How do you traverse the fine line of always creating new and interesting poses but keeping the actions as simple and readable as possible? How do you know if you have done “too much” and need to simplify?
Interesting, exciting, emotional, communicative, dynamic poses should ALWAYS be your goal in every scene. That's the absolute core of what we do, so it's great to aim high and shoot for the stars when it comes to poses that will communicate the character's emotions and actions as best as possible.
However, you bring up a good point that it's SO easy to go overboard! Creating poses is so much fun that the simplest of actions can turn into the wackiest animation in history if we aren't careful.
The trick is learning how much is too much. How far is too far?
Truthfully, your sense of what will "read" best to the audience will continue to improve as you get more and more experienced with animation. However, there is one trick that you will always continue to rely on to some degree, and is the best rock-solid way to find out if you have pushed your poses and ideas too far:
Sounds simple, right? You'd be surprised how many students and newer animators avoid this absolutely essential step in their animation process. Feedback is the key to not only learning animation, but excelling in it, and there really is no other way to know if your ideas and poses are reading clearly than to ask around and see what people think!
Remember, your animation is being created to be experienced by an audience of people with vastly differing backgrounds, beliefs, senses of humor, moods, etc. The eventual audience is completely unpredictable in their makeup. Because of that, there is literally no one who doesn't have a valid opinion on whether or not your animation makes sense to them.
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston write in the Illusion of Life that they would sometimes even show their animation to the janitor if they were working late at night to get an opinion on the work. That janitor didn't know the first thing about overlapping action, squash and stretch, force, or arcs, but he sure could tell them if he understood whether or not the character was sad, or what actions the character was meant to be doing.
Anyway, when it comes to poses, I come from the school of thought that says to exaggerate something more than you think it should be exaggerated, and then double it! This has helped me a lot to push my ideas (particularly the timing and poses), but the reality is that it usually means I need to tone things down here or there in order to make things more clear or to fit the style of a project. Luckily, poses are always much easier to tone down than to push further, so it's best to go a bit too far than to have to shove your animation further in tiny incremental steps over and over until your supervisor is pleased.
So I would certainly recommend that you aim high when searching for fun poses, but be prepared to tone them down when necessary, and actively seek feedback from your peers, your family, your supervisor, or even the janitor, because every single one of them is an invaluable resource to find out when you've gone overboard!
Hope that helps - thanks for swinging by the blog!