Straights & Curves


“The Garden” by Joan Miró. This majestic Spanish artist’s abstract compositions play beautifully with shape, line and color to help evoke sensations that lie within the realm of the surreal – ideas which would be too difficult to present in more realistic form.

“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”  – Tennessee Williams

Character Design:

Shapes are the essential building blocks to visual art. In animation and film composition, design and movement of those building blocks will define the message you wish to deliver. It’s why it’s essential that animation artists study and practice the use of line and shape whether you work in story, concept, animation or modeling/rigging.


Solid understanding of the power of shapes, line and color will aid strongly in the construction and definition of any character. Size, variation and repetition of those elements strengthen the impression of any design. From Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmations.

Graphic Design:

In graphic design, the interplay between line and shape help define ideas, sometimes in the most simple yet powerful way. Street signs do this, as do company logos and superhero symbols. Great design is direct and unmistakable.


Design elements can signal power or danger. In the case of DC Comic’s Batman, it shows both. The welcoming curves played against the sharp edges and pointed bat ears not only define the characters physical traits, but indicate a conflicted agenda – a dangerous hero who both steals the spot light yet roams in the dark. It can be argued that the Batman symbol is the most distinguished and possibly best designed logo in the superhero universe.


The primary edge of shapes can be defined as either straight or curved, implying either linear or circular movement or revealing a sense of intensive direction or gentle comfort and welcome. The choice of your shapes will define the overall aspects of your art.


The sharp, angular designs used by renown illustrator Gerald Scarfe gave Hades an edginess uncommon among Disney characters. In conjunction with James Wood’s sharp tongue and Nik Ranieri’s playful animation, it makes for a very interesting and particular personality. From Walt Disney’s Hercules.

While sharp, straight  edges give a sense of danger and lack of refinement, round smooths shapes convey comfort, harmony and wholeness. Sharp designs can be aggressive or dated, while rounded ones can feel welcoming and modern.


In the 2008 Pixar release Wall-E, director Andrew Stanton, plays with the contrast of time and space as exemplified by the difference in design and detail between the rustic, angular Wall-E and the simplistically modern, yet soft and streamline Eve.



Human anatomy has very few, if any, pure straight lines. In these studies for the Sistine Chapel by Michaelangelo Buonarrotti, change of angles and the grouping of masses give the illusion of straights going against curves in the human body.


In realistic human anatomy, there are hardly any purely straight geometric lines or sharp edges, for such is the design evolution of our species. Here, straights are “relative” to the curves around them. In animation we play with extending those realistic boundaries to create contrast in our design and poses. Using straights against curves create interest and elegance by magnifying contrast.
 Merlin's hands

These Milt Kahl’s hand studies, done for Disney’s Sword in The Stone, demonstrate beautiful use of form and line, culminating in appealing design and elegance.


The application of these concepts can also be applied in dramatic action for both movement and pose. Straight lines and sharp edges can help emphasize great force and clear sense of direction. Sometimes the forward thrust of action can be tempered with the addition of sharp turns and reversals which aid to signify dimension and change of direction.

Playing straights against smooth curves and sharp turns, Glen Keane’s exciting animation from Walt Disney’s Tarzan demonstrates great dynamic power and energy. Keane’s work is famous for its immense force and magnetism both in drawing and movement.

Gendy Tartakosvky’s creation, Samurai jack, is a different kind of fun. Charged with graphic zip and zaniness this director loves the use of extremely geometric shapes played against wild curves and movement that rips across the screen. Along with his brilliant use of composition, color and cutting, Tartakosvky has made a distinguished mark in the art of animation. (Courtesy of Cartoon Network)

Where as sweeping movements can display dynamism and power, less linear presentations using soft curves and round shapes are very gentle and comforting. The warm and pleasing design of Freddie Moore’s Mickey Mouse made him the most successful icon among the thousands of characters in the cartoon universe.
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This marvelous sequence of drawings of Mickey Mouse by Freddie Moore are loaded with warmth, beauty and appeal. Not only are the shapes rounded, soft and plush, but so is the animation, which is loaded with bounce and pliability.

Film composition:

In film composition, shapes and line will dictate balance or imbalance, dictate movement or stability, or imply mood and atmosphere. The best directors pay close attention to the dynamics shapes and lines have on the viewer. For more on film composition, go here.



