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Friday, January 30, 2009

Direction: The Control Element

In no art form is the visual element direction more evident than in figure skating on ice. A figure skating choreograph resembles a Jackson Pollock painting with eights and circles and straight line pitches, vertical leaps...
Figure skating choreograph by artist Larisa Gendernalik

Paint by Jackson Pollock "Number 8"

Couples Figure Skating--Photo from mahalo.com

I can remember many years ago a certain figure skater whose routine was not much more than a set of circles with a flying bird body formation. I thought it was quite boring at the time, but we don't see any of that these days. No indeed. Figure skating can be heart-stopping with the many multi-directional changes and leaps.

Likewise, I notice that paintings with a strong directional dynamic hold my attention much longer than those whose movement is too quiet and static. Movement is the key word here: we use the visual element direction to create visual movement. Visual movement creates visual paths. And the nature of movement can create rhythm. So a lot rides on how we use direction as a part of our visual language.

We all know what direction is. North, south, east, west, right, left, up, down, around and around--all those points to which we are constantly aiming and switching. You can't even get out of bed in the mornings without changing direction. And we use "changing direction" as a life metaphor, business metaphor, relationship metaphor, behavior metaphor.

It's role in our painting? To control the viewer's attention. That sounds pretty important, right? Okay, so what do we have available to work with. Well, we can use horizontals (right and left), verticals (up and down), diagonals (leaning), and circles ('round and 'round and 'round and 'round). The key is to use these with enough repetition to prevent chaos and enough variation to keep the viewer engaged.

So how do we create with direction? Flow and transition. Two masters come to mind: Charles Reid and Richard Schmid.
Charles Reid "Two Views: Abby"
1. Accenting points
Charles is adroit at accenting certain points of the total composition so that our eyes want to move --make a transition--from one area to another.

I've indicated some of the major ones with little white arrows. Keep looking--you'll find more

2. Losing edges
Charles is also adroit at utilizing lost edges, another tool that enables the eye movement to flow and to transition from one area to another.

Again, I've used little white arrows to point out a few key areas. Keep looking, though, and you'll keep finding them.

3. Repeating Color
And another of Charles' real genius is his inate ability to repeat color while giving it just enough variation to keep it from being boring. I've circled a few examples here.

These repetitions of color also act both to create flow as well as make transitions.

In a cool background, Charles has used the repetition of warm colors not only to define skin tones and hair, but also to keep the eye moving in various directions.

Next we go to Richard Schmid.
Richard Schmid "Chicken"
4. Guiding Brushstrokes

Richard's delicious brushstrokes are to my mind his trademark genius. Each stroke is guided with intention to define whatever subject is being painted using the careful placement and movement of the stroke.

5. Giving Attention to Edges
Where Charles can lose an edge, Richard can manuver it along the perimenter of the shape to show roughness or smootheness, softness or hardness, swiftness or slowness. His edges are not just perimeters--they control eye movement.

Edges contain characteristics that define the subject. Richard finds these characteristics and renders them in a way that the eye wants to pause and taste it before moving on to the next area.

But perhaps the all time great master of using direction was Leonardo da Vinci. With every thing he did in a painting, he was manipulating our attention just as with every note, volumn and rhythm, Mozart was doing the same thing.
6. Positioning Your Subject
Leonardo turns the face of the Christ-figure toward the left edge, then shifts the eyes to look at the viewer while directing the flow of the hair down the shoulder to the right-hand corner.

He uses a similar ploy in his world-and-ages famous Mona Lisa where the eyes are looking at the viewer, the face is turned slightly toward the left and the hands are positioned toward the right.

Throughout time, where genius has come into play is the artists uncanny ability to notice what's available and to use it adroitly. So we're right back to last week's lesson and all those before. We hone our skills and our eyes and join them together to make it work.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Size: It's Bigger Than You Think

What a surprise for me when I finally realized how small most daily paintings are. Looking through blog after blog of these little jewels, I automatically sized them mentally at least as large as 9" x 12". I could plainly read 6" x 6" or 5" x 7" or even "postcard," but this data failed to translate into true perception until one of the bloggers showed his little daily side by side with a coffee mug.

Light bulbs! Either the mug is huge or the painting is teeny, which brings up the first requirement for size as a visual element: Size requires clues--there must be a comparison, else size doesn't translate.

Size and Proportion
Seeing a photo of a marble or a tennis ball singularly tells us absolutely nothing about the size of either, but a photo of the two spherical objects together tells us about the size of both because we can see their relative proportion to each other.

We can draw the human body's proportion accurately by comparing the length of the head to its other parts. Keeping all the parts' sizes relative to the head (or any other part for that matter) will guarantee we render individual parts the right size therefore enabling us to create a human image in proportion to itself.

Leonardo shows this in a diagram he did for us with his famous Proportions of Man.

