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

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Friday, May 11, 2012

In Praise of Gesture

Gesture drawing is our most direct tool for absorbing the essence of what we see.  Simply defined a gesture drawing captures the movement the artist feels within the subject.  It is the artist's rapid response to what the subject is doing, not how it appears.

Artists have been doing gesture drawing for centuries, but not until the early 20th century did it get its label, thanks to Kimon Nicolaides who left for us a comprehensive study program in his book, The Natural Way to Draw.  (First published in 1941 and available free in a PDF file HERE.)

We are accustomed to contour drawing where the shapes' edges are meticulously followed, our more deliberate or cognitive approach.  Gesture drawing does just the opposite, following the movement of the subject--a more intuitive approach.  Nicolaides taught that both are necessary, each balancing the other.

Here's how he introduces the comparison:

Below, from Nicolaides' book, student drawings illustrate the power of gesture drawing to express what the subject is doing.

Three of our historical masters--Rembrandt, Leonardo and Michelangelo-- each left us volumes of drawings with copious gesture studies among them.  Most often these would be quick studies, responding to something that caught their eye or towards an upcoming painting, but sometimes they would flesh out the gesture drawing with values, as Rembrandt does with his lion sketch.

Rembrandt van Rijn  "Lion Resting"    c. 1650
At other times, we get to see the pure gesture itself, exampled in these Rembrandt studies of a baby nursing and "St Jerome Reading to a Lion".

Rembrandt van Rijn   Study:  Baby Nursing      c.1635
Rembrandt van Rijn   Study for St. Jerome Reading    c. 1652

And among the hundreds of Leonardo da Vinci's scientific and analytical drawings are many gesture drawings.

Leonardo da Vinci   Study for the Trivulzio Monument, c. 1508
 Leonardo da Vincin     Study for the Sforza Monument, c. 1488-9 

Even among the many beautifully formed drawings of Michelangelo are his gesture studies.

Michelangelo Buonarroti   Sketches for two separate projects    c.1503

My favorite drawing of all times is Michelangelo's study of Madonna and Child where we see all the gestural lines and restatements along with his beginning to flesh out the form within the gesture drawing itself.
Michelangelo Buonarroti  Madonna and Child Study  c. 1525
One of the most intriguing and exciting uses of gesture I've seen lately is that of artist Omar Rayyan.  His paintings begin with a gesture drawing.  (You may click on any of these to get a larger view.)

Within this drawing, Rayyan searches for the image and begins to develop it in paint.

He continues by refining the drawing and adding more paint as the piece develops.

This process continue until the piece finds its conclusion.

 Omar Rayyan   "The Duel"   Watercolor, 11x17      2011 

Gesture drawing is the closest thing to meditation an artist can experience:  it is drawing without thought, responding with the senses without making judgments.  It is the purest form of observation, taking the artist directly to the essence of the subject. It requires letting go and taking in the world as it is without any intention other than experiencing the subject.  It is fun, relaxing and gives the artist a refreshed sense of renewal.


Friday, May 4, 2012

Switching a Few Gears

Let's switch gears a bit and take a look at our work habits.

No matter our style of painting or our personality, there are ways to enable our painting process to move along more smoothly if we practice just four simple tips:
  1. Do quick idea studies before beginning to paint.
  2. Squint, not just once, but often throughout the process.
  3. From time to time, turn the piece upside down to check how the composition is working.
  4. Stand back--often.
Doing idea studies: 
Call them scribbles, gesture drawings, concept drawings, preliminary sketches--the label doesn't matter.  What does matter is that we get involved with the subject we've chosen before we begin to paint it, and that we explore a few composing options while we are becoming acquainted with the subject.  It is surprising what we see once we make the first quick sketch.

Here is one of my idea studies and a painting that followed:

"Sautee Herefords"    OIl on Canvas    2008

Here are a couple of idea studies Andrew Wyeth did for his painting, "Karl."
Andrew Wyeth     Studies for "Karl"

Andrew Wyeth     "Karl"   Egg Tempera  
As you can see, neither my little gesture drawing nor Wyeth's initial sketches depict our final compositions.  Rather, they are both initial reactions to what each of us saw, a kind of private note-taking, getting to know the subject while  mulling over how the composition might work.

Nine times out of ten, it's the details of the images that get between us a good composing.  To squint at the subject, not just once, but often from beginning to end switches our attention to the structure of the whole thing, showing us how darks are connected, how lights flow from one area to another, how an array of colors fall into a simple value range.

