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Saturday, April 23, 2011

It's Set in the Key

This is my vacation piece.  I'll be on medical sabbatical for a little while getting my right hand--my dominant one--repaired and recuperated.

Meanwhile, this is fun:

2700 years ago a Greek philosopher named Pythagoras standardized musical tuning into a system he called the Circle of Fifths.   It was he who diagrammed the relationship of our twelve major keys, an invaluable tool for composers and musicians in Western music.

 Within Pythagoras' Circle of Fifths, we can locate any key and find its related chords.  Here's how it looks:

The Circle of Fifths designed by Pythagoras in the 6th century, BC
(Disclaimer:  This particular design of Pythagoras diagram is posted on several internet sites.  It is unclear to whom it should be credited.)

To see how this works, locate C on the circle.  Glance to the left of C and you'll see F, look to the right to find G.  C, F and G are the three major chords in the key of C.  In the little circle underneath them are the minor chords related to the key of C.

Now here's the fun part: four hundred years ago the traditional Color Wheel was diagrammed  by Sir Isaac Newton.  This wheel also is a twelve-part unit.
The traditional Color Wheel as designed by Sir Isaac Newton in the 1600's.
No different from the Circle of Fifth's importance to musicians, the Color Wheel is the work horse of visual artists.  The more a musician learns about the Circle of Fifths, the richer the music can be, and the more a visual artist learns about the Color Wheel, the more fertile the possibilities are in painting and design.

And not unlike how a composer sets a musical piece in a key, the artist has the ability to set the key of a painting, giving it the same sort of unity as a key gives a piece of music.

Left   "Weaver" by Richard Schmid
   Right   In a Moscow Cafe"  by Robert Genn

The paintings above are similar in that each features a person engaged in doing something, but their major difference is their key.   Robert Genn's has keyed his piece in cool colors (colors in the bluish range) whereas Richard Schmid's painting is keyed in warm colors (colors in the yellow/red range).

Here is how each is positioned on Newton's Color Wheel:

Schmid and Genn paintings each placed in their key of colors. 

What's so much fun about all this is the similarity between the two diagrams we artists and musicians depend upon and the many parallels in the ways they are used.

And once my hands are working again, I plan to explore this in upcoming tutorials.  Meanwhile, enjoy this thought:  however you look at it, everything is connected.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Power of Gesture

Our gestures express our identity.  Whether in our handwriting,  our gait, or the movement of an arm while talking, folks who know us recognize us as quickly by our gesture as by our voice.

Gesture is movement   Gesture drawing is quick drawing capturing the movement within the subject.  The subject itself might not be moving, but our eyes are in perpetual motion as they scan its visual makeup. Long, subtle curves cause our eyes to move more slowly, short abrupt curves, faster.  We zip right along straight lines and leap from segment to segment when a line changes direction.

When we record these visual movements with a quick, linear drawing--as if doodling--we express the shape's gesture.  Our spectators recognize  the subject by what it's parts are doing rather  than by how it is described.   It is so simple, yet many artists find it challenging.

But for Larry Roebal, it's mere "doodling."
Larry Roebal's "doodle" for April 15, 2011
Almost daily for over the past three years, Larry "doodles" an image from the day's news. Using ballpoint pen, drawing on top of the news article that grabs his attention, he quickly renders a drawing of the news article's subject, then posts the drawing to his daily blog.  Larry calls these gesture drawings "doodles."

Three hundred years ago, there was another "doodler" doing very much the same kind of thing.  You might have heard his name:  Rembrandt.
From the sketchbooks of Rembrandt van Rijn  1606-1669
And five hundred years ago, there was an artist named Michelangelo who was himself quite the doodler .

 From the sketchbooks of Michangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
This thing we do that Larry calls doodling is an artist's most immediate tool for exploring and discovering  the subject's inherent essence.  It's a means for sharpening our observation skills while doing visual research.  And even though it's not results-oriented, the outcome has a life of its own.

Call it doodling, call it gesture drawing--its label is insignificant.  What is significant is its power to capture and express visually the heart and soul of the subject in the handwriting of the artist.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Power of a Repoussoir

What do I do if I want to get your attention?

In his popular Fifth Symphony, Beethovan gets our attention with a precise da/da/da/DUM.  And Welsh poet Dylan Thomas opens one of his poems, "And death shall have no dominion."  Not so unlike these attention grabbers, Andrew Wyeth in "Christina's World" does this:
"Christina's World"   Egg Tempera    Andrew Wyeth  
The female image in Wyeth's painting is a repoussoir in action:  it captures our attention and leads us to the distant images.
(From Dictionary.com)

What fascinates me about this device is its flexibility, its potential for free expression within a traditional pattern, one that yields unity while bringing us into a painting.  (In case you'd like a more in-depth definition, I explained how repoussoir works in one of my Empty Easel articles a couple of years ago.)

 I particularly enjoy paintings whose notan (see last week's post) is interlocked within a repoussoir.  When I see this working in a painting, it reminds me of an Italian sonnet , a device that acts like a repoussoir:  two major parts where the first is an argument, the second a resolution.

Paintings employing a repoussoir within the notan  pattern have two major parts as well:  one overall light or dark value usually anchored at the bottom of the painting leading the eye to an opposite value anchored at the top.

Anchored at the bottom of each of the three paintings above is a major light leading our eyes to an important dark area anchored at the top.   Richard Schmid does this in his landscape painting on the right, I used in my painting of squirrels on the upper left, and Pat Weaver does a similar thing in a painting of people on the lower left.

If as you look at each of these paintings you squint your eyes,  you can see this happening.  You experience in each piece a repoussoir built within a notan pattern,  three totally different paintings each saying entirely different things, but employing the same device:  a visual sonnet.  Now, that's captivating!

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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Limits Or An Open Door?

There are no limitations except those we impose.  No form or pattern any artist selects need be confining, rather a glue that holds the piece together.  Today's doctrine that yesterday's pattern inhibits creativity is flat out wrong:  an artistic structure is a scheme, a path the artist chooses to enable an explosion of expression while keeping it unified.  The notion of breaking out of the box misleads us.

One structure I keep revisiting, one visual pattern that continues to lure my attention is the notan,  a simplified arrangement of two major shapes found in the overall collection of lights and darks.
Original photo of Herefords in pasture.

Notan study of original photo.  Notice how each inherent set of lights and the darks link together into one connected shape creating a pattern.  While discovering this pattern, I deleted the frontal trees because they divided the composition.

"Sautee Herefords"   oil painting based on the notan pattern
Notan exists as a concept invented somewhere in time and then given a name.  Today I use it as a guide for discovering light and dark patterns in nature.  It is that discovery that I use as the unifying adhesive of a painting.  Confident the notan will hold it together, I'm free to discover and explore all sorts fun stuff.

Chopin did that with the mazurka,--another concept invented and named somewhere in time--as pattern for at least 58 of his compositions.  And Shakespeare used the sonnet pattern--same process, different mode--exploiting it to spout forth more than 150 poems.  (See last week's post.)

Neither notan nor mazurka nor sonnet is a restriction, rather each is a container within which we can discover unlimited possibilities.  We need only to be alert.