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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Avoiding Percy's "Sore Thumb"

After my “Isolation” post on August 8, I received a request from one of my students asking about how to use isolation without ending up with a sore thumb. She wants to know “How does one determine when to use it and use it effectively within a given subject? What particular things are to be avoided?”

First, why would we isolate anything in the first place. In the delightful Percy’s Principles of Composition, Marvin Bartel’s first principle is “Avoid a sore thumb,” which is where the concern about isolation begins. So why take the risk?

Keep in mind that isolation is a strategy to set a thing apart, detach it, give it solitude. It is available to us, but we would not want to use in every painting we do--unless you're Edward Hopper :). We would use it only if we want to call attention to something really important to the meaning of the whole painting or if we want a special emphasis somewhere in the painting.

When Hopper isolated, his entire painting centers on whatever was isolated. So how did Hopper, the master of effective isolation, manage to avoid a sore thumb every time? Look his Hotel Window.

The seated woman is what the painting is about. Hopper has isolated her by creating the extremely light face, hands and legs within a dark surrounding and by locating her within a large empty space. But he has used two strategies to keep her from being a sore thumb: (1) he’s kept the value of her clothing very close to the values surrounding her, (2) he’s tied in the light of her face, hands and legs with the accents of light around the window and on the drapes as well as the very light walls and painting hanging on the wall.

Now, with apologies to Mr. Hopper, I’m going to change that and make her clothes bright red.

See, now it’s a sore thumb.

Okay, (and Mr. Hopper, I'm SO sorry!), I’m going to change it another way by taking out the light accents, by darkening the walls and removing the painting.

See, it’s a sore thumb again. So that tells us that another way to unify the isolated image to prevent the "sore thumb" syndrome is by repeating elsewhere in the painting something contained within the image or repeating something from the rest of the painting inside the isolated image. My apologies to Mr. Hopper, rest is soul, but my thanks to him for mastering isolation, making it possible for us to study what he did.

Now to the other reason we might want to isolate: to place a special emphasis somewhere in the painting. Look once again at Pat Weaver's little still life painting.

The red apple is a strong emphasis isolation. It isolates because it's totally different in color and in value from the onions in the painting, yet it is within the surroundings of similar subjects, is quite similar in size and shape to the onions, and the dark of its shadow blends with the dark on the plate while the highlight gets repeated all the other whites appearing in the painting. I called it strong emphasis because it is NOT what the painting is about, but equally important to the other subjects in the painting. Now with most hearty apologies to Pat, I'm going to change it to show you why this works.

Now it IS a sore thumb. The only relationship is size and shape, but because of the intensity of the red, it isolates severely. Now I'll do the opposite.

It loses interest altogether. We see by this change what an important role that red was playing. So, here a strong emphasis was key to the success and strength of the whole painting.

We don't have to be able to label strategies and principles in order to make good paintings. In fact, if we get too preoccupied with these, we can stifle the life out of our art work, but to develop a wisdom about aesthetics enables us as painters to put an extra sensitivity and graciousness in our work.

In this age with open acceptance of the "anything goes" attitude, I believe artists need to take the lead toward higher aesthetic standards. That's a good reason to know isolation


Terry Rafferty said...

Wow, I love this blog! I discovered you through Marsha Robinett's listing you for the Brilliante award - and I've learned lots of new things in just one visit! I'll be back...

Dianne Mize said...

Great and thanks, Terry. I have fun doing this. It's a good extension of my teaching days.