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

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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.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Zen of Composing

Don't let the noise of other's opinions
drown out your inner voice. -  Steve Jobs

Composing is about making decisions, but decision-making need not be limited to intellectual choices.  In fact, some of the best artistic decisions we make are intuitive.  After all, it's within our intuition where we find our inner voice.

Our intellect plays an important role in our learning the mechanics of how composing works and we need that; otherwise, our work would suffer.  In fact, those who would argue that learning composition principles is limiting are both misinformed and naive.  But we are not unlike Olympic champions who learn their craft, but preform their best when they depend upon their intuitions to exercise that craft.

And it is within our intuition where we make discoveries.  Our intellectual knowledge enables us to recognize, understand and communicate what we have discovered.  And it enables us to grow out of ignorance,  but without  intuition there would be no such thing as creativity.  There would be no scientific discoveries, no new inventions.  I would argue that the finest art grows out of both working together in balance.

But we need to acknowledge that too often artists fall into a trap of blocking intuition when we have to make judgments.  With our eyes tracking backwards while we're working, it's easy to deem what we have done inadequate.  Artist-author Frederick Franck has what I think is an approach towards breaking through this potential trap.

Franck's  Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing guides the artist past the self-critical phase into an attitude of mind where we respond to what we see without hanging ourselves up on whether we're getting it right.  He guides the reader through simple exercises that when practiced daily becomes a journey of seeing rather than just looking at our subjects.

The value of being able to do this, as I see it, is the freedom we can gain  from trying to make our work acceptable.  We lose that tendency of judging ourselves inadequate and therefore grow more confidence--confidence in our painting skills, confidence in the way we use them in composing, but most important of all, confidence in allowing access to our inner voice.

As as a sidebar:  With this week's One Artist's Journey post, I'm introducing my new association with Daily PaintWorks, an on-line sales gallery and auction website owned and managed by David Marine, husband of artist Carol Marine.  I'm excited about this new opportunity to make my paintings available for sale on a website of such integrity.