In fact, just as the proportion of ingredients in cooking determines the flavors in food, proportion of sizes plays an important spatial role for every artwork we make whether drawing, painting, or sculpting. Once we make the first shape, the size of every shape to follow will affect and will be affected first shape we made.

Size and Proximity
One way size affects shapes is to show their distance from one another. Our vision is such that the further away a thing is, the smaller we see it compared to anything in front of it. Looking out my window I can see trees. I can hold up one finger and totally block out a tree not thirty feet away from me. The same finger can block out five trees a hundred feet away. My finger is certainly much smaller than any of those tree trunks, yet its proximity to my eyes makes it appear larger by comparison.
In the above painting by Richard Schmid, the height of figure (Nancy) measures a little taller than the huge boulders behind her. That size puts Nancy closer to us and the boulders further away, showing them to be some distance behind her. If Schmid had painted Nancy within a couple of feet of the boulders, in the painting they would dwarf her in size. That's called size relationship.

Size and Foreshortening
But size plays yet another role-- it also enables us to foreshorten. So what does it mean to foreshorten and why is it important to know?

(To stray a bit), prowling the internet, I was hoping to find a clear explanation for foreshortening, but all I could find was a lot of dense rhetoric that I think fails to communicate exactly what foreshortening does. So let's begin with an illustration. Look below at the two photos of the same male cardinal.

The photo on the right is a side view where we can perceive the bird's full length head to tail. The other is a rear view where we can see his tail and his head, but we see them substantially closer to each other than in the side view. In the rear view, the space between the cardinal's head and tail is foreshortened.

The space between two ends of an image is shortened any time the image's length is other than parallel to our eyes.

Here's another example. Notice the cow on the left, more parallel to our eyes. Its measured length head-to-tail is greater than the length head-to-tail of the cow on the right.

Because the middle cow's rear end is closer to our eyes than its head, we see it shorter from head-to-tail than the cow on the left, but longer than the cow on the right whose backside is much further from our eyes than its head. So how much a thing is foreshortened depends upon the proximity of each it's two ends to the viewer's eyes.

Head spinning? Not to worry. None of this is necessary to know if you're a keen observer of what your eyes are actually seeing rather than what your left brain tells you you're seeing. However, when we know this stuff, we can feed it to the left brain so that it will reinforce what our right brain is responding to.

Happy seeing!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

And Then There Is Shape

What is a shape?

Try this. A shape is an area enclosed with edges, specific or implied. That's my definition.

I could not believe it. I checked the definition in my trusty old 1960 edition of Webster's New World Dictionary and I found garbley-gook. Then I got curious and started Googling for a definition. Same thing. Even dictionary.com has no clear definition for shape.

Aside from the definition, let's try to understand shape as it pertains to us as artists. First of all, important for artists to know is that every shape has two parts: the space occupied by the shape and the space around the shape. You can't have one without the other. Think about it.
Above is the famous "Hare" by Albrecht Durer along side a portrait by Pat Weaver. Both have in common an acute observation of the shape itself as well as the space around the shape. That's what makes both shapes interesting to look at, even in silhouette.
Look at the silhouette images in reverse. Switch your attention to the black shapes. Notice how interesting each black shape is on its own. Beyond being aware of both shape and the space around it, each artist has made these shapes interesting by careful observation of their edges and how the edges relate to both sides--the shape and its surrounding space.

But before we dwell on that, let's explore some nomenclature.

Since the early 20th century, shapes that occupy space have been called positive shapes whereas the space surrounding a shape is called negative space. I've always objected to these labels and I'm not alone: efforts abound to find more definitive labels, but none seem to stick. So, we will let it stay for now and use the historical labeling. (If any of you has a suggestion for how we might rename these shapes, please leave them in Comments. Thanks.)

Okay, that tells us one characteristic of shapes. The other is that they fall into two catagories--geometric shapes and organic shapes. Loosely defined, geometric shapes are those with precise edges such as a circle, square, triangle, rectangle and so on. Organic shapes are all the others, shapes whose edges are more random. In painting we are likely to be dealing with both.

And here is where the discussion gets tricky: we can know all this about shapes, but using shapes dynamically in our painting and drawing is a bit different from just knowing about them. So how can we make that happen?

Use acute observation and sensitive interpretation. Just that. Rather than look at a shape and call it a rock, for example, first look for the underlying geometric shape that forms its structure, then study intensely the variations of the edges because these variations are what create the real character of the shape.

Next, look closely at the value and textural relationship of both sides of a shape's edge. Sometimes the negative will be blending right into the positive, sometimes there is a softness between the two and sometimes there is a distinct division.

In my judgement, Charles Reid is one of the best shape-makers among our 20/21st century artists.
Charles Reid "Claire" Watercolor on paper

Reid begins each of his paintings by doing a careful contour drawing to discover and anchor the shapes and their relationships to one another. When he begins his painting, he is constantly shifting between negative and positive, sometimes causing edges between the two to be lost; other times, creating a softness between them and at others, showing distinct sharpness to the edges. What results is a lively painting that continues to invite the viewer to return to it.

