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Mixed Visual Media from the Standpoint of the Reader/Spectator

By Pascal Lefèvre

In any medial product—be it a horror film, an animated documentary, or a humoristic daily strip—various constituting features are conflated, like medium, genre, style, and (artistic) technique or discipline. These are all to some degree interrelated and rich concepts, but not completely interchangeable. We can deal with the topic of mixing visual media only if we recognize this terminological problem and its various implications. This text, however, has not the ambition to sort out for once and for all these conceptual issues, but will try to sketch some of the related problems and to clarify in what sense these concepts are used here.

The basic assumption of this contribution is that it seems that every medium strives for some kind of visual medial purity. Considering various visual media or art disciplines like painting, photography, cinema, and graphic narratives, it is remarkable that in general mixing visual media in a single work is rather the exception than the rule. Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this main tendency: some directors mix visual media in documentary works, using both archival footage and animated sequences, and artists creating a collage mix several visual media. This text will discuss why the option to choose one single visual medium in graphic narratives is so dominant, and will argue that internal visual coherency plays an important role in the experience of the spectator. Moreover both phenomena seem interrelated. An exploratory empirical study will give some insight into how readers experience the mixing of visual styles. For instance, when the mixing happens within a panel, it is considered to be less visible than when two single styles are alternated in different panels.

Problematic Concepts: Media, Techniques, Genre, Style

For starters, it is important to define the various concepts related to mixing visual styles. The approach will be preferably prototypical, since these terms cannot be strictly defined; there will always remain grey or ambivalent zones between the concepts. Part of the problem is that the terms are often used in different ways and as having different meanings, both by laymen and scholars.

Medium is here used in the sense of a particular established way of communicating; it can tend both towards a more general concept such as radio, television, print, or cinema and towards a more particular use of one of these media like the radio play, the television documentary, the printed novel, or the screened fiction feature film. Some critics, like Marie-Laure Ryan (Narrative across Media 19), would call the second interpretation a genre, but I prefer to use this concept in a more limited way, as a particular conventional use of a particular medium (like the novel or the feature film) and reserve genre for categories such as horror, western, autobiography, and so on.

The definition of medium still needs further clarification. Following Ryan, one has to clarify what kind of messages can be transmitted, and how these messages are presented and experienced. She draws features from five possible areas to define a form of communication as a narrative medium, distinguishing between:

  1. senses being addressed,
  2. priority among sensory tracks,
  3. spatio-temporal extension,
  4. technological support and materiality of signs,
  5. cultural role and methods of production/distribution.
For our purpose, let us delve into technological support and materiality of signs (d) to discuss further the concept of (artistic) technique. The New Oxford Dictionary of English states that the word technique refers to:
  1. an agency or means of doing something, a means by which something is communicated or expressed
  2. the intervening substance through which impressions are conveyed through the senses or a force acts on objects at a distance
  3. a liquid with which pigments are mixed to make paint, the material or form used by an artist, composer, or writer
  4. a person claiming to be in contact with the spirits of the dead and to communicate between the dead and the living
  5. the middle quality or state between two extremes.
Of course, in combination with the adjective visual only the first definition—a means by which something is expressed or communicated—is applicable in our context. On the one hand, a medium has a configuring influence on a narrative and, on the other hand, "narrative messages possess a conceptual core which can be isolated from their material support" (Ryan, Narrative across Media 289). Before the digital age, Ryan continues:
the medium of a work was both the substance out of which the work was fashioned by the artist, and the material support, or body, under which it was meant to be apprehended by the audience. But the computerisation of the production process has created the possibility of a split between these two kinds of support. A text composed on a computer can be distributed under a traditional 'old media' support. […] Far from forming a given, the status of digital technology as expressive medium depends on the extent to which the work takes advantage of its distinctive properties. (ibid.)

Wikipedia defines mixed media as different from multimedia; in the context of visuals arts, mixed media is an artwork in the making of which more than one medium has been employed.

While the media of photography and cinema are, in principle, based on cameras, the comics medium essentially relies on the combination of black pen lines and brush coloring.

