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Archive for September, 2020

For several days I’ve had a tab on my computer for this image of a recent California wildfire.  I would open this photo, stare at it and feel mesmerized.  What must that be like, to have left these houses or to still be in them? What is the sound of that enormous roaring fire in the proximate distance?  How fast is it approaching?  How terrified these people must be!

After several days of this intense emotional involvement with the scene in the photo, I noticed that I found the photo “beautiful.”  Given the content of the photo, this was disturbing.  So I asked myself if the photo was constructed to have this mesmerizing effect on the viewer. I turned on the part of my brain that does analysis.

What I found was a centrally focused composition.  The houses in the middle of the image, i.e. the human interest, were perfectly in the middle. The house in the middle of this cluster stands out because it is brighter than all the rest.  The hills on both sides sloped perfectly towards the middle of the cluster of houses.

Thus we have a symmetrical composition with human life in the middle. The symmetry makes it static with the message that this is not going to change. Human life in the middle hooks us emotionally.  No wonder this image is mesmerizing.  The composition tells us that this terror of the fire is enormous:  it’s here to stay, permanent without any dynamic that may bring change.

You can be sure that the photographer took dozens or even hundreds of frames on this assignment.  We don’t know if this frame came out as we see it here or if it was cropped to achieve this feeling of terror.  Either way, it was not randomly chosen.

A second example makes this power of composition even clearer.  The firefighter is in the middle of the frame.  Because of the stability inherent in symmetry, he appears to be there forever. This makes his situation all the more hopeless and makes the image painful to contemplate.

You can test this out be cropping and moving him off-center. Now the composition is unbalanced and we feel that he is moving.  He’s in danger but he’s at least not stuck.

Analyzing an image like this does not desentize you to its content.  Not at all. You’re still shocked by the content but you’ve added the awareness of how emotions are communicated visually.

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Alain de Botton published this book in 2006. His prose can be purple and dense.  You’ll be inclined to read slowly and thoughtfully.  That’s a good thing because you’ll want to reflect on our built environment.  How does the space you live in effect you—your view of life and your  imagination?

I recommend you savor the book at your own pace whenever you get to it, but watch the three episodes that he narrates on you tube—as soon as possible:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80fb7Lt0z58

Why the urgency and why now? Simply put, because we go for walks now.  It’s nice to head for the woods, but it’s also stimulating to walk through the half deserted streets of our towns.  Alain de Botton will nudge you to observe and question why buildings are the way they are.  Do the buildings you encounter and the spaces you enter make you feel happy, optimistic, resourceful, energetic?  Or, do you feel, ermm, locked down?

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

www.katherinehilden.com

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A banana in a grocery store is an excellent source of potassium.  You go to the grocery store for practical reasons. You evaluate the displayed fruits and vegetables according to how they will benefit your body.  You pay money for things that will impact your life and improve it immediately.

A banana taped to a  museum wall is a mind game.

You go to the museum for no practical reason at all.  The entrance you pay at a museum doesn’t get you anything.  Why on earth would you go to such a place?!  You go precisely because you feel it’s time for a mind game.  You want to have your brain scrambled.  Name a piece of art that didn’t have that effect on you!

Correction:  Name a piece of MODERN Art that wasn’t a mind game. That’s because art since the middle of the 19th century has engaged the viewer in the literal sense of that word,   meaning involve.  Meaning you have to think about it, to puzzle it out.

Engaging with Modern Art means identifying your assumptions and expectations.  That takes practice.

You don’t even have to go to a museum to practice that, you can do it anywhere, with anything.  Right now, for example.  Go to your kitchen and look at a banana and at the assumptions you have in your head about its characteristics, like the color yellow.

Becoming aware of your assumptions and expectations is actually easier in a museum than in your kitchen. That’s because in the museum the objects are already taken out of their normal, habitual context.  A banana taped to a museum wall is a mind game if you stare down your assumptions about what’s supposed to be on museum walls and what art is supposed to be.

If you think museums should show this…

and this…

and this…

…you’re also being asked to play mind games.  You may think that ancient images are more real and therefore not mind games.  But that’s because we tend to be in awe of very old objects, whether coins, pottery, murals, inscriptions, monuments or paintings.  Even in their own day, they already were mind games.

Actually, you don’t have to think about anything.  But what’s the fun in that?

 

I recommend this article:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/18/arts/design/banana-art-guggenheim.html

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

www.katherinehilden.com

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At first glance you may see a slap dash watercolor sketch, maybe a preparation for a painting.

Look again.  Take time to look.  Stay with it.

Two things will happen. One, you notice that he works with a very limited palette: blue, green and sepia with a touch of yellow.  Two, the white of the paper showing through serves to define shapes.

To see how brilliant this painting is, let’s mess with it.  Let’s imagine some passer-by looked over his shoulder and suggested he “cheer it up” by adding some bright colors.  Why not put in some flowers?  Like this…

Doesn’t work.  It’s a contemporary cliché to say bright colors cheer things up.  “ Brighten things up,” we say.  By demanding attention, bright colors spoil the overall effect and break up the composition.

Now, what about the composition.  It’s quite rigorous, actually.

Far from being a surface of daubs, this painting hangs together by calculated geometry.

Go back to the top and look at Sargent’s painting again.  Squint a little and eliminate the two figures and their straight-edged objects: books, easel, stool, and palette.  Now the waterfall and the foliage are hardly discernible and the painting really is a mess of daubs.

Watercolor is the most demanding painting medium.  You have to plan way ahead because corrections will gum up your surface.  To make the painting luminous—the desired effect—the white of the paper has to stay pristine.  Meaning, no corrections!

And negative space!  Notice how the painter’s right shoulder is indicated indirectly, by having the background push against its contour.  Ditto the book of the friend.  Find other examples.

This painting , btw, is from 1914.

John Singer Sargent,  1856-1925

Related posts about Sargent:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/john-singer-sargents-hands/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/the-pleasure-of-plein-air-painting-and-john-singer-sargent-again/

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

www.katherinehilden.com

http://facefame.wordpress.com

http://katherinehilden.wordpress.com

www.khilden.com

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