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Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Importance of a Painting's Format

We design of our paintings and drawings in concert with the support on which we create them. The edges of that support's shape are where the art work begins.  In fact, if we're working with either a square or rectangle, the first mark we make is actually the fifth:  the edges themselves give us the first four marks before we even pick up a brush.

With a square support the art work begins with four lines of equal length.  With a rectangle we still have four established lines, but two of them are proportioned longer than the other two.  A rectangle might be slight to stretched.  It can be oriented vertically or horizontally.  These choices will determine both how the subject is composed and how the content is communicated.

But what if our choice is a round or oval support?  In that case we have one continuous line with which to begin within the support's edge.  The first mark we make with the brush will be the budding painting's second line.

Within all these choices, we can make a painting any size from a tiny miniature to a huge mural.  This choice, more than most others, will determine our intimacy with the painting and how and where it will be hung.  But that will be the subject of next week's tutorial.  For this one, I want to focus on the shape and proportion of a painting's support.


When I speak of a shape here, I'm referring to whether a support's edge has four sides or whether it is curvilinear.  By proportion, I'm referring to the comparative length of the edges.

Both shape and proportion play at least three major roles: (1)They influence the placement of the subject, (2) They effect the function of negative shapes to express the content, and (3) They help determine how the spirit of the content is conveyed.

A round or oval shape softens our presentation.  Its continuous edge circling around the subject neutralizes the tension and brings a gentle focus to the content. In contrast, a square support with its equal sized edges gives equal emphasis to horizontal and vertical directions.  But the orientation and proportion of the rectangle can reinforce the import of the theme by either repeating or contrasting its direction.

Andrew Wyeth used a double rectangle for his painting, "Spring." The placement of his theme is enhanced by the exaggerated horizontal direction of the support.

Andrew Wyeth     "Spring"  24" x 48"   Tempera on panel

But in his painting, "Faraway", he uses the proportion and orientation in a different way.

Andrew Wyeth    "Faraway"   13 3/4" x 21 1/2"   Drybrush on paper

Here his title gives it away:  the negative spaces on either side of the boy, extending the width of the painting, impart a feeling of a vast and empty landscape in which Wyeth's son sits in his own "faraway" world.

However, in this early self-portrait, Wyeth's vertical support heightens the content by repeating the vertical position of the subject.  We feel the height from the subject's placement close to top and extending beyond the bottom edges, but the width translates into the hallway's distance from the space between the person and the left edge--the negative space.  This more traditional proportion of the support allows room for the negative space to express the place where the subject finds himself.

Andrew Wyeth    "The Revenant"    29" x 21 1/2 "   Tempera on panel

But in "Distant Thunder," he emphasizes the reclining subjects by contrasting them with a vertical support whose direction repeats the upward reach of the two trees.

Andrew Wyeth   48" x 30 1/2"   "Distant Thunder"

I chose Andrew Wyeth's work because he was a master of using the direction and proportion of his support as a device for making us feel the spirit of his content.  We can imagine that if "Distant Thunder" had been given a horizontal support, its impact would have been diminished.  And so would that of "Faraway" had he chosen a square, a proportion the position of the boy might suggest.  On the other hand, both "The Revenant" and "Spring" are strengthened by the subjects' position being emphasized with both the orientation and proportion of the support.

As to when during a painting's development the choice of format is made, it really doesn't matter.  Sometimes a support will suggest the subject, at other times the subject will suggest the support.  It all depends upon what the artist wants to do with the subject. In fact, the support's size, shape and/or proportion could come last of all:  sometimes an artist will reshape a painting after it's finished. That, too, is a part of the painting process. What matters is how the support fits what the artist is trying to communicate.

We limit possibilities if we restrict ourselves to prevailing dogmas about the format of our paintings and drawings.  A good landscape painting is not always horizontal; neither is a good portrait always vertical.  Even though these are a safe bet, the artist can discover dramatic potential when allowing the painting's intent to determine how it is formatted.

Format is an important composing tools:  its role in the placement of our subject, its role in forming negative shapes and it's potential for communicating the spirit of a painting's theme gives us an array of exciting options for a strong and inspiring work of art.
Note:  Thanks to Jim Kissel for asking me to address the size and format problem in composition.  I enjoy hearing from those of you who read this blog and I welcome your requests for me to tackle any subject relating to how we compose our paintings and drawings.  You can email me with your requests by clicking HERE. 


James Kissel said...

Thanks for that. It was a refreshing and thought provoking look at painting formats. I'm pleased that you picked up on the idea that the supports edges are actually lines/marks. This was originally introduced to me in Ian Roberts book "Mastering Composition: techniques and principles to dramatically improve your painting". Ian call them the "The Four Most Important Compositional Lines" and I agree, which puts me in a somewhat oppositional position in regards to your statement that it doesn't really matter when a paintings format is established.

Because of the importance of these four lines in the overall composition, I believe it necessary to establish them early in the compositional process. Although it is possible to alter them later in the painting process, I would think that would leave one somewhat dissatisfied with the result. It might be better to abandon such a painting as a composition failure and start over again with the "correct format". Someone much wiser and more skillful than myself once said that many good paintings have been lost when trying to force a square composition into a rectangular format.

Dianne Mize said...

Jim, you make a valid point in your argument and until I saw Richard Schmid alter the proportion of a format after-the-fact, I, too, was convinced that the initial four edges should not be changed. But these days I think it important to use all options that make a painting stronger, even if it means adjusting the format towards the end.
Thanks for your thoughtful response.

Dianne Mize said...

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