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

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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.


Friday, March 16, 2012

A Touchy Subject

An artist being caught off guard by a tangent when painting is like stubbing a toe:  it happens when we've got our attention on other things and fail to notice until after we feel the pain.

The generic meaning of the word tangent refers to two things touching, but in painting the term describes a kind of touching that is visually bothersome--bothersome because it either leaves us in doubt, makes us feel ambiguous or exudes a false logic.  While composing, there are so many different things to juggle that it’s easy to miss even the most obvious flaws—and that’s when tangents sneak in.

Tangents can easily be avoided, but it helps to know what to look for during the early stages of the piece. To simplify that process, here’s a chart illustrating nine of the most common tangents.

tangent chart 

Which of these tangents can you find in the photo below?

Here's what I found.

 Let's take an individual look at these most common tangents and how a couple of them can be used to the benefit of the painting.

1. Closed corner
When a shape completely blocks off a corner of the artwork, it can visually isolate that corner from the rest of the painting, but if a shape is integrated from the corner into the rest of the painting, it can act as a visual lead-in rather than a sore thumb.

Here's how Joe Paquet used a corner shape as a lead in.

Joe Paquet    "Return to Sender "   Oil     
The dark rock mass in the lower right hand corner avoids becoming a tangent by the swirling movement that connects it to the water and leads into the rest of the painting. 

2. Halved shape
When a symmetrical shape is cut in half at the edge of the painting it creates an uncomfortable, chopped-off feeling for the viewer.  By bringing the entire shape inside the picture plane or by cropping the image somewhere other than the halfway point, a symmetrical shape at the edge does not have to be a problem.  (You will also want to avoid cropping directly at any joint of an animal or person, or at a corner of an object or structure.)

In his still life painting, "Out of Shadow,"  Qiang Huang crops the symmetrical container on the left so that most of it appears in the painting.  The vase with its shadow leads the eye towards the arrangement on the right.

Qiang Huang   "Out of Shadow"   Oil
3. Fused edges (object with frame)
When the edge of an image touches the edge of your painting it can create an awkward, crowded or fused  sensation for the viewer.  It's best either to extend the shape beyond the painting's edge or to bring it slightly inside.

This one is tricky.  It has become an accepted norm these days to have edges of images touching the edge of the painting's format.  Sometimes it works, but so many times it doesn't.  Avoid this unless you feel confident that it enhances rather than weakens the composition.

4. Fused edges (object with object)
When the edges of two shapes touch, they can visually fuse together.
 Just as with a shape's edges touching the painting's edge, it appears that many of today's artists have decided that objects touching willy-nilly is totally acceptable.  Traditionally, shapes touching in an abstract design work because the objective is arranging shapes to keep the illusion of two-dimensional space, but the artist interpreting three-dimensional space can confuse the spatial depth if adjacent images are not either overlapped or given some space between them.  However, when there is a strong interaction between negative and positive shapes, images touching can be made to work.

In Pat Weaver's "The Pepsi Twins," notice the shapes of the negative spaces around the arms touching.  This is a clever example of how a potential tangent can be made to work without the images feeling fused.

Pat Weaver    "The Pepsi Twins"     Watercolor

5. Hidden edge
When the edge of one object is hidden behind  another object oriented in the same direction, the two may appear strangely joined together.

This one is easily avoided either putting space between the two or showing a continuation of the shape in the rear so that the frontal shape overlaps it.

6. Split apex
When a vertical shape intersects or is directly aligned with the apex of another shape it causes a strange, unwanted symmetry or an arrow sensation.

Avoid this pitfall by shifting the frontal vertical east or west or changing your vantage point.

7. Stolen edge
When the edge of one shape aligns perfectly with the edge of a second shape, it creates an ambiguous edge for both.

Solution? Change your vantage point to allow one to overlap the other.

8. Antlers
When distinct vertical shapes appear directly behind an subject, they often appear like antlers growing out of that image.

This sensation can be lessened by reducing the value contrast, losing some edges of the background shapes or softening their edges

9. Skimmed edge
When the top a vertical image ends at the edge of horizontal one, the two shapes may seem to merge.  Most commonly seen are tops of trees ending along the top edge of mountain tops, but here's another not-so-typical example. 

Solve this one by raising the vertical object slightly so that it overlaps the horizontal, or lower it so that there’s extra space in between.

Awareness means everything.  As we hone our sense of seeing, we become more mindful of how images relate and more adroit communicating those relationships in our paintings.

Note:  This tutorial is a revision of one I wrote for Empty Easel in November, 2008.


Friday, March 9, 2012

The Space Between

Are you a foot tapper when listening to music?  I am, especially if there's a lively rhythm.  We create rhythm in paintings, too, and very much the same way as in music.

