Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Drawing lines on a Bouguereau

Here is Admiration. Lets take a look at some of the design ideas going on in there.I am going to discuss rhythm and balance. Followers of this blog have seen both of these ideas charted before, but here they are on the Bouguereau. In previous posts I have described how painters use parenthesis like enclosing lines. Here are the ones bounding and enclosing the group of figures. I have put arrows on the ends of them to show where they flow, leading the viewers eye.

All of the action takes place within that boundary, everything outside of this bezel is a foil for the figures. All of the values within these figures stand "proud" of the values in the background. It reminds me of the cameo ware that Wedgewood ( the English pottery of the 18th and 19th century) made, in that the entire figure grouping is compressed into a frieze between the viewer and the dark ground on which they are placed.This is a spatial simplification that gives the piece a formality and otherworldly order. That is in keeping with the mythological subject matter. Idealization serves to remove a painting from the ordinary world, too much naturalism in something like this and you lose that ethereal "distance" from reality and the painting looks like "girls gone wild" at the play group. I have seen an insistent realism ruin would be allegorical scenes, making them look like photo montages. Vulgar.

Here I have accented the rhythmic lines swirling around the central cupid like figure. Notice how similar they all are in the arcs they form. Notice also how they are distributed in a balanced but not rigidly symmetrical way around the figure group. None of these arcs take the viewer out of the vortex that the grouping of curves form.

A rhythmic line does more than enclose the shape, it has a relationship with the other lines of the drawing. They continue the direction and thrusts of one another, serving the design more than description. These are of course installed by the artist rather than discovered.

Design cannot be observed into a painting.

Here I have outlined the two balancing parts of the figure grouping. Like a lighter child, further than a heavier friend from the fulcrum of a see-saw, the smaller grouping A is further from the center than the larger group B which has greater mass. This gives the piece balance without the deadening effect of too much symmetry. Nothing is so boring as perfect symmetry. It is okay in very, very formal or religious settings like icons and altar pieces that are meant to have a stillness or contemplative holiness. So this is the the steel yard, or balance beam method of weighting the halves of a design. In fact here is that balance beam now.

Here you can see the sides of the grouping arrayed at different distances from the fulcrum in order to balance the design. The figure of the child to whom they all look is the fulcrum upon which the design balances. There's no doubt where the eye is being led when you do that.

Here is a map of the darks in Admiration. They are balanced against the lights not from side to side but from the upper left to the lower right. The lights are the larger group. The darks have more visual weight, so the two areas show a balance in asymmetry, or unequal parts. If Bouguereau had made the darks and the lights equal to one another visually, the image would have been too static. Notice that there is one big dark shape and one big light shape with minor dark accents interlaced into the lights.

One element of a picture must dominate, yet be balanced by another less assertive element or elements . This is an artistic arrangement of balanced but unequal parts.


Unknown said...

Between you and Frank, this must be National Bouguereau Week! Not that I am complaining.

Thanks for this very informative post. I especially like the comment about how Idealization removes the painting from the ordinary world and prevents it from being something vulgar. This is something I have often thought about, but was never able to encapsulate it like you did.

Stapleton Kearns said...


I should do an entire series of posts on idealization and the nasty things that can happen when it is absent. I see a lot of young painters today trying to patch allegorical pictures together from snippets of carefully rendered nature and get results that are vulgar. I see it frequently in the art magazines.. .....Stape

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Great discussion. The idea of figure grouping is something that is so underused by most painters working today. Often everything is singled out and lined up on the canvas.
Creating interesting shapes with groups of figures is a routine element in compositions by great painters like Bouguereau.
When studying with Ingbretson, we would often look for interesting figure groupings and turn them into black silhouettes(studying the Arabesque).
Norman Rockwell also understood well organized, playful groupings. Student in the composition classes would often come in with Rockwell groupings that held their own with any master painting.