Mathieu Lauffray is an amazing artist to watch work.
He has the technical chops to draw everything from the jungle to a pirate ship to characters in period clothing.
But he also has the composition skills of a trained painter or a storyboard artist. He tells a story well, but inside of those movements, he produces stunning individual panels that aspiring artists can and should study and learn from.
That’s why I’m here today: to show you some of the composition tips and tricks you can learn from Lauffray with four panels from “Raven” v1…
If you’re interested in this kind of thing, I wrote a similar article about the composition work in Xavier Fourquemin’s “Miss Endicott”. Earlier explorations into Mike Wieringo’s “Fantastic Four” are available, as well. Just look up the “HyperAnalysis” category for this site.
Triangles and the Rule of Thirds
Frank Frazetta was well known for his use of triangular composition in his paintings, but he wasn’t alone. Think back to the first Star Wars poster for another example of it.
Here’s a panel where Lauffray uses it. He places the focal point of the panel at the top center of the panel. More than that, that character in the middle dominates the panel and the triangle, as well. You can’t miss him, especially as he’s turning that giant steering wheel.
From there, the other characters we’ve been introduced to in this sequence also appear in the panel, off to either side, but lower. He’s producing a bit of a squatter triangle in his composition here.
And, yes, the triangle is tilted to the right side of the panel. This makes sense from a story point of view, as the ship is being tossed by the giant waves of a storm on the ocean.
You can also see the Rule of Thirds at work. The people off to the side are positioned roughly along the two vertical lines. And the man steering the ship is dead center in the panel, but his eye line is along the top horizontal line.
Composing with Lettering In Mind
Lauffray could have positioned him lower in the panel to make sure there was room for the word balloons. Comics are filled with this kind of thing. If you look at a page of original art that’s been composed with the lettering in mind, you’ll see just how many panels are filled with dead space in their top third. It’s a necessity of the art form.
Lauffray wrote this book himself. He knew where the word balloons could go, and he did a better job integrating them into the art in the open space in the upper left and right corners.
In photographic terms, this is called “filling the frame.” Don’t leave dead space unless you have to or if it makes sense to. (An ultra-wide establishing shot might have lots of negative space in it, for example.) Otherwise, let the subject of your panel show itself off as big as possible.
Lauffray does all of that here.
Into the Void: Using Negative Space and Detail
I love this panel for a few reasons.
To set it up: the characters are trying to escape the ship, but they need to get above deck first.
Let’s look at some of the ways this works so well:
They’re moving left to right, so it flows with your reading pattern. This is a motion that isn’t fighting against you, so it keeps you moving forward. That works.
The cannons in the extreme foreground on the far left and ride sides of the panel lead the eye right to the characters in motion, who are the focal point of this panel.
The same thing works with the planks of the floorboards at the bottom of the panel. Like the cannons, they’re all pointing at the characters in the center of the frame. Everything leads your eye where Lauffray wants it.
But the biggest thing about this panel is how Lauffray uses detail and his black ink to draw the reader into the story and lead the eye to where it needs to go.
All of the darkest, blackest, inkiest parts of this panel are on the left and right side on the objects in the foreground that are almost silhouetted. The characters in the center part of the panel are relatively brighter, with fewer shadows and nit-picky texture detail.
The clothing detail doesn’t include a lot of texture, and it includes more color than the rest of the panel. That blue jacket, in particular, really stands out. The overall openness of the art in combination with the brightness of the color in that portion of the panel gives Lauffray the contrast he needs to pull the eye in.
It’s as if there’s a gradient not of color, but of detail. From the outside edges of the frame pushing in to the focal point, you get less and less detail, less blacks spotted, and more color.
Lauffray is guiding your eye towards those pirates by putting them right in front of a nearly blank wall in a panel that already has lot of shadowy detailed ink work. That back blank wall with its lighter tone is almost like a halo surrounding the pirates.
Lauffray doesn’t have to draw a big circle around the focal point of this panel with a red Sharpie. He’s used plenty of other artistic tricks to pull that off.
Framing Your Shot (and More Negative Space)
This is a diagonal movement on a straight panel. That’s just more interesting than a character walking straight across a panel.
It also works here because it’s Raven in some level of distress. You can visualize that idea better if he’s plodding up a hill rather that spritely prancing across the page, or even moving more easily with gravity downhill. The camera angle is even pointing up. We’re looking up at the buildings behind him.
Everything in this panel is about Raven’s difficult journey forward. It’s all uphill. It’s a physical representation of his mental attitude.
But the technique that really jumped out at me here is, once again, how Lauffray uses an extreme foreground to frame the action. Those posts closer to the reader that are mostly silhouettes box him in perfectly. They don’t just add dimension to the panel, but also lead the eye directly to where it should go. It’s a busy panel, but there’s no doubt that Raven is at the center of it, even though he’s off center just a tad.
You can also make the point that, just like with the previous panel, Lauffray uses negative space here to his advantage. That road that Raven is walking up is fairly spartan in its details. The rest of the panel is detailed, filled with textures and ink lines. But there’s Raven with a vacant spot behind him that frames him, as he walks up a road that’s essentially the negative space of the panel cutting diagonally across. And there’s plenty of empty road ahead for him to walk up.
It’s all great stuff that works on multiple levels.
Down with Straight Lines; Give Me Curves!
I love this panel because it’s kind of subtle.
This is an establishing shot of a building at the top of a rocky hill. It’s leading us into a conversation going on inside the house. You can see the word balloon leading into the window to show us that.
Lauffray could have staged this panel a hundred different (but lesser) ways. He could have pulled away and done a long shot at eye level. He could have gone for a slightly overhead three-quarters view.
He could have even drawn it from below the level of the house itself. That’s what he does here, but even that isn’t what makes this panel remarkable. It’s a nice touch in that it emphasizes that it’s a house high up on a hill — so high, in fact, that there’s a rope hanging off the wide to use to pull supplies up to it. There are also birds behind that rope, further showing us that we’re up in the sky.
No, the thing that he adds to this panel is the guards outside the house. The three pirates in their fancy dress lead the eye through the panel. Humans love looking at other humans. Our eyes are attracted to other people, perhaps out of some ancient evolution to keep us alive by seeing predators before they get us. Who knows?
But, again, those pirates aren’t on a straight line. They’re not on a diagonal line. They curve up the hill to the house. Your eye works in a spiral formation through this panel. You an almost follow the pirates to the house and back down the rope.
Oh, wait, no wonder why it looks so good:
It’s not exactly the Golden Ratio, but it comes close enough for me…. I’m sure if I adjusted that overlay on the pic above, I could get it even closer.
With that, I think I need to drop the mic and walk away. I never see the Golden Ratio anywhere. This feels like a first…
In the meantime, go read a book that Mathieu Lauffray has drawn. It’s guaranteed to be pretty, but don’t forget to go back and analyze some panels to see how he’s using all of these techniques in his work.