A Tangent about tangents
A quick and simple guide to finding and fixing tangents in your drawings.
It took me way too long in my drawing career to really fully understand what tangents are, and how to fix them, but they are super important to identify and fix in your illustration.
WHAT ARE TANGENTS?
Tangents are areas in your drawing where lines inadvertently interact in a way that is confusing to the eye. Often looking like things are leaning against each other or bumping together when they shouldn't be.
WHY ARE THEY BAD?
The problem with tangents is they can create confusion to the viewer, making it unclear what object is in front of another, or making disconnected objects appear connected.
HOW TO FIX TANGENTS
Once you identify a tangent they are pretty easy to fix. Mainly you need to move things slightly so there is either a space between the objects or create overlap between your shapes. Overlap is one of those magic tricks in drawing that really helps the viewer to understand how objects in your picture relate to each other.
*of course a tangent isn't a bad thing if it is creating the intended effect. In the above example if you were wanting the viewer to imagine the two shapes leaning up against each other then the image on the left is perfectly fine. It's only a problem when it creates unintentional confusion.
TYPES OF TANGENTS
The trickiest thing about tangents is finding and identifying them. You have to train your eye to look for them, and hunt them out. Here’s a simple guide to the different types of tangents to look for.
This list was very much aided by this blog post which I read while doing some research for this article and I really recommend reading it for a deeper understanding of each type of tangent.
LONG LINES TANGENT
As you can see in this example it looks like the rainbow is shooting out the top of the hat, the lines match up too perfectly and instead of creating depth it flattens the image and makes the viewer connect two things that shouldn't be connected. (unless your story is about a magical had that shoots rainbows- then this works great!)
The solution for this (and for most tangents) would be to move the rainbow or the figure a little to the right or left so the lines no longer match up.
PARALLEL LINES TANGENT
With this tangent two objects seem to be interacting in the way the smoke and face are interacting here. It appears like the smoke is 'avoiding' the face and doesn't feel natural and draws unwanted attention to itself.
This tangent happens quite often because it's sometimes hard to think through the overlaps so we naturally create these 'buffer zones' between objects, but they read false.
The solution for this would be to make the left side of the smoke ripple more like on the right side, and overlap a part of the face.
This is another really common type of tangent. (the first image of the circle and triangle was an example of this type of tangent)
Basically objects that aren't actually touching appear to be touching because their edges 'bump' up against each other.
Like all the other tangents so far the fix for this is to move the objects to increase space or increase the overlap. Keep an eye out for these- they happen to me all the time.
EDGE BUMP TANGENTS
Very similar to the bump tangent, this one occurs when elements of the image appear to bump right up against the edges of the frame. This could be the border of a comic panel or the edge of your piece of paper. When this happens your picture appears to be sort of squashed into a box.
The fix for this is to make your panel borders a little bit bigger to give some space between the edge of your image and the border line.
If you find you are bumping into the edge of your page, the solution might be to make some of the bumping objects a little bigger or smaller so they either appear to go off the page or have a gap.
This one can be tricky to find, but sometimes we inadvertently create elements that point a bit too directly at other elements, or flow in the same direction.
This can be done intentionally in a composition to help the eye move towards the focal point. I've often used clouds in this way in an image, to subtly 'point' the viewer back towards the main element of the image I want them looking at.
But when it happens accidentally it can feel strange and a bit 'off' The fix for this would be to angle the branch in a different direction, maybe more horizontally or upwards so its not such an 'arrow'.
Now we are getting into a harder one to spot. The corner tangent happens when two lines that are supposed to connect (like the legs and the body, and arms and wrists) also intersect with another line that isn't supposed to connect with the first two.
It can create little corners, or star shapes which draw a lot of attention to themselves.
The fix for this would be to move the horizon line up or down slightly so it avoids crossing the connection points of the limbs.
PANEL TO PANEL TANGENT
This tangent occurs when two panels in a comic make an inadvertent connection across the panel gutter.
In this case from a distance we see an elephant with a car coming out of its butt.
Fix this by moving the car or the elephant so they aren't quite so lined up.
As with most things about drawing, tackling tangents is about training your eyes and your brain to see them.
Even when you become aware of tangents they still will pop up in your illustrations. I find the key is to do a 'tangent pass' when you are getting close to finalizing your pencil sketch (before you start inking!) and look over your image specifically looking for tangents and getting rid of them. Fixing them is usually pretty easy, move an object slightly left or right or up or down often does it., but sometimes they can create major headaches where you need to redraw a large element or even rethink your composition.
Now that you are armed with the knowledge of what a tangent is and how to fix them I wish you the best of luck as you go forth and hunt tangents in the wild.