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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.



Marsha Hamby Savage said...

Diane, thank you for posting this article. I do believe it is one of the best and most simple explanations I have read. I always talk to my students about "tangents" and have to explain. I will be sharing this on Facebook. Thank you so much.

Also, I heard that you might consider coming to our Spring Plein Air Festival in Blue Ridge, GA... are you considering it? That would be wonderful if you could.

molly said...

This is a great post! I do all these things (sigh). I do have a question though. I have heard that "lost edges" are a desirable thing to have. How can I tell when I am doing a good "lost edge" versus a bad "fused shape"? Thanks so much for writing this up, it is so useful to me. I will be thinking about this next time I paint!

Dianne Mize said...

Molly, It's as if you're reading my mind: this week's tutorial will be about lost edges. Stay tuned, and thanks.