Then squinting at the painting itself enables us to see how the parts are fitting together and how what's happening within the painting is relating to the subject matter.  It's as crucial to the overall process as the brushstrokes themselves.

Dianne Mize  "A Look Back"   Oil on Canvas

Turning the painting upside-down:  
Turning the painting on its head periodically during its development can tell us volumes about how the composition is working.  Oddly, if it's working right side up, the composition will work upside-down.

Here's one Pat Weaver's paintings.  Notice how her composition works both ways.

Pat Weaver       "Racetrack"     Watercolor

Standing Back:
     We can't really see how a painting is developing unless we put some distance between it and ourselves.  Several times during the process, it's a good idea to stand back at least ten feet from the painting to see how the whole thing is coming together.  The larger the painting, the further we need to stand back.  Even very small works are more accurately seen from some distance.

With all the things we're giving attention to during the act of painting, it's easy to let slide the more simple things we can to do to keep check on what's going on.  If you're not already practicing them, I recommend these four tips as keys to better composing and stronger painting.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Considering Economy

I've always been intrigued by how much can be said with so little when the saying of it is in the hands of a master.  There are volumes contained in Emily Dickenson's simple lines, The soul selects its own society, Then shuts the door... or in the simple Rembrandt drawing of a woman sleeping.  Ten simple words describing an entire mode of living;  less than three dozen strokes expressing a human in restful sleep.

"A Woman Sleeping"   Rembrandt van Rijn  c.1655

Let’s dust off the economy principle: say more with less.  It is easy for the artist to get caught up in multiple images and excessive details, but doing so can cause a feeling of disorganization or visual confusion.  Sometimes the work is stronger because of what was left out rather than what was included:  when we provide just enough information for the brain to become engaged, we can enable the viewer to participate, to mentally fill in what is not there.

Let's look at how economy is used by three artists from three different time periods.

Jan Vermeer, 17th c. Dutch painter, utilized economy by simplifying value range and shape patterns. Take a look at the simplicity of shapes and values in his Young Woman with a Water Pitcher.

Jan (Johannes) Vermeer   Young Woman with a Water Pitcher   c. 1660

In the close up below, we can see more clearly how each shape is defined by a simple light and a simple dark, uncluttered with details.  Not only that, but if you squint you can see how the value areas are simplified:  rather than a wide range of darks, all darks are closely related in value.  The same is true with his lights.  Squinting reveals a clear light/dark pattern of shapes.

Two hundred years later John Singer Sargent, too, found ways to say more with less.  In his painting, Parisian Beggar Girl, Sargent uses simple value ranges and shape patterns much like Vermeer, but defines these with gestural brushstokes, giving each shape its own directional movement.

John Singer Sargent   A Parisian Beggar Girl  c.1880

In this close up, the movement of brushstrokes is as evident as the shapes themselves, yet clean and simple enough not to overpower the shapes they are describing.

Jump forward another hundred years to painter, Carolyn Anderson, who like Vermeer and Sargent uses simplified shapes and close value relationships, who like Sargent uses gestural brushstrokes to define the movement of shapes, but who takes these a step further with lost edges, merging shapes into one another while keeping their felt delineation, allowing the viewer to fill in what Anderson has left out.

anderson portrait
Carolyn Anderson   Portrait of a Man  c.2008
In the boxed areas, look at how the hair and both shoulders merge into the background:  three examples of how adroitly Anderson simplifies with lost edges.

Even though their work spans more than three hundred years Vermeer, Sargent and Anderson are like-minded artists when it comes to knowing how to use economy, showing us how masters utilize the familiar old adage:  less is more.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Creating Within an Intention: Rabatment

What do the sonnet, the waltz and a rabatment have in common?

Each is a form--a pattern for how parts of a creation will fall into place. Each is like a seed that will be an oak tree, an egg that will become a hawk, or a ball of clay that will be turned into a vase.  The pattern is determined, but what gets created within that pattern has yet to evolve.

Another way to say it is that time-tested forms give an artist an opportunity to create within an intention.  In painting, we select a subject, then we have the option to apply a form to help determine how we place the images. The form we choose is our intention for how we will communicate the subject we have chosen.   The rabatment of the rectangle is a classic form for creating within an intention.