The famous ‘map room’ shot from Steven Spielberg’s 1981 masterpiece, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Using carefully delineated shapes and line via light and shadow, the director guides the viewers attention to exactly where he wants them.

The best art often makes balanced usage of both straights and curves, both in shape and movement. The degree and balance of usage will be determined, as usual, by the intention behind the work.


Akira Kurasawa’s Ran is one of the best film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s work. There’s astounding beauty in the stillness of some scenes while others engage sweeping movements of form. The film’s mastery on display from the acting to the cinematography is worth slow and intense study for both animators and live action filmmakers alike.

In summary, realize that as animation artists you control very specific elements of your craft, and one of those tools that you wield is your presentation of lines and shapes, which are, decidedly, straight or curved. Sometimes these effects can be overt, at other times subtle or inconspicuous. How you use them will have a profound effect on your audience, intentional or not. Just remember, contrast is everything.

 “A curve does not exist in its full power until contrasted with a straight line.” ― Robert Henri

Transience, Struggle, Growth and Gratitude


Still from Cordell Barker’s 1988 animated short film classic, The Cat Came Back. The expressionless cat in the film drove me nuts, and to this day, I still marvel at its effect on people and its karmic message. To see the film in its entirety, go here.

“(Buddhism) takes change as a given and suffering as the inevitable consequence of attachment and then asks what are you gonna do about it.” — Rebecca Solnit

Transience is both difficult and wonderful. We’re all born and we’ll all die. Mixing together past, present and future, each day we live, forget, remember, enjoy, anticipate, fear and worry. Life is a wonderful concoction — a mixed melody of experiences far too difficult to describe with mere words, sounds or images.  As artists, we try our best to capture this essence despite the limitation of our tools and our abilities. The opportunity to capture such transience and the sensations that accompany it is what we yearned for the day we signed up.

Animation is among the few disciplines where we can exclusively isolate and control the visual representation of time and space. With such precise tools in hand, we’re sometimes able to evoke very intense emotions by bringing the past into focus, or inspire insight by looking deeply into the yet-to-be discovered future. It’s the magic that lies within the power of this craft.

SpiritedAwayChihiro and her tiny mates take a ride on Haku, the dragon-boy, from Hiyao Miyazaki’s 2001 magical masterpiece, Spirited Away — a film that deals with various dimensions in time and space.

As such, one must be reminded of the struggle that’s inherent with being an artist. Facing problems, both of large and small nature, can be daunting, for the artists takes all matters quite seriously. Animators fret for hours over the accuracy of pixels and frames, despite their seemingly endless count in any given scene. Determined to deliver, aiming to impress, and hoping to make a difference — it is easy to get lost in the challenge of getting everything right and even easier to take it all much too seriously.

The sage advice of animation pioneer Chuck Jones comes to mind:

“The rules are simple. Take your work, but never yourself, seriously. Pour in the love and whatever skill you have, and it will come out.”


The expression “What’s up Doc?” pretty much sums up the attitude of the creator and his creation. From the magical, freckled hands of Chuck Jones.

Art, like life, is hard. It’s a great reminder of the risks we must take to grow and find meaning and enjoyment in our daily lives. Without taking chances, not venturing into the unknown, there is little opportunity for excitement or growth. Hence, formulas run their course – work gets stale, and the day-to-day routines lose their luster.

The endearing Oscar-winning Nation Film Board animated short “Crac” by the Frédéric Back, a legendary French Canadian animator whose work has inspired artists like myself since the early days of animation school. Now, it’s rare to find films done with as much care and natural faith in the process without excessive pandering or overt sentimentality.

In our work, we must remember to resist staying too comfortable, both with our abilities and our desires. Listening to the voice within is extremely important. Of course, failure could be just around the corner, and its message is there to remind you that you’re learning and that you’ve taken risks. This takes great will and courage, but it’s also immeasurably powerful and rewarding, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time – the blows of defeat and disappointment weigh on every single artist out there.

Take Ralph Bakshi for example, an animator who made a name for himself exploring more adult subject matter and who wasn’t afraid to break away from convention, like using rotoscope and mixing live action with animation. He took chances and pushed boundaries, tackling subject matter generally avoided by his peers.


