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Archive for the ‘Composition’ Category

Gainsborough

As some of you know, I recently moved to Indianapolis.  I am now happy to let everyone know that I have recently started a drawing class in nearby Columbus, In.  Columbus is famous for its world class modern architecture with a tourism center kept busy by an international crowd lining up to see those eighty (!!) famous buildings.  This city of 47,000 has a branch of Indiana University but it did not offer a drawing class for the public until—tatah!—I jumped in to fill that vital void.

Our Columbus drawing class meets in the library–designed by I.M. Pei.  The class, called “Drawing as Seeing,” has met only four times so far.  I’ll start by showing the work done in our third class. Ready?

Our topic was “Markmaking,” which is a scribble/shading technique that is as individual and unique as your thumb print.  After a brief demo with students looking over my shoulder, I sent everybody to their seats with a Xerox copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s masterful drawing called “Landscape with Horsemen.”  You can see it at the top of this post.

What happened in class was highly rewarding and led to the discussion of an important topic:  “incompletion” in a work of art.

ShwetaGainsborough

The time allotted for this exercise was only an hour and that proved to be an advantage because it meant that students had to leave with their drawings incomplete.

JudyGainsborough

I held up all the drawings and introduced the idea of Incompletion as a topic in modern art.  I suggested that it’s precisely because these drawings are incomplete that they are so engaging.

MaryGainsborough

Incompletion in a work of art reaches us with evocative power. It engages us—paradoxically, perhaps—more than an image that’s carefully worked out in every detail.

Katlandscape

The next drawing was done by a left-handed student.  I had copied him a mirror image of the original Gainsborough to work from because the left hand moves in a different radius than the right hand.

JustinGainsborough

I reminded students that they had the option of leaving the drawing as is, “incomplete,” or doing more work on it at home.

MaryLandscpe1

In the next class, this teacher was gratified that none of the students had “completed” the drawing.  Every student seems to have gotten the modern bug.

We will get back to this Topic of Incompletion many more times.

We are off to a promising start!

Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Gainsborough

Columbus, Indiana https://columbus.in.us/architecture-story/

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While we were analyzing Bellini’s Madonna of the Trees, someone in the class said, but these paintings were not made to be analyzed, they were made as objects of devotion.  That is true, but as artists we have to analyze how these objects of devotion were constructed.

You can see how strongly this drawing emphasizes the horizontal and vertical axes.  The drawing has conviction because of that.  In a weaker composition the psychological focal points would be the faces.  But here, without that easy emotional appeal, the drawing holds our attention by the force of that vertical and horizontal intersection.

It would be great to see Bellini’s sketches for this painting.  In the Renaissance, preliminary drawings for paintings and frescoes tend to be more energetic than the final product. It’s uncanny. The paintings will  look  16th century and the sketches will look modern.

The last element added in this sketch was the background scribble in the upper left, over the woman’s right shoulder.  I say “background,” but it’s no less important than any other scribble in the drawing.  I think those last lines, without representing anything or being part of the figures, make the drawing complete.

Without them, we would merely have an attempted illustration. With the “background scribble” we have a complete page, where, in the modern sense, positive and negative space are equally worth looking at.

Jeanne Mueller, graphite on paper, ~14” x 12”

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/04/22/bellinis-pleasing-tricks/

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One of the themes in these past few posts has been the challenge to look critically at much admired paintings by much admired artists.

Giovanni Bellini is one of the celebrated Venetian painters of the 16th century. At first glance, his Madonna of the Trees seems harmonious, pleasing and perfect.

But look again.  First, the woman has no right shoulder. Her right arm would have to be attached to that (missing) shoulder.  Therefore, quite a bit of anatomy would have to be visible behind the baby.  Second, the drapery over the right forearm abruptly stops behind the baby’s ankles. You would expect it to circle around, but no, it mysteriously breaks off behind the baby’s crossed ankles. This abruptness would be more obvious if the legs were separated, so he makes this plump newborn stand up straight and cross his ankles. If you consent to the missing shoulder, why not also accept absurd drapery and a posturing newborn!

As I’m writing this, I keep looking at the reproduction of this painting in a book.  Even after my analysis and my full realization of Bellini’s trickery, I find this painting totally appealing.

Once that happens, I have to figure out why that happens, of course.  The appeal of this painting, I think, comes from the rational organization of the composition. It’s as if your brain said, how can something so carefully laid out not make sense?  As for the interrupted drapery around the arm, notice how the curve of that cloth is echoed in the left elbow’s drapery, forming a perfect ellipse.  There you are, your brain says, I rest my case.

For more on how your brain accepts trickery like this, including optical illusions, see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.  Readable, relevant, highly recommended.

