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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.