216 pixels and that the absolute minimum number of squares required to recognize Lincoln was 108.

1973 was apparently a banner year for things-pixelated–and not just in the science world.  It was also the year artist Chuck Close‘s work was first shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Close had been using huge “grids” to facilitate his enormous formalist portraits so it’s not surprising that he was taken aback to stumble on that issue of Scientific American with Washington on the cover.  From that point forward (to what extent there’s a direct relationship here is speculative; Close was already on the “road to pixeldom”), Close’s work became more and more pixelated. (It’s worth noting, though, that Close does not, and has never, used a computer for his work.)  Here’s a portrait by Close of Philip Glass from 1977:

Close suffered a spinal artery collapse in 1988 and as a result is largely paralyzed. He continues to paint though, with a brush tied to his wrist. (The amazing Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress is available streaming online via Netflix.  I recommend it highly.) If anything, his art has become even more fascinating since then as his “pixels” become larger and more abstract.  Here’s a more recent Close portrait, Lucas, along with a detail:

In conclusion (I’m trying here, people), you know what’s really bizarre? Chuck Close has a psychological condition that causes him to…. not recognize faces.



Listen to Chuck Close and Oliver Sacks in a highly fascinating interview about their shared condition, “Face Blindness” on RadioLab.

You can find a wealth of scientific articles about facial recognition (including one incorporating Chuck Close) here.

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