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Archive for the ‘Composition’ Category

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.

 

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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.

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PinesLake1

If the concept of negative space eludes you or you don’t quite see what the big deal about it is, consider this painting.  Notice how the lake pushes against the pine trees.  I don’t mean the actual lake, of course.  I mean the surface on the painting that represents the lake.

Notice how this technique flattens the 3-dimensional landscape into a 2-dimensional surface.  That sounds so banal, doesn’t it, and the word “flatten” sounds so blah.

But the visual thrill of this technique is undeniable.  Even after you have it figured out, your mind loves playing this game:  now it’s foreground, now it’s background.

PinesLake2

Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) excelled at this.  I’m grateful to him for making the modern way of seeing so accessible.

Why am I bringing up Fairfield Porter now?  Because of a bit of junk mail.  When I got the L.L.Bean catalog in the mail yesterday, I immediately thought of Porter.  At first glance I thought L.L.Bean, an East coast company,  was using one of his paintings on their cover. Was this a passage from a Fairfield Porter landscape?

LLBeanCatalog

Porter was born in Winnetka, Illinois.  He moved to the East coast to attend Harvard, then stayed and became a celebrated East coast painter. His influence in this painting on the catalog cover is undeniable.

Could the artist be from the East coast?  I looked for the fine print on the inside cover.  Yes.  The artist is Anne Ireland and the L.L.Bean cover painting, inspired by the Maine coast, is titled “Changing Weather.”

Moral of the story: 1) see if you can switch negative space to positive and 2) notice how interesting your junk mail is.

 

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

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night-windows.jpg!Large

You won’t learn anything about existentialism in this post, existentialism being the de rigueur ism to bring up when you need to sound smart in a conversation about modern art.

Instead of being smart, let’s play a game.  Let’s imagine you stumbled upon an exhibit at, say, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where the paintings of Lionel Feininger (1871-1956) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967) were shown side by side. (That’s a game good museums actually like to play, which is what makes them so exiting to go to.  At the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, paintings are moved around frequently so that you can see a familiar painting next to new neighbors and therefore gain new insights without anyone lecturing you about anything.)

GaberndorfII1924

Feininger was a prolific artist, who early in his career worked figuratively, even as a caricaturist and cartoonist,  and later tended to work with linear forms in his compositions.  In the 1920’s, when Hopper was visiting Europe, Feininger was teaching at the Bauhaus, first in Weimar and then in Dessau.  There’s no chance that they met, given Hopper’s disinterest in modern art.

No matter.  They were contemporaries, working with architectural forms in their paintings. It’s only fair to put them side by side.

The first thing you notice is the figure in the Hopper painting.  Now try to imagine the painting without the figure.

night-windowsCOPY

It doesn’t hold your attention, does it?

Look at some Feininger compositions.  Do they need a human figure to grab you?  No. These compositions are engaging and absorbing as they are.

Gelmeroda

Hopper seems to be primarily interested in geometrical patterns, but because what he comes up with is flat, hard-edged and obvious, he adds a figure to focus your attention.  The figure inevitably looks isolated and alienated, which makes for a facile match with existentialist jargon.

new-york-office copy

new-york-office

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

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  HopperDrawing2

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (“Newfields’) reopened on July 17th with an exhibit about Edward Hopper.

I am glad the curators included some of his drawings because they present the most lively work in this show.

The above drawing is dated in the 1950’s.  It may have been a study for the painting “People in the Sun,” 1960.

What fascinates me is that the drawing is lively and energetic, while the painting is, well, dead.

Hopper’s mind as he contemplated a man in a lawn chair looking over a desolate landscape was nevertheless agitated. We don’t know by what–memories or necessary imminent decisions or shocking insights.  It’s an agitated drawing scribbled out in a frenzy of concentration, took maybe all of five minutes.

But the painting looks like sheer drudgery, as if he just wanted to get it done and be finished with it.

Sunning

If the artist intended to satirize the alienation of modern life,  he failed.  I think, the image fails as satire because it lacks wit.

We instantly recognize it as a Hopper because human forms are part of the geometry of the composition.

Let that be my introduction to Edward Hopper at the IMA.  You can tell that I have issues with this show and with the interpretation of this artist.

So far we have some key concepts: agitation, alienation, drudgery, modern life, geometry, human form,  satire and wit.

Stay tuned.

 

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

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HoyaCleanMatLine

Look what happened with the sketch we talked about a few days ago.

Two posts ago we said the sketch felt modern because it was unbalanced, incomplete, surprising and edgy.

Now look how the asymmetrical composition –the most fundamental decision the artist made—maintains that modern feeling. Still surprising and edgy!

I think the mat needs to make a clean window, rather than showing the drawing fading out into white paper.

Here it is with fuzzy edges so that you can see what I mean.

