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.