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

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Artist's Zone

There's no better place for an artist to be than "in the zone". It's a place where all creative people function at their absolute best. It's our inner hub connecting all that we are with all that we know. There is no conscious thought there, there is no time, there is only our being doing. It cannot be faked and it will not let us tell a lie. And the only momentum is forward. It is the highest form of unity and harmony working together within the artist. There is no loneliness there, only oneness. It cannot be forced. But it can be obtained.

So how does an artist get into the zone?

Let's look outside being visual artists. We could look in any direction where skill and performance come together into masterful moments. For example, Tiger Woods, Krsiti Yamaguchi, Joshua Bell, and Maya Angelou--all who have one thing in common: they are masters of their craft but each excels beyond the craft. At creativity time, each slides easily into the zone and that's where they deliver the most astonishing performances.

It's when each person's "inner hub" actively unites their obtained skills, their accumulated knowledge and their inner selves that we find them at their best.

Heavy stuff? Not really. I contend that every single individual who desires it strongly enough can become an artist who can "perform" within the artist's zone. In fact, it's probable that every one of us has already been there more than once. The trick as I see it is to find the zone each and every time we work whether while doing studies or whether working toward a finished work.

I'm convinced that the zoning in happens when we're totally focused on the subject and when we're prepared. I know Joshua Bell's preparedness includes (1) his familiarity with his instrument, (2) his skills acquired for playing the instrument, (3) his perpetual contact with the instrument (i.e. daily practice), (4) his knowledge of the music, and (5) his warm-ups.

I'd bet my last paint brush that artists who stay just as prepared and who approach their subjects with total focus on the subject itself will find themselves in their zone every time they work. Try it for three months, then let me know if it worked.

Happy New Year!

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.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Harmony and Unity

In the blogs and other art circles, we see the words harmony and unity talked about like a chef discusses salt and spices, but often I see the two words used interchangeably and they shouldn't be. Each is a distinctive result of something which has been accomplished by the artist during the process of composing and painting.

Harmony happens when all the elements in the painting's are in tune with one another. In an orchestra, if one of the violins is out of tune it throws an unpleasant dissonance into the piece being played. One of the worst ear-assaults is a piano out of tune. No matter how masterful the pianist, if the instrument is not tuned, the music can be nerve-wrecking.

The major element in a painting that creates harmony is color. And the major tuning has to do with the temperature of light. In representational painting, if we perceive all the colors to be illuminated by the same light, we instinctively feel the painting to be in tune.
Look at this watercolor painting by Charles Reid. He has used all the primary colors--yellows, blues and reds-- but all are tuned to the overall cool light coming from the overcast sky. He's managed this by sharp observation, by simply painting what he sees and by doing that he has given us a painting very much in tune with itself. We see yellows and reds cooled by having been neutralized thus harmonizing with the blues.

A similar type of harmony is found with Lilli Pell's painting below.
Pell has actually used complementary colors--orange/blue--as her major color scheme, yet even these complements feel in tune with one another because the oranges have been slightly cooled and neutralized toward blue. We feel the same light illuminating all the colors. Once again, Pell achieved this by looking, perceiving and responding to the colors in front of her eyes.

One emerging painter who continues to amaze me with her ability to harmonize is Karen Jurick. Look at this recent painting by Karen.
If you scan the piece, you'll find yellow, purple, orange and blue or two sets of complementary colors, yet we are not aware of the contrasts, only the freshness and vibrancy of color. Karen was painting what she saw. She got the color in tune because she responded to each of the colors she saw and how they related to one another.

As you move from blog to blog, website to website, and gallery to gallery, if something about a painting bothers you, look first to see if it feels out of tune. Keep in mind, though, that a painting can have many color contrasts and still be in tune. It is when those colors get out of harmony with one another that we feel a sense of visual irritation.

So what does the artist do to achieve harmony? Observe! And respond to what's being seen rather than to guess what one is looking out.

Unity means belonging together or a oneness. A family might be made up of diverse personalities, various sizes of people, different eye colors and skin shades, but if the family agrees upon one strong attitude, that manner of thinking can give it unity. In an art work, when many diverse parts are made to fit together, then piece has unity.

Unity, I believe, is an overall motive for composing a painting. In next week's tutorial, I will begin to discuss different methods artists use to achieve this motive.

