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Friday, March 2, 2012

Counterpoint

 What do the melodies of "Three Blind Mice" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" have in common?  Answer:  they can be sung in a round.  Two distinct tunes can work together at the same time without conflicting with each other.   (Don't we wish our Congress could learn to do that!)  The method of juxtaposing two or more voices in music is called counterpoint.

We use counterpoint in painting, too, but it works differently than in music.  Instead of each part moving parallel and independent of the other, in painting elements move in opposing directions, each balancing the other. A vertical will counter a horizontal and vice versa; a diagonal will counter another diagonal moving in an opposite direction.



 John Singer Sargent was a master of counterpoint.  In his painting A Hotel Room, the verticals in the background are counter balanced by the horizontals on the floor.

Richard Schmid is another painter who often uses counterpoint.  Whereas Sargent has applied a horizontal to counter verticals, Schmid, in Wildflowers, uses opposing diagonals:  the tilt of the large flower on the left is countered by the tilt of the smaller one on the right.


Counterpoint in painting works to give visual stability.  Georges Braque, who with Picasso invented the Cubist movement in painting, depended upon counterpoint as a major composing strategy.  Without it his geometric breakdown of images would have had no grounding.

Georges Braque    "Bottle and Fishes"    1910
Uses primarily horizontal/vertical counterpoint
Georges Braque  "Still Life with Mandola and Metronome: "  1909
Uses primarily diagonal counterpoint
Georges Braque   "Pedestal Table"  1909
Uses horizontal/vertical and multple diagonals in counterpoint
Counterpoint as an organizing strategy has been used for as long as artists have been composing.  Very simply stated, a  horizontal calls for a vertical, a vertical calls for a horizontal, and a diagonal calls for a another one in the opposite direction.  The abstractionists knew this.  Many times it was the primary principle holding their pieces together.

I sometimes wonder whether today's artists should learn to paint abstractly as a prerequisite to learning realistic painting.  Take away the image and one gains an appreciation for composition because that's all we have left to work with.  Add the image to a well composed piece and chances are you've got a strong painting.

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1 comment:

Casey Klahn said...

Well blogged! Stability is an interesting topic, too. Thanks for illustrating these posts so richly, too.