Creating The Art of the Clinch

I haven’t blogged in forever, but that is about to change!  While creating my Art of the Clinch dashboard for the Iron Viz 2022 feeder (which was a labor of love, pun intended), I learned so much and was inspired by so many different people that I decided to blog again after a long hiatus.  So, let’s go through the dashboard piece by piece.

Click image for interactive dashboard

First, a little history on why I chose this topic.

I read my first romance novel at 13.  My friend “borrowed” it from her mom and brought it to school where we’d take turns reading it at the lunch table.  It made me blush.  The book was Legal Tender by Kelsey Roberts, and it was a Harlequin Intrigue novel.  I was hooked.  At first, I gravitated more towards historical fiction with romance elements.  I loved the She Who Remembers series by Linda Lay Shuler and the Clan of the Cave Bear series by Jean M. Auel.  I discovered Virginia Henley, Bertrice Small, and Amanda Quick during college (I worked at a bookstore so I had plenty of time to peruse the selection).  I was always a sucker for the gorgeous gowns on the clinch.  My roommates weren’t into romance novels, but when the power would go out during thunderstorms, we would gather around a flashlight and read the steamy scenes out loud, replacing the characters’ names with those of people we knew—I’ve never laughed so hard! 

During graduate school I got away from reading romance novels (I had to in order to keep up with the reading assignments for class).  Then, when I started living on a farm, I got away from reading altogether for awhile (sad, I know).  The pandemic changed all that.  I picked up a romance novel again.  It was Timeswept Rogue by Amy J. Fetzer.  I’d been meaning to read it for a while—my wife knows the author (they grew up together on a military base) and has an autographed copy of the book.  I started reading it a couple times years ago, but never got very far.  This time I read it cover to cover and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the prequel.  Now, thanks to this renewed interest, I had a dashboard topic I could really get into!

Part 1:  Designing the Viz

When the topic was announced as Visualizing the Arts, I went through my typical brainstorming process.  This consisted of free listing all the subjects I was interested in:  art in nature, artists of the Renaissance, Salvador Dali, diversity in the arts, architecture, etc.  I even consulted with my sister, who majored in art history, to get her input.  In the end, it was @ArtOfTheClinch on Twitter and her daily dose of romance novel cover art that helped make up my mind.  I’ve been following her for about a year now, and I always learn something new about the artists or history of the genre from her posts.  I reached out to tell her about my project, and she gave me permission to use her images, which sealed the deal. 

With a topic in mind, I started by sketching my ideas in a journal (something I’ve only started doing recently).  Here is a snippet of that first sketch—not too far off from the final version! 

A hand-sketched rendering of what I envisioned the Art of the Clinch abstract hearts to look like.  Green and purple hearts with various symbols
My first sketch for this dashboard

While making the early sketches I thought I would make my viz like a book and have people flip through the pages of the viz using a navigation button.  In the end, I decided to make it a long form viz, which is a technique I’ve attempted before, but not very successfully.  The next sketch I did was not in a book, but on loose paper where I could tape the sheets together and get a better sense of the flow.  The hardest part for me to wrap my head around were the transitions.  Still, I wanted to push myself, so I went with it. 

A pencil drawing of the long-form dashboard starting with anatomy of the clinch and continuing down into a timeline.
My second sketch for this dashboard

Part 2:  Data Collection and Research

I knew with this topic that I would not find an existing data source, but instead would have to build my own.  That was fine with me—I like curating my own data set because I know exactly what’s in it, how it’s laid out, and what the codes mean.  I went all the way back to the beginning of @ArtOfTheClinch’s twitter feed and recorded nearly every book cover and stepback she’d tweeted since then.  In the end I had 153 novel covers and 60 stepbacks.  For each one I recorded the Title, Author, Publisher, Artist (if known), which character was in the forefront, if there were flowers, if there were animals (and if so, what kind), how much skin the characters were showing, whether they were inside or outside, if the cover is considered a collectible, and any notes of interest.  When I thought I was finished, I went back and added columns for hair color…and even later I added columns for X and Y coordinates (for the abstract art piece–more about that in a bit).  Here’s a peek at my spreadsheet of clinch data:

A spreadsheet with information about romance novel covers including title, author, year published, publisher, illustrator, and character details.
A snippet of my clinch data spreadsheet

During the data collection phase I also read numerous blogs about romance novels (most notably Sweet Savage Flame, which is maintained by @jdiazromance), watched a video about their history, and read news articles and interviews with several romance novel artists.  All of this would later inform the timeline portion of my viz. 

