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Archive for the ‘Composition’ Category

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.

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

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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

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

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This how you last saw this painting.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2018/10/29/that-big-brush/

It has a firm solid base.  We like that, don’t we.  We like stability.  A solid object is good to behold, looks like it’s been here forever and will be here for another millennium.  Hmmm.

I suggested we turn the painting over.

Look what’s happened here.  It now feels like something suspended.  Still well-constructed, but it conveys so much more energy.  Of course, you can’t have stability and suspension at the same time.  This is a deeply personal issue. With the feeling of suspension comes the feeling of energy.  We like energy, but energy means movement or potential movement and that means “no” to stability.

Cassie Buccellato, oil on canvas, ~5’ x 5’.

The artist currently is showing her paintings at WeWork, 111 W Illinois St, Chicago,.  (312) 818-3060

https://www.wework.com/buildings/111-w-illinois-st–chicago–IL?utm_source=Google&utm_campaign=Organic&utm_medium=Listings

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

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The box you saw a couple of posts earlier is now fully integrated into the painting. In full frontal view its third dimension disappears.  But notice the added wit—feathers!

Having completed the painting, the artist now has to name the thing. When she walks her dog by the lake, Terry Fohrman takes pictures of sidewalks with their cuneiform cracks and collects found objects like Robert Rauschenberg. In general, she feels appalled by our culture’s wastefulness.  The title came easy: “Don’t Throw It Away.”

I look forward to seeing this piece displayed on a wall.  Here you see it leaning against a wall, which requires a certain effort on the part of the viewer.  You have to ignore the floor and the baseboard.  As you put up with that task, you may feel that thinking and painting “inside the box” was/has been not such a bad idea after all.  Right. Following the rules is the common thing to do, it’s easy, which is why “thinking outside the box is rare.”  And we call that “art.”

You can see the earlier stage of this piece at

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2018/10/29/art-outside-the-box-and-with-the-box/

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

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Our studio at the Evanston Art Center faces south. Needless to say, we greet an overcast sky with a sigh of relief. On a sunny morning, we pull the shades.

When the shades are pulled, the sun coming through the cracks creates a dramatic pattern on the floor. Now, you can ignore that, seeing it as literally what it is, the sun coming through the cracks.

But you can also go into exercise mode.  You can switch your perceptual apparatus to seeing the whole picture.  Instead of labeling what you see (floor, light, people, easels),  you can flatten what’s hitting your retina.  Yes, flatten.  It’s what you do when you paint an object (three-dimensional) on a canvas (two-dimensional).  You create a composition on a flat surface.

Well, you can also do that as a composition exercise—whenever and wherever you are.  As a further aid, there’s your phone camera. You’re never without it. The camera flattens everything you point at into a two-dimensional composition.  Thank you, Mr. Gates, Mr. Jobs, et.al.  You’re never without the opportunity to see at this more conscious level.

What’s extra wonderful about those light strips on the floor is that they appear as the most striking, most important thing in the composition.  They read as positive space.  Ha, gotcha.  It’s always thrilling when your expectations are overturned.  Negative space reads like positive space.  And people, who normally count as positive space, are relegated to the shadowy part of the background.

You may now slide that insight into the light of day.

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

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Here we have a painting (with mixed medium) that feels almost done.  Not quite.  It needs something, but what?  When stuck or undecided, turn the painting in another direction to get a fresh look.  I suggested turning it upside down.

Ah! Now the dense “heavy” part is at the top, which means it is unstable, it has a ways to fall: it has energy. So much better.  But, still, the painting as a whole needed something.

What to do?  The artist snuck out of the studio, walked around the building and came back with a box.  Ha! She plopped it down in just the right spot, the spot that had invited “more.” Voila.

I don’t like to say “perfect” about anything. But the way that box nested there and especially how its left flap formed a triangle with the paintings lines, that was too good to be anything but uncanny. It happens.

