Part 2: Words & Pictures RT: Part 2

Research Task: Visual Conventions for Time & Place


Find examples of different visual conventions used to convey the and and/or place/space (i.e. frame-by-frame story telling, handling of perspective in art, use of speech bubbles, etc.) from different historical periods.

Reflect on your research. What has it told you about the evolution of visual conventions and how time or place has been visually represented? Also reflect on the process of researching – what approach(es) did you find useful?

Summary of Research

In his book Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels: A History of Graphic Narratives (2011), Robert S. Peterson states that artists use composition to influence how the story reveals itself over time, visual clues are arranged in a purposeful order with consideration of significance in the hierarchy. He notes that, unlike moving image media, the pace of graphic narratives is not defined by the medium.

Peterson (2011) refers to the San rock paintings in South Africa (dated as being about 25,500-27,500 years old) as some of the earliest examples of single-frame narrative art. In particular, Peterson comments on the Linton panel which is thought to depict trance-like experiences from San shaman or healer through the ue of symbols connected to one another by thins red lines, marked with white dots, which possibly represent metamorphosis over time. Peterson categorises this as a form of simultaneous narrative, defined as having more than one story happening at once with no defined order of events.

Peterson (2011) notes that the Assyrian Stele of Vultures (2525BCE) is the oldest confirmed example of register lines being used to organise the direction of the narrative.

Peterson (2011) moves onto define monoscenic narratives as those which depict a solitary event with no recurrence of characters at a particular moment, i.e. there is no context of time, therefore it is necessary for the viewer to have some prior knowledge of the story to fully comprehend its intentions. An example of a monoscenic narrative is a black-figured amphora titled Achilles defeating Penthesilea, the Amazon Queen (Exekias, c.540-530 BC), which shows Achilles killing Penthesilea, but further knowledge of the story is required to realise that it portrays the precise moment he falls in love with her, too late.

The next type of narrative that Peterson (2011) defines is panoramic narrative, which depict several subject-related events taking place concurrently. He refers to the use of ‘visual nuclei’ to group certain figures creating fixed areas of action interspersed with blank areas in which the viewers can rest his/her eyes and process the intended message (which could be considered similar to the use of gutters in comics). An example given of a panoramic narrative is the north Siphnian Treasury (Dephi, 525 BCE).

Peterson (2011) goes on to define progressive narrative with reference to the Parthenon (Acropolis, Athens, 435 BCE), which dues to its sheer size, requires the viewer to move alongside the carving to observe each ‘visual nuclei’ and comprehend the story – the action unfolds like a procession.

Synoptic narrative art is that with numerous depictions of a character within one scene. The example provided by Peterson (2011) is Sandro Botticelli’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (commissioned 1482-1490) in which several representations of the characters are shown as they progress through hell in one composition

The final single-frame narrative art type defined by Peterson is continuous narrative in which both multiple representations of characters and events are utilised on a scale that makes it impossible for the viewer to observe the whole composition at one time, he/she must methodically look at each individual section. The example given by Peterson (2011) is The Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings (1066), which at 230 feet long and containing at least 50 related scenes, requires the viewer to spend time taking in each section.

Peterson (2011) concludes that the most widely used style of single-frame graphic narratives are monoscenic and synoptic as both use a manageable-sized frame to contain a select group of characters with a limited amount of action, all of which the viewer can observe in one take. These were well-suited for use in manuscript documents, such as religious texts. He states that continuous, panoramic and progressive narratives were better suited for use in scrolls or monuments were the action could be unfolded before the viewer.

One of the earliest form of multiple frame narrative art are cyclic narratives (Peterson 2011). Although cyclic narratives represent a progression through time, each frame represents a independent moment and, unlike in most comic strips, does not specifically relate to those which proceed or follow, rather it is one of a number of unique pictures that make up the overall story. As a result most cyclic narrative art accompany text to provide context or require prior knowledge of the story for comprehension. An example provided by Peterson (2011) is The Temple of Zeus at Olympia (470-456 BCE) which depicts the 12 labours of Herakles, in which each of the 12 frames depicts one of these and taken as a group demonstrate ‘the complete heroic accomplishments of Herakles’ (Peterson, 2011, pp. 16), which led to his becoming a god. There is no specific relationship between the frames part from the end result when taken together as a whole.

