top of page
Helen Capewell
OCA Learning Log
Student Number: 522802
Degree: Illustration
Current Level: 2

Visual Conventions for Time and Place

Research Task

Visual Narration has basically been around for as long as mankind existed, in some shape or form. From cave paintings to tapestry, to murals and to comics. There are so many different forms of visual narration that visual conventions for time and place has always been applied. In my opinion, any image conveys time and place simply based on the time it was actually made. An artwork in a gallery can be a block of single colour painted in oil on canvas, and beside this will sit a tiny name card with the artist name and the date it was made. This for me signifies a form of visual convention, as considering a time in which a piece is made will unravel more information of the time itself, you can understand the politics of that time, the religious aspect, the social society and the art movement. considering the period a piece is made opens up a whole new visual narration, and a block of colour on a canvas can mean something very different with this knowledge in mind.

So what about the pieces that are a record of actual time and place?

Historically, these images were very often biblical, commissions by religious groups to visualise their beliefs and ideologies. Or acts of war, protection of the royal figures that indeed gave great source of documented time that has later been used to record significant moments in history. In some cases, they represent culture and the core understanding of life itself through a depiction of visual representations of that time. Time and place is present throughout all markings that is left behind, giving us a rich history of creativity in storytelling.

A great source of information was found on the British Museum website. One article in particular revealed many historically important documented visuals that share narration of the times they were made. Many pieces show no sign of a particular place, yet as previously mentioned, the date a piece can be traced back to will determine a sense of place and time. It's incredibly complex in the way time and place can be present, yet the earlier the piece dates back to, the more simple the visual narration is. Different countries and cultures reveal a different aspect to the life that was once before, all within the artworks that was created.

One of the earliest record of human expression in the world, created by Stone-age hunter-gatherers with no knowledge of writing dates as far back as 30,000 years, is the African Rock Art.

Although there is no literal narration typically found in much of the etchings, their observations illustrated give us a sense of the life that was before, therefore stories can be created that help us determine the period. A very strong sense of time and place can be learnt from them, making them incredibly value.

In terms of the oldest known visual narration, a particular piece that was discovered in 2017 is dated to nearly 44,000 years ago in Indonesia. Although this is still not the oldest cave drawing on record, it is, however, the oldest evidence of pictorial storytelling, depicting six human like figures with animal characteristics hunting an animal.

Generally, art in the stone age represents the first accomplishments of human creativity, preceding the invention of writing - ( Depictions of animals and often imitations of something seen and felt during those times are the common themes that can be found. The style in which these arts are created, are limiting in details. They are flat etchings that, rather giving us details of appearance, share a sense of that time through the actions conveyed. Hunting, dancing, animals and lifestyle are shared, some more clearer than others. What's interesting is how the limitations of underdeveloped times present a universal language that is diverse. It feels simple, less cluttered and primitive.

Japanese Handscrolls

Jumping forward to an area I find interesting is the era of the Japanese Handscrolls and the history of Manga, dating back around 1000 years ago. A particular set of scrolls that is highlighted by the British Museum is "Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals" produced around 1200 AD by an anonymous artist. This piece is considered to be the foundations in which Manga was formed from. Jump to the 1500s and we find a follow up to this piece called, "The Tale of the Monkeys" which shows early examples of speech bubbles and other elements associated with modern Manga.

Looking at another example of handscrolls, I discovered "A Long Tale For An Autumn Night" which was popular in Japan during the late 14th and 15th century.

"A Long Tale for an Autumn Night became popular in Japan in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It tells of an amorous affair between a Buddhist monk and a younger male acolyte (chigo). The usual outcome of these tragic tales is the monk’s attainment of religious salvation after repenting his obsession with carnal pleasures. The narrative progresses from right to left across three illustrated handscrolls (emaki). Note the use of a device called iji dōzu (literally, “different time, same illustration”), in which the same figures appear multiple times in a single pictorial segment so that several events can be depicted simultaneously. At an earlier point, the first section of this handscroll was excised and mounted separately as a hanging scroll. The Museum acquired the missing section in 2005." Extract from:

The above information was taken from the Met Museum website, which describes the works "A Long Tale for an Autumn Night (Aki no yo nagamonogatari)" a scroll dated from around 1400. This extract I had found through a link attached to an article by Anna Willmann from the department of Asian Art at the Met Museum in 2012. An exciting piece detailing many of the early handscrolls found through the Japanese history depicting intricate narrative paintings.

This particular segment was an obvious piece I wanted to include in this research task, due to the inclusion of a device called iji dōzu, which is said to translate as "Different time, same illustration" an idea that I thought perfectly described the nature of visual conventions used to convey time and/ or place/ space. What also struck me with this particular scroll, was the style in which the story would flow through the single image, seeming different to the others mentioned in the article. It appears to present the story in frames that are illustrated in an overlapping style which are sliced between each other, something that seems modern for its time. This technique feels to add depth in the narration, showing progression through a journey and time passing.