The Maker's Perspective: The Way a Technique or Medium Is Used

Each picture, explains Philip Rawson, delivers by its visual style a specific view on reality, implying a visual ontology, "the definition of the real in visual terms" (19). While a spectator may be unaware of the various production phases, involving in some cases quite different techniques of media, for the artist these phases remain crucial. It all starts by choosing a category of instrument and picking a precise type of this category, which allows a particular use and thus a particular quality of lines on the paper. Secondly, an artist has to make a decision about the way he or she applies this particular instrument and can go with or against the grain of the chosen instrument. Thirdly, the surface the artist is drawing on will play a role in the interaction with the particular use of a particular instrument.

1) Choosing a Particular Instrument

There are many material instruments or digital means that an artist can choose from. C. M. Pyle demonstrates that, for instance, the choice of a copper plate instead of woodcuts allowed for a much more accurate communication of the artist's description of the same fish (73). It is rather uncommon that a comic is created by only one kind of technical instrument. Among examples of single technique comics are the use of color pencils in La Debandade by Luc and François Schuiten, brush and ink in Le Portrait by Edmond Baudoin, or woodcut prints in Olivier Deprez' adaptation of Le Château. But such single technique comics are really exceptional in the broad field of graphic narratives. While the use of different visual media (like explicitly including photographs) in a comics publication is rather scarce, the use of various techniques is generally the rule. Most comics were and still often are the result of combining an underlying pencil drawing on paper with a black inking (by pencil or brush) and a coloring (by brush) on top. For the last 25 years, paper may be exchanged at any phase for a digital file. Moreover, some book editions of graphic narratives use a quite different visual style on the cover illustration than that used for the drawings of the narrative itself. A cover may be painted without any drawn black contour lines, while the comic itself may be drawn with such black lines.

2) Choosing the Way to Use the Means

An artist has several options when deciding how to use his or her chosen means: he or she can go with the medium or technique and fully exploit its properties or, contrarily, an artist may try to ignore the idiosyncrasies of the medium or the technique. In an extreme case, the artist can choose to actively resist or oppose some of the properties of the medium or technique for expressive purposes. While a lead pencil, for instance, is ideal for tracing lines, it can also be used in such a way that the linear quality of the instrument is almost lost and pictures are produced in which the individual traces become invisible. In this case, it becomes difficult or even impossible to differentiate a drawing from a monochrome photograph. On the other hand, a photo can also be manipulated with Photoshop software to resemble an outline drawing.

Even in the case when a technique is used according to its conventional use, the final result may be quite different from usual or expected outcomes. With a single instrument, used in a conventional way, an artist may still deliver products in quite different styles. The concept of style is here used in the manner of music scholar Leonard Meyer's definition as "a replication of patterning, whether in human behavior or in the artifacts produced by human behavior, that results from a series of choices made within some set of constraints" (3). So, we have to look for replications of patterning in pictures. According to Rawson, who speaks of the art of drawing, master artists use a variety of strokes and forms within an ordered whole: "Without precision in formulating the elements there can be no true variety. For it is only possible to recognize variety and variation if distinctions between the forms are made quite clear. And there can only be variety within an ordered structure, or else differences are simply chaos and not variation. Variation implies a substratum of norm-units which are varied" (78). For a detailed discussion of graphic style in comics one can refer to my recent contribution in The Visual Narrative Reader.

3) Choosing the Carrier

Paper types differ in thickness, weight, and density. For instance, rice paper will react quite differently to ink than a cold-pressed Bristol board would. While smooth paper is rather ideal for pen and pencil instruments, rough paper may be more suited for the use of brushes, especially if one wants to use the texture of the paper. Since the coming of the digital age, all these possible variations of instruments and surfaces can be digitally simulated to a certain degree. One can debate if digital image creation systems are really able to deliver identical results. One can differ in opinion if such digital means can smoothly imitate real life material, but a rather ordinary or naive spectator probably would not see the difference in the final product.

The dominant practice in comics is to use only one visual style. Graphic narratives that alternate visually different styles like Gustave Doré's Histoire dramatique, pittoresque et caricaturale de la Sainte Russie, Nicolas Devil's Saga de Xam, or David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp form only a minor quantitative part in comics production. What may be the reason for this preference for a coherent visual style? A basic explanation might be that most artists are only specialized in a single artistic technique or visual medium. However, there may be another important reason for the scarcity of comics that combine various visual media in a work, more particularly the role of conventions and preferences that artists and spectators share, such as, the implicit preference for a formally coherent world. Of course, for the moment, we can only speculate about the fundaments of this human feature. Is it that the natural world that we have experienced as a species for billions of years is essentially visually coherent in its 'visual style'? Natural scene statistics research has revealed that natural environments contain statistical regularities (Geisler).

