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

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Saturday, December 31, 2011

What Makes a Masterful Painting?

There's an argument as old as painting itself, an argument I've heard hundreds of times defended from opposing points of view: What makes a masterful painting?

Ann Feldman, a portrait painter teaching at Mainstreet Art Centre near Chicago, asked me to talk about the subject.  When I began putting my thoughts together, I realized how far-reaching a topic it is.  This could go on for the length of a two-volume book.

As I write this, I'm listening to guitarist Sharon Isbin masterfully playing "Wild Mountain Thyme."  It's a haunting yet simple little tune.  I've heard it played so badly I wanted to scream, I've heard it rendered with such mediocrity I'd stop listening and I've heard it played with so much improvisation the tune itself became insignificant.  But Sharon Isbin plays it masterfully.

What Isbin does with "Wild Mountain Thyme" on guitar is no different than what a master painter does with a brush, paint and canvas.  My stance is that a masterful painting requires the same degree of skill, competence, authority and knowledge called for by an olympic figure skater, a concert violinist or a champion baseball player.   A painting by artist Clyde Aspevig reflects the same degree of competence as a performance by figure skater Brian Boitano, violinist Itzhak Perlman or baseball player Chipper Jones.

Clyde Aspevig

Brian Boitano                  Itzhak Perlman                 Chipper Jones
But I am convinced that thousands develop competence, but few among them become masters.  It's only when one can learn to relax within one's competence that real mastery emerges.  Look at this masterful painting by Clyde Aspevig, then if you have time, look at these videos showing Brian Boitana and Itzhak Perlman each giving a masterful performance.

Clyde Aspevig      OIl on canvas     "Prairie Shadows"

Brian Boitano performing "Music of the Night:

Itzhak Perlman performing "Ronde des Lutins" by Bazzini

A masterful performance in any genre happens when verse becomes poetry, when scores become music, when form becomes discovery.  It happens when the artist becomes so comfortable in the craft that he or she can move beyond technique into pure expression while fully utilizing the technique.  It happens when the craft becomes the means, not the goal.  Mastery can never come from an attitude of "look what I can do," rather from an intention of "where can I go next?"

Mastery is possible at any level during the process of developing one's craft.  It's not something that happens at the end of one's development:  one does not study for years, then become a master. That's not how it works.  Mozart was composing at age five.  Michelangelo created "Madonna of the Stairs" at age seventeen.

Michalangelo  "Madonna of the Stairs"   Marble Relief  Circa 1491
But neither Mozart nor Michelangelo stopped learning.  In fact, the more competent each became, the more each saw to be discovered within his chosen craft.  And even though Mozart died young and Michelangelo lived into old age, at the end of each of their lives, neither felt he had done much beyond scratch the surface.  That's the attitude of a master.   

One characteristic I've observed in a number of masters is playfulness and an openness to all possibilities.  Itzhak Perlman enjoys playing "Turkey In the Straw" with as much zest as he does a Chopin mazurka.   Charles Schulz scribbled on envelops.  Leonardo experimented with wax on "The Last Supper."  There is a childlike humility that can find expression and joy within the most simple of subjects and there's an innocence from awe of the most honored.

Ann asked me the question:  "What divides the truly great from the excellent?"  I think it's the degree to which the artist is willing to let go.  There's no question that mastery requires thousands of hours learning and developing the craft step-by-step, building one degree of skill on top of another,  processing what one discovers, experimenting with possibilities, internalizing the principles that make it work, discarding the superfluous, refining and building on what does work, revisiting what didn't work before--all this and more.  But I am convinced that within and during all these hours of involvement, it's the letting go that makes the difference.  It's when the potential master totally relaxes within and allows it all to work together that the truly great can become manifest.

Mastery can happen at any moment when the artist, the craft and the instrument become one. 
Note:  For a real treat watch

Sharon Isbin - Waltz by Agustin Barrios Mangore


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Celebrate Peace and Happiness

I wish for each of you happiness and peace during a season when our western culture has set aside a time to honor peace among all people everywhere.  Whether you are celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah or whether your beliefs are somewhere else,  who can argue that Peace on Earth is the most desirable of all those things we wish for.
Note:  Because I'm giving myself some time off to celebrate Christmas with my family, the "size" discussion I promised last week will appear early in the New Year.      

