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Posts Tagged ‘negative space’

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.

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16eminencegrise

Once again I got so interested in what everybody was doing that I forgot to take a picture of the still life set up.  But you recognize these pots from previous posts.  So do the students, having faced them innumerable times before.  Are they complaining?  No, because it’s not about the crockery.  It’s about what happens on the drawing paper.

So many choices.  What to draw, what to leave out. What to relate to what.  How to move the eye through the page.

16eminencegrisenumbersNotice that the grouping at (1) relates in value to (4) and therefore your eye moves diagonally across the page.

The lines of the drapery converge at (3).  But right at that point of convergence the charcoal has been lifted to keep that spot from dominating the page.

And what about that huge pot, (2)?  No shading, no detail, no reflection, no roundness. We don’t need any of that.  We know exactly what it is. Une éminence grise, ha. It becomes important precisely because it doesn’t shout.

I love a witty still life.

Drawing by Maggy Shell, charcoal, ~14”x18”

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15OctRedBlackYellHoriz
It’s something. But what!
I can explain why you would want to figure out what this represents: 1) there are definite shapes, 2) they’re clearly delineated, 3) they’re centrally placed and 4) there’s even an illusion of a horizon. So, of course, your smart, verbal brain gets to work on this puzzle. As soon as you’ve decided that the yellow square represents a structure, a building, say, you can move to the dip on its right and decide that here you have a valley and then you keep moving to the right and you can see an extended city block and, oh dear, this is not working. It’s just not coherent as a landscape at all. Even if you stick to the landscape-cityscape interpretation, what’s underneath the horizontal black mass just doesn’t compute. I mean, what’s that lavender roundish thing and that blue triangle there and then that blue smudge? Your brain now goes into overdrive and crashes. Wonderful! You’re having an aesthetic experience. You have entered the state of pure seeing. Congratulations.
It’s not easy to make art like this. Takes tremendous concentration.
Painting by Maria Palacios. Acrylic on canvas, 30”x 40”
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FourPots
You might think that this is a sketch, to be elaborated on later. You might think this is a hasty scribble on the back of an envelope, a reminder of the rough composition so that the artist would later work out details and make a “presentable, salable work of art.”
So wrong.
To be able to see like this!
This is a very advanced form of seeing.
FourPotsPhotoAIt’s not about documenting the shape of the pots. The photo does that. It’s not about proving that you’re diligent, that you put in the time and now you’ll price the drawing according to the time you slaved over the drawing. There are people who think like that. So master-servant 16th century. And if you think your five-year-old can do this, well, you need to come to class.
What makes the drawing so great is the form. Not the shape of the pots. The form of the drawing! Seeing form is like reading between the lines in a story, reading deeper than the narrative. It’s seeing through the shapes, seeing deeper than what’s illustrated. The artist here is not illustrating pots. She is creating a page that stands on its own.
She creates a tug between positive and negative space. We expect the pots, being graspable things, to hold our attention. The ground they stand on is supposed to just passively support objects. But notice that the shape of the ground is more emphatically articulated than the objects. It’s dark and has a stepped shape of its own. The shape of the pots is predictable and our expectation projects more information into them that is actually given. Even though they are presented in casual curves and ellipses, we read them clearly. We as viewers are engaged in completing the presentation. A good thing. We also notice that the whole page is a dialogue between the severe,angular, rational edge of the black ground and the curved, flamboyant, irrational lines of the identifiable objects. So good.
Back to the sketch idea. The drawing, above, was preceded by a more elaborate working out of this FourPots2motif. The artist put in some folds of the cloth that covered the table. In other words, details. This is also an interesting drawing, but not as exciting as the one featured here. The artist had to wrestle with details, with the impulse to represent more literally what she actually saw,  to attain the view of form that marks the stark drama of the final drawing.
Drawings by Maggy Shell, charcoal on paper, ~14”x18”
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14OneMinutes copyWhen we have a model, the poses range from twenty minutes to one-minutes.  I like to start the class with a couple of fives and only then go into the fast and furious ones.  One-minute poses are exhilarating and also terrifying.  Hence. the fivers at the start.