After collecting the book cover and stepback information, I moved on to collecting color data.  This is where I needed the guidance of #datafam blogs to help with the process.  I started looking at other vizzes in Tableau Public that focused on color palettes, and came across Creating Colour Stacks in Tableau by Marian Eerens.  The accompanying blog post led me to a wonderful website where I could upload pictures of every book cover and download a CSV file of the color palette.  With over 200 images to process, this part of the data collection took the longest.  Once that was done, it was time to prep the data.

Part 3:  Data Prep

All of the cover, stepback, and color data can be downloaded from (along with the color codes to copy and paste in your Tableau Preferences file).

First, I must say THANK GOODNESS FOR TABLEAU PREP!  I don’t know what I would have done without this to connect my book cover data and my color data.  Part of the challenge was that I put each palette in a separate excel sheet and I had to union all of them in Tableau Prep.  This made for a mess of multiple unions, but it got the job done. 

A screenshot of a messy Tableau Prep flow featuring multiple unions of color data.
My Tableau Prep flow for color palettes

I was also able to use Tableau Prep to extract the top 10 colors from each book, which I would then use to create more than 200 color palettes in my Preferences file.  Here’s how that looks in my preferences file and later in Tableau. 

Combining the book covers and stepbacks was the easiest part of data prep. This is also the prep flow where I created a key (the title, author, and type) for assigning icons and colors to each book.

Tableau prep flow showing clean steps for combining book covers and stepback data.
The Tableau prep flow for books

Part 4: Building the Viz

My goal for this viz was to embody the style of the early romance novel clinch covers (over the top, vibrant colors, swirling letters, immodest, excessive, lush, and indulgent) while educating people about the genre and its history. Is it perfect? No. Would I change things about it if I had it to do over again? Yes. But do I LOVE it? YES!!!! I am so glad that I sketched the dashboard out before trying to build it.  Each time I finished one piece I would panic about what to do next, until I remembered that all I had to do was follow the sketch.  I didn’t need to come up with anything else new—I just needed to build the viz. 

Here is the full image of the completed viz—I used a thick purple border on the left, which was meant to connect the pieces and represent the spine of a book.  The illustrator legend at the bottom is like a bar code, and each heading is a chapter title.

Full size image of the final long-form dashboard
Full image of dashboard

Chapter One: Anatomy of the Clinch, toggles back and forth with Anatomy of a Stepback.  The goal of this section is to introduce unfamiliar readers the terms “clinch” and “stepback” as well as their definitions and features.  I chose to use a show/hide container button here so that it would mimic opening a book to see the stepback.  Because I wanted to show/hide both the text box and the container using only one button, I employed a technique I learned from Brad Earle (@vzwiz) in the January 2022 Virtual Carolinas TUG.  You can see this easy yet useful method starting around 3:45—it just requires a simple tweak in your .XML file. 

If you hover over the BANs in Anatomy of the Clinch then you’ll see bar graphs with additional information about each part of a clinch cover.  I used rounded bar graphs in these viz-in-tooltips because I’d never done them before and I wanted to learn how.  This blog by VizWiz explained the step-by-step process. 

Closeup of a viz-in-tooltip showing hair color prevalence on clinch covers (red hair is the most prevalent for women, black hair is the most prevalent for men)
When you hover over the numbers, viz-in-tooltips give more detail

Chapter Two:  The History of the Clinch.  The next part of the viz is the timeline.  I wanted to run the full timeline from 1970-present down the left side of the page and have a box for each decade explaining what was happening in the world of romance novels during that time.  I used a date scaffold to be sure all the years were included, even if no books in the sample were published during that year.  If you need more information on how to do a date scaffold, Jim Dehner’s blog is my go-to. The circles on the timeline are sized by the number of books in the sample published that year and colored by decade.  This part was fairly simple—the hardest part was deciding what to include (I didn’t want to drone on endlessly).

A timeline from the viz showing history of the clinch cover in the 1970's and 1980's.
A snippet of the timeline

Chapter Three:  Colors of the Clinch.  The next part of the viz is about color, and it’s the part I was most excited about creating.  Originally, I only intended to show the colors as a bar, but then I came across Ken Flerlage’s blog on Ternary Plots and thought this could work well with color data.  Once all the Iron Viz entries were released, I saw I was not the only person who had this idea!  After building the ternary plot I almost scrapped the bars altogether, but decided against it.  Instead, I added a parameter to let users toggle between the ternary plot and the color bars.  Each one looks at the data differently and offers an opportunity for different insights. 

