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Archive for the ‘Landscape’ Category

Yes, I know what this is. This image shows skinny bare tree trunks in a dry hilly landscape.

What makes the stripes on the ground?

The stripes?  Let’s see.  Oh, the stripes are made by the shadows from the tree trunks.  Must be that the sun is low on the horizon.

Kinda cool?

Yeah,  pretty cool.

 

It’s not that you’re reminded of that afternoon in the state park, because you weren’t there, you didn’t take the photo.

It’s not that the image depicts some sexy scene.

Why is this image so compelling, even hypnotic?

Oh, I can chat about it. Try this:  Lines intersecting, over and over, with variation of angle, never mechanical, never repetitious. Focused attention,  like cross-hairs.  Rhythm. Percussion. There is no focal point.  No point of rest.  Your eye is constantly moving. The effect is purely visual, purely formal, not depending on any narrative.  No “appealing colors.”

If you only think this image is “pretty cool,”  I suggest you frame it. Frame it large or  project it on your large TV screen and look at it every day so that the memory of it will keep you awake at night without you knowing why on earth this is happening to you.

The past several posts have been about the power of composition.  This image is the culmination of all these past three month of looking and thinking about images here at artamaze.

Of all the things that grab you in an image—color, narrative, symbolism, etc.—the most powerful is composition.

Try to get some sleep.

 

Photo by Mary Shieldsmith

 

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It’s 1906.  Imagine these law-abiding citizens of Northern Europe, who dress well, behave politely and enjoy going to cultural events, like art exhibitions.  One Sunday afternoon they put on their hats and tell their coach man to take them to that new art exhibit in the hope of finding edification in high art.  They find themselves confronted by this.

André Derain was born near Paris in 1880.  He grew up in Victorian clutter, in rooms with flowered wallpaper; velvet tasseled curtains; heavy carved furniture; and gilded this and that.  His family was comfortably middle class. He had the means to travel.  When he came back from a trip to London, his family and friends must have eagerly awaited nice touristy paintings, like scenic post cards. Instead, he had this to show.

In 1906 nobody knew that this was the art of the future and that 100+ years later  people like us would paint our walls white so that nothing would distract us from contemplating the painting.

The critic Louis Vauxcelles called these artists –Derain, Matisse and Vlaminck—“Les Fauves,” which means “the wild beasts.”   To be called a wild beast was pretty close to being called an idiot.

Imagine what it took to paint like this at that time.  That’s all, just imagine that.

The Fauvist painters:

André Derain, 1880-1954

Henri Matisse, 1869-1954

Maurice de Vlaminck, 1876-1958

P.S.  Some of our contemporaries now want to make a quick buck by teaching you a formula: “How to paint Fauvist style.”  Such trash!   You can find this mindless how-to on Pinterest, for example.

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After you’ve identified this photo as a so-what view of a lawn, check that off and see if this might have some formal element worth noticing.

It does.  You can see it better in black/white.

The light zig-zags down from top to bottom with increasing looseness as if it came from some juggler’s pen light.

That’s it?  Yes, for this little exercise in seeing it’s enough to notice that the slivers of light appear to be superimposed on a surface.

The light slivers exist on one plane and the grass on another.   If you also notice that the grass makes vertical lines and the light forms horizontal lines, you’ve got a composition worth contemplating.

I’d like to print this up in high resolution, 6 ft high, and position it at the end of a long hall way.

My camera clicked it in color.  We are used to seeing images in color. But color is not necessarily more powerful than b/w.  Do you agree that the b/w is a more stimulating image?

Btw, all this is relevant to both photography and painting. Not such a little exercise, after all.

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The illusion of depth and perspective in an image is so beguiling that we—smart, scientific and skeptical—willingly suspend disbelief and get sucked into the illusion of receding  space created on a flat surface.

You don’t have to trek through Ecuador, like Fredric Erwin Church, to get this thrill.  Step out your front door and there you’ll find receding space as far as the eye can see even if that’s only to the end of the block.  Your camera will aid you because it will flatten the view for you, i.e. it will compact the three-dimensional reality in front of you into a framed two-dimensional surface.

When you treat yourself to a hike in the nearby state park, well, the phrase “as far as they eye can see” is ecstatically notched up.

The most powerful part is (1) because it’s the closest plant to the viewer and it sets the sense of scale.  All other plants—and that’s all we see—are therefore seen in relation to (1), with the result that we sense how far back they are.

You can compare this analysis to that of Fredric Edwin Church’s painting in the previous post.

The progression from foreground plants to distant hills –and pine trees way in the distance at upper left–occurs in similar layers. Church manipulates the gradations of color and light to heightened effect and just because he can.  In the photo, however, the gradations appear more subtle and to lovers of subtlety that effect may actually be more thrilling  than the technique in Church’s painting.