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Importance of a Painting's Format

We design of our paintings and drawings in concert with the support on which we create them. The edges of that support's shape are where the art work begins.  In fact, if we're working with either a square or rectangle, the first mark we make is actually the fifth:  the edges themselves give us the first four marks before we even pick up a brush.

With a square support the art work begins with four lines of equal length.  With a rectangle we still have four established lines, but two of them are proportioned longer than the other two.  A rectangle might be slight to stretched.  It can be oriented vertically or horizontally.  These choices will determine both how the subject is composed and how the content is communicated.

But what if our choice is a round or oval support?  In that case we have one continuous line with which to begin within the support's edge.  The first mark we make with the brush will be the budding painting's second line.

Within all these choices, we can make a painting any size from a tiny miniature to a huge mural.  This choice, more than most others, will determine our intimacy with the painting and how and where it will be hung.  But that will be the subject of next week's tutorial.  For this one, I want to focus on the shape and proportion of a painting's support.


When I speak of a shape here, I'm referring to whether a support's edge has four sides or whether it is curvilinear.  By proportion, I'm referring to the comparative length of the edges.

Both shape and proportion play at least three major roles: (1)They influence the placement of the subject, (2) They effect the function of negative shapes to express the content, and (3) They help determine how the spirit of the content is conveyed.

A round or oval shape softens our presentation.  Its continuous edge circling around the subject neutralizes the tension and brings a gentle focus to the content. In contrast, a square support with its equal sized edges gives equal emphasis to horizontal and vertical directions.  But the orientation and proportion of the rectangle can reinforce the import of the theme by either repeating or contrasting its direction.

Andrew Wyeth used a double rectangle for his painting, "Spring." The placement of his theme is enhanced by the exaggerated horizontal direction of the support.

Andrew Wyeth     "Spring"  24" x 48"   Tempera on panel

But in his painting, "Faraway", he uses the proportion and orientation in a different way.

Andrew Wyeth    "Faraway"   13 3/4" x 21 1/2"   Drybrush on paper

Here his title gives it away:  the negative spaces on either side of the boy, extending the width of the painting, impart a feeling of a vast and empty landscape in which Wyeth's son sits in his own "faraway" world.

However, in this early self-portrait, Wyeth's vertical support heightens the content by repeating the vertical position of the subject.  We feel the height from the subject's placement close to top and extending beyond the bottom edges, but the width translates into the hallway's distance from the space between the person and the left edge--the negative space.  This more traditional proportion of the support allows room for the negative space to express the place where the subject finds himself.

Andrew Wyeth    "The Revenant"    29" x 21 1/2 "   Tempera on panel

But in "Distant Thunder," he emphasizes the reclining subjects by contrasting them with a vertical support whose direction repeats the upward reach of the two trees.

Andrew Wyeth   48" x 30 1/2"   "Distant Thunder"

I chose Andrew Wyeth's work because he was a master of using the direction and proportion of his support as a device for making us feel the spirit of his content.  We can imagine that if "Distant Thunder" had been given a horizontal support, its impact would have been diminished.  And so would that of "Faraway" had he chosen a square, a proportion the position of the boy might suggest.  On the other hand, both "The Revenant" and "Spring" are strengthened by the subjects' position being emphasized with both the orientation and proportion of the support.

As to when during a painting's development the choice of format is made, it really doesn't matter.  Sometimes a support will suggest the subject, at other times the subject will suggest the support.  It all depends upon what the artist wants to do with the subject. In fact, the support's size, shape and/or proportion could come last of all:  sometimes an artist will reshape a painting after it's finished. That, too, is a part of the painting process. What matters is how the support fits what the artist is trying to communicate.

We limit possibilities if we restrict ourselves to prevailing dogmas about the format of our paintings and drawings.  A good landscape painting is not always horizontal; neither is a good portrait always vertical.  Even though these are a safe bet, the artist can discover dramatic potential when allowing the painting's intent to determine how it is formatted.

