Monday, November 15, 2010

Planar expression of phalangeal form in the oeuvre of John Sargent

Tonight I want to continue pointing out Sargent's use of squared off planar representation of form. I grabbed a number of hands from our friends over there at they are a help to me in the writing of this blog and I am very grateful to them for providing me with so many images. Their museum section has a wonderful selection of Sargents.

Above is hand by Sargent, look at the index finger in particular. Sargent has made it into a box. The top and the side planes are completely squared off. Sargent handles form like this a lot, but it is particularly obvious when he is painting hands and fingers (phalanges).

Sargent does this as I explained last night because form is easier to read in a faceted planar representation than in a cylinder or tubular representation. There are landmarks or edges where the different sides of the structure meet that our eye can easily read. On a spherical or tubular structure even though it be modeled and presented with light and shadow, halftone and highlight, there are no clear points of demarcation for our eye to seize on and understand.

I have heard another draftsmen in a figure group suggest that one should use nothing but straight lines in drawing the figure. I think that is an overstatement, but it must grow from the principle I stated above. In order to be most lovely from a design standpoint, a figure ought to be both planar and spherical shapes, waltzing together. An artful arrangement of both of these set one another off, the straight lines accenting and contrasting with the swelling and rounded forms.

Here again is the beautiful hand from the Carolus-Duran portrait. Was ever a hand painted better? Notice how the squareness is used to represent the knuckles and the styloid process of the ulna ( the the head of the bone of the wrist above the little finger).

Here is a perhaps unintentional example of the contrast of a spherical form with a planar one. This is the hand of Asher Wertheimer, one of Sargents greatest patrons. Sargent has again turned that index finger into a box shape, notice how at the first knuckle it turns and runs away from us and joins the back of the hand. The back (shadowed) part of the hand and the shadowed part of that finger are all of a piece. That unifies the whole shadow part of the hand, reduces the number of complex shapes represented, and explains the perspective of the hand, all in one casual looking simplification. This was installed based on observation, but is a construct rather than a transcription of pure visual experience.. I think I will go and smoke a quick cigar myself.


James Gunter said...

I'm glad you take an all encompassing approach to the visual arts. I started coming here for lessons on landscape painting, but I paint portraits and figures, too, so I find posts like this one, well, handy!... I've dabbled in pottery, so I was interested in your posts on Greek pottery. I've made furniture, so I'm looking forward to your posts about the orders of furniture. I'm even curious about your definition of chryselephantine! (Spell check sure doesn't know what it is!)

Thanks again!

Robert J. Simone said...

Whether on the figure, along the gunwales of a boat, changes of direction in a tree, etc., expressing curves with a series of straight lines is a good strategy. Just like Sargent's boxing of forms it emphasizes change's of direction. Those straight lines don't have to be overtly obvious in the finished painting but can perform their function from the underpainting. Depends on the individual.

You illustrates a universal principle here which we should try to incorporate into our work. For landscape painters one practical application would be in cloud formations.

Philip Koch said...

Who would have thought a post on just hands would be so fun to look at and read?

And I like Simone's suggestion that these straight line construction ideas work well for landscape painters wrestling with clouds. Haven't we all seen those troubled paintings where the clouds look more like over-whipped mashed potatoes?

barbara b. land of boz said...

Both of the last two hands show a foreshortened view of the index finger. I have always felt that the Duran index finger looked too long for the view, but I also have trouble taking my eyes from it. He pulls this off without much effort.

Thank you for todays food for thought!

billspaintingmn said...

Great post Stape! This has got to help one make a better painting.
(or at least want to.)
Expression of gesture in a planar form reads easier with straight lines? Did I get that right?

Kyle V Thomas said...

"a figure ought to be both planar and spherical shapes, waltzing together."

I notice this in Raphael's paintings. He would paint in a rhythmic repetition of oval and box, oval and box. This is especially noticeable in the lower arms and hands.

There is artistic wisdom in this principle.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You are talking to a man who has posted on a lady who gave birth to rabbits.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Its funny how obvious it is when we are told this, I would never have figured it out on my own.

Stapleton Kearns said...

When my students do those clouds I accuse them of potating. That is making potato shapes.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't know maybe it is too long, it looks cool anyway.

Stapleton Kearns said...

expression of form.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Raphael was the prince of painters. He had it all and real early too.