But wait, there’s more.  Even before you notice the little plant in the lower left corner, you want to look at this image.  It contains an approximation of the Golden Section.  You may not even know what that is, but our environment, both cultural and biological, has conditioned you to like this ratio.

The photographer may not have made all these compositional calculations consciously. This sense can be cultivated intuitively.

Knowing how to analyze why this works does not in the least spoil the pleasure of perception.  On the contrary, look how it deepens your experience.

(Click image for enlargement.)

Mary Shieldsmith ,  Brown County State Park, 2020

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The back-lighting stopped me in my tracks.  The shadow was as dark as the tree trunk itself. They looked continuous as if they were of the same substance. The lawn looked as if it had been spray painted DA-glo.  Mind you, this photo is not tweaked.  My phone camera saw this strange light effect.  Drama like this is momentary. Click.

I immediately zoomed in.  No distraction, no nice residential context with a house.  What we get now is…

…a repetition of forms.  On the right, spiky triangles.  On the left, and spilling onto the big triangle, you see amorphous meanderings.

Do we still have trees, lawn and late afternoon lighting?  Yes, we’re still reminded of how wonderful these real lawns in our neighborhoods are.

We also have just the opposite:  flat patterns on a flat surface confined in a rectangular frame.

Now it may dawn on you that you’re having an art experience.  “Art does not stand for something outside itself” –Fairfield Porter, remember.

You can focus on the picture surface or what it represents, but not both at the same time — as Gombrich said in Art and Illusion.

But you can practice toggling back and forth between the two ways of seeing.  Practice that!

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You’re walking in late afternoon when the shadows are very long. You notice that shadows can take strange, aggressive shapes on an expanse of lawn.  Click. In the picture the shadow looks even stranger than it did in reality.  Why is that?

Walk on. At an intersection you see shadows on the distant lawn. Click.

But you took a wide angle, getting the street into the frame of your camera.  It’s merely a documentation of this corner of an unremarkable street.

You raise your arms and you zoom in on the distant lawn.  Click.  Now you have an image of triangular shapes on a green surface with some rectangle in the upper part of the frame.  This is getting interesting. But you still have the street in there.

Now crop the reference to the street because it’s too much context, which makes the image point to something outside itself.

Why is this interesting?  Because now you have an image that can be seen two ways: one, as a reference to a green lawn with triangular shadows cast by neighboring buildings and two, as a pattern of geometrical forms that refer to nothing outside of themselves.

If you want to see this duality even more clearly, take out the color.

Now you have an arrangement of shapes that “does not stand for something outside itself.”  Is this art?  Hmmm, maybe.

On second look, yes.  Notice how the image has a unifying texture: the bricks of the wall have specks of black shadows that echo the specks of leaves on the lawn.  This unifying texture has nothing to do with what’s being represented.  “Art does not stand for something outside itself,” as Fairfield Porter would put it.

You can frame this, hang it on a wall, glance at it in passing and momentarily inhabit the realm of form, which is pure feeling.  Like music.

 

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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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We have some Twachtmans at the Art Institute. They are snowy landscapes, often with a rivulet. Above, “Icebound.” White-white-white.  White in a painting can be daring because it tends to read like “nothing,” like blank canvas.  But that’s exactly what I find so exciting.

Then there’s this Twachtman at the Cincinnati Art Museum, “Springtime.”

 

I gasped. Can you see the brushstrokes suggesting those trees?  Brushstrokes like that don’t “just” happen.  But, of course, they did.  Just.

Twachtman was born in Cincinnati of German immigrant parents, then studied in Munich with Frank Duveneck, born in Covington, Kentucky also of German immigrant parents.

Read all about it!

https://www.wikiart.org/en/john-henry-twachtman

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Henry_Twachtman

https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1940.html

Duveneck was a dynamic teacher and artist. Twachtman found his love of white-white-white by himself.  Here’s Duveneck:

Read about  Duveneck:

https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1258.html

http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/list.php?m=a&s=tu&aid=391

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

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15octpanel

That divide between the green and red fields tempts you to see a landscape with a high horizon. It’s a recurring temptation, isn’t it.  Feels so nice, ah, a 15octpanelnumberslandscape and so you stay with it and think landscapey thoughts.

Then the forms take over. The foremost shapes are the green cross, red rectangle (1) and the two circles (2) (3).   Shapes lying flat on the canvas simply destroy the landscape illusion. Good.  Now you’re sliding into an aesthetic experience. Shapes and light.

Terry Fohrman, oil on panel, 24” x 30”

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

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