Since the ternary plot was the initial color image in the viz, I wanted to add some captions to act as a guided exploration of colors by decade.  To do this, I created a decade parameter and made separate sheets with captions for each decade.  I added a filter to each page so it would only display if the parameter matched the filter.  As you scroll through the parameter, captions “appear” and “disappear”, creating motion in the viz.

A GIF showing how the ternary plot changes as you scroll through the decades
Scrolling through the colors by decade

In both the ternary plot and color bars, you can hover over a data point and see a viz-in-tooltip with the book cover or stepback, along with information on the title, author, publisher, year published, artist (if known), and corresponding hex code.  Assigning each cover to the correct icon was very time consuming (especially because I first tried to assign them by name and found that I had misspellings in the shapes folder that threw off the order).  After a few attempts and multiple corrections, it finally came together. 

A closeup showing the book cover from A Handful of Dreams by Barbara Hazard against the backdrop of the color bar chart.
Hovering over a color block shows a viz-in-tooltip with the book cover

Chapter Four:  The Art of the Clinch.  The last part of my viz is an abstract interpretation of all the covers and stepbacks that I sampled.  I love so many vizzes that feature multi-layered images as a representation of data, but I’d never attempted any myself.  I decided now was the time! 

A closeup of abstract art hearts with a legend and description of the viz.
Abstract Art Hearts representing the covers and stepbacks

For inspiration, I looked to Agata Ketterick’s Mountain Hikes, Neil Richards’s Number Ones of the 1980’s, and Lindsay Betzendahl’s My House My Art.  I suspected there were multiple ways to go about building this kind of viz, but I wanted to do it using map layers.  I looked under the hood of Agata’s viz and read a couple of blogs (on Map Layers and Layering Marks) to learn the technique.  I didn’t originally have X and Y coordinates in my data, but after multiple attempts to create these with calculations I gave up and went back to manually add the grid numbers.

I played around in PowerPoint with a lot of different images before deciding which aspects of each cover to include and settling on the final version.  In the end, I chose to include data on the artist, collectability, location, character in the forefront (indicated by color overlap in the heart), level of undress, and hair color (which was used to color the male lines and female dots). Each data point is a different map layer. Here is a closeup of the legend:

The legend for reading the abstract heart art.  A heart is at the center against a square background (the square color indicates the artist).  If an arrow pierces the heart, it means the cover is collectible.  The left side is green, representing the male, with lines showing his level of exposure.  The right side is purple, representing the female, with dots showing her level of exposure.  The bottom image indicates location.
Legend for interpreting the abstract art hearts

With the shapes created, it was time to build the hearts. For me, the hardest part was perfecting the spacing (it did not look the same on the worksheet as it did on the final dashboard due to size constraints).  I built spacing parameters to fine tune where each layer would be placed and flipped back and forth to check my work before finally hard-coding the numbers in my MAKEPOINT formula. 

The calculation for makepoint:
MAKEPOINT ([Grid X]-.14,[Grid Y]+.28)
Calculation for MAKEPOINT with the spacing coordinates

I wanted this part of the viz to really focus on the artists—they often go uncredited, and without them, the covers would not exist.  I added an artists legend that can be used to highlight or filter a selection.  The way I imagine people interacting with this is by clicking on a chosen artist and then looking at the abstract art to see if there are patterns in the data. 

The artists legend showing one artist per row with a corresponding color background.
Artist Legend

For instance, Sharon Spiak is my personal favorite when it comes to romance novel cover art.  If I filter the viz to show only her cover art, I can see that she paints mostly outdoor locations and that her characters tend to expose less skin than other artists.  She also puts males in the forefront (though not in dominant positions) more often than other artists. 

The art of Sharon Spiak filtered and highlighted.
Sharon Spiak art highlighted

Even though you can hover over any of the abstract art images to see the book cover/stepback, I decided to add one last parameter to let you swap between the abstract art representation and the actual book covers. 

I know, I know, less is more in data viz…but not when it comes to romance novels!

The final image of the viz showing the book cover for Renegade Heart by Amy J. Fetzer against the background of all book covers.
View of all covers highlighting Renegade Heart by Amy J. Fetzer, which inspired the color palette for the heart art
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