In the next class the artist integrated the box with some splashed paint.  Stay tuned.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2017/03/05/black-black-black/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/in-half/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/popping-out-of-the-frame/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/09/28/found-objects/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/09/27/shapes-and-light/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/exhibit-at-ethical-humanist-society/

 

Painting in acrylic with mixed medium by Terry Fohrman, 48”x24”+.

 

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

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This is the café in the Cincinnati Art Museum. The desirable spots near the window were all taken and I had to content myself with a small table against a wall. Oh, well. It was not a spot to be seen in but a spot from which to see.  You can practice seeing anywhere.  And behold, here I had a scene with back-lighting.

Back-lighting creates a stark lighting contrast.  It simplifies forms.  Dark-light.  Positive space-negative space.

The first image, above, illustrates a woman sitting on a bar stool, absorbed in her reading.  In the composition she is centrally situated and framed by the window in the background. The picture is about her and invites the viewer to wonder what kind of life she might have and what she would be reading.  The pitcher, more in the foreground, might nudge the interpretation towards trite symbolism.

The second image is more edgy. The woman is not central to the composition

anymore. She now occupies a small area to the left.  Most of the pictorial space, about two-thirds, consists of blocky rectangular planes. The woman is still the psychological focus, but these rectangular shapes not only dominate the pictorial surface but seem to impinge on her presence, with the top layer actually pushing against her face.  This tension and imbalance makes picture #2 more engaging than #1.

Now look what happens in #3.  At the center of the composition we have negative space —that is, nothing. It’s a narrow gap separating the human form from the rectangular.  Almost.  If the gap were uninterrupted, it wouldn’t be so interesting.  But the hand holding the booklet bridges the figure to the rectangular mass on the right. The back-lighting here separates foreground sharply from background, dark from light. Therefore, we are not invited to psychologize about the woman. Instead we’re free to roam through the composition, noticing gradations and transitions, alignments, contrasts and echoes.

The pitcher? Yes, it echoes the shape of the woman, but it doesn’t lead your imagination into the ol’ 19th century odalisque motif. It’s as flat a shape as the cross-section of the bar, thanks to the back-lighting.

And…that sliver of light between the bridge of the nose and the window frame.

My salad came. I slid my little Canon back into my pocket.  My seeing exercise might have taken thirty seconds.  It’s only when I had time to look at these three photos on my computer that I noticed these intricacies.  That’s another exercise in seeing.  Took, oh, better part of an afternoon.  The pleasure of seeing.

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

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The shapes and colors in this painting are so simple and straight forward that your first impulse may be to label what you’re seeing.  What is being depicted here?  What is the artist trying to tell me?  Must be something or else there would be more ambiguity, right?  But notice that your efforts to interpret along these lines (lines !) fail. Granted, someone in class saw a black terrier.  Now suppose you take that suggestion and think of the painting as being a depiction of a black terrier.  Try. This will last you a second and then fizz away.

Imagine these shapes in soft pastel colors.  You can even imagine them outlined in neat bold lines.  What happens in your mind?  Nothing.

The effect of this painting relies on high contrast colors. Because of the high contrast, you expect a statement. Your expectation is not fulfilled. Instead you see blocks of color applied with a pallet knife, leaving raggedy edges.  Therein lies your pleasure in looking at this.

Painting in acylic, 36”x36,” by Janice Fleckman

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

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How can something so wrong be so right?

Because you enjoy looking at this drawing you may not immediately see that the shadows are all wrong. How are the shadows wrong?  Can those horizontal scratches even be called shadows?  No, they’re not shadows in the sense that they help define the roundness of the figures.  Yes, they evoke the idea of a shadow.

When you’re looking at this, the “shadows” trigger in your mind the association to three-dimensionality and that’s so satisfying to you that you don’t look more critically.  You don’t even want to look critically because your mind is seduced by the rhythm of the composition.  Those “shadows” emphasize the rhythm. Rhythm in any work of art is hypnotic.  Your mind likes the hypnotic state.

