On Composing

Preliminary Sketches
Composition Idea
Figuring the Large Shapes

The demo in my last post came out well. In my humble artistic opinion, it had less to do with the act of painting and a heckuvalot more to do with the initial planning and composing.

I won’t say that “anyone can copy what they see” because that is simply not true. But seeing is not always the best means of making something extraordinary out of a bunch of ‘things.’ Namely, trees, cliffs, colored succulent, rocks etc. It is much more a task of arrangement of shapes, shapes, values, colors, textures etc. It is in the arranging or composing those elements together that wonderful things happen.

It begins in the early sketches and assessing those sketches for design flaws, then, re-doing the sketches to account for the flaws, re-assessing and making still more changes. In that assessment process, I find that I must remove my thoughts from the subject and move to considering how the various shapes combine to form three to five large shapes and how those large shapes interrelate with the rectangle of the canvas or paper on which the painting is made.

That recent demo (last post) went through this very process. Once I was happy with the large shapes which connected the edges of my rectangle, I could insert and fit the ‘reality’ of the subject into it. It took some cramming, shortening, shrinking, expanding, squeezing, eliminating, adding . . . .well . . . .you get the idea . . . .the subject had to fit into the composed arrangement of large light and dark shapes. Looking at the sketch above, it boils down to an abstraction that is interesting to look at in its own right.

For you painters who are less experienced, the large dark shape that sprawls across this page is actually a combination of many items . . .trees, grasses, succulents, rocks, etc. It is in the act of painting that the artist must use caution and value control to insure that the large dark shape is still expressed through that combination of ‘stuff.’

It may seem like hard work to those who “just want to paint.” But, I believe that the disappointment which most often follows rushing into a painting is a big price to pay. . . . .especially, when we artists put our treasured sweat and tears into the act of painting. It is worth the effort and time to work out the composition first, then set about getting it all on to canvas or paper.

“Royal Arches”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

Depending on who you talk to, SIZE is an element of design. Size actually means “scale” or “Proportion” or “Measure.” That is to say in order for the eye to assess how large something is, there must be comparative objects or sizes to measure against.

We all ‘know’ how big a human being is (roughly) or the size of most trees. When we see a very tiny pine tree next to a large cliff face, we get a sense of the proportion of the cliff side. It is through clues like this that we artists are somewhat able to communicate that sense of enormity.

In this painting (on site in Yosemite) the scene is in the meadow near the Royal Arches. Those arches appear in the cliff side of the rock which stands straight out of the meadow and snuggles close to the very recognizable Half Dome. One simply cannot imagine the size of that cliff side without comparative objects nearby.

So, here is the attempt. In the early morning, the sun rises behind Half Dome and projects its light onto the face of the arches. It is an amazing . . . .and nearly overwhelming sight! To paint it . . . .that is another story entirely. It sure made me feel like a teensy little ant!!

No Sooner . . .

“Edge of Quail Hollow”
Oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches
No sooner do I think of something, often, and someone else publishes a commentary about it.

As you know, I have been plein air painting like a crazy fool . . . .just racking up brush mileage. While I have been getting better by increments, I have also noticed that I haven’t been paying much attention to good value composition while in the field. Hmmm! That just isn’t like me! To not plan for that, is to plan for mundane, not so cool, unaccomplished paintings. Then, Robert Genn (http://painterskeys.com/) published this missive in his twice weekly letter about value patterns. ( I think this guys is psychic, sometimes! (or, I am)) ;-))

He made note that it is often after coming in from being sidetracked by trying to capture a scene that we realize, days later, that we didn’t give composition its due effort . . . .and then we set about repairing the image to come to life with a strong pattern of dark and light. Now, that does NOT mean contrasting tones. What he means is a strong proportion of massed dark shades as an organized shape (or grouping of shapes) next to a mass of lights. Mind you, this isn’t about objects or things. It is about groupings of assigned values in order to pull off a strong abstract design onto which the objects are superimposed.

Some painters refer to this as Notan, which is a Japanese word for the same idea . . .massing darks and lights in an organized pattern. This pattern is usually what makes a composition sing out . . . . is is NOT the things in the picture or the subject. We painters call this ‘design’ . . . .or, at least, value design.

So, I caught myself making some re-statements in my recent paintings. Those chunks of dark, or little select areas of clean light against a dark are what makes the viewer sit up and take notice. Thanks for reaffirming what matters, Mr. Genn!

P.S. Robert Genn has one of the finest, most informative art blogs on the internet. His biweekly letters are always welcome and get read, often with more investigation following. If you aren’t familiar or haven’t subscribed, you might want to give it a trial. It is very non commercial and worth your time. Here’s the link: http://painterskeys.com/

In Consideration of Shape

“Blushing Bluff”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Mention SHAPE to five different artists and they will all tell you what they think it means. Usually, the answers will have to do with the subject . . … The “shape” of the pitcher in the still life. . . . The “shape” of the face of the model . . . .the “shape” of the cloud in the sky, etc. There might be five different answers, but they will usually relate to a subject.

We become so lost in the delineation of getting a ‘shape’ correct . . . or deeply engaged in spending our efforts trying to ‘explain’ a subject. In doing so, we lose track of the most important shape in the painting and how it relates to the other ‘shapes.’ That most important shape is the shape of the canvas or paper. Huh???

Yes, we are drawn into a painting by the relationship of the shapes within the painting and the surrounding rectangle. The comparison of size of the painted shapes and the frame of the surface is a huge design consideration. Where the edges of a painted or drawn shape stop or start in comparison to the rectangle is also an element of attraction. For example, in the case of this painting, the edge of the cliff and that tree approximately hit the edge of a square inside of the rectangle, which is remindful of the golden mean. That ratio seems to be highly magnetic to us humans.

Moreover, one needs to look at the overall shapes of the three different groups of value (lights, mediums and darks) within a painting to see how they compare to each other (hopefully, they are of unequal proportion) and how they also relate to that same rectangle of the outer edges. The character of the shapes is also something often overlooked. Are the shapes generally organic in nature, or geometric . . . .curved or linear? It all has to add up.

Some artists sense this stuff and never consider it cerebrally, but they definitely feel it when it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ There are those of us who sense that something is at work that sets us to feeling something good or not so good about a this stuff, but can’t isolate just what it is that makes us feel one way or the other. So, it pays to understand the design relationships and their dynamics so we don’t fumble around so much.

I will be presenting information such as this at a workshop for the California Watercolor Association in Concord, California this coming week. Let’s hope there will be time and inclination to post once or twice during the workshop. ‘Till then . . . .