The Spectator's Perspective

When a spectator is confronted with a certain medial product, he or she is also immediately confronted with the conflation of many different features that characterize the product, features involving medium, genre, (visual) style, and an (artistic) discipline or technique. Let us take the example of a Donald Duck comic: a reader of such a medial product will identify the medium as comic (which is quite different from a novel or a painting), as a specific use of the comics medium, involving the choice of a particular genre (funny animal), the choice of a particular visual style (cartoony) produced by a particular artistic technique (drawing and coloring, writing). Of course, all these features are conflated in the finished product; it is up to the reader to make these kinds of basic categorizations, which are important because they will raise certain expectations regarding the experience produced during the reading of the work.

Having a comic book in hand, the reader is reminded of this particular publication format, popular in the US and many other countries, most often associated with superhero stories, but other genres as well. A cartoony style with many deformations will suggest a fabricated world, and not a depiction of visual reality. The funny animal genre will suggest, as the name explicitly says, a humoristic content and promises some laughs; furthermore, it states that not human characters but animals are the narrative's protagonists. This may be a rather simple case, but there are also works that combine various strategies, sometimes contradictorily: think of hybrid documentaries that use both drawn and photographical images, or combine historical facts with fictional elements (see for example my case study of Kawaguchi's Zipang series). Moreover, the experience by the spectator is not fixed; it may change during the reading of a comic, as the work may change in tone, style, or genre. Furthermore, different spectators, coming from different backgrounds, may interpret or experience the same formal elements in different ways.

Every choice that the producer of a medial product has made is at last implicitly involved in the final product. Every choice will influence the spectator/reader somehow, even if he or she is unaware of this manipulation. It is, in fact, through the presented pictures that the viewer perceives the fictional world and is thus confronted with the object-in-the-picture from the point of view (including graphic choices, framing, type of coloring, etc.) that the picture offers (Peters 14). The viewer must thus deal with this dual nature, both recognizing a somewhat analogous representation of something and experiencing a particular sensation related to the formal properties of the picture. Thanks to this style-specific information, art perception differs from natural perception (Augustin et al.), but the process happens largely unconsciously.

Different visual media or artistic techniques also may cause various sets of expectations. For instance, the use of pictures that imitate our perception of natural scenes have generally a much larger chance of being successfully interpreted as true depictions of reality. Viewing a photographic image, the naive spectator is led to believe that the image depicts the scene as it was in front of the camera. Theoreticians of photography have often argued about this aspect. Roland Barthes, for instance, writes in La Chambre claire: "La photo est littéralement une émanation du référent" (126) {"the photograph is literally an emanation of the referent." A photo basically announces: "What I'm showing has existed." Although "[p]hotographs are often presented as technically neutral, quasi-scientific records of the luminous intensity of the world in the direction toward which the camera was pointed when the shutter was depressed," (McManus and Stöver 243), contemporary perception researchers Christopher McManus and Katharina Stöver stress that almost any photograph has an ambiguous subjectivity lurking beneath its superficial objectivity. They specify, "All those images have aesthetic properties of their own, often carefully constructed to sell, to manipulate, to persuade, but also to look beautiful, to shock, to attract the gaze and to keep it, with ever more computational algorithms selecting, improving and manipulating those photographic images to make them more adapted and hence attractive to the human eye and mind" (271).

It is reasonable to imagine that most people are not really conscious of the computational algorithms at work when they make a digital snapshot photograph; what counts for them is their naive belief in photorealism, even though they are paradoxically well aware of some of the available possibilities to manipulate photos. Still, among the broad public and media producers there is a larger belief in photographically produced images for documenting purposes. Newspapers still prefer to use photographs over manually created images to illustrate the news. Only when no cameras are allowed as, for instance, in some courts, news media will turn to draftsmen.

