Welcome to Compose. There's lots of stuff here, all about composing paintings.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pulling More Good From Bad

In the long run, it's best not to work from poor reference material, but on rare occasions, you might want to do a painting or drawing from an old photo which is the only known existing reference of an image long gone. Here's such an example:
This old barn fell and disappeared long ago. The only known photo reference is an old faded slide from which I tried to pull a digital photo.

The first thing I needed to do was to discern whether the photo has any information about the light source and I see that it does. If I squint, I can see a clear pattern of dark created by the cast shadows on the barn, shadows in the background trees, fence posts and foreground weeds.

The next step is to do a drawing where these elements form the initial structure, then see where it will take me. Here's the drawing I came up with:

What I noticed while doing the sketch was an opportunity to push lost edges and light/dark contrasts. The darks behind the barn pretty much define it, then the light in the sky merges right into the roof just as the light on the pasture merges into the lower front. The shadow on the side of the barn defines the bushes and the fence forms an area of interest that pulls us into the drawing.

So with this old deficient photo, there's information to work with, enough to create a drawing, but I don't want to agonize over a painting with no color references.

So, unless you want to suffer, it's wise to avoid bad reference information that has no structure at all. Life offers enough challenges without our jumping head first into another one we know can be avoided.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bad Photo Reference--Good Painting

Let's face it. There are times when we must work in the studio using resource material although, I agree, the best reference material is on location. But we'd be terribly limited as artists if we reserved our painting hours for when being on location is possible. So, what if you're in the studio with a yin to paint a certain subject, but all you have are poor photo references. Let's assume the composition is absolutely terrible. What now?

Of course the first thing is to pin down the idea. Why this particular subject? Here's an example of a not-so-good photo.What caught my attention--the idea or concept--is the squirrel at the foot of the tree scratching himself. So the first thing to do is to crop to the idea. Well, that's a little better, but what I've got to do next is to find a decent composition. One approach is to see if any visual path or pattern is suggested or even a hint toward one. Here's what I found.
Along side the movement of the tail a vertical path begins. It moves with the squirrel's cast shadow underneath his belly then on the other side to the left. Follow the arrows in the diagram.

Okay, this suggests to me that I might captilize on that movement and create either an "S" path or a reversed "C" path. One way to determine that is to heighten the contrast on the computer. If I do that, I get this.
Ah ha. I can use the dark of the tree's base and indeed create an "S" path.
The next step is to draw. Study the patterns of shadow and light and play around with the composition. Here's a double page from my sketchbook where I did just that though from other photos, but taken the same time as this one.

And here's a little watercolor painting that followed.
Sometimes there is absolutely nothing in a photo from which a composition can be pulled. In that case either abandon the idea completely or super-impose a composition. I will address that subject in next week's post.

Meanwhile, if you have a suggestion for a compositional topic you'd like me to discuss, leave a message.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ten Composing Commandments

Not long after I began this blog about composing, I started receiving e-mails from various artists asking me what I think are the most important considerations while composing. It is true that if one looks at all the principles and their ramifications, it can be overwhelming to say the least and confusing at best.

While I am pretty dogmatic about the importance of an artist learning how to use the principles as tools, I am equally dogmatic about forgetting about them during the painting process. It's a dichotomy in a way: what can be the strength of a painting can also destroy it.

Learning to use these tools must become a part of our bone marrow just as an ice skater's tools are deeply embedded within her muscles. Ice skaters must not think while they are performing; neither must the painter. Yet because our guides live within us, they will under gird whatever we do with our craft.

I gave it some thought and came up with my preferred list. Notice it assumes we're already learned the compositional tools. Or that we apply what we have learned then go learn some more.

Ten Commandments for Composing a Painting
Prelude: Have a clear idea--a concept--of what you want the painting to be about. (Thanks, Marc Hanson, for suggesting that I add this in.)
1. Study subject intensely before committing a single brush stroke
2. Squint while studying subject
3. Search for patterns of light while squinting
4. Search for patterns of dark while squinting
5. Extract design pattern from findings of 3 and 4 and develop
6. While painting look three times, think twice, paint once. (courtesy Robert Genn)
7. Keep every color applied consistent with the temperature of the light source. (Courtesy Richard Schmid)
7. Edit between sessions not while painting
9. Taken advantage of compositional tools throughout.
10. Ignor whatever doesn't belong.
Because each of us is unique, we each must develop our own individual approach to painting. I'm sharing mine only because I enjoy sharing ideas. On my website, I've attempted a personal account of my own creative process. You can see it HERE.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

In Defense of Structure

This is in defense of the tools I keep talking about, those freeing principles that give our paintings an underlying structure just as the skeleton gives a structure to the human body. Frankly, and I mean no offense here, the more I encounter attitudes of some internet artists, the more convinced I become of how much the compositional principles matter.

Two arguments I keep encountering are (1) compositional principles stifle creativity, (2) the professional artist must challenge compositional principles, must break past them. I find each of these arguments disturbing because neither is true and both are misleading.

Leonardo da Vinci circa 1490 "The Proportions of the Human Figure"

Leonardo da Vinci sought after those principles daily. He knew instinctively that there was a strong relationship between the principles by which the human body is constructed and those which undergird a good painting and so rather than defy the principles, he sought to exploit them.

Think about it like this.

We artists are translators, transposers, interpreters, and responders.
An image cannot hit the canvas without first taking a detour through our brains. And somewhere within that most mysterious of all human possessions exists
  • a collection of every experience we've ever had,
  • every genetic tendancy,
  • all the knowledge we've gathered
  • and all the skills we've learned.

What comes through the brush gets influenced by all that whether we intend it or not. That's what makes every painting we create unique, even if the subject has been painted a zillion times by other artists.

And that uniqueness has it's best chance of translating, transposing, interpreting and responding if expressed through a structure that holds it together and allows it to be communicated just like you, the artist, want it to be communicated. It is the principles that guide how the viewer sees and it is they that give our work it's best chance of being understood.

We all know Handel's Messiah. It is designed on the form of the oratorio. Now imagine this piece without the words. It would be only half there. Or imagine just the words without the music. Again only half there. But that's only a starter. The structure of the music transports the words. The words reinforce the music. And the music has a structure of it's own just as the words do. That's no small potatoes.

Handel didn't just decide to express himself. He put a structure to his self-expression that made us understand it and want to hear it again and again.

I rest my case.