[tutorial] A brief look at "Diagonals"

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  07 July 2005
[tutorial] A brief look at "Diagonals"

A discussion came up about diagonals in Luna's mini lesson 2 which I felt could be elaborated upon in a seperate thread. So here you go ... the importance and basic principles behind the use of diagonals in your image composition.

Let's take a look at a couple images by Craig Mullens. Craig knows what he's doing ... and I don't have time to draw something appropriate for this tutorial.

On the right I've pointed out 3 basic uses of diagonals within his image.
  • RED - Basic perspective principles apply here. Craig uses these diagonals to give the image depth and scale.
  • WHITE - These diagonals are used to direct the viewer's eye towards a specific point of interest. In this case, the eye tends to travel in a downward left direction and the viewer is able to easily concentrate on the sniper and eventually the birds. You'll also notice that some of the red lines serve the same purpose in this image.
  • CYAN - An opposing diagonal is used in Craigs image to halt the downward travelling of the viewer's eye. This opposing diagonal causes the viewer to pause and focus on the character. An opposing diagonal is almost always used near a point of interest in an image.

Here's another great example ...
  • RED - Again ... basic perspective principles are used to add depth and scale. Notice also that these perspective lines almost form an arrow that points to the right. This tricks your eyes into viewing the image in this direction.
  • WHITE - Craig uses two really strong diagonals in this image to draw your attention to the interior of the car and the girl sitting within. Notice that her leg causes a break in the flow of the perspective guidelines and serves a double purpose in this instance. The rightward direction is abruptly broken here and you're forced to ponder the area where the girl is seated.
  • CYAN - Another breaking point is created by the open door. This and the right leg of the girl both occur at or near the point of interest in this image.

All three types of diagonal elements in these pictures can (and will) serve multiple functions. So it's difficult to say that any one diagonal is specifically for a single purpose in an image. I've tried to summarize in these two examples what the main purpose of these diagonals may be.

Diagonals can be used also to add more action or movement to an image. Take a look at the images below by, fantasy artist, Frank Frazetta and see diagonals in action.

The theory of directional diagonals is pretty simple. And of course, like all art theories, the rules are definately there to be broken. Horizontal and vertical lines can be used just as effectively to the same purpose. Other theories (i.e. color, curves or line weights) can be used in conjunction or in replacement of diagonals to achieve the same results.

This is just one extra tool for your use ... enjoy!

If you have any questions or have some additional info about diagonals that I didn't include in this post, feel free to reply here. I'll give any additional insight if required.

Apologies to Craig Mullens if he objects to me scrawling over his images. But they were 2 excellent images to illustrate this principle from.
  07 July 2005
Interesting stuff Kirt... and some good choices for examples! The first Mullins piece works very well with the prominent zigzag. And some of those Frazetta's are great layouts!

And i'd agree that you can use all sorts of shapes and lines to draw the attention of the viewer and lead the eye. And those sahpes and lines can be formed by the people (or creatures), objects or light and shadow.

Last edited by duddlebug : 07 July 2005 at 08:36 AM.
  07 July 2005

I get it... Very good explanation. You'll notice I've only used some backgrounds in some of my stuff if you stumble onto them. Couldn't figure out why it didn't work, unless using stageplay rules.
modelling practice #1
  07 July 2005
duddlebug - Absolutely, you can use colors, curves or forms to create these diagonals as well. But, don't limit yourself to just this idea when trying to control the composition of your images. There are many other ways to do the same thing.

For example: In Mullens' second image here you'll notice the rule of thirds and a strong vertical line that also points the viewer's attention towards the character.

In Frazetta's bottom image, you'll find a lot of directed curves that serve the same purpose as a diagonal (I'll overpaint this later today ... it's a fantastic example as well).

jmBoekestein - Well, I'm looking around for some of your work and all I'm finding are unfinished character illustrations. So, I can't say that I've seen any of your backgrounds to draw an opinion on.

If you have a link to a finished piece, then I'll gladly take a look at it and offer any advice on how diagonals could improve your image (if applicable ... the idea doesn't work for every image).

Last edited by Kirt : 07 July 2005 at 08:24 PM.
  07 July 2005
the use of diagonals is a way of controlling the dynamics of a painting.
as Kirt pointed out, it is nice to have them, But sometimes you don't.
As long as you know how they are going to effect the viewer then they are very powerful.
If they don't support the intent then they are distracting.
Kory Heinzen
VisDev Artist
My Blog
  07 July 2005

Thanks, Kirt! I often see diagonals best with a little help from "marguerita". Just kidding, I actually don't drink


Korpus School of Art + Gallery
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Downtown Los Angeles

  07 July 2005
Originally Posted by rebeccak: Thanks, Kirt! I often see diagonals best with a little help from "marguerita". Just kidding, I actually don't drink


But I do Thanks fot this tutorial, diagonals can be helpful sometimes.
Don't tell me what I can't do!
  07 July 2005
great stuff

  07 July 2005
Originally Posted by Kirt: jmBoekestein - Well, I'm looking around for some of your work and all I'm finding are unfinished character illustrations. So, I can't say that I've seen any of your backgrounds to draw an opinion on.

If you have a link to a finished piece, then I'll gladly take a look at it and offer any advice on how diagonals could improve your image (if applicable ... the idea doesn't work for every image).

heh heh... ... precisely my point, I couldn't find the background with my minds eye.
I only have dsg sketches......I'll link them, maybe you find something in there.

here's a few I figure could be useful.