Format is an important composing tools:  its role in the placement of our subject, its role in forming negative shapes and it's potential for communicating the spirit of a painting's theme gives us an array of exciting options for a strong and inspiring work of art.
Note:  Thanks to Jim Kissel for asking me to address the size and format problem in composition.  I enjoy hearing from those of you who read this blog and I welcome your requests for me to tackle any subject relating to how we compose our paintings and drawings.  You can email me with your requests by clicking HERE. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Question of Style

A question asked most often by emerging artists is "How do I find my style?"

Style--that unique characteristic that links an artist to his or her work.  Where does this characteristic come from? How is it that anybody familiar with Charles Reid or Jennifer McChristian or Carla O'Connor can recognize one of their paintings without seeing a signature?

Look at these three paintings, one by each of these three artists:

Charles Reid     Watercolor
Jennifer McChristian   Oil

Carla O'Conner   Water media
Each is the same subject matter, the female figure.  The art critic would describe in detail how each style is different from the other two and unique to the artist who did the painting, but I don't want to do that.  You can see their differences for yourself, and if you go to their websites, you can see how each of their styles is uniquely expressed in these paintings.  No, what I want to address is how artists acquire their styles.

The single thing Reid, McChristian and O'Connor have in common is that each of them knows how to paint:  they know their craft. They have learned and matured their skills.  They can paint without thinking about how to do it.  So, before a style can fully emerge, an artist has to be so comfortable with drawing and painting that no conscious thought has to be given to the how-to of it.

Developing skills to this extent requires practice, lots of practice.  And here is where artists lose the advantage enjoyed by musicians, actors, poets, and all other performers. That advantage is that the practice sessions are distinct from the performance.  Evidence of the struggle gets left behind the scene.

Not so for painters:  we have our practice pieces starring us in the face.  And there's always somebody wanting to see what we've done, leaving us vulnerable to their comments.  Nobody has to hear a musician's practice nor hear an actor's rehearsing nor watch an ice skater's workout, but once an artist has done a practice painting, it's there to be seen as if it's the final statement.

Because of this one thing, too many emerging artists think every piece must be a masterpiece.  They are not given the leisure of practice pieces.  In fact,  too often their teachers neglect to remind them that class work is practice, not performance.

The irony of all this is that true style emerges and evolves during the act of doing.  It cannot be contrived nor intentionally invented without being faked.  In fact, if style is forced or invented intentionally or cloned from another artist, it cannot last because it has no where to go.  I admit a slim possibility that an artist can evolve out of an induced style into his and her own uniqueness, but there's a danger of getting stuck only to reach a dead end.

It is safer and less stressful to just allow syle to happen within the act of doing.  While skills are being developed, the artist's uniqueness can emerge if it is allowed to.  In fact, developing your own style is the easiest part of becoming an artist.  You don't have to try to do anything at all beyond adjusting your attitude about it.  Allow yourself the leisure of practice. Lots and lots of practice.  Learn your craft and the style will follow.

Style is nothing more than the artist's natural response within and to the entire process of painting.
Note:  The idea for this tutorial came while listening to Robert Genn being interviewed by Leslie Saeta and Dreama Tolle Perry on their blogcast, Artists Helping Artists.  You can listen to Robert's interview by going HERE.

If you have something you'd like me to address in these weekly tutorials, send me an email at dianne.mize@gmail.com and I'll be happy to give it my best shot.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Color Debate

Of all the composition elements we work with, color fascinates yet baffles students of art more than any of the others.  And I would go so far as to say that among those teaching painting, there is more dogma about color than about all the other visual elements combined.

In fact, I suspect the prevailing dogmatic teachings are largely responsible for the student artists' fear of color.  My personal opinion is that we all should be wary of dogma.  Any school of thought claiming to be the only way should be suspect.

It seems to me that the best way to understand color is to work with it and watch what happens.  As a beginning, I offer here two ways master artists have learned to work with color:

1.  Experience making color:
     Begin with one color and a white and explore four possible changes that white can make to the color, in sequence from dark to light.  Here's an example of what can happen to alizarin crimson.

Pure alizarin crimson followed by small additions of white
If you do this little exercise with all your favorite tube colors, you will experience working with color and through that experience, you will obtained a working knowledge.   And you can gain additional experience by changing the initial color with another color, then by making another sequence with white.  Here's what happens to alizarin crimson when a tad of ultramarine blue is added.

