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Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Single Unifying Device

Ultimate unity is a blank canvas according to the would-be clever artists who have exhibited blank canvases as their "art". I seriously doubt these folks would really desire our conclusion. Or maybe that's their point. Is ultimate unity emptiness? I digress.

Once we put the first mark on a blank canvas, we've begun a composition. As we add marks, shapes, textures, and colors our painting teeters between harmony and chaos. No matter the size of the painting or the subject, we are doing a balancing act from stroke one. One way to prevent chaos or disjointedness from taking over the painting is to have a single unifying device undergirding the whole work.

Unity means oneness, or sense that things belong together and there are many clever ways to keep a painting unified without losing freshness, excitement and spontaneity.

One popular and satisfying device is subduing intensity of color throughout. Anders Dorn comes to mind as an artist who used this scheme as a constant. Look at his painting "Woman Dressing". Every color he has used, in one way or another, contains its complement to reduce intensity. The overall effect is a feeling of unity, a sense that it all belongs together.

Anders Zorn Woman Dressing Oil 1893
(click on image for truer color)

Now, look what happens if we intensify Zorn's colors, taking away the complement (I risk blasphemy!).

The subtleness is gone. A harshness appears, but something still holds it together. Ah ha. There's another unifying device--hue. Look back at the original and you'll see that almost all the colors have some yellow hue in them. Now that's clever. But it's another way for achieving unity.

Another highly effective unifying device, light from positive merging into light from negative, is used by Richard Schmid in "Weaver" ( right). This is what James Gurney has called shapewelds. It works in reverse, too, with darks from the negative merging with darks of the positive. Remember Schmid's "Pansies" from our Image Trap discussion? This is acheived by allowing edges to disappear between a light portion of a subject and the light around it or by blending the edge of a shadow side of an image with dark in the area around it.

Sometimes the subject itself gives us the unifying device we need. In Pat Weaver's watercolor painting "We've Got Rhythm", the repetition of shapes, colors and sizes of the musicians, their instruments and their music stands do the job. Repeating the same shape and size risks boredom or becoming static, but Pat's use of strong value contrast between shapes keeps the piece interesting and exciting.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention using notan as a unifying device. Review my two posts about notan here and here

Finally, controlling what happens to edges of shapes is one of the most important and too often overlooked unifying devices. Richard Schmid , through his writing and videos, is responsible for making me aware of the power of edges. Look at these two examples by him:

When we paint landscapes, if we give distinct edges to buildings, tree trunks and other outdoor shapes, we risk making the painting feel jerky, the objects in the landscape feel isolated. Schmid's controlled softened edges throughout enable the building and trees to merge with the grounds and sky and feel like there's atmosphere between them. He is probably more conscious of how he handles edges than any single concern in his painting process.

Another place where edges can get problematic is in figure painting. Look how Schmid has subtly blended the hairline into the forehead and face as well as softened the outer edge of the hair into the background, all enabling us to feel the space around the person. He does the same kind of edge control along all the shapes of the clothing, arms and spinning wheel--all giving unity of the figure with the space that surrounds her.

If we were living during the Italian Renaissance, we would know this atmospheric handling of edges to be sfumato .

Spend some time looking at paintings by realistic painters who are among the greats and you will find in each some unifying device. Sometimes it's a single device, sometimes a combination, but even when used in combination, one device will most likely be more apparant than the others.


Ann Buckner said...

Diane, I have awarded you the Brillante Weblog award - you can read the info on my blog. You can pass it on or not, your choice. I just wanted to let you know I appreciate your work and enjoy your blogs and thought this would be a good way to do it.

Deborah A. L├ęger said...

Hi Diane,

I've just discovered your blog through Ann Buckner's site and I must say, it's fantastic! I will definitely be back often to read your lessons and learn from them. Thanks,

Dianne Mize said...

Ann, thank you so much for the award. It's a real honor. I'll have to take some time and carefully chose those to whom I pass it on.

Dianne Mize said...

Thanks, Deborah. Welcome aboard.

cooper said...

Hi Dianne,
What a wealth of ideas! Thank you for sharing. I noted your wishes about copying info from here, but how do you feel about a link from my blog to here? Thanks.

Karen Cooper