Hoya

Stay with this question of edges for a while.  See if you can articulate for yourself why you like one version better than the other.  Is it about your perception of space? Do you feel closer to this scene in one version than in the other?  Do you have a greater sense of “presence” in one version than in another?

See also:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/07/23/crop-that-plant-and-mat-it/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/07/16/just-a-plant/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/07/14/and-now-a-message-from-the-mat/

Drawing by Sunja Kim.  Graphite on paper, 18”x 12”

 

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

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Hoya1

Same plant.  More daring.

I call this view of the plant more daring because it’s not centered.

When the object of your gaze is not centered, you’re likely think it is…

not traditional

unbalanced

incomplete

unexpected

surprising

edgy

engaging

modern

Which of these stands out because it contains all the others?

If you say “modern” you might be running a gallery or ready to start one.

If you say “engaging”  your insight goes to the heart of the matter. Because the drawing is incomplete, unbalanced, surprising, etc, you sit up and pay attention. The viewer is challenged to participate in completing the view of the plant.  The art experience becomes a conversation.  That’s how we as moderns relate to art.

This drawing also says “incomplete.”  We see it as a work in progress.  That’s how we experience conversations when we’re in them.

For that reason we want to see the marks on paper as just that, marks on paper.  We can see that more marks may come.  Therefore we want to see the paper as paper with all the sense of potential that that implies: show the unmarked edges when you mat it.   See above.

The sharp edge of the mat, announcing this drawing is finished, conveys a misleading  feeling.  Do you agree?

Hoya1CleanMat

See also:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/07/16/just-a-plant/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/07/14/and-now-a-message-from-the-mat/

Drawing by Sunja Kim.  Graphite on paper, 18”x 12”

 

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

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Hoya2

You have a plant in your house.  Draw it.

It’s so ordinary.  And so interesting.

The light reflects differently from the leaves. Some leaves appear very dark; some almost vanish in the intense light.

Pay attention to the spaces between the leaves:  the distinction between positive and negative space evaporates.

You’re seeing shapes. Sit still in your quarantine room and see this play of shapes in front of you. Dark, light, dark, light.

Never seen anything like it before. No idea what this thing is called. Words fail you. Who needs words.  You are drawing.

Could it be, that intense focus is our greatest pleasure?

Hoya2

Drawing by Mary Shieldsmith.  Graphite on paper, 18” x 12”

 

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

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103ClassMOIChardin2

Working on a drawing is a kind of conversation.  It’s an interaction between the artist and her materials, her graphite sticks, erasers, paper texture and size.   When you’re in the process you may not think of it as a conversation because you’re so involved, but later, when you’re asked to verbalize what it feels like, you may analogize it to a conversation.  Then the conversation comes to a conclusion and you call the work finished.

You think you’re finished when your drawing is finished.

But then a whole other conversation starts.  Now the mat has to put in its two cents. It says, here or…here? Do you want to have a clean edge with the mat overlapping the pencil marks (see above) or do you want to show how the pencil marks fade into the blank drawing paper (below)?

103ClassMOIChardin1

You can see that the feeling is quite different.

In class I showed both versions. The consensus was in favor or version two, the pencil marks fading into the blank drawing paper. The students had no difficulty articulating why they liked this version better.

Well, what is the difference in feeling?

The question will come up again, soon.  It’s worth reflecting on with more examples to consider.

 

Drawing by  Katherine Hilden. Homage to Chardin. Graphite and white conté on toned paper, 18”x26”

 

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

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RedOnions

The painter Françoise Gilot met Picasso in 1943. They lived together from 1946 to 1953, dividing their time between Paris and the south of France, where they paid frequent visits to Matisse, who lived nearby.  Her book Matisse and Picasso, a Friendship in Art (1990) gives us a glimpse into how hard everybody worked.

Both Picasso and Matisse are world famous and immeasurably wealthy by this time.  What impresses me as I read this book is that neither of them is interested in fame, interviews or paparazzi.  During their visits they talk about art. Matisse is working on an extensive project for the Vence Chapel, designing textiles and murals. When Picasso and Gilot get home they are back at their easels, painting late into the night.

At the beginning of the chapter entitled A Merry-Go-Round of Objects we see a photo of objects often used in Matisse’s still-life paintings.

MatissePots

Gilot writes:

In the twentieth century, with the decline of historical and religious painting, the end of the Symbolist movement, and the freedom of choice in subject matter, still lifes reached equal status with other themes or nonthematic works, and great painters renewed this form of art and brought it to new heights. 

From the start Matisse recognized the importance of still lifes in his own development.  He copied one of books and a candle from a composition by Chardin and others from deHeem.  (p.145)

 

Being an artist is so easy. All you need is a few ordinary pots and the perseverance to paint all day and late into the night.

 

Henri Matisse, 1869-1954

The Red Onions, 1906

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973

Françoise Gilot, b. 1921

 

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

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