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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

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Still Playing With Balance

When I was a kid growing up in rural north Georgia, we made our own see-saws with a long board across a wooden sawhorse. Two kids, one on either end of the board, and we were off for a fun ride. Only problem was if one kid was a lot heavier than the other, she got the short end of the board. That meant the lighter weight kid got a higher ride and therefore having a lot more fun. We knew instinctively that the seesaw wouldn't balance if we didn't adjust the location of the board on the sawhorse according to the difference in the kids' weights.

When we're dealing with asymmetrical balance in our painting (as opposed to symmetrical in last week's post), we've got the same problem as kids on a seesaw. So what are we talking about? What makes visual weight and what is visual balance?

In picture making, we've got horizontal balance, (that's the seesaw type), vertical balance (the kind we experience when we're standing straight up) and radial balance (that's like a bicycle wheel where the outward forces pull toward the center and vice versa). All these are a part of the visual balance we deal with in painting. They're put into play by where we place things, their sizes, proportions, physical characteristics and directions.

That's a bunch of stuff, right? Well, just consider it labeling. It's really about how the equilibrium feels in a painting when you look at it. We've got an inborn sense about that and after all, it's where we place things that is the biggest issue.

Look at this painting by Robert Genn ("In A Moscow Cafe" Acrylic)
First, I'll draw a line down the middle so we can see how the images are placed in relation to the center.

Notice how most of the man's image appears on the left side of the painting, yet it feels balanced. Why? With the man's face turned towards the left and with most of the content of the painting on the left, we should feel slightly topsy-turvy, but we don't. Why is that?

Notice the picture on the wall placed at the top right corner, most of which is outside of the painting? And look at those interesting edges on the man's sleeve. I'm going to take away these two things and let you see what happens to the balance.

Now, see how our eyes go to the man's face and either shoot off to the left of the painting or hang around with the man's face and the newspaper.

It appears Genn was playing with horizontal balance. The man's face turned toward the side of the newspaper closest to the left edge gives a visual pull in that direction, but the strong light on his hand makes a counter pull toward the right. The interested edges along the sleeve do the same, then the picture at the top going off the upper right hand side gives that final additional visual weight to balance the whole piece. Wow!

Now look back at Robert's painting as he meant it to be and you'll see what I'm talking about.

In coming weeks I'll continue with vertical and radial balance. Meanwhile, prowl around works of accomplished artists and sleuth out their balancing strategies.

And don't miss my weekly tutorial each Tuesday on Empty Easel. Meanwhile, Empty Easel is loaded with resource info. Subscribe to the newsletter if you haven't already to get a review each Sunday of the upcoming week's riches.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Playing With Balance

Balance is equilibrium. We've all been thrown off balance, whether physically, emotionally, spiritually or psychologically. It's uncomfortable, we don't like it. We need balance and we seek it in every area of our lives.

From the beginning, our need for balance found its way into painting. Even the cave artists demonstrated a strong sense of balance and over the centuries, artists have identified and worked with two major kinds of balance, symmetrical and asymmetrical.

In symmetrical balance in painting, the focal point is centered with each side of the piece being, more or less, a mirror image of the other. It is therefore symmetrical. Achieving asymmetrical balance in painting is totally different, depending upon our sense of balance to guide how we place our images and how we control their size, shape, edges, color, direction, texture and value.

Symmetrical balance, though, can be more than simply placing images on one side of the painting and making a mirror image of them on the other. Artists have traditionally played with symmetrical balance to see how far they could stretch the concept and still keep the feeling of symmetry.

Leonardo da Vinci's 15th century painting, "The Last Supper," is our most familiar example of an artist's creative use of symmetrical balance.
The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci 1496 to 1498
in the refectory of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie
The Christ image is absolutely centered. The architectural shapes in the background are mirrored images though one side is in shadow and the other in light. The table is symmetrical. Slight variations occur in the people images. The size of the left grouping is the same as the size of the group on the right. The direction is horizontal, thus the same. The most variation is found in placement of color and in the arrangement of the figures themselves.

Raphael's "School of Athens" is another example of using symmetrical balance with slight variation.
Italian Renaissance artist Raphael , circa 1510 and 1511

Like Leonardo, Raphael has used the architecture to create the mirror. It's within the people images that he pushes variation. Notice the group on the right almost fit into a rectangular shape whereas the group on the left tend toward a triangular arrangement.