Though the identification of technique may be crucial for the expectations that viewers bring to the representation, a spectator generally poses few questions about the various production phases during the perception of a particular finished product. One problem is that it is not always so easy to distinguish a medium, defined as a particular established way of communicating, from a technique. Both are often confused because some media rely on a specific technique. However, a particular instrument can be used for various media. For instance, one can use a pencil both for writing (a novel) and drawing (making comics), but if one wants to reach the masses, they will still need a printing technique to make thousands of copies or a digital version to be spread over the internet. Every choice can have an impact on the work itself; it is not completely the same experience to read a comic on paper than on a screen (a screen is a light source that will influence the experience of colors).

Which features can function as cues for signaling to the spectator another visual medium or artistic technique? First of all, they must be 'visual' in some way or another. In the extreme case that a picture no longer bears visible traces of the technique used, a spectator may be put on the wrong foot or become unaware of the technique used. These examples ignore the idiosyncrasies of the medium; they go against the grain. We seem to accept unconsciously, however, minor infractions or deviations from the visual style coherency: the so-called Clear Line style may be built on flat coloring within black outlines, but there are very brief instances in the Tintin series where Hergé deviates from his self-imposed constraints. For example, Hergé usually adds a fading red area on the cheek of his characters. On Tintin's face, the area between skin and hair also lacks a black outline. Since these deviations on the principal Tintin color scheme are applied consequently throughout the work, they can also be considered an important part of Hergé's color palette. One can assume that the reader implicitly understands and accepts those deviations because, for instance, a red cheekbone makes the characters look a little more realistic, even though they are clearly simplified figures. Only non-motivated deviations of the usual color scheme would demand more explicit attention from the reader. This brings us to the central point of this contribution: it is not so much the combination of various visual media in one work that may strike readers as odd, but rather the degree to which this mixing is visible and noticeable to the spectator. In fact, an artist can blend various visual media into one work without the average reader really being aware of it, as will later be demonstrated in an empirical test.

Theorizing Possible Effects of Mixing Styles or Media

What are the effects of using noticeably different visual styles on the interpretation of handmade images according to critics or the artists themselves? First, different styles or media may indicate two or more different 'realities' (see, for instance, the analysis of L'Afrique de papa by Bourdieu). Secondly, the use of photographs may serve as proof of the events in drawn sequences (as in Guibert's et al. Le Photographe), or they can also be used falsely (as in Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye) to suggest a historical biography that in fact is largely fictional. Thirdly, mixing visual styles may serve rather formal or artistic goals, as the French artist Francis Masse (interview by Casoar) acknowledges: "les estampes comportaient un travail graphique très élaboré que je ne pouvais obtenir moi-même, ni manuellement, ni mécaniquement" ("The prints involved a very elaborate graphic work that I could not deliver myself, neither manually nor mechanically" (my translation). Fourthly, different styles may serve some self-reflexive goal. Various critics (like Thierry Groensteen 29) have stated that Teulé's work attracts suspicion: his deforming takes on the photographs undermine their typical illusionist effects. Of course, this short list of possible effects is not exhaustive and the effects are not mutually exclusive since combinations of different effects are possible.

Testing the Spectator's Perspective

If we take the standpoint of the spectator, of the reader of a graphic narrative, we must first ask a basic question: Is a spectator able to notice a rupture in style and will he or she associate this visual change with the use of a particular instrument or medium? It may well be that an artist uses various techniques or visual media in an artwork, but that the artist does it in such a way that the combination itself remains invisible to or only slightly noticeable for the average spectator. When the combination remains undiscerned, using various media or techniques will by consequence not play a conscious role in the interpretation.

Moreover, there is an enormous variety of ways that mixing visual media can be less or more discernable. Various examples demonstrate several strategies that artists use. Some artists mix visual media while trying to attenuate the differences between those media. For instance, in his Rode Ridder series, the Flemish comic strip artist Karel Biddeloo used black and white photocopies of photos for some backgrounds of recurring locations, whereby the grey or color gradients were lost; finally those images were colored in the same way as the drawn parts of the background.