See you then.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Scale and Composing

This week's and last, I'm responding to Dar who commented:
I wonder if you have any thoughts about format (size, shape, orientation) and scale (life size, sight size at arm's length or ten feet, etc), and how they apply to composition.
I took a look at format last week, so now let's look at the scale issue. Below are six paintings, each showing the human subject in a different scale in relation to the format. Notice how each puts you, the viewer, at a different distance from the person depicted in the painting. That's what scale is all about.
How far from you are the people in painting #1 as compared with the people in painting #4? And how close are we to the subject in painting #3 as compared with $6. In painting #2, to what extent is the environment important to the person portrayed as compared with painting #5?

These comparisons show that each of the above painting places a different kind of emphasis on subject. Whereas painting #6 brings us right into the little girls thoughts, painting #2 is as much about the market and street as about the person making a selection at the market.

So, when we compose, the closer we want the viewer to be to the subject, the larger the image of the subject becomes in our painting. The more important we want the surroundings to be to the subject, the smaller the subject becomes as compared to other things in the painting.

When we are very close to the subject, our composing of the elements switch pretty much to shapes within the subject and with less attention on fitting the subject into space. On the other hand, when we want the focus to be about human beings in a particular environment or situation, our handling of the elements changes in order to place the emphasis where we want it to be. Whatever our intent, the compositional principles are tools that can help us make the painting say and do what we want it to.

Compare these two paintings by Edward Hopper and Anders Zorn:
The Hopper shows a man on a tiny scale within the context of a huge building whereas Zorn shows us a man whose image occupies nearly half of the format yet the surroundings are still important. We feel very much distanced form Hopper's person, yet a bit more intimate with Zorn's. Whereas Hopper has used the principle of isolation, Zorn has woven the subject into the surroundings.

These same principle works with other subjects. Look at these paintings by Marc Hanson.
In the first, the trees are in the extreme distance with the sky becoming highly important as a unifying factor in the painting; in the second painting, the trees themselves are closer to the viewer serving more as a unifier, the sky being less important; and in the third, the viewer is within feet of the trees, so close that there is no longer an expanse of sky. It is the trees therefore that unify the painting.

Do a bit of blog surfing and look for your reaction to paintings based on how close the artist has placed you to the subject. One place to start is HERE where Karen Jurick, in her new book, shows fifty of her recent paintings on one contact sheet. Seeing them all together, you can sense the role that scale plays in creating a relationship between the viewer and the subject.

It becomes, after all, a matter of what you want to say. The composing principles then become the tools to help you say that successfully.

I hope in these two posts I have addressed what Diana was asking for.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Format and Scale

Last week, Dar commented:
I wonder if you have any thoughts about format (size, shape, orientation) and scale (life size, sight size at arm's length or ten feet, etc), and how they apply to composition.
We've got two things here to address. I'll look at format this week and pick up on scale next week. (So you'll have to come back :) )


Format means the size, shape and orientation of the surface onto which a two-dimensional art work is made. We all know sizes range from postage stamp to huge murals, that shapes range from the ellipse (or circle), square and rectangle to more complex free-form shapes. Orientation applies to the rectanglar shape--to whether it is presented as a horizontal or as a vertical.

Shape and orientation affect the overall composition more strongly than size because generally speaking, when a composition works small, it will work large and vice versa. But shape and orientation do, indeed, influence the import of the composition.

First, shape and orientation work together. Two shapes--the circle (or ellipse) and the square--have no orientation, but all rectangles do. Rectangles vary from just barely not square to extremely elongated. Look at this set of shape variations on my "Sautee Herefords at Dusk":
A distinction to be made is that the oval and circular shapes have a single, continuous edge giving the composition a softer dynamic. And because there is only one edge within a circle or an ellipse, placement of the subject matter can be almost anywhere within the shape and still work. It's the easy way out of challenging composing.

A square is the next easiest way out. Because all sides are the same in a square, there is no commitment to an orientation. For example, if the subject is a strong vertical, our choice is to reinforce the vertical with the same format or to contrast the vertical with a horizontal format, an even trickier task. But with a square, that consideration does not exist.