Rodolfe Töpffler (1800s) is credited with being the first to use several pictures on a page divided into smaller panels rather than a single large illustration. He thus created a montage of images, depicting a single idea developing over a series of related, interconnected frames. Töpffler is also associated with being the first to utilise various size panels to determine the pace of the action taking place in the story, alongside employing the repetition of certain images to create a sense of slowing down time (Peterson, 2011, pp. 49).

According to Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994) there are six types of panel transitions used in comics (moment-to-moment, action-to-action, subject-to-subject, scene-to-scene, aspect-to-aspect and non-sequential). Unlike in the West, Japanese comics have always utilised aspect-to-aspect transitions. This choice is used to set the scene and asking the reader to spend time putting the fragments together, to form a single moment in time.

Each panel in a comic divides a unique moment in time and space – different from that which preceded it (the past) and that which follows (the future), so that when a reader is focused on a particular panel, it is the present moment in that place.

The use of gutters allows an individual panel to represent a unique time/place/space, which can also be connected by reader as they move across the page. However, although we generally think of a single image as being a ‘frozen’ moment in time (as in a photograph), when sound (e.g. speech bubbles) or captions are added, time is increased. Additionally, when a panel is ‘silent’ it can have a ‘timeless’ quality.

The use small panels implies speed whereas large, expansive panels with detail require the reader to take some time scanning the content to truly comprehend the intentions.

In his book Making Comics (2006), Scott McCloud suggests several further ways of conveying a sense of time and place/space:

  • Using a realistic style of drawing can prompt the reader’s recollection of particular smells, sound, touch and sight, producing a sense of being ‘in’ the scene.
  • Positioning the character off-centre in the composition, not facing the reader, encourages the reader to enter the scene as a participant rather than just an observer.
  • Using perspective to increase the depth of a panel and thus the size of the scene, opens up the amount of space in the panel. Depth can also be shown by the use of overlapping (those at the ‘front’ of the scene covering those behind; size (larger objects placed at the front become the primary focus, those receding in size give the illusion of being further back and thus less important; and fade (those objects further away lose opacity).
  • Aspect-to-aspect transitions, a popular method in Japanese graphic fiction, can be used to establish a scene, the different parts can then be put together again in the reader’s mind.
  • Bleeding an image to the edges of the page can increase the duration of time spent by the reader exploring the ‘world’ as the removal of panel edges allows the reader to pass through the ‘window’.
  • Other approaches include the use of cropping, zoom, balance, tilt and perspective to influence the reader’s position within the scene and what information is offered to him/her.

In his film Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor with China (1988) about the the Chinese scroll The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour (1691-1698), scroll seven by Wang Hui and his assistants, David Hockney explores the Chinese method of seeing/depicting both time and space before the Western concept of perspective was introduced by missionaries. The scroll unrolls from right to left and the viewer is invited to spend time exploring the city and all its back streets. There are no particular focal points and the eye can travel in all directions, peering into the lives of the local people, each an individual, expressive character, interacting with one another.

Hockney (1988) explains how unlike the Western concept of perspective, which is concerned with depth (with the lines converging to an infinite vanishing point and the viewer going ‘through a window’), Wang Hui designed the the scroll so that the viewer is ‘going along the space (surface)’ and different viewpoints are included so that more or less every part of the city can be explored; giving the sense of the viewer being in the artwork and therefore what they see depends on where they are positioned within it. Additionally, wherever the figures are positioned on the scroll, they are more or less the same size, whereas in Western perspective, they would become smaller in size the further ‘back’ in space they are located.

