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

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Friday, October 28, 2011

And There Was Light

Chiaroscuro.  It's pronounced key-air-row-skew-row, but what does it mean?

Artists who exercise the chiaroscuro principle play with what happens when a unique light strikes an image.  Parts of the image seem to leap forth into the light while others recede into shadow,  like in this painting by Mary Whyte.

 "Before There Were Wings"   Watercolor    Mary Whyte
This term itself came out of Italy and goes as far back as the early 1400's.  The word literally means light-dark and most accurately describes how a particular light-and-shadow influences the way we see images.

So chiaroscuro relates specifically to illumination and how an artist translate it into a painting or drawing.

Chiaroscuro is as effective in a monochromatic (single color) painting as in one using multiple colors.  This monochromatic 17th century painting by George de la Tour receives its illumination from a candle.

"St. Joseph"  George de la Tour  circa 1642    

But this 21st century multi-colored still life by Qiang Huang receives illumination from a narrow light source outside the painting.

Qiang Huang          Oil Demo
Click on image for larger view

Both are in chiaroscuro.  In both it is the direction and strength of the light that give meaning to the content of the painting.

Our language is organic.  Terms originate somewhere in time then their definitions evolve as we humans become  conscious of their mechanics.  Until the 21st century, art history authorities kept to a close-knit definition of chiaroscuro, limiting it to figurative and still life forms and a single light source.  More modern understandings of the concept include the total interplay of light and shadow, no matter what the subject is.

Today we can say that Jennifer McChristian's "Marche aux Puces" is in chiaroscuro...

Marche aux Puces     Oil   Jennifer McChristian

...or that Pat Weaver's watercolor of a cow is in chiaroscura...

Watercolor    Pat Weaver
...just as accurately as we can say that Rembrandt's "Man in a Golden Helmet" is in chiaroscuro.

"Man in a Golden Helmet"   c. 1650   Rembrandt van Rijn

When I was a student in the sixties, chiaroscuro was on moth balls.  It was an antiquated term associated with works of the past, delegated to the pages of stuffy art history books whose authors guarded its definition as if it were untouchable.  Today, it is a vibrant tool capable of bringing life to a painting.

Sometimes we do well to jar from the annals their embedded notions and ask ourselves anew:  what does this really mean?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Open and Closed

Composing is not just about the design of the painting, nor is it just about the subject.  Rather it is about choices:  it is about how we select the subject, how much of it we select, then how we express our choice on the two-dimensional space we've chosen.

Sometimes painters choose to engage the viewer by giving a limited number of clues about their work's content, giving the piece a sense of mystery. One classic method for doing this is something called an open composition.

Whereas in a closed composition the entire subject appears within the edges of a painting, the open composition shows only part of the subject .  In photographers language, the image is cropped.

Look at the photos below:

We know this is a person, but where is she? Outdoors or looking out an open window?  What is she doing?  Is she gazing out over a landscape?  Is the wind blowing her hair?  An open composition might crop out any degree of information allowing us, the viewers, to complete the story or simply ask questions.  

Still an open composition, this selection and placement gives us more clues.  Now we know she's on a bicycle, but is she riding or resting?  Is she wearing shorts or slacks or a skirt?  Is she making a turn or about to crash into a fence?

Here we have a little more information--we know she's wearing shorts, but we still don't see all the image.  We still don't know whether she is riding or resting or about to crash.  Her hair tells us motion is coming from somewhere, but is it from how she's moving or is it wind?  The composition is still open.

But in this photo, the story is complete giving us a closed composition where the entire image is shown to us.   The girl is riding her bike and about to make a turn from one trail onto another alongside a fence. About the only question left is whether the wind is blowing or whether she's making a speedy turn.

One thing we might note is that the closed composition doesn't engage us so much as the open compositions did.  Making this selection for a painting will require making additional choices to keep our audience engaged.

Twentieth century artist Georgia O'Keeffe often used open composition, zooming into the center of things to find her subject.  At first glance we see an abstract design, but looking closer we realize we are gazing into the center of a flower.

