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Archive for the ‘Seeing’ 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.

 

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

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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.

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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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FigureRosso

At the end of class there’s never enough time, it seems, to transition from the rich web of associations that has been spinning in our minds to the rules of the road in the practical world out there. I sometimes forget to take photos of the students’ work and sometimes I’m too rushed when I make the rounds with my camera.

As you can see, the photo of this student’s drawing was taken in haste.  It’s obviously blurred. You can barely make out the head and upper torso of a draped figure.

I do wish I had a clear shot of that fine drawing.

But I don’t regret having this blurry view.  I immediately found it moving.

The feelings of incompletion and ambiguity have been threads running through the past few posts.  Look at this photo for a while and observe what happens in your mind.

There are examples of mystery and “veiledness” that go back quite a ways in Western Art.  My first association was to Medardo Rosso’s heads of children.  Up next.

Drawing by Chelsea. Graphite on paper, ~12″ x 10″

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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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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CloseUp3email

In 2002 the photographer Barbara Bordnick published “Searchings. Secret Landscapes of Flowers.”  In this large-format book, the close-up photos of flowers measure 10”x14.” They are astonishing. You know it’s a flower and the flower’s name is given.  At the same time you are obviously looking at something other than a little flower–you’re imagining landscape formations or some atmospheric effect.

Georgia O’Keefe, famous for her huge paintings of flowers said, “If you look, really look at a flower, it becomes your world.”

These flower photos make excellent subjects to work from, to practice drawing fluid lines and the shading of round forms.

Here’s a student work in graphite, about 12”x18.”

FlowerLarge

When the color photo is Xeroxed in black/white, it’s easier for the student to see the tonal values, since part of the work has already been done by eliminating color.

CloseUp3BWdrama600

The book is easy to get online and it’s inexpensive. You can also find some of these flower images at

https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ALeKk02oupxlpD-j3izaofSkMqzO847GNQ:1593207610303&source=univ&tbm=isch&q=barbara+bordnick+flowers&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi1j6ntuKDqAhVFOs0KHQzqA2sQ7Al6BAgCEB0&biw=1536&bih=848

SearchingsBarbaraBordnick_

 

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

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In 1915 Matisse, at the age of 45, painted his variation on Jan de Heem’s “A Table of Desserts.”   The Dutch still life, 80 inches long, depicts heaps of fruit and pies on an enormous table, accompanied by a lute and decorative objects, in front of some architectural structures that are partly obscured by, what else, a swath of red-maroon drapery.  The image is a fantastic, exuberant invention. You can say those grapes are so realistically painted, they make your moth water.  Not to mention that gashed-open pie.  Imagine standing in front of this huge painting, being entranced by its realism.

Now shake your head and tell yourself to wake up.  This is not realism.  Every object in this painting is painted to seduce you into thinking it’s real, but the whole pile of stuff, wall to wall, is assembled in the most contrived way.  Ask yourself what it would take to construct this scene out of three-dimensional material.

So, it’s not realism.  It’s a construction.  And all the more wonderful for being an invention!  That was 1640.

Now in 1915 Matisse sees this painting at the Louvre and feels so drawn to it that he has to do his own riff on this fantastic composition.  He will paint his own invention inspired by de Heem’s invention.  Why not!  It’s the 20th century!

Matisse’s painting is also big, about 6 feet long.  I saw this a few years ago when the Art Institute of Chicago had a Matisse show.  Breathtaking.

Let’s play with this.

Stare at Matisse’s painting so that you see only

-the yellow areas

-the blues & greens

-the red bits

-the black

-where lines converge

-curved lines

-straight lines

This takes time.  Don’t rush. Do this over several days.

Now notice that yellow, orange and red come forward in the picture plane.  The cool colors—blue and green—recede.  Practice seeing that. Stay with it.  Some colors come forward, some recede, and what you get is a sense of depth. Foreground, background, transition. It’s powerful.

He does this without any of the techniques perfected in the Renaissance, which he knew very well.  No perspective, no chiaroscuro.

When you look at Matisse, you’re contemplating the painting and your own contemplation. It’s a bit much, isn’t it.

Ah, Matisse!

 

Henri Matisse, 1869-1954

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, 1606 -1684

 

https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/table-desserts

 

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

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