A rabatment is the square found on either end of a rectangle.  For each horizontal rectangle, there is a right rabatment and a left rabatment.  For each vertical, there is an upper rabatment and a lower rabatment

When choosing the rabatment as our intention for composing a painting, we have all sorts of creative options for making it work by assigning the inside and the outside of the rabatment each a distinctive role to play towards how the painting communicates.

One way to do this is to place the most active images within the rabatment itself, then insert an "onlooker" within the remainder of the rectangle, creating a structure that engages the viewer to identify with an  image on the outside looking in.  Here's how I did this in a 2007 watercolor of blue jays.

Dianne Mize    "Committee Meeting"    Watercolor

 As you can see, I placed the two conversationalists within the left rabatment and the onlooker outside of it.

Another scheme is to place the major activity inside the rabatment, then to lead into it from the outside like  Carla O'Connor has done in her painting, "Tatoos."

Carla O'Connor     "Tatoos"    Watercolor    

Probably the most classic use of rabatment is to show a major theme inside the rabatment and minor theme on the outside, as illustrated by Robert Genn's painting, "Brittany Port."

Robert Genn    "Brittany Port"   Acrylic

Wassily Kandinsky, a 20th century abstractionist, made a similar use of this plot in his painting, "Composition X."

Wassily Kandinsky    "Composition X"     Oil

It's always refreshing when an artist takes a traditional form and uses it with an unexpected twist.  Mary Whyte did this in her painting, "Passages," where she puts the major theme outside the rabatment, making the rabatment support the theme of the painting rather than the other way around.

Mary White    "Passages"     Watercolor

Like the sonnet is to poetry and the waltz is to music, the rabatment in pictorial composition has endless possibilities for exploring ways we can enable our paintings to communicate.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Visual Bridges

Whether enabling us to cross over a deep ravine, a small stream or twelve lanes of traffic, we depend upon bridges to get from one place to another.  They take on many forms-- from a plank of lumber to vast expanses of concrete, from woven ropes to lengths of steel cable.  Nothing stops us in our tracks more abruptly than a bridge taken out.  Yet we cross them daily without conscious awareness that they are even there.

What do bridges have to do with composing paintings?  They are absolutely necessary for the eye to stay engaged in a painting.  A visual bridge, or transition as it's called in artspeak, is any method for enabling the eye to move smoothly from one area to another.  Gradation is a visual bridge:  it transitions gradually from one opposite element to another; soft edges are visual bridges; they enable a shape to join into, rather than be isolated from, its surroundings; lost edges are visual bridges:  they merge shapes into a potentially intriguing visual journey.

Of these three, let's take a closer look at lost edges.

Lost edges occur when, rather than totally delineating a shape, the artist allows a shape's edge to disappear  into the adjacent space.  Below is a simplified example of a lost edge.

 Because our minds tend to fill in the blanks when information is absent, it is not necessary for a shape to be completely delineated in order for us to read it.  Our tendency towards closure causes us to become more engaged while filling in the gaps when information is missing, thus we are participating in the work.  So by creating lost edges, engaging the viewer's involvement in completing the image, the artist is making the painting more interesting to look at.

One of the best examples I've seen of  lost edges used in abundance is Pat Weaver's watercolor painting, "Racetrack."  Throughout the piece, we see light from one shape merging into light within another.

Pat Weaver     "Racetrack"     Watercolor

Here I've drawn red arrows through a few of Weaver's lost edges.  Examine these, then glance back at the painting above and notice how each of these serves as a visual bridge.

Whereas most of Weaver's lose edges are light into light, Qiang Huang effectively uses dark into dark in his still life oil painting below.  Notice how the shadows on the apples merge into their cast shadows and how these merge into the background.  Then look at how he unifies the bunch of grapes with bridges, defining only enough shapes for the viewer to read it as grapes, then look at how their darks are bridged by the darks on the jar behind them into the dark bottle.

Qiang Huang   Demo at Melbourne   Oil

Using lost edges as a visual bridge can unify a landscape painting giving it both atmosphere and depth.  Marc Hanson is especially adroit at this as illustrated in his painting, "July Mill Pond."

Marc Hanson    "July Mill Pond"     Oil

Without visual bridges each individual image in a painting will be isolated in its own space, causing a stiffness to the work and causing it to be void of atmosphere.  But the lost edge's unique function of engaging the viewer's participation makes it more likely that the viewer will want to look at the painting more than once.