Poster image from Ralph Bakshi’s 1992 Cool World, a live action/animated film aimed at an older audience. Featuring the talents of Brad Pitt, Kim Basinger and Gabriel Byrne, the film tested the boundaries of adult themes and good taste with fantastical art and animation. It was both adored by cult fans and loathed by critics.

Sometimes you have to take the wrong road to get on to the right path. When I switched careers (more than 20 years ago), My mother used to say to me — “why didn’t you study art in the first place?” I could only reply that “you just don’t know at the time” — which is a simple yet profound truth on how and when we make choices in life. Trials and mistakes are the path to a proper and well-lived life — one that is learned and fully experienced. Where else could reflection, growth and gratitude come from?

A moment of profound truth and revelation from the international indie hit, Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. (warning: scene contains mature language)

Life is lived taking chances and experiencing the day-to-day. If your daily routine stinks, change things up. If your environment proves not to be the cause of your problems, then change yourself by altering your attitude. I recently read an article about an athlete — one who had a storied yet controversial career — giving a speech during a team ceremony in front of its youngest and newest members. He said, “You don’t realize it at the time, but it all ends all too quickly.”

Savor the moments.

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” — Soren Kierkegaard


 Cuba Gooding Jr. explains to Tom Cruise, the definition of the “Quan” in Jerry McGuire, Cameron Crowe’s excellent film about integrity, sacrifice and dignity in the sports world.

Success is a funny word. Does it merely mean financial or social accomplishment? Stable mental and physical health? Peace? Happiness? Or all of the above, the “Quan”? Any way you look at it, success is often far too narrowly defined.

In the dominant corporate-industrial world we live in,  it’s all too common to witness the clear and obvious mindset predominant in this day and age — the absolute obsession with immediate gain and success. People want a lot and they want it now. It’s even applied to personal growth and education. But learning and getting any good at anything takes time — a lot of time. What’s even more important is that without a proper allotment of time for things to develop and mature, one’s growth is limited to that which is temporary and insubstantial.

Or as Illustrator Fritz Henning, states so succinctly:

“Quick success is not the rule in worthwhile endeavors.”

In fact, I say be wary of any success and especially that which comes quickly. Take the case of Rembrandt Van Rijn, whose name is synonymous with the word genius. His “recognized” talent and success came early, with commissions and projects assigned to him by wealthy merchants throughout Amsterdam.


This 1633 painting of a wealthy patron, by a young twenty-seven year old Rembrandt, demonstrates great visual skill and delicate execution. However, as is typical of the period, the work is there to primarily showcase wealth and privilege, with immense detail and focus placed on the velvety sheen of the garment, the decorative lacing, and expensive jewelry which it was meant to glorify.


This famous self-portrait on the other hand, done late in Rembrandt’s life, shows a depth of vitality, dignity and magnanimous beauty that can’t be even compared to the “older” painting above it. It is a creation that is free from constraints, deeply personal and immeasurably rich in visual maturity and depth.

Like all true artists before and after him, Rembrandt’s work continued to evolve and improve as he matured, but was no longer accepted. He died, in abject poverty, despite reaching old age, even as he created masterpieces that were superior to anything he ever did as a young man. Creative and spiritual growth isn’t always rewarded in the outside world (at least not during the time of creation). The public, whose taste is often crass and most definitely transient, cannot be the stick by which to measure the value of an artist’s creations, and by extension, the artist’s worth in society. The reward for creative work is in doing the work.

“We have a right to our labor, but not to the fruits of our labor.” — Krishna

Take the wonderful actor, John Mahoney, an artist who excels in a field obsessed with youth and external beauty. Known for his brilliant work as Martin Krane, in the hit TV series Frasier, Mahoney didn’t even begin his acting career till he was in his late thirties, hit his stride in his 40’s and got better each day. Other popular actors that got late starts include Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman and Jeremy Renner.


The many faces of actor John Mahoney. Above, images from Frasier (top) where he plays Martin Krane, the general from The Iron Giant (middle), and (below) on the stage from the play, Prelude to a Kiss (photo by Joan Marcus, NYMAG).

