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Posts Tagged ‘composition’

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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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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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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101fChardinStillLife

The previous six drawings were derived from this painting by Chardin.  To help us see composition and form without being charmed by the color,  I had black-white Xerox copies for everybody to work from.

101eChardinStillLifeBW

We immediately noticed that there was a triangle implied in the arrangement of peaches and cup (green line), giving these random objects a solid organization.

101eChardinStillLifeBWGreenLine

We had encountered the triangle in the Gainsborough landscape.  https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/09/07/markmaking-with-gainsborough/

While the arrangement of peaches from small to large takes your eye from left to right, the knife disappearing behind the peaches leads the eye from right to left into the middle of the composition. We also noticed the crack in the table top which adds interest to that horizontal line.

That was enough to organize the students’ seeing and, without further analysis, we immersed ourselves in the drawing process.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) painted scullery maids and piles of kitchen stuff. He seems to have been a quiet, stubborn character who paid no attention to the Versailles aristocracy at a time when satin and wigs were the only things worth painting. The style preferred by the aristocracy in the mid-18th century is called Rococo and I’ll show one painting to illustrate the boneless frivolity of that aesthetic: Boucher’s portrait of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress.

BoucherMmPompadour

Now imagine an artist trying to make a living in Paris by insisting that a woman cleaning turnips was a subject worth painting.  She looks up from her drudgery in a moment of reflection.WomanTurnips

How can you not like Chardin.  He must have had a “whadaya-lookin-at” sense of humor, depicting himself in some get up to keep out the damp weather without any regard for heroic pretentiousness.

selfportrait

 

Getting back to analyzing his still life, I could not find the Golden Section as such in this painting, but he has two perfect squares (pink and red) which hold this composition together and make it compelling to look at.

101eChardinStillLifeBWGoldenSec

For a review of the Golden Section, see https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/the-golden-section-in-beas-painting/

For more insights into how still life paintings work:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/sit-perfectly-still-be-moved/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2012/12/25/still-life-a-misnomer/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/still-life-momento-mori/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/still-life-with-doll/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/08/21/turbulent-still-life/

 

The six student drawings derived from Chardin’s painging:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-1/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/13/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-2/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/14/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-3/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/15/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-4/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/16/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-5/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/06/08/4044/

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

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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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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

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16septlargedrapepot

Draw a portion of the still life so that your drawing will have a definite shape on the page.  That was the assignment.  I brought in large 20160922_144208textured paper, 30” x 22”, and encouraged everyone to work in charcoal or very soft graphite.

Notice that the pot in reality is big.  Does it have to be drawn big? No.  The pot and the drapery should be drawn in such a way that they sit nicely on the page.  The artist adjusted the size of the pot so that it becomes part of the arc of the composition.

The arc could have been drawn as if floating in space, but the artist suggests some terra firma by putting in a line to indicate a table top.  Notice that the table top line is broken cezanne-sl-applesbehind the pot.  Cézanne plays this game in his paintings all the time. We’re not committed to documenting reality. The goal is to create a lively page.

Drawing by Jeanne Mueller, charcoal on paper, 30” x 22”

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16septcharlstilllife

One of the reasons we draw from still lifes is that they are so forgiving.  A pot looks just as convincing whether you draw it fat or 16septlstilllifeskinny. Drapery can be pushed and pulled and ironed out.  This forgiveness leaves us free to experiment with the feeling of the drawing itself, feeling that comes from line quality, dynamics of light and dark, rhythm and composition.

Working from this pile of round forms and edges, the artist could have chosen to draw any passage in great detail.  He chose, instead, to draw the sweep of the whole arrangement.  It formed and arc.  As he drew from left to right, some aspects captivated him more than others and he shaded them for greater emphasis, time being 16septcharlstilllifearclimited, after all. Limited time is a good thing.  Because with more time, more details might have been filled in and we would have lost this lovely arc.  The drawing now has not only content, which anybody can get with due diligence, but also form, which comes out of a deeper crinkle of your brain. Tickling that crinkle is more than half the trick.

Charles Stern, graphite on paper, ~12” x 16”

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15JanPots

This is how the drawing sat on the page.

You can see that the artist/student, Linné Dosé, has developed a love of composition and form.   The drawing suggests a still life, you know, the usual pottery. But notice, we don’t get details here, no loyalty to the objects, no shadow and reflected-light games.

A work of art tells you how it wants to be looked at. This drawing directs your mind away from literalness.  It says, forget the pots.

Shape, Form, Space!

As it sits on the drawing paper it extends horizontally and that suggests a setting, a certain degree of literalness.

Now look what happens when we crop it to a square.

15JanPotsCropRad

The forms are so much more pure forms.

The square format will do that.  Uncanny.  It speaks to our modern sensibility.

Why would that be?

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

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