McCloud (2006, pp. 169) also notes that a perception of space is not always of great importance to comic artists, for example the background in strips such as Charles Schulz’s Peanuts were generally no more than a series of indicative lines that merely suggested a background (although when he felt it necessary, Schulz was more than capable of producing detailed settings).

The Futurism art movement, including artists such as Giacomo Balla and Marcel Duchamp, experimented with how to depict time and motion in a single frame. The examples of Balla’s Dynamism of A Dog on a Leash (1912) and Duchamp’s’ Nude Descending a StaircaseNo. 2 (1912) both utilise repetition to imply the figure is moving on the canvas. The former also uses opacity to suggest time has elapsed.

The problem of depicting movement through space on a fixed medium was also an issue for graphic fiction, with various solutions employed by artists, as described by McCloud (1994):

  • The addition of motion lines/’zip ribbons’ suggested the line of movement/action in the scene, generously used by American artists such as Jack Kirby.
  • The repetition of a subject to suggest movement, utilised by artists such as Carmine Infantino and Bernard Krigstein.
  • The comic artist Gene Colan experimented with streaking effects to depict motion of objects.
  • From the 1960, Japanese artists went further with Colan’s concept, having the background ‘streaked’ as if the the ‘camera’ is moving with the object – McCloud (1994, pp.113) defines this as ‘subjective motion’, in which ‘if observing a moving object can be involving, being that object should be more so‘. It was not until the 1990s that Western artists began to also regularly use this technique.

Another method to convey time/place/space described by McCloud (2006, pp. 113) is based on the polyptych, defined as ‘a painting or other two-dimensional artwork made up of more than three panels‘ (Tate), in which a continuous background is depicted over several panels with the character/s moving or interacting across them. Examples of this technique from the world of art include the Ghent Altarpiece (c. mid-1420s-1432,) and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (Samuel Warburton, 1923).

Unlike passive media such as films and television, ultimately, it could be suggested that it is the readers who define the pace of graphic fiction as they are in control of the speed with which it is read and, consequently, how much of the information regarding time/place/space, is successfully conveyed to them.

Reflection on Research Task

I decided to mainly use books as my main source of information for this task as I find I learn much more using these rather than reading from a screen via the internet and so it is a more efficient use of time. I could then utilise the internet once I had some key words, terms and artists/artworks to search for further information/visual references. I also tried to focus my research so it could be related back to graphic fiction as I felt this would be most beneficial with regards to this unit.

I also found that, although I had previously read the three books I used for this task, having to methodically re-read certain, relevant sections and rewrite these really helped cement the information in my mind. I felt I more fully understood what was being stated and how it could influence my work going forward.

The David Hockney film, Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor with China about the The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour (1691-1698), scroll seven by Wang Hui was a genuine eye-opener regarding perspective, time and space. Although they may not be quite on the same scale or as highly regarded as the scroll(!), I was reminded of the Where’s Wally? books, illustrated by Martin Handford, in that the reader’s eye is required to spend time scanning over the entire spread in order to find the title character, but each character in the crowded scenes is an individual interacting with one another.


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Bayeux Museum, (n.d.). The Bayeux Tapestry. [online] Available at: [Accessed 31 August 2021].

Google Arts and Culture, (n.d.). Drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy – Sandro Botticelli. [online] Available at:´s-divine-comedy-sandro-botticelli/1QGejbQRu8ek0w?hl=en-GB [Accessed 31 August 2021].

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McCloud, S., (2006). Making Comics. New York: William Morrow.

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National Portrait Gallery, (n.d.). Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. [online] Available at: [Accessed 31 August 2021].

Peterson, R.S., (2011). Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels: A History of Graphic Narratives. California: Praeger.

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Tate, (n.d.). Room 3: Movement. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 August 2021].

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Wikipedia, (n.d.). Nancy (comic strip). [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 August 2021].

Wikipedia, (n.d.). Stele of the Vultures. [online] Available at: [Accessed 31 August 2021].

Wikipedia, (n.d.). Where’s Wally?. [online] Available at: [Accessed 31 August 2021].

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