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Friday, December 19, 2008

Unity, Not the Same as Harmony

Last week, I introduced the idea that unity and harmony play different roles in our painting. I focused that discussion on harmony. Here's unity:


Unity means that all the parts fit together. In music, we designate a piece for a key such as Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major. The title of the piece suggests that whatever goes on in the violin concerto fits somehow with the key of D. It might fit by contrast or by similarity. The same principle works in visual art--parts all need to belong either by contrast or by similarity.

The opposite of unity is fragmentation. In life and in art, to fragment is to fall apart, to break away from the whole, and the result is incompleteness. So how do we know if our painting is fragmenting and what can we do about it? Here is where I would like very much to do the unkind thing and show some examples of fragmented art, but it would be best to try to use another approach. Let's try explaining:

Generally an art work will not fragment if it has...
  1. a strong connecting pattern of darks and lights that hold it together
  2. a good balance so that we don't feel one-sidedness
  3. a visual path to avoid aimlessness
Now, don't leave me yet. I know this little list looks like a bunch of art jargon, and I admit it does come close, but we have to use some kind of language to talk about these things. Let's look at a painting by somebody we know had it all working. Let's look at a John Singer Sargent.

Look at how the lights connect to other lights and darks connect to other darks. Let's throw it into a notan so you can see this better. That's what we mean by point number 1
Staying with Sargent, let's look for balance in point number 2. The strong vertical of the waterfalls and two figures is counter-balanced by the horizontal ornate rail in the background as well as the horzontal surface on which the woman is sitting. Nothing feels topsy-turvy.

And what about point number 3? A good visual path is as necessary to unity as a plot is to a novel. Without it, the eye just doesn't know where to go. Look at this wonderful path created by Sargent. Arguably other organizing methods can help prevent fragmentation, but I contend that if these three are working, the chances are better than average that the piece will have unity. And I believe that when a work has unity, it will stand the test of time.


vickiandrandyrossart said...

How to get an MBA on your own? Subscribe to your blogs! Your explanations are like little books...for example, Ramon Kelley's "the 5 essentials in every powerful painting" takes over 100 pages to talk about the same things...and I didn't understand how to actually apply it.

Your examples are fabulous...and the more I paint, the more I understand them. I still have trouble with the visual path (Kelley spent considerable time with it)...it still seems arbitrary to me.

However, books and magazines that I didn't understand 4 years ago today make sense...so just keep re-reading your library over and over!

Diana Moses Botkin said...

Yes indeed your insights would make a wonderful book!

Thank you for sharing with us. You always get me to thinking. I'm wondering if a visual path in a painting is a little different for each person looking at it?

Considering how differently our minds all work, I think perhaps the way we see a painting might be affected by that.

For instance, the visual path I see in the Sargent piece goes directly to that focal point of the man's face. The waterfall points to it and the woman's hand points to it.

My eye then travels up her arm to her face, back to the waterfall and then down again to his face. Only after looking at the faces does my eye explore the rest of the painting.

I'm drawn to the contrasts of the warm colors and geometrical shape of the pedestal where she sits, then down, and then up around the rest of the painting counter-clockwise to the green trees behind.

Then I'm back again to the light areas and his face.

Casey Klahn said...

Great blog, Dianne. I was going to say something about unity in color, but the simplicity of your post is too good to add little things...

I hope you keep it up, and thanks!

Dianne Mize said...

Thanks, Vicki. I have a lot of fun with writing about composing and I think I do this because I'm too lazy to write a "real" book.

About visual path, stick with it.

Dianne Mize said...

Great point, Diana. We DO all see these things differently. And you found a path I'd not picked up on. They're all there, but if you'll notice, they're all somehow connected. That potential and variation is, to me, one of the things that makes visual paths so exciting.

Thanks for your comments.

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Walter L. Mosley said...

Great! Thank you.