Compare the above, second, drawing of this motif to the artist’s first version.  Your mind is now functioning differently.  It’s now

examining the figures for literal accuracy.  A drawing tells you how it wants to be looked at.  This drawing wants to be looked at as an illustration.

Now go back to the “shadows” version and you’ll notice that your mind has just switched to a different mode.  Your expectations are different. You’re not looking for an illustration of anatomy here. Instead you’re struck by the total effect.  You’re not analyzing, you’re experiencing the whole.  You’re having an aesthetic experience.

Drawings by Jeanne Mueller

The photo we worked with was taken from a book of old photos called “The Way We Were.”

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

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https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2017/05/24/a-good-pout-and-strong-shadows/https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2017/01/28/scribble-for-life/https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/how-it-sits-on-the-page/https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/drawing-sculpture/https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/09/30/ptolemy-in-ulm/https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/08/18/take-the-a-frame/https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/07/29/vanitas-flip/

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George Stubbs (1724-1806) was sought after as a painter of horses, often shown with their proud owners.  His format is always horizontal, since a horse’s body is long.  To show it in its full glory you needed to portray it from the side, in its longest extension. In his paintings of horse and rider, the horse is more important than the rider, even if it’s the Marquess of Wocestershiresauce.

If the owner of the horse wanted to be shown as more important, however, the format had to be vertical.  Now the Marquess of Watever is shown in full verticality and his beloved horse…oh, wait, how can we get the horse in this picture?  Looks like we have to foreshorten the animal.  That means, the horse has to be shown either from the front or the back.  Well, we can’t have the horse’s hindquarters, the whatsit, poking out towards the viewer, so I guess it will have to be the head.

An example of a foreshortened horse is Joshua Reynolds’  portrait of Captain George K.H. Coussmaker.  The wall sign at the Met says, “Reynolds gave close attention to his portrait of George Kein Hayward Coussmaker, a lieutenant and captain in the first regiment of Foot Guards.  No fewer than twenty-one appointments—and at least two more for the sitter’s horse—are recorded between February 9 and April 16, 1782.  The composition is complex and the whole vigorously painted.”  Complex, indeed.  The  horse’s body is forced into a semi-circle, stretching its head to an anatomically unbelievable length. To show that the head is connected to a horse, Reynolds paints in some hooves,  pointing daintily like a ballerina’s toes.  A tour de force, all for the sake of framing the captain in an elegant arch. He must have been a vain, humorless man.

We get an even more daringly foreshortened horse in Henry Raeburn’s portrait of George Harley Drummond. This horse—and I wish we knew the horse’s name—is shown in complete indifference to the proceedings.  She grazes nonchalantly while the aristocrat is posing for his portrait.  Aside from the anthropomorphizing of the animal, the artist has solved the foreshortening challenge in an ingenious, witty and possibly satirical way.  Really, your lordship, the horse’s hindquarters?!

One wonders if the expression “horse’s ass” was in circulation in Scotland in the early eighteen hundreds.  Perhaps the man in the fine boots had a sense of humor—after all, he must have approved the composition—and hung it in his great entrance hall where he positioned himself to greet his neighboring land owners as they arrived for his party, letting everybody know what he really thought of them.

The Met, once again, stays away from the possibility of satire: “The foreshortened view of the grazing bay horse is the most complex part of the composition, though not the most important.  It is curious, therefore, that the animal’s hindquarters should so prominently displayed.”

Exquisitely painted hindquarters, yes.  But the Met is prudishly polite: the horse’s ass is  obviously the most important part of the painting!

Happy April Fools Day to All!

George Stubbs | The Marquess of Rockingham’s ‘Scrub’, 1762

Joshua Reynold (1723-1792).  Captain George K.H. Coussmaker

Henry Raeburn (1756-1823). George Harley Drummond.

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

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