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

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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.