Sunday, May 8, 2011



Often referred to as the Nevelson master, the works of the unknown Dutch tyro are finally receiving the attention that has so long been denied them. Their suitability as a teaching device has bestowed on them an importance that their quality could never have achieved. Below is a second very similar painting from the Nevelson master believed to have been retouched by another (and modestly more skilled) hand. In this version a number of changes have been made to ameliorate the faults of the other shown above.

A pattern of lights and darks has been established over, under, around, and through the beak area to camouflage its existence. The shape of the beak has been subordinated to a value structure that arrays lights and darks in shapes unrelated to its beakish outline. This is a little like the images you have seen of rattlesnakes curled up in dry leaves or sofa cushions. It takes a moment for our eye to pick the viper out as their outlines are broken up by the patterns they bear on their thick coils.

The unknown retouching artist has darkened a few passages in the sky to direct attention away from the beak area as well. More contrast and detail has been added to the tree at right to win your eye to another part of the picture. I have heard stories of a bird who will feign a broken wing and flap feebly across the ground as if injured, away from her nest, to distract and lure predators from her young. The detail added to the tree on the right does this, it weights the picture a little differently and pulls our interest over to the right.

The gap between the beak structure and the left hand margin of the picture has been increased also. The closer a beak is to the opposite rabbet of the canvas, the harder it is for the viewer to circumnavigate it. A good clear passageway over there will help.

The reflections in the water and the cheesy little sailboat on the right add vertical shapes to the area to overcome the thrusting knife like shape of the offending beak. The boat crosses and shortens the hard line at its base, deempathisizing its structure even more.

There are sometimes solutions to dealing with problem shapes in nature, often they have to do with deemphasizing them or breaking up their lines through camouflage.


Chris said...

Stapleton, thanks for 'discovering' and posting these marvellous design examples. I had never heard about the beak before, the solutions look effective.

A while back I downloaded an ancient book (published 1837) from which has some helpful (and some less so) design principles - it mentions your example from yesterday, the two equal trees, but doesn't mention the beak. For interested blog readers the book is "The Sketcher's Manual" by Frank Howard.

The book does have an alternative title, a bit more pompous - "The whole art of picture making reduced to the simplest principles, by which amateurs may instruct themselves without the aid of a master". When you get around to writing your book, I hope you can give it a title like that!

Robert J. Simone said...

I guess the Dutch tyro strictly adhered to the "Brown School" of painting.

Libby Fife said...

Rattlesnake curled up on a couch???

I have enjoyed these posts (and have made all of the errors mentioned and then some, thanks so much!) and wanted to say what they reminded me of. The "editing" and breakdown of the paintings reminds me of writing. A lot. Looking at it this way makes it so much easier for me to undertsand things. So thank you again for helping everything click in to place.

Libby Fife said...

understand! Urgh!!!!!

Philip Koch said...

Stape I didn't get around to reading the earlier post about the two equally sized trees confusing the viewer's eye til just now. As a design idea, you're totally right. But the greatst achievement in the post has to be your advice " to choose but a single prize from (nature's) unfettered bodice." Your turn of phrase is so marvelous I'll be giggling about that for years.

More seriously, I think anyone interested in the whole problem of painting "beaks" should spend time looking at John Frederick Kensett's coastal paintings. He did a lot of beaks but followed your advice to break up their interiors into intriguing designs. His work shows there's often a way to break a perfectly good general compositional "rule", but only if you really know what you're doing.

Studying the work of the best artists who've gone down the path before us helps us a lot.

Unknown said...

Loving all these lessons on design.
And appreciate the effort to create, er, uh, DISCOVER, these "problem" paintings for our edification. It's like a workshop with you, minus the abuse!

Sarah Faragher said...

So, if beaks are constantly before you, and you love them, you may of course paint them, but for goodness' sake integrate them into the complete scene instead of just having them randomly stab your painting in two... Got it!

Debra Norton said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you Stape! I was afraid I'd never know how to deal with beaks!