Our tendency is to think of visual rhythm being made by flowing lines, but intervals create rhythm likewise.  Whereas in music an interval is the time lapse between two notes, in painting it's the space between two edges.  Combine several intervals into a pattern and you've got rhythm.  The space between is as important to the rhythm as are the notes or the edges themselves.

Three kinds of spacing create a painting's intervals--the space between a shape’s edge and the outer edge, between any two shapes within the painting, and within a single shape itself.  When these spaces are too much alike, the painting can suffer, but unequal intervals will create an interesting rhythm.

Karin Jurick's "Lounge Act" uses all three of these visual intervals.

Karin Jurick        "Lounge Act"
Click on image for larger view

When setting up a painting's composition, there are two kinds of intervals that can get tricky, especially in a landscape:  one is how we divide the space between earth and sky; the other, how we space repeated images, especially verticals.

Joe Paquet's "Moonrise, Lake Carlos" beautifully illustrates a compelling earth/sky division.

Joseph Paquet     "Moonrise, Lake Carlos:   Oil

Notice three more smaller intervals within the short ones.
If Paquet had used an more equal division of space between earth and sky, the results would have been a bit on the mundane side.  That's the tricky part:  two often our brain's wanting to see things equally divided will interfere with our choosing a more interesting approach.

That tendency of the brain to space things equally requires the artist to be even more alert when dealing with repeated verticals such as tree trunks and fence posts.  In his painting, "First Greens," Colin Page has handled this problem adroitly by paying attention, not only to unequal spacing when he placed his tree trunks, but by how he tilted them as well.

Colin Page      "First Greens"      Oil

In this notan of Page's painting, notice the variation in size of the space between the tree trunks from bottom to top as well as the width of the trunks themselves--beautiful intervals throughout.

Notan of Page's "First Greens"
One other genre requiring special attention to intervals is the portrait.  Special awareness to the intervals between all parts of the image and the edge of the painting can be as important to a portrait as the interpretation itself.

Take a look at the intervals created by Albrect Durer and Pat Weaver.

"The Hare"  Albrecht Durer  16th century
"Woman in Hat"  Pat Weaver   21st century
I have converted each image into a reversed silhouette to make these shape/edges relationships easier to see. Focus just on the black space in each piece, looking first at the edge of the subject, then at its corresponding edge of the painting.

In each of these examples, it's the variation of the interval that keeps a composition convincing and entertaining.  Only if the intention is about repetition, such as the familiar chess board, does repeated intervals become a tool rather than a flaw in a composition.  Andy Warhol exploited repeated intervals in a number of his works.  Remember "Campbell Soup Cans"?

Andy Warhol     Campbell Soup Cans     1962
But good composing is not Campbell Soup, but then neither was Warhol's piece.


Friday, March 2, 2012


 What do the melodies of "Three Blind Mice" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" have in common?  Answer:  they can be sung in a round.  Two distinct tunes can work together at the same time without conflicting with each other.   (Don't we wish our Congress could learn to do that!)  The method of juxtaposing two or more voices in music is called counterpoint.

We use counterpoint in painting, too, but it works differently than in music.  Instead of each part moving parallel and independent of the other, in painting elements move in opposing directions, each balancing the other. A vertical will counter a horizontal and vice versa; a diagonal will counter another diagonal moving in an opposite direction.

 John Singer Sargent was a master of counterpoint.  In his painting A Hotel Room, the verticals in the background are counter balanced by the horizontals on the floor.

Richard Schmid is another painter who often uses counterpoint.  Whereas Sargent has applied a horizontal to counter verticals, Schmid, in Wildflowers, uses opposing diagonals:  the tilt of the large flower on the left is countered by the tilt of the smaller one on the right.

Counterpoint in painting works to give visual stability.  Georges Braque, who with Picasso invented the Cubist movement in painting, depended upon counterpoint as a major composing strategy.  Without it his geometric breakdown of images would have had no grounding.

Georges Braque    "Bottle and Fishes"    1910
Uses primarily horizontal/vertical counterpoint
Georges Braque  "Still Life with Mandola and Metronome: "  1909
Uses primarily diagonal counterpoint
Georges Braque   "Pedestal Table"  1909
Uses horizontal/vertical and multple diagonals in counterpoint
Counterpoint as an organizing strategy has been used for as long as artists have been composing.  Very simply stated, a  horizontal calls for a vertical, a vertical calls for a horizontal, and a diagonal calls for a another one in the opposite direction.  The abstractionists knew this.  Many times it was the primary principle holding their pieces together.

I sometimes wonder whether today's artists should learn to paint abstractly as a prerequisite to learning realistic painting.  Take away the image and one gains an appreciation for composition because that's all we have left to work with.  Add the image to a well composed piece and chances are you've got a strong painting.