David took this idea yet a step further in his "Oath of Horatti.". He actually breaks the symmetry with the subject matter but uses symmetry in the architectural background.
Jacques-Lois David The Oath of The Horati 1784
The fun part of compositional principles is playing around with them, using them as tools rather than as rules. Next week I'll show some ways that artists had fun playing with asymmetrical balance.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Isolation as a Tool, But Be Careful

It's always fascinated me how some artists have a knack for making paintings that stop you in your tracks. Sometimes it's the nature of the subject, other times it's the way the subject was handled, but most likely what caught our attention is both. To make us look twice and hold our attention, one tool used by many clever artists is isolation.

To isolate is to set a thing apart, detach it, give it solitude. In painting, we isolate by...

...closing a shape off with hard edges..
Edward Hopper "The Long Leg" 1935

...placing a light or bright shape among dark surroundings
or a dark shape among bright surroundings...
Edward H0pper "Pennsylvania Coal Town" 1947

...locating a small shape in a large area of a different nature...
Edward Hopper "Sunday" 1926

...surrounding a shape with vast space...
Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World" Go HERE to see
(permission is required to reproduce a Wyeth work)

...planting a shape among shapes different from itself...
Pat Weaver Watercolor

...giving psychological solitude...
Pat Weaver "Man on Bench" Watercolor

Notice in most of these paintings, several isolation strategies are used at once. No matter which scheme is used, one thing is for certain: the isolated shapes must be strategically placed, thoughtfully handled. If not, it can throw the whole painting out of kilter and cause the image to stick out like a sore thumb.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Single Unifying Device

Ultimate unity is a blank canvas according to the would-be clever artists who have exhibited blank canvases as their "art". I seriously doubt these folks would really desire our conclusion. Or maybe that's their point. Is ultimate unity emptiness? I digress.

Once we put the first mark on a blank canvas, we've begun a composition. As we add marks, shapes, textures, and colors our painting teeters between harmony and chaos. No matter the size of the painting or the subject, we are doing a balancing act from stroke one. One way to prevent chaos or disjointedness from taking over the painting is to have a single unifying device undergirding the whole work.

Unity means oneness, or sense that things belong together and there are many clever ways to keep a painting unified without losing freshness, excitement and spontaneity.

One popular and satisfying device is subduing intensity of color throughout. Anders Dorn comes to mind as an artist who used this scheme as a constant. Look at his painting "Woman Dressing". Every color he has used, in one way or another, contains its complement to reduce intensity. The overall effect is a feeling of unity, a sense that it all belongs together.

Anders Zorn Woman Dressing Oil 1893
(click on image for truer color)

Now, look what happens if we intensify Zorn's colors, taking away the complement (I risk blasphemy!).

The subtleness is gone. A harshness appears, but something still holds it together. Ah ha. There's another unifying device--hue. Look back at the original and you'll see that almost all the colors have some yellow hue in them. Now that's clever. But it's another way for achieving unity.

Another highly effective unifying device, light from positive merging into light from negative, is used by Richard Schmid in "Weaver" ( right). This is what James Gurney has called shapewelds. It works in reverse, too, with darks from the negative merging with darks of the positive. Remember Schmid's "Pansies" from our Image Trap discussion? This is acheived by allowing edges to disappear between a light portion of a subject and the light around it or by blending the edge of a shadow side of an image with dark in the area around it.

Sometimes the subject itself gives us the unifying device we need. In Pat Weaver's watercolor painting "We've Got Rhythm", the repetition of shapes, colors and sizes of the musicians, their instruments and their music stands do the job. Repeating the same shape and size risks boredom or becoming static, but Pat's use of strong value contrast between shapes keeps the piece interesting and exciting.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention using notan as a unifying device. Review my two posts about notan here and here

Finally, controlling what happens to edges of shapes is one of the most important and too often overlooked unifying devices. Richard Schmid , through his writing and videos, is responsible for making me aware of the power of edges. Look at these two examples by him:

When we paint landscapes, if we give distinct edges to buildings, tree trunks and other outdoor shapes, we risk making the painting feel jerky, the objects in the landscape feel isolated. Schmid's controlled softened edges throughout enable the building and trees to merge with the grounds and sky and feel like there's atmosphere between them. He is probably more conscious of how he handles edges than any single concern in his painting process.

Another place where edges can get problematic is in figure painting. Look how Schmid has subtly blended the hairline into the forehead and face as well as softened the outer edge of the hair into the background, all enabling us to feel the space around the person. He does the same kind of edge control along all the shapes of the clothing, arms and spinning wheel--all giving unity of the figure with the space that surrounds her.

If we were living during the Italian Renaissance, we would know this atmospheric handling of edges to be sfumato .

Spend some time looking at paintings by realistic painters who are among the greats and you will find in each some unifying device. Sometimes it's a single device, sometimes a combination, but even when used in combination, one device will most likely be more apparant than the others.