Of course, there are plenty of artists that struggled with life (especially the financial side of things), but that doesn’t mean we should forgo or try to escape that struggle, for success rarely comes immediately, if it comes at all. Such mindset has ruined many talented people in history and it threatens to ruin even more now in our age of high speed “everything.”

Vincent Van Gogh is often used as the poster child of the starving artist, given his overly-publicized mental illness and early death. Despite his well-documented loneliness and depression, people forget that he was lackadaisical with his practice of soaking/cleaning his brushes, which he often put in his pots – pots he cooked and ate from (paints in those days were especially toxic). A most recent hypothesis has even indicated that his psychosis may have been induced by gas poisoning in the house he rented. In any case, the brilliance of his craft had little to do with his own personal problems, namely, his difficulty in dealing with a lack of love and, secondarily, support from his community. Such were the challenges he endured before he even became an artist (at the age of twenty-seven).


This well-known and beautiful painting of a “Starry Night on the Rhone River” wouldn’t exist, if Van Gogh had given up on his art, art that he couldn’t sell, not even a single one during his lifetime. But even in his short ten years as a struggling artist, Van Gogh produced a mind-numbing collection of paintings, each with an observation and devotion that was truly, and uniquely, his own.

Another danger to early success (and for demanding it) is that it creates a general lack of self-awareness (sometimes due to over-confidence) and an oversimplification of the learning process. In other words, you miss out on some truly important stuff, and I’m not just talking about learning from failure, which is huge. Whether it’s arts, science, athletics, or business, early and seemingly “easy” success, comes with a price unnoticed — that is, you might’ve just gotten lucky. Yes, you heard right. In the end, for things to play out perfectly, you need to be lucky regardless of your effort and ability. For there is much great work and talent out there that isn’t recognized. The real truth is that it takes a lot of hard work, learned knowledge, and mental-emotional maturity and time, to do really great things and there’s only a remote chance of making a difference. Getting recognized doesn’t always mean, you, or your work, is that awesome. Good stuff takes time to do, and often, a long time to appreciate. Quick success, in other words, can lead to “blindness.”



Painting by William Bouguereau (top) versus a painting by Edouard Manet (bottom). Bouguereau was revered in his time, but as time passed, the gap in significance and quality between these two artists, continues to magnify.

“Judging a Manet from the point of view of Bouguereau the Manet has not been finished. Judging a Bouguereau from the point of view of a Manet, the Bouguereau has not even begun.” — Robert Henri

When you get lucky, you miss out on the true sight of things. You develop shortcuts or worse, formulas. And once you turn those ‘tricks’ into habits, you risk becoming a hack – someone who can only do things within limited boundaries and under ideal circumstances. You can call it “style” if you wish, but anyone who lacks real fundamental truths, and spends little time expanding his craft (either in depth or breadth), in the end stops producing real art – that is, art that challenges. The formulaic can easily become a crutch for life. It’s why the real enduring talents in this field, or any field, have one common trait — consistency of devotion to constant learning, practice and taking risks, which in turn means failing, and failing often.


The Thomas Edison light bulb, patented in 1880, famously took the inventor over 10,000 attempts before getting it right.

Reaching creative maturity requires patience — there is no way to cheat it. Sometimes, it takes devout and personal education itself to be able to recognize the “good stuff.” That’s why, when I worked, I was most ecstatic when colleagues of mine, who’s artistry I admired the most, were moved/impressed by my efforts. If I was able to excite them, I know, for at least that brief moment in time, I have become an “artist’s artist.” Impressing anyone else was merely a bonus.


Bill Tytla’s Stromboli, the villainous puppeteer from Disney’s Pinocchio, is one of the most admired pieces of animation in history. Tytla may have been outcast from Disney due to the labor strikes of the 1950’s, but he always had the utmost admiration of his peers, both then and even now.

So, in summary, don’t beget failure too much. I know I have, and all too often.  Don’t let those doubts about the speed of your success or lack there of hover for too long. Be patient. This is normal. Stumbling, tripping over oneself, and failing spectacularly is part and parcel with being a creative, part of being human. But the emotional psyche of an artist is extremely fragile, so find ways to stay inspired, and if need be, schooling, mentorship or guidance to aid in your development of both your skills and your growth as a person. Don’t let a lack of trust and confidence in the process deter you from doing what you love, getting better and being truly happy.