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You know by now that I like to ferret out why a painting or drawing holds my attention.  In an abstract painting this is particularly puzzling because no reference, no narrative, no memory is evoked.  Then how is it that these bold non-referential brush marks can be so compelling?

There are two factors. One is composition, the other is color.

The composition here is based on repetition.  There are three “brackets” of different size, orientation and articulation. By articulation I mean how clearly the “bracket motif” is stated. The small one at upper right looks like an emergent, potential bracket.  The largest one of the three is more elaborate than the mid-size one at upper left.  The artist, I’m sure did not analyze her process this way, but rather painted intuitively.  And that’s because the repetition of forms is so compelling in a composition.  We like repetition, rhythm and rhyme in poetry and music. And also in our visual art.

What about that yellow dot? Go back up to the original painting and notice how your eye goes back to this tiny element and how fascinated you are by it. That’s it!  The small yellow dot breaks the repetition, it adds a high note.

The second factor is color, which will come up in the next post.

As I was working on this analysis, I randomly pulled a book off the shelf.  It was a book of poetry by Billy Collins, “Aimless Love.”  I opened it at random and read:

Lucky for some of us,

poetry is a place where both are true at once,

where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.

Cassie Buccellato, painting in oil, 6′ x 4-1/4′

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It’s also called “The Man with the Blue Sleeve.” Titian (1488-1576) painted this portrait around 1510. It’s a good example of the High Renaissance’s self-confidence, the assertion of the dignity of humanness.  The power of his ego is not coming at us in a front view, which would look aggressive or defensive. No need for that.  This man is so self-assured and self-contained that he can engage your full attention with only a sideways glance. The bone of his elbow is pointing at us, but we don’t see any bones or muscles that might intimidate us.  No need for a display of brute force.   This man’s power is deeper, beyond  your peasant understanding.  The sleeve is quilted, it’s soft: poetically anchored power.

If this were a portrait of a member of the high aristocracy or the ruling class we would surely know his real name. The fact that we don’t, suggests he was of the rising middle class, a merchant perhaps. This is the confident face of the future.

That confidence is conveyed in the composition itself:  the triangle, the most stable geometrical shape. We’ve encountered the triangle composition before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rafael squeezes his Madonnas into triangles to satisfy his client, who needs to assure his congregation that this theology is stable, eternal and unbudgeable.

In Titian’s Ariosto notice how pronounced the triangle is.  A black cape is draped over the far shoulder to clarify the two equal sides of the isosceles triangle.  We can’t know what the extra black fabric or fur over the left forearm is.  I marked it in pink.  Whatever that brushstroke represents, it’s important compositionally.  It gets the eye moving upward along that side of the triangle.  In laying out the composition with both clarity and ambiguity, Titian is thinking as a modernist, as one of us.

(This painting by Titian, 32” x 26,” is in the National Gallery, London.)

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When you’re being paid to get a message across, composition is your friend.

Florence, ~1500.  Sandro Botticelli has been commissioned to make a painting in which a baby—quite literally–is the message. The culture Botticelli lives in is built around this theological message. He’s well acquainted with the usual cast of characters, will assemble them again for this painting and he knows he has to work out a composition that makes this baby the focus of attention, again.

Botticcelli yawns, takes out his sketch pad and draws straight lines and arches.  Those are the most important tools for his composition and really all he needs: straight lines and arches.  The arches will enclose the space around the baby.  The straight lines will converge on the baby.  Botticelli concentrates on his scribbling for two minutes.  Gotcha, he says.  He means the viewer.  The viewer’s gaze will not wander, will constantly be led to the point of convergence, the baby. The client, who is powerful and wealthy, better pay him well for this fine work.

It was the custom for a master like Botticelli to have assistants that were trained by the master to specialize in rendering specific parts of a painting. One student might specialize in painting drapery, one in skies, and one in vegetation.   When the master’s name is followed by “and workshop” we can’t be sure that the master actually worked on the painting. It may mean that he only drew the initial sketch (called “cartoon”) with the all-important composition lines and then assigned his assistants (his workshop) to flesh it out on canvas.  It may mean that he painted only the faces and hands and then turned the painting over to his trained assistants.  But it may also mean that the workshop crew had been trained so well by him that they could work in his style without him being present at all.

As for creating the cartoon, that was the main job and usually performed by the master. But, as you can see, once you knew where the focus had to be—and that came with the all-pervasive theology of the time—you reached for your composition tools and, voila, the thing fell together: arches and converging lines.

