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

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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.