You can take this little experiencing exercise as far as you like.  There are no rules and no limits to what you can discover.

Master artist Richard Schmid has used this method for exploring color for decades.  He outlines how he goes about it in his book, Alla Prima.  The book is a bit on the expensive side, but for any artist wanting to experience color, I recommend it above any I've seen.     

Richard Schmid     "Orange and Violet Pansies"     12" x 20"   Oil on Linen

2. Experience seeing color.

Pit off the mixing experience to a seeing experience.  A good way to really see a color is to compare it with another color.  Try this by looking at single object, such as a red apple--since we began this with alizarin crimson.  Place the apple a couple of feet in front of your eyes, then paint a swatch of pure alizarin on the edge of a small piece of paper.  Hold your swatch at arms length in front of the apple, close one eye and study the comparison.

Choose one small area of the apple at a time and hold the swatch slightly in front of it, starring at both for a few seconds.  Then let your eyes move back and forth between the swatch of color and the apple.  Is that part of the apple lighter than the swatch or darker?  Warmer or cooler?  The same hue or a different hue?

Take this exercise a step further by placing the apple in a shadowed place, then making a new set of comparisons.

Putting It All Together
Two things participate together to create the color we see:  light and the mechanics of our eyes.

But learning to recognize the color our eyes see is a skill, not a guessing game.  Athletes and musicians go through prescribed drills in order to build their performance skills.  Each drill provides an experience that informs the body and mind so that performance has a better chance of being great.  As skills are built, theory and knowledge becomes meaningful.  The same is true for artists.

But I suggest that dogma will close your universe rather than open it.  While there are a lot of valuable insights within each of the schools that claim to have the goods on color, artists will do well not to get swept away by a single school of thought; rather, to continue to explore and experience what works for their own sensibilities.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Power of Direction

For ages, artists have been using directional movement to compose their paintings.  Directional movement is any visual movement in an art work created by a line or by the alignment of shapes or color or value contrast.

The classic is the triangle on which artists depend for giving both balance and dynamics to their work.   From before Rembrandt to after Norman Rockwell, today's art collections are filled with paintings whose compositional structure is some variation of this directional movement scheme.

"Storm on the Sea of Galilee"   Rembrandt van Rijn
In this Rembrandt painting, the upper diagonal of the triangle is created by line, but the lower two are created by the alignment of shapes.

 "Fishing"     Norman Rockwell      1971

In  this Norman Rockwell painting, the lower side of the triangle is created by line with the other two sides being created by the alignment of shapes.

There is a variation on the scheme that is also found in this Rockwell piece.

Opposing diagonals that counter balance each other
There are opposing diagonals and accompanying verticals and horizontals.

Vertical and horizontal that give stability.

Because a single diagonal movement feels unstable, like when we are falling, some other movement is needed to give it balance. An opposing diagonal can do this, so can a strong horizontal or vertical or a combination of these.  In Rockwell's piece we see all of these at work.

Look at these two paintings by John Burton.

"Changing Tide"       Oil

"Dance of the Lupine"     Oil

Two totally different subjects with the same directional movement.

Look at how the strong diagonals are balanced with both a horizontal and a vertical.

It works in all genre whether landscape, still life or portraiture. And the exciting thing is that the direction of light can be set up to reinforce one of the directions.   Qiang Huang is masterful at doing this.

"Still and Alive"       Oil

Here's the theoretical explanation of how it works:  Both the horizontal and vertical direction give visual stability.  The horizontal serves to calm things down, to give a feeling of being at rest; the vertical gives anchor and a fulcrum for balance.  A diagonal, though, gives energy and motion.  That's why verticals and horizontals are often used to stabilize a piece containing many diagonals or other energetic elements.

It all goes back to nature, to our psychology and the physics of our bodies.  When we are in a horizontal position we are at rest, in a vertical position we are anchored to the surface on which we are standing, but in a diagonal position without any support, we're most likely falling.  

Once again we see how the principles of composition are live forces rather than baggage to be dealt with or ignored.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Play It Again, Sam

What do these four designs all have in common?

We all know how unnerving it is to hear the same old tune over and over again.  But when a musician adds variations to that tune, something that had become irritating can be transformed into something delightful.  And the more clever the variations, the more likely we are to want to hear it again.  