For me personally, Reid's paintings are like Chopin piano works--I want to revisit them over and over again. I think that desire to keep looking at a art work is one of the marks of its strength and success. And when an artist is truly tuned in to the characteristics of each shape, a lot is bound to get translated into the resulting work.

Try this. Visit websites of artists like Reid, Jennifer McChristian, Richard Schmid, Carolyn Anderson, Robert Genn and others whose work is strong. List the ways they handle shapes in light of this discusssion, then try some of those techniques yourself and watch the world open up.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Our Visual Vocabulary: The List and Line

Writers have words. Words have roles. A noun tells us what a thing is; a verb tells us what it is doing. Adjectives tell us something about it. Adverbs tell us how it's doing what it is doing. We call that vocabulary.

Painters have a vocabulary we call visual elements. Each element plays a role in the way we see images in our paintings and drawings. This list goes like this:


As a student, I saw and heard the list over and over again. It took some time, though, before any one of the elements became a reality to me. Same in elementary school where I first met the parts of speech of the English language. "So what," I thought. But gradually it dawned on me that these very parts of speech enable me to say what I'm trying to say, that to comprehend their roles will help me to make myself understood without stammering or hesitating with "uh," or repeating that communication-devouring phrase "you know."

Same is true for the visual language. In fact, comprehending these roles is so important, I plan to spend the next several posts looking at them individually.

For example, what does Larry Roibal understands about line that enables him to do this?

Larry Roibal "Arne Duncan"

...and this...

Larry Roibal "Brother Can You Spare 34 Billion'

...and this...

Larry Roibal "Barney Franks"

Look what power Larry finds in a line. He finds the important edges of shapes that show their identity. He finds just the essentials reducing the number of lines needed. He finds a speed for making the line that communicates gesture while retaining contour.

Larry's lines cluster together where needed to communicate shadow, they become heavier where a point of emphasis is needed, and lighter where they eye needs to move on.

Larry's line is mostly a contour line. That's one that searches out edges and rides along them.

Then there's the gesture line that Rembrandt van Rijn understood and used so adroitly.

Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt found action in a line.

Rather than riding edges of shape, the gesture line rides movement, captures the thrust of shapes and action which may or may not follow the edges of shape. Gesture drawing catches what the thing is doing.

Look what Helen South finds that the gestural line can do.
Look to the right here at a smaller version. You can clearly see that Helen has done a gesture drawing of a closed hand, perhaps her hand. In the larger version which initially appears to be a collection of scribbles, we are aware of the movement, what the shapes within the hand are doing--edges circling other edges, edges traveling from one area of the closed hand to another. When we reduce the size, we see the hand itself more clearly. We see that drawing what a thing is doing also commuicates what it is.

Whether riding the edges of a shape or search out what it is doing, the line is a power tool. For a thorough course in gesture and contour possibilities, I recommend Kimon Nicolaides The Natural Way to Draw.

Happy drawing!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Lists and "Thanks, Making a Mark"

If you haven't already discovered Katherine Tyrrell's brilliant blog "Making a Mark," you must and not because she recognized this blog among her top five FAQs and Answers Really Useful blogs. Katherine's blog is one of the best experiences I've discovered within the blogshere.

Thanks, Katherine. It's quite an honor to get this recognition.
When I was teaching in bricks and mortar, I enjoyed opening the more advanced classes with a composition lesson. At times I'd choose from one of the two major art magazines (I'll refrain from naming either) a painting that was a bit less than successful (making one wonder how it got published), then we'd analyze why the painting didn't work. At other times, I'd pick a well done painting and we would examine all the dynamics that made it work. It didn't take long for my students to realize that good painting involves much more than just copying images. They looked forward to these little mini lessons and so did I.

For them, I developed a guide which I called a "think sheet" and they called the "cheat sheet." It's not much more than a set of lists, and it's purpose is simply to jog the memory as to possibilities.

To begin the New Year, I want to share my "cheat sheet" with you. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

A Brief Outline of How the Visual Language Works
(A Think Chart for Visual Composing)
"We construct images, we compose art work."

The Elements (Our Vocabulary)

The ACTION principles (Things we can do with the vocabulary to make it work)
Select and Place
Gradate or Modulate
Make Similar
Find and use perspective
Find and use angle of shadow/light
Create dominance

The RESULTS (What We Want To Get)
to avoid randomness
to prevent one-sidedness
to overcome chaos
to stay in tune
to avoid being static
to set relationships
to enable movement
to provide structure
Focal Point and Visual Path
to guide the eye
to avoid being erratic

to avoid fragmentation
to negate aimlessness

The CAUTION principles (Things to avoid along the way)
Sore Thumbs
Aimless Centering

Copyright 2009, Dianne Mize