But with a rectangle there is variation in the size of the two sets of edges; these can vary in size from subtle to extreme. Here are three examples: Since the major reason to compose is to best interpret our ideas and feelings about our subject, choosing the shape and the format is our first decision toward how a subject will be interpreted.
Subjects usually tell us how they want to be oriented so that their character can be reinforced. Look at the four photos below:

Notice how each fits into its format's orientation as well as shape.
  • The upper left stance forms a square. The composition might be more interesting to add some space to the right changing the format to a rectangle but a square works.
  • The upper right pose is alert, a feeling that a vertical reinforces.
  • The lower left stance is also alert, but the subject "asks" that it be placed in a horizontal format because of its shape. A vertical format would require an equal amount of space at the bottom or top, thus weakening the attitude communicated by the subject.
  • The same thing is true for the lower right. Because there are two dogs, an elongated horizontal format best focuses the attention on the two as a pair.
The best idea for deciding on a format is to do thumbnail sketches of several possibilities, then use the one that best allows the most interesting composition to emerge.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Discover Harmony by Squinting

Readers of this blog know by now that I'm an ardent fan of Richard Schmid. Recently while watching the critique section of his video, November, what caught my attention was the comment "the harmony is already out there." The other side of that is this: how do we see the harmony that's out there?

The clue to seeing is the simple act of squinting with our eyes so that no details of our subject are visible. But it's one of the most difficult of things to get an emerging artist to do. Everybody wants to jump right in and begin painting before taking a good look at what's there.

Try this. Look at a bare tree trunk and its surroundings. What do you see? Gray, black, brown?

Now squint your eyes so that all the details go away, stare at that tree trunk through your squint and hold it for a whopping ten seconds.

What colors are you beginning to see? Purples, oranges, blues, golds? Hold that squint a bit longer and allow the colors to settle in.

Notice how the longer you hold the squint, the more evident the colors become. And notice how all the colors are in harmony with one another.

Then, practice gathering information through the squint. What colors emerge? What values are those colors? Here's where the real truth of harmony lies. Below I've done a sampling of each value area.
I can do a painting of the entire scene with variations of these three colors. If I want to make the scene a bit more expressive, I can exaggerate the components of these colors.

I've discovered that these are mixtures of oranges and purples. Here's where I find the harmony and here's how I arrive at my color scheme. It's all out there to be discovered.

Try the above little exercise. Do it several dozen times--until it becomes habit--and you will find how easy it is to get into the habit of squinting in order to discover the harmony of your subject.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Balancing Harmony

Nothing grates on the human nervous system like a dominance of dissonance. And so a good sense of harmony is as paramount to a painter as it is to a musician.

Harmony means agreement, a fitting well together and being in tune. Although utilizing similarities is a tool for achieving harmony, it does not mean that everything must be similar. It does mean that differences are balanced so that they fit and are in tune with one another. Look at this painting by Kevin MacPherson.
Differences are made by contrasts. In this painting, MacPherson has contrasted the vertical of the figure with the horizontal of the table as well as the lights along the woman's arm and behind her head with the dark of her hair. He has created harmony by weaving these differences together with a dominance of warm harmonious light and soft, loose edges which keep shapes fitting well together.

In the painting below by Richard Schmid, we see a similar way of achieving harmony.
The contrasts are warm against cool, light against dark, busy street vs. quiet distance. As is his particular mastery, Schmid has finely tuned the cools and warms so that they feel as if they're being lit by the same source. This alone can weave harmony into contrasting elements of a painting. In addition, though, Schmid has carefully crafted the edges so that they fit rather than isolate. How we handle our edges can go a long way toward giving harmony to our work, but being faithful to the temperature of the light source is crucial.

We are all aware of creating harmony by repetition of similar colors throughout such as Pat Weaver has done with the color red in the watercolor below. And we see in Weaver's painting repetition of shape and size and two other harmony-getting schemes.And we're familiar with using analogous colors to create harmony, such as Colin Page has done with blues to greens to yellow-greens in the painting below.
In fact, repeating any one of the visual elements can work as a harmonizing scheme, but to keep that scheme from producing boredom by including too many similarities, contrasts and variations are necessary.