The advantage music has over painting is that we are more likely to continue to listen than we are to continue to look.  If a painting doesn't capture our attention at first glace, chances are we'll look away from it, going onto something else.  Often the reason for its failure to engage us longer is its lack of variation. 

Have you found what the above designs all have in common?  Did you guess repetition?  If you did, you got it half right:  repetition with variation is the answer.

There are abundant repetitions in nature, but nature's repeated elements contain variations and the artist's ability to capture and express, even exploit, those variations is one way to hold a viewer's attention.  

Carolyn Anderson          Oil
Color samples from the light values of Anderson's painting

In the above painting, Carolyn Anderson repeats the same color family throughout a large part of the painting, but within that color, the way she finds to vary their hue, intensity and value keeps us interested.  In addition, she varies the direction of her brushstrokes, the degree of blending, and the edges of the shapes. 

Look at the variations in color Kevin MacPherson has put into the sky and water of "Shem Creek Afternoon."

   MacPherson   "Shem Creek Afternoon"    12" x 16"   Oil

Color samples from MacPherson's sky

Color samples from MacPherson's water

In both sky and water, there are repetitions that could be translated into ho-hum interpretations, but MacPherson has looked more closely and found differences that keep these areas compelling.  And on closer observation we can see that he's repeated the kind of stroke he uses for the water while varying it's width, length and occasionally its direction.

But possibilities extend further than nature.  Even though the color of human flesh is repeated throughout one's face, Carol Marine has discovered at least six variations in color just on the light side of this humorous portrait.

"One-eyed Don"    Oil   Carol Marine
with samples from the right side of the face.
By varying the size and direction of her strokes as well as the colors, Carol has made an otherwise common subject exciting and fun to look at.  

Repetition is the composition principle that produces rhythm and can give unity to a work, whether music or any of the other arts.  But too much repetition without some variation can render boredom.  Nobody wants their work to be boring.  Do they? 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Visual Challenge

What do these paintings have in common?

Karen Jurick

Clyde Aspevig

Richard Schmid

Jennifer McChristian

Colin Page

Edward Hopper

Every single composition principle and composing scheme in existence is derived from either patterns in nature, from laws of physics or from how our eyes work.

The beauty of past artists' having discovered and verbalized these principles is that today we can study them and learn how to use them in a brief time, especially compared to the centuries it has taken to understand and explain them.  More exciting than that is how each of them can be utilized in so many ways, many of those still being discovered today.

So have you found what the paintings above have in common?

The answer is converging lines.

This composing scheme is in essence one-point perspective.  Italian Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi is credited with discovering that when we're looking at parallel lines, our eyes make those lines converge to a single vanishing point.  What's amazing is that this scientific fact is also an artistic principle.

By exercising this principle onto a two-dimensional surface, we create the illusion of seeing into three-dimensional space.

Whether painting people or an interior or the outdoors, artists use this principle to add the dynamics of distance and movement in space.

Karen Jurick uses it in this painting to show the depth of a room and to show the distance between the couple on the right and the individual on the left.  And the lines' converging outside the paintings gives us the sense that there is a continuation of something beyond the painting itself.

Clyde Aspevig shows a similar continuation beyond the painting with the same method.

Colin Page, Jennifer McChristian and Richard Schmid each use the covergence to keep the viewer inside the painting, each showing a different variation on where the lines come together, therefore each placing the viewer in a slightly different vantage point.  Whether the vanishing point is place inside or outside the painting,  we have the illusion of being in a three-dimensional space.  

Like Aspevig and Jurick, Edward Hopper's lines converge outside the painting,  He made a choice to place the viewer slightly to the left of the sitting man rather than peer directly at him head-on, giving a feeling of his sitting on a walkway that goes outside the painting.

Using converging lines gives both order and dynamics to a painting:  order in that shapes are aligned rather than being randomly placed and dynamics in that converging lines keep the eye moving.  Keeping this in mind, the artist need not be bothered with having to memorize rules of perspective.

Note:  My pre-Christmas auction of little paintings has now begun with two paintings.

  You can bid on "After the Rain" HERE

and/or on "Downtown Tate City" HERE.