What about anatomy?  Well, anatomy has to become subservient to composition. Joseph’s left arm is too small and Mary’s right forearm cannot be attached to an upper arm. Both  are squeezed into place somehow. St. John’s right leg is not attached to his pelvis.  The bodies of the two adults are hulking and humongous in relation to their tiny heads.  The new born weighs about forty pounds. But no matter. We accept it all.  Why? Because the composition tells us so.  Enveloping arches and converging lines focus the mind.  The mind loves that.

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Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) is most famous, arguably, as having been the teacher of Rembrandt (1606-1663). Rembrandt was brought up Protestant, Lastman was Catholic. This is noteworthy because it shows that even in religiously torn Holland, people—artists, at least—still managed to respect each other.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century involved a lot of violence, for example, the destruction of stained glass windows, tapestries, paintings and statues in Catholic churches so that these stripped down buildings could then be converted to Protestant houses of worship. Holland became officially Protestant with Catholics being restricted to worshipping in private homes. How did this religious turmoil affect art and artists?  Drastically.   Painters, sculptors and craftsmen lost their primary client, the Catholic Church.

To work as an artist (to teach and to sell your work) you had to be a member of the Guild of St. Luke.  They met regularly and discussed art and business.  You can imagine these discussions when the big client was no longer there.  Paintings with religious themes were no longer being ordered.

Well, what about the genre called history painting? That was still popular. All the more so, since the shipping industry was booming, merchants were getting rich, built themselves huge houses and, ta-tah, needed paintings for their expansive walls. Given the religious-political climate, these had to lean towards the secular.

History painting gave the artist the opportunity to present edifying tableaus with figures, both clad and not-so-much, congregating in idyllic landscapes.  This required some acquaintance with Greek and biblical mythology. The owner of such paintings could throw a dinner party and feel cultured.

The Mauritshuis in The Hague recently acquired the Lastman painting we’re looking at here.  Their website offers a nice entry into the painting:

https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/the-collection/pieter-lastman/

What fascinates me about this painting is the composition.  (No surprise to the reader who has followed this blog for even only a short time).

Shall we?

I’ve asked a couple of people what they see as the most prominent thing in this painting.  One said, the man on the left in that long red coat.  The other said, the huge man on the right, striking that showy pose on that too-small horse.  I agreed with them.  My attention was also drawn to these large figures – but only momentarily.   Then my focus landed in the middle and got stuck there.

Look! Lastman put a white circle smack-dab into the middle of his painting.  What was he thinking?!

If he had made that headband brown it would not stand out.  If he wanted it white but had made the background figure’s tunic light, then there would be no white circle to command our attention.  What was he thinking?

Not only is the white circle exactly in the middle, two diagonal lines (pink 3 and 4) lead directly to it.  Lastman contorts the figure along line 3 so that the leg line leads our eye directly to the white circle.  On the other side, along line 4, the woman’s garment is forced up to conform to a line that leads to the white circle. And then it leads along the dog’s paws, perfectly.

What was he thinking?

The picture purports to illustrate John the Baptist preaching.  There he is.  You look at him because, well, because you’re supposed to.  The title of the painting tells you to.  Then your eye wanders to the more colorful, theatrical characters in the crowd and then, wham, there’s the circle in the middle.

This is not a photo.  Did he work at this carefully, deliberately constructed composition to create an effect in our minds?  But what would that be? Why would he want us to keep coming back to that white circle in the middle? Maybe he didn’t think about that.  Maybe it was a joke. Maybe he was jaded and cynical.

The painting measures only 24” x 36.” Twenty-seven people, a horse (or three) and a dog are crammed into that small frame. Maybe, as the article on the Mauritshuis page says, he wanted to show how well he could draw anatomy in difficult poses and from different angles. Maybe that was good enough. It was a living. The nouveau riches bought it.

His pupil, Rembrandt, created paintings with mystery and depth.  We stand before them, fall silent, are drawn into them. They pose questions that we cannot answer. They silence us. And we come back to Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings and etchings over and over, to be silenced.  We never say, maybe he was jaded and cynical.

More paintings by Lastman:

https://www.google.com/search?q=pieter+lastman&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=uVlE-pYGwlWo8M%253A%252CjZbTIFugtDKwJM%252C%252Fm%252F07hgdr&usg=AI4_-kSDtwmzQCXWf1jxlBs5IvYZWq-qjg&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiH1ZiRvbTgAhURTawKHe3RBkEQ_h0wDnoECAUQDg#imgrc=y5URQBjXaAGrAM

For paintings by Rembrandt, try:

https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=dytiXJnbKOrF_QbVi4mQCA&q=rembrandt+paintings&oq=rembrandt&gs_l=psy-ab.1.2.35i39j46i39j0l4j0i131j0i67.2927.4915..8996…0.0..0.179.1357.0j10……0….1..gws-wiz…..0..46j46i131j46i67.jqZ9b3kqCm8

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