On the other hand, artists may choose to differentiate between various media as clearly as possible by way of two different strategies. One option is to keep each panel stylistically uniform, but make them reciprocally different in style to create stylistic jumps from one panel to another or from one sequence to another. We can see examples of visual style alternations in Le Photographe (Guibert et al.): the difference between the use of black and white photos with thick borders and full color line drawings is clearly pronounced. A second artistic strategy is to destroy more fundamentally the stylistic homogeneity of the panels themselves by using more than one style within the frames of a single panel. This may result, for instance, in a quite different visual ontology for the characters vis-à-vis the visual ontology of the surrounding space. More complicated examples of combining several visual styles inside panels can be found in the work of Jean Teulé or David McKean. So, the artist either creates some alternations between panels or sequences, or the artist uses an intricate, interwoven integration of two or more styles in one panel or series of panels.

To test the proposed assumptions, an exploratory survey was set up to gauge the spectator's perspective on the issue of mixing visual styles in graphic narratives. In total, 41 undergraduate students of LUCA School of Arts were asked to rate 8 excerpts from various graphic narratives: 8 complete pages were separately projected twice for 30 seconds (so that they could very well compare the eight pages), during which the students were asked to rate the degree of discernibility of different visual style use on a scale from 0 to 10, and add a short verbal comment to explain their rating. A score of 0 stands for an indiscernible difference, while 10 stands for the largest contrast between visual styles. No information about the creator or title of the work was given. It was not the goal that they would start reading the texts, but just consider the images. Table 1 and graph 1 present the results of the survey: the average of the scores, the range of scores, and the variancy.

Table 1
N=41
Sample Average Range Variancy
Les deux du balcon (Masse 14) 0.7 0–5 1.6
L'enfant penchée (Schuiten and Peeters 143) 2.5 0–8 5.4
Mr. Punch (McKean and Gaiman no page nr) 2.7 0–9.5 4.3
Copy-rêves (Teulé 93) 3.4 0–10 8.1
Planet of the Jap (Maruo 111) 5.7 2–10 4.9
Le Photographe, tome 2 (Guibert et al. 6) 7 3–10 3.2
L'Afrique de papa (Hyppolite no page nr) 7.9 3.5–10 3.6

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The X-axis contains the eight items; the Y-axis shows the degree of discernibility of visual style contrast. The higher zone of the graph thus implies less experienced coherency in visual style; the main effect on the audience seems to be the notion of disparate worlds. The lower zone of the graph implies a greater impression of visual coherency in a work; consequently, the idea of one consistent and uniform world will be purported more strongly, whether that world is estimated to be fictional or not.

The results of this rather explorative test suggest that spectators notice more readily larger stylistic differences between panels than the blending of visual styles within the panels themselves. Let us consider in more detail the data in the category of alternating styles between panels: the three examples of this category significantly rated much higher on the discernibility index (between 7.9 and 5.7). A quite different response is noted in the other category of mixing styles within a panel: on average, those examples were rated as only weakly discernible visual styles (between 0.7 and 3.4). The middle zone (between 3.5 and 5.5) seems to demarcate the difference between the two conditions.

It is important to take into account that averages may be misleading somewhat, because the scores per item sometimes ranged widely among the 41 participants. Considering the variancy is then quite important (see table 1). Further, a limitation of this survey is that it asked specators to consider only a single page from a much larger work. The degree of discernability contrast may vary in some works from one page to another. Variations in the degree of discernibility are possible since the visibility of differences in visual style may shift for the reader during the reading process.

Conclusion

While the various phases of the creation process, including choices of instruments and carrier, are for the artist essential in the creation, from the perspective of the reader, who is confronted with the final product, it seems to matter much less, not least because in the final published product various constitutive features (like medium, genre, style, technique or discipline) are conflated. It may well be that the artist's use of various visual media and/or visual techniques goes unnoticed by the reader, who experiences the final product as a visually coherent whole. By consequence, it is rather the discernibility of a variety among visual styles that plays a role in the reader's experience. Furthermore, an explorative empirical test suggested that alternations of visual style between panels is much more discernable for the reader than blended combinations of visual style within the panels themselves. A possible explanation may be that a spectator expects that what is shown in a single panel, clearly indicated as an unity by a frame, has to be in one way or another coherent, also on a stylistic level. A frame is by definition a device that borders something, that isolates something (Aumont 109-110). As I suggested at the start, there may be a human longing for or expectation of a coherent world.

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