Without a doubt, many contrasts and similarities can be used while retaining harmony within the entire piece simply by carefully crafting edges and keeping the painting's light temperature consistent. And these can be achieved by carefully observing the subject and being faithful to what the eye sees as its unique characteristics.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Utility of What Is Not

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that
the utility of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that
the utility of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
and it is on these spaces where there is nothing that
the utility of the house depends.
Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is, we should
recognize the utility of what is not
Lao Tse b. 604 BC

Let's consider a concept commonly known as negative space.

First of all, I object strongly to this label because there's nothing negative about it. As far as I know, the label negative space surfaced during the abstractionists' era when images vanished and the painting of space was the major concern. As defined at that time, positive space is space occupied by shapes; negative space is the space between and around the shapes.

But in terms of the function of space that surrounds our images, I prefer defining space to negative space.
Above is an Albrecht Durer painting on the left and a Pat Weaver on the right. Below each I have converted the images or the positive shapes into white and the space around the images to black.

If we look at just the black shapes, it becomes evident how important they are to forming what we see within the light shapes. Look back at the painting of the hare and focus just on the defining space. Notice how it encompasses the subject, serving as the utility through which we read the subject itself.

Now look at the portrait by Pat Weaver. The same thing is true. The way she has constructed the space around the subject gives strength to the subject.

In the above painting by Richard Schmid, the space of the sky and frontal field are the defining space for the buildings and trees. The size variations created with the tree line create an interesting and entertaining definition of both buildings and trees.

Now, with apologies to Mr. Schmid, I have changed that space in the following illustration.
Now the defining space has lost its strength. Losing that size variation has weakened left us with a mundane sky shape and a weakened painting.

As artists, we tend to spend too much energy on the subject and not enough on the space that defines the subject. Here's an assignment to make you more aware of defining spaces:

Each day, do at least one drawing of just the defining space of a subject, leaving the subjects space blank. That's right--don't draw the subject at all, but rather the space around the subject. Doing this exercise on a regular schedule will transform the strength of your defining spaces.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tracing Projections

A practice that can directly effect our compositions is tracing projections. No other issue in the field of painting stimulates as much passion, anger, finger-pointing and self-justification as that of tracing a projected image before painting it.

We hear arguments that tracing is just one of the many tools available to us, that it saves time and energy, that the grand masters of the past used similar available methods, that many artists trace but won't admit it--all these in favor of projections. Those against such tracings argue it's not honest, it's deceiving the viewer by representing skills the artist does not own, that it's not professional.

I offer you a different reason why tracing projections is a bad idea: it locks you in to a composition far too early. Even if the photo being traced is composed well, an artist depending upon the tracing fails to discover composing opportunities that might be inherent in the photo but are not obvious at first glance.

My own experience has taught me that drawing enables me to seek out and discover surprises which can greatly contribute to the quality of my painting. Sometimes these come when, while drawing, I realize that if I shift a shape or alter it slightly, I can give the work an additional strength or change the total nuance of the scene. But most often, the drawing allows me to give the painting a visual coherence by helping me relate more intimately with the subject before committing it to paint

From my own viewpoint, working through the drawing gets my adrenaline going, makes me excited about the subject's potential. Who cares about saving time for the painting when the time spent with the drawing can give such richness to the experience. And why sacrifice an unknown discovery for the sake of accuracy of shapes?

No, I am no fan of tracing. It's not that I'm passing judgment or being an elitist. Rather, it's because I know that the artist doesn't know what she/he doesn't know. What good is it just to make another picture if, as artist, I fail to take every opportunity to make that picture my own voice.

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.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Using Tools: Conscious or Unconscious?

Responding to last week's post about rhythm, Diana asked: "Do you think this is something most artists do consciously or unconsciously?"

It's an important question and might point to why some artists resist compositional principles altogether. My initial answer is what I always say to my students: Learn it but don't think about it while you're painting. We must stay unconscious of the tools while we're using them, else we loose spontaneity. That might sound a bit counter-intuitive, but it's necessary.

To illustrate, think about Mozart's pen moving at break-neck speed, musical sounds registering in his brain with each notation and chord shift that became visible on his blank score sheet, how each sheet filled and looked like spots from a major bug race to anybody but a musician who could read it.

A sheet from a Mozart manuscript. Have not yet been able to identify from which work.