We’ll have a set of six one-minute poses.  I encourage my students to draw all six on the same page, allowing the figures to overlap.  This creates a visual intensity and adds the element of time, not only in creating the illusion of motion, but in the urgency of the crowded lines themselves.

13MarchMultiStephI draw along—hey, it only takes six minutes to do six poses.  Students can then see what my page looks like, in all its raggedy incompletion.  While the next, longer pose is in session, I’ll work some atmospheric markmaking around the figures, tying them together and at the same time making them emerge out of and vanish into the invented darkness.  The scribbly anatomy studies then hang together as an image.

For studies like this I like to work with Stabilo on gloss paper.  Gloss paper has no texture and therefore no pressure is required.  Then, for the second stage of adding the dark “background,” the Stabilo, being water-soluble, allows for all sorts of smudging and atmospheric effects.

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13HaroldPitcherCornerAt a distance, you’ll look at this painting and say, oh, a little pitcher, there.  And you might very well be reminded of Chardin, who in the 18th century painted humble kitchen objects and scullery maids. Or you ChardinWater-glasswould think of Morandi who had a cart in his studio filled with cheap pots and cans that he’d acquired at yard sales.  So, you’d say, that’s an odd placement for a pitcher, down there in the corner.  It’s not even a still life, really, there’s no setting for it, no context, it doesn’t cast a shadow and, again, what’s it doing down there in the corner.  You walk up to it. You notice the rich texture of the “background,” a pulsating green and blue.  As much as you want to stay looking at this atmospheric shimmering, you can’t help but move your attention to GiorgioMorandithe lower left corner because there’s an identifiable object there and your mind loves to identify things. There’s your pitcher.  It’s there and it also isn’t there.  You notice that it has no outline at all.  It exists because the blue-green “background” is pushing against “it.”  There’s nothing there, really, it’s just that the blue-green stopped taking over the canvas and did so in the shape of a little pitcher.  At that point you either have an aesthetic experience or you shrug and walk away.  If the experience, you’re lucky and you had a good day.

Painting with Pitcher, 20” x 24”, by Harold Bauer, student in my “What Would Mondrian Do” class at the Evanston Art Center.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 1699-1779

Girogio Morandi, 1890-1964

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13JohnWatercolor2I do watercolors from time to time, but not enough to be considered a watercolor-IST.  But I love looking at them and studying their technique.  For me, watercolors fall into two categories: 1) the fussy, goody-goody, neat-huh, look-at-me-I’m-coloring-in-the-lines types and 2) the real thing.

A real watercolor makes me sigh.  For many reasons, but today I want to focus on just one reason.  Namely, a real watercolor lets the white of the paper do half the work.  This is difficult to pull off.  It requires that you study your subject—hard—before you dunk your soft sable brush into that pot of clean water.  One of the tricks of this medium is that in order to make this unforgiving medium look spontaneous and airy, you have to carefully plan your steps ahead of time. In other words, before you start with the brush, you know in what sequence you’re going to apply the colors.  And you know where you will apply nothing at all.  You plan the omissions where the white of the paper will shine through and make your watercolor look like…the real thing.

So you’re in my “Impressions of Landscape” class and you’re set up in the little pavilion on the other side of 13JohnMacsaiMansionPhjpgthe parking lot.  You see the old mansion, the cars and an overwhelming thicket of shrubs and tree trunks.  Good grief, how can this become a “spontaneous and airy” watercolor?  John Macsai obviously was not overwhelmed. He knew what to omit, what to edit out.  To let the tree trunks “breathe” he turned them into dashed lines, which is actually how they look when you notice that all sorts of foliage interrupts their upward sweep.  Easier said than done.

Notice the restraint in the use of complementary color: greens, blues and sepia.  Restraint, both in omission and use of color, is rooted in a love for this medium.  It’s not everybody’s choice but in a real watercolorist’s hands, it makes me sigh.

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