I very much appreciate the idea of a story being told through a single page that is viewed in a continues motion or moving action that requires one to use both hands to progress the story, much like a book and the action of turning the page. However, reading a book can break the motion, whereas a scroll, how I would imagine, would be like watching the story move. It reminds me of animation, or a film that is played through continues sequences. In fact, Anna Willmann perfectly describes the handscrolls in the article as a cinematic experience:

"Reading a handscroll can become an almost cinematic experience as the viewer scrolls through a narrative from right to left, rolling out one segment with his left hand as he re-rolls the right-hand portion. The long, expansive format of the handscroll is especially conducive to the illustration of scene-by-scene detail. Emaki often come in sets, so that a long story can be spread out over several scrolls."

Moving forward to today.

The modern comics/graphic fiction I looked at were Frank by Jim Woodring, Sensor by Junji Ito and Sobek by James Stokoe.

Frank by Jim Woodring:

Frank is a great (almost) wordless comic with a classic feel to the layout in the panels. Described as unique, visionary art and hypnotic fables for adventurous spirits, Frank is a beautiful work of art that is detailed in its visual information. The almost surrealist art combined with realism from its surroundings, being that there are often real objects mixed with surreal visions. I find the panel to panel story telling within these comics give a very great feeling of time and place, albeit in a fantastical way sometimes. The incredible style in which Jim lines his comics and the distinct style consistent throughout is clever in defining the different textures, surfaces and light that is portrayed. The copy I have are with the works in black and white. It's incredibly detailed and the amazing ability of creating so much contrast throughout each panel using only black and white is beautiful and truly successful.

I actually thought that almost every page in this book were great examples of well conveyed visuals of time and place. But I did wonder whether this was the correct understanding of what this research task was asking.

In the pages above, you get a great combination of long shots and close ups. You see an establishing shot which shows all characters and location. You see the action which will cause drama, and step by step we see the drama unravel based on the action, to finally end on another long shot showing the consequences of the action. This whole series of panels are of the same place and showing, what I would describe, as a real time narration.

The second example is using the same system. Each frame full of detail, giving small movements between each frame like a storyboard to an animation feature. Again the location is fully rendered through out, with a sense of the time of year that it is set in.

Sensor by Junji Ito:

A double page spread extract from Sensor by Junji Ito shows a variety of locations within the same scene. through these frames we get a sense of the town in which the story is based in. You get a clear long shot of the city from afar, you also get detailed shots of certain areas with different view points. All of which build an impression of the period it might be set in, or a town that is hiding dark secrets of a spooky past. I've yet to read this story, though flipping through the pages to see the artwork, the atmosphere created through eerie scenes and nightmarish happenings that haunt a city, is also a haunting example of visual conventions for time and place. You feel as though it might be based on an ancient tale regarding spirits or ghosts that have become more god like figures in recent times, that Japanese might believe is a curse.

Sobek by James Stokoe

This comic is stunning for its details, landscapes and style. It's a very simple story about the Egyptian crocodile god names Sobek. His temple and city is under attack, to which he is called upon by three men in hope he will retrieve his place and save his people. Through explosive illustrations, Sobek of course wins. Each frame is heavily detailed, giving an incredible sense of time and place. The luscious vegetation and vast amount of open space surrounding the city shows a possible representation of the period in which Sobek is historically known for. The actions within the story provoke characteristics and personality traits Sobek could have, and the idea of being super chilled in all his strength and mighty is a fun twist to a legendary god. He swims the Nile to reach the city and storms the temple to protect, showing qualities for which he is associated with ( Every frame is as detailed as the next, giving so much more than just a story.

Wrap this up.

To conclude, I believe visual conventions for time and place is rather about the sense than it is of the physical. Literal depictions of time and place are very rarely a thing, what history shows is that the conventions are often based on actions that are being portrayed. The visuals of figures standing is not the convention, rather what they are doing within the image can determine the narration portrayed. It is of deeper meaning, universal understanding.

Early images don't include background landscapes that determine where they are geographically in a story. The very rock it is drawn on, is the literal place it is based on. Today art is complex, it is filled with details. Many comics, including Superhero comics for example, show time and place through surroundings. As we advance through the eras, we can then use surroundings to get a sense of that period. Clothing, technology, architecture, language and more give the viewer a sense of time and place. Politics, Religion and Social life are all part of the conventions. The more documented visual narration and written informations that are created, the more we have to use and reference in order to help the viewers understand.

A block of colour painted on a canvas that hangs in the prestigious gallery, is more than that thanks to the information we have discovered and preserved through history. It too, can have a sense of time and place with all considered.



bottom of page