I don't see what we do as painters as being much different.
But here's the sticking point: Mozart was not born knowing how to write music just as we are not born knowing how to read or write an English sentence or how to compose a painting. Mozart studied and learned the language of music and the principles of composing music. And because he had learned it so well, he could write it without thinking, in an unconscious mode, within the form he wanted it to take.

And so the conscious thinking must precede the creation, must be a part of the learning process. It goes back to the right-brain/left-brain theory: the right brain can function at its maximum only when the left brain has first functioned at its maximum. The left brain learns a skill, principle, or technique well enough for it to become habit, and files in the unconscious mind. The right brain then has this stuff accessible to use while engaging in its creative activity. All this can happen over a period of time or while engaged in an activity--the left brain identifies, then the right brain responds and expresses.

It's heathly for artists to do analytical activities using the left brain to learn and to store skills and knowlege in the unconscious mind. That's why to learn the compositional principles will free an artists to be more creative so long as consciousness of those principles doesn't interfere and stiffle the process.

What we want in the long run is wholism: we want the muse to guide us as we respond directly but we also want to know what we're doing. Another analogy is a race car driver who has learned and perfected the skills of driving so that while in a race, the response is unconscious but quick and controlled. That's wholism.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Deciphering Artspeak, I

What does this mean? "...rhythm and repetition act as agents for creating order out of forces that are otherwise in oppositions."

This quote is lifted directly out of the text I used when teaching design to my college students: the fourth edition of Art Fundamentals: Theory and practice by Ocvirk, Bone, Stinsor, et al. Of course it's been revised and expanded repeatedly and I confess I've not see today's version. But back then, it was as solid as any existing book on design and composition, but today I realize how inaccessible it is to the practicing artist, at least without a whole lot of deciphering.

Okay, let's give it a shot. Rhythm: we know it in music; but what IS it in visual art? We know rhythm as a concept to be associated with movement where there is a repeated action or event. We know our hearts beat in rhythm, and there are plenty of rhythms in cycles of nature. We really do know what rhythm is.

One thing all rhythms make is a pattern in which something is repeated; in visual art, the pattern can be made by brushstrokes, by how elements are arranged, by where the images are placed or a combination of these. In this portrait by Carolyn Anderson we see all three.

Carolyn's brushstrokes are music within themselves, each one moving in a direction as if to actually stroke the image. To the left, I've indicated a few. But look also at the way the white is placed so that our eyes move from the top right of the paint down the shoulder, out the arm,alongside the book, back up the open page, through the background on the left and back. By the repetition of the value, color and temperature and by their placement a pattern of movement is created.

Look now at the braid on the right side pointing to the dark shape in the right bottom corner which leads to the narrow horizontal dark in the lower left and up the braid on the left and through the middle value reddish brown of the background. Another pattern of movement created with the repetition of a color family (reds and oranges) and the arrangement of shapes they occupy so the pattern of movement of the darks flows within that of the lights, all reinforced by the motion of the brushstrokes.

Now, what is the results? Order! Delight! A desire to stay involved in the painting. Rhythm does create order, but it does more--it makes us feel what the artist felt about the subject.

Let's look at that sentence again: rhythm and repetition act as agents for creating order out of forces that are otherwise in oppositions. What if we said simply: We respond to what the subject gives us. We find within it opportunities to repeat and that creates rhythm. We make it interesting by varying. With a simple action of repeating and varying, a pattern of rhythm can emerge.

Just that.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tools, Artists! TOOLS!

Do I detect an elephant in the room?

This week's post will be a bit different, sort of a side bar, because I want to air something that's been on my mind for a long time. Why do so many artists resist compositional principles?

I've noticed it especially on the Wet Canvas forums, I'm bumped into it quite often on the blogs and I've surely encountered it eye to eye with other artists. It appears that many artists think of compositional or design principles as rules and therefore resist them.

I googled "compositional principles" and the garbly-gook that resulted could clutter ones brain. As I was plowing through these sites, one by one, I had an ah-ha moment: this stuff isn't accessible. It's rhetoric, it's jargon, and it's brilliantly obscure. Face it, what we've had crammed down our throats all our lives is something that's totally meaningless for us while we're pushing a brush. For example, what does this mean: "rhythm and repetition act as agents for creating order out of forces that are otherwise in oppositions."