"Red Canna"    Oil on Canvas     Georgia O'Keefe  1887-1986

But twentieth-century artist Edward Hopper uses the device in another way.  Is it to kinder our imaginations or for it's spatial design?  Or perhaps he was teasing us.

"Light at Two Lights"   Watercolor   Edward Hopper  1882-1967
The visual language speaks to our senses, our intellects, our intuitions and our emotions.  The use of open composition stands a good chance of strongly tapping into all four.

See my most recent painting at One Artist's Journey.  A new painting is posted each Sunday.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Light Has Temperature, Too

Imagine someone strumming a guitar slightly out of tune. No matter how lovely the melody or how well it is played, if even one string is out of tune the rendition is bothersome.   We get the same sensation when a painting's color temperature is “out of tune”.

The temperature of light--whether it is warm or cool--is the one element that keeps a painting "in tune," that gives the feeling of harmony.  If the ambient light in a scene feels warm, then all the colors need some degree of warmth whereas if the light is cool, even  colors we recognize as warm will be slightly cooler.

I'm including this color wheel as a reminder of the warm and cool colors when not effected by ambient light.

Notice the sense of overall warm light in this Richard Schmid painting.  Even though they are cooler than the buildings,  the grays of the street, sidewalk and sky contain some degree of warmth.
Richard Schmid     Oil on Canvas
Now look at the overall cool light in this painting by Charles Reid.
Charles Reid    Watercolor on Paper

Although we think of skin tones as being warm, when in cool light, they are perceived cooler, leaning more towards violet than orange.  Even the yellows of the boat and distant building are cool yellows.

Here's a little experiment I did:

Below are four versions of a single scene, the original and three others each with a different light temperature.   Using my photo editing software, I created varying light temperatures, then sampled three areas of each photo to see how the change in temperature effected the original colors.

For larger version, click on photo     Original photo by Cathy Hauck
Each little box of color labeled A is taken from the large shadow on the grass.  Those labeled B are taken from the woman's white shirt, and the C's are taken from the sunlight grass.  Comparing these we can see how even the sunlit grass becomes  a bit bluer under the blue light, a bit more olive in a magenta light, and a brighter, yellow green under the yellow light.  And notice how even the hot red of the firetruck changes consistent with each new light temperature.

Taken individually, each of these versions is "in tune," giving the feeling that the same color of light is present within the entire scene.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Role of Edges

An edge in a painting is like a pause between two musical phrases:  it marks the ending of one shape and the beginning of another. The two sides of any edge can be isolated from each other or transitioned into each other, depending upon how the artist has handled the painting of the edge itself.

Look at this little painting by Qiang Huang.

"Away From the Heat"     6' x 6"    Oil on

 Notice that edge B clearly differentiates its shape from the one adjoining it whereas edge A is diffused into its surrounding area.  But in edge C, the bottom of the shape completely disappears into its shadow.

Qiang has used here the three devices for handling edges--hard edges (B), soft edges (A) and lost edges (C).

Whereas hard edges bring shapes to an abrupt halt, calling our attention to them, soft and lost edges enable shapes and images to flow from one area of the painting to another. The soft edge makes a gentle transition, but in the lost edge, we don't see a break between where one shape begins and the other one ends. Look how Qiang has worked his edges in another little painting,

"Afternoon Tea"     9" x 12"    Oil on Canvas
Examine how he has painted the handle to the tea kettle.  By interrupting portions of the handle, losing its edges into the background rather than isolating them into one continuous shape with hard edges, Qiang has given a greater interest and unity to the image.

Here's a challenge for you:  Examine this little painting by Qiang and find all the lost edges, soft edges and hard edges. 
"Limes and Grapes"    6" x 6"    Oil on Board
 Now, look specifically at just the hard edges you found.  Notice how your eye migrates to them.  Next focus on the soft edges.  Notice how they create a transition from one area to another.  Finally, the lost edges.  Imagine how stilted the painting would be if these were clearly defined rather than being lost.

Our eyes want to participate, to become involved in paintings we view.  We want to be challenged, not spoon fed. When an artist uses just enough hard edges to bring us into the painting, then employs soft and lost edges, our eyes become involved.  We feel like we've been invited to become a part of what the painting is all about.