That's about it for drawings and paintings with background elements for dynamics or something similar (well, for what I dare show anyway).
Well, you can pick any, I'm sure there will be a lot to talk about if you can find the time.
modelling practice #1

Last edited by jmBoekestein : 07 July 2005 at 07:16 PM.
  07 July 2005
Thanks for posting this, Kirt. An excellent "brief look"! Mullins certainly knows what he's doing... breathtaking doodles. But I kinda like your cyan lines too :)


Be indiscreet - do it continuously.
  07 July 2005
OK ... a few responses since I last checked.

Let me start by putting up those Frazetta images again (like I said I would).

In most of the Frazetta images the use of diagonals is a bit different than the Craig Mullens examples I showed earlier. You'll notice in the paintover above that perspective diagonals aren't used much, so I just left them out so we could focus on what is going on in these fantastic action paintings. In all instances Frazetta uses the directional diagonals (WHITE) rather effectively. There is a flow to his paintings that causes the viewer to not linger in one spot for very long. The eye is drawn towards the main point of interest.
  • Top left: The white diagonals direct the viewer to the left side of the image. Strong opposing diagonals break the movement in key areas to allow the viewer to see the intensity of the horse and the throw of the cowboy. I didn't draw two diagonals in because it just got confusing. However, you could also see how the spine of the cowboy breaks the leftward movement and the cowboy's right leg breaks the upward movement.
  • Top right: This is an interesting image because it's full of diagonals. I've chosen to show some of the more dominant pairs to highlight how Frazetta uses these in areas that he wants the viewer's attention to focus on. As the eye travels upwards in this image you become aware of the girl, guy and the creature because of these pairings of diagonals.
  • Middle left: Another example of pairs working well to direct the viewer to see the individual characters and elements. Notice that the movement is still in an upward direction and also the unique relationship caused by the white diagonal on the top character and the top left opposing diagonal (white on left creature). See what I mean by diagonals being multi-functioning?
  • I drew these arrows upward but it almost works just as well going down. Again, opposing diagonals in all the right places to have the viewer see the important parts of the image.
  • Bottom: This one follows the rules more like Mullens' images above. The difference is that instead of hard diagonals, Frazetta uses curves to the same effect. Notice how all of the curves point to the left side of the image and stong opposing diagonals are used to point out the girl on horseback and the waves crashing on the rocks.

Now the good stuff ... Thanks for supplying images jmBoekestein, I'll see if I can't get to each one to offer a few pointers. But for now, I'll look at your first image.

  • Top: Your image here only has a few diagonals and as I see it they really aren't serving any purpose except to maybe frame the bird (eagle?). Yeah, you can do that ... but does it make the image dynamic and interesting to look at? Not really. You've just created a frame within a frame.
  • Middle: I've repainted your clouds a bit to try and add some diagonal theory to it (really quickly too so don't laugh at my clouds). Hope you don't mind.
  • Bottom: And so we end up with a really simple diagonal design here. The clouds now have diagonals applied to them to draw your attention to the eagle. The eagle itself becomes the break point or opposing diagonals.

More fun with Kirt later ... same Bat-channel, same Bat-time.
  07 July 2005
OK another quick one and that's all I have time for today ...

This second image has a lot of diagonals in it and some of them actually work to draw your attention towards the characters. However, there are just too many opposing diagonals and it's not quite clear which direction the flow of the image is heading.

By simply raising the character's arm up & adding a stronger shadow underneath him, I've created a much stronger and dominant diagonal that points upwards and to the left. This is what you want your focus on (that the boy is having a bird land on his arm). I'm using the bird as an opposing diagonal and I've also added some bushes in the background which are also opposing at the point of interest.

If I were to work on this image more, I'd probably reposition the cat more effectively and maybe change the pose of the boy some more to use his legs to my advantage.

Still, you can see how much this image has improved by just a few minor adjustments and using diagonals more effectively.
  07 July 2005
good stuff... I think Im getting the idea and it does improve the images just by those minnor changes.
Do you think Mullins or Frazetta think about the diagonals when scketching? Do they work some character poses, and then fit the pose to fit the diagonals? or do they create the pose already thinking on the diagonals? or does it became a sixth sense?

Well, I know you are not in their minds hehe but im serius about the questions. I want to know If they do work the diagonals on their scketches before the paint or it just came natural to them.

thanks for the lesson.
  07 July 2005
Yeah, that's a hard question to answer unless I were either Mullens or Frazetta (which I am most certainly not ).

But, I'd wager to say that skilled artists are aware of these rules and it comes to them without much second thought. I think the only time they'd realize that they are actively thinking about such theories (this one or any other) is when an image just doesn't seem to be working.

In that case, I believe they would consider certain theories and how they might help improve the image that they are working on.

In my own work I tend to just get right into it and work on ideas with sketches and thumbnails. I'll then review them carefully seeing what is working and what is not. If a certain theory will help the image, I'll try something in another sketch and try to finalize my ideas.

Still, even after this work is done ... I'll often start on a clean sheet while referencing my WIP stuff.

Every artist attacks problems in their own ways. I sometimes get lucky with a happy incident or fortunate accident. There are millions of techniques, so you shouldn't limit yourself to just one principle (such as diagonals).
  07 July 2005
Once you started fixing jmBoekestein's images, I started to see what you were getting at. Before that, I had the same question Mal de Ojo had. Thanks Kirt.

Composition is one area I need to learn a lot about. I know the rule of thirds from taking a photography class, but beyond that, I'm lost.

Do you have any book suggestions to help us noobs out?

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