Now get this. I taught this stuff in college and I didn't feel comfortable with it then either. I've battled for years trying to find ways to make compositional principles attractive to students. I went about it all wrong and now I know why: if it cannot work for me while I'm painting, it's no good to me.

And there within the word work lies the clue that solves my mystery.

All these many ions artists have been taught that design principles are rules. BUT, that doesn't work because we hate rules. We'll not be governed by any rule and besides, rules restrict our creativity. Am I right?

Second, the way this stuff has historically been presented to us is inaccessible to us. Sounds good but to what end. Am I right again? And maybe we don't want to confess we don't really understand those dense assemblies of words found in our design manuals. That would be unacceptable, make us appear intellectually inferior to the critics and historians and those New York mainstreamers. (Mmmm. I won't ask you to confess this one.)

Okay artists, listen up: not a single principle is a rule. NOT ONE. Every single one of them is a tool. There's a wide world of difference between a rule and a tool. The only thing they have in common is cause-and-effect.
  • Rule: if I get caught breaking the speed limit, I'll pay a fine. A rule governs my behavoir (or not).
  • Tool: if I apply the pedal to the metal, the car will go faster. A tool enables me to accomplish something (or not).
As artists we make observations every day. We know if we mix one color into another, we'll get a new color. That's a tool, not a rule. We know that if we put a quarter in a piggy bank, we'll have it as long as it stays there. That's a tool, not a rule. We know that if a single dark spot it placed on a white canvas, our eyes will go to that spot. Again, a tool, not a rule.

If we take every single design "principle" we've ever encountered and re-think it as something that can be a workhorse, we will discover we have a huge box of tools. HUGE. Are you getting my drift? Anything we can use to make our work do what we want it to do is a tool.

When we looking at a painting by Richard Schmid, what we know immediately is Schmid works those tools. Look at one of my favorite Schmid paintings "Yorkshire Coach House."
Schmid has worked with each of the tools for so many years that he reaches for one when he needs it and, immediately, it goes to work for him. I know for certain that he learned how to use color by doing charts. I'm betting he has done his fair share of practicing every tool he uses.

We can move from one accomplished artist to another to find that the one thing they all have in common is they can utilize the tools.

And it's never too late to take one tool at a time and practice using it just like we'd practice using a chain saw. We'll be a bit awkward at first, but the more we practice using it, the easier it will become to keep it working for us whenever we need it, to make it do for us whatever we want it to do.

In these blog entries and in my articles for Empty Easel, it is my goal to show you ways you can practice using these tools so that for you, they can become workhorses, not threatening rules. Leave me a message if there are tools you'd like me to address.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Visual Paths

When I was a kid our little burg had footpaths. One path led to town, another down to Aunt Alice's house, another through the fields to Ms. Inez who gave guitar lessons. They were as communal as highways and even though some went right through neighbors' yards, nobody made a fuss. Everybody knew the paths and most folks followed them.

Nature abounds with subjects worth painting, but if we jam too much stuff into a painting willy nilly, our viewers won't know where to look. It's like throwing them into the wilderness with no way out. But just as a composer of music guides what we hear,note by note and chord by chord, painters can guide how the viewer sees by creating visual paths. And these paths can enrich a painting, helping sustain the viewers' attention.

Visual paths can be planned ahead of time, worked in during the painting process, added at the finish or a combination of these. They happen when the artist finds ways to keep everything connected so that the viewer's eye will move from one area to another.

Thoughout our history of painting, artists have experimented with methods for creating visual paths. A few have become classic, similar to the etude, sonato or fugue in music. One of these classic path forms is the S path in which visual movement gets connected in the shape of an S or a Z which can be like a reversed S.

Clyde Aspevig , who is especially adroit at applying visual paths, has used the S formation in his oil painting "Absaroka Storm".
The technique he uses in this painting is the arrangement of passages of light. From the brightness of the sky through the sunlight on the hills to the sunlit grasses, we can find images connected together in an S pattern.

The triangle is one of the earliest and most familiar of the classic visual paths. Look how Kevin MacPherson uses it. The seated man leads to the shape behind him which leads to the seated woman, then back to the man--the triangular path. He makes this happen by the way he places the images.

Carolyn Anderson uses the triangle a little differently. In fact, the more we look at Anderson's painting, the more triangular paths we can find. Begin with the guy's head, move to the front foot of the nearest horse, then to the head of the other horse, then back to the guy. Now take a closer look and see how many more you can find.

It's a matter of composing. We select the subjects and place them within the picture plane so that select points occur in a triangular formation. Portrait painters depend heavily on the triangular path. They often try to place the head and the hands so that a triangle is suggested. John Singer Sargent depended heavily on the triangle. See how many trianglar paths you can find in his "Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." I see at least six. How many do you see?
Another of the classic visual path formations is the C which is seen in a number of positions--reversed, curved from the bottom like a U or curved from the top like an upside-down U. Here are two more examples by Aspevig.
In "Aspen Interior" on the left, he's used the U formation (or a C on its back) and in "Selway River Wilderness" on the right, we can detect both a C and a Z. Artists often combine pathway patterns.

The other classic pattern is the O where the movement is either clockwise or counter clockwise. Edward Hopper does this in "Sunday". As in most of Hopper's isolated figures, our eye movement goes to the image like a bull's eye, then circles around it.
Try one of these classic visual paths in your next painting and see if you don't find it to be a fun and rewarding adventure.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Avoiding Percy's "Sore Thumb"

After my “Isolation” post on August 8, I received a request from one of my students asking about how to use isolation without ending up with a sore thumb. She wants to know “How does one determine when to use it and use it effectively within a given subject? What particular things are to be avoided?”

First, why would we isolate anything in the first place. In the delightful Percy’s Principles of Composition, Marvin Bartel’s first principle is “Avoid a sore thumb,” which is where the concern about isolation begins. So why take the risk?

Keep in mind that isolation is a strategy to set a thing apart, detach it, give it solitude. It is available to us, but we would not want to use in every painting we do--unless you're Edward Hopper :). We would use it only if we want to call attention to something really important to the meaning of the whole painting or if we want a special emphasis somewhere in the painting.

When Hopper isolated, his entire painting centers on whatever was isolated. So how did Hopper, the master of effective isolation, manage to avoid a sore thumb every time? Look his Hotel Window.

The seated woman is what the painting is about. Hopper has isolated her by creating the extremely light face, hands and legs within a dark surrounding and by locating her within a large empty space. But he has used two strategies to keep her from being a sore thumb: (1) he’s kept the value of her clothing very close to the values surrounding her, (2) he’s tied in the light of her face, hands and legs with the accents of light around the window and on the drapes as well as the very light walls and painting hanging on the wall.

Now, with apologies to Mr. Hopper, I’m going to change that and make her clothes bright red.

See, now it’s a sore thumb.

Okay, (and Mr. Hopper, I'm SO sorry!), I’m going to change it another way by taking out the light accents, by darkening the walls and removing the painting.

See, it’s a sore thumb again. So that tells us that another way to unify the isolated image to prevent the "sore thumb" syndrome is by repeating elsewhere in the painting something contained within the image or repeating something from the rest of the painting inside the isolated image. My apologies to Mr. Hopper, rest is soul, but my thanks to him for mastering isolation, making it possible for us to study what he did.

Now to the other reason we might want to isolate: to place a special emphasis somewhere in the painting. Look once again at Pat Weaver's little still life painting.

The red apple is a strong emphasis isolation. It isolates because it's totally different in color and in value from the onions in the painting, yet it is within the surroundings of similar subjects, is quite similar in size and shape to the onions, and the dark of its shadow blends with the dark on the plate while the highlight gets repeated all the other whites appearing in the painting. I called it strong emphasis because it is NOT what the painting is about, but equally important to the other subjects in the painting. Now with most hearty apologies to Pat, I'm going to change it to show you why this works.

Now it IS a sore thumb. The only relationship is size and shape, but because of the intensity of the red, it isolates severely. Now I'll do the opposite.

It loses interest altogether. We see by this change what an important role that red was playing. So, here a strong emphasis was key to the success and strength of the whole painting.

We don't have to be able to label strategies and principles in order to make good paintings. In fact, if we get too preoccupied with these, we can stifle the life out of our art work, but to develop a wisdom about aesthetics enables us as painters to put an extra sensitivity and graciousness in our work.

In this age with open acceptance of the "anything goes" attitude, I believe artists need to take the lead toward higher aesthetic standards. That's a good reason to know isolation