Monday, May 9, 2011

A Kensett beak

John Frederick Kensett, Eatons Neck, courtesy of

Here is a famous painting that contains, in my opinion, a beak. It may be the ultimate beak painting. I suppose it works, Kensett has kept the gap to the left of the beak structure broad and that allows the eye passage around it, but the painting still makes me uncomfortable. Notice that the tip of the beak falls exactly halfway across the painting.
There is a stillness and hushed magic to this painting, probably because of the simplicity of the sky and water that make it interesting and full of feeling. But again I wish it weren't so beaky.

There is an old rule of thumb that suggests never to place anything dead in the center of a painting. However bring something up to the center works rather well and artist do it frequently. Perhaps had this beak crossed that center line it would not have worked. There may be something to keeping it to one side of the middle. So here is perhaps another solution to the beak problem.

The painting is in a format called a double square. That is, it is twice as long as it is high. This is an interesting format, good for fields and oceans and places with a broad view and a low horizon.The squarer a picture is the more likely it is to feel intimate, interiors are good in square formats.the more elongated it becomes the more sublime or suitable to the expression of great distance.There are of course lots of exceptions to this and in fact the whole design thing is full of exceptions. That is why they are not rules, but principles or suggestions. That is why it is important to be able to appraise whether a design is working in your particular situation, rather than just plugging a design template in and believing your job is done. Nothing in design works all of the time and there are great paintings that seem like they shouldn't work but do.

I don't like calling design ideas rules, maybe secrets or principles or serving suggestions, but not rules. Still a knowledge of design helps to make the world paintable. At the root of the whole design thing is simplification. Begin by simplifying and work outward from there.


Mary Byrom said...

When I first saw this I thought what a strong line right out to the tip of that beak. Double square... my favorite landscape shape for the ocean and marshes...nice series Stapleton.

Nita Leger Casey said...

Went to Plum Island yesterday, my Mother's day outing , I was taking pictures of waves and thinking about you with all the shapes and rolls and foam etc...for reference for a sea scape. your teaching stays with with me and I can hear your voice , do this and not that etc....
Hope Kathleen had a nice day yesterday ! say hi to her .

Lucy said...

This painting is really special in person, partly because of the quality of the paint. It's a very minimal composition, very still, and quiet. Maybe he used glazes to achieve such unity.

I think the beak in this painting may work better than others because of the sharp curve and angle to the lower right. It's not jutting out from the right on a strong horizontal.
Sometimes a painting's success is kind of a mystery.

Philip Koch said...

Mighty Stape- thanks for posting this particular Kensett. To me it's one of the most unusual paintings done in the U.S. during the 19th century, and one of th best. In addittion to Lucy's good comments I'd add the amazing gradations Kensett sneaks into his water.

Admittedly it's a bit weird. Yet so often I'm struck by how unexpected and unanticipated reality is as we march through her. Part of our job as artists is to honor the real achievement of our past artists and figure out how to use their tools to tell our contemporary stories. Sometimes that means getting into something of a painting jam and tryiing some less orthodox solutions. I think that's just what Kensett was doing here.

One of our problems today is that so many of our fellow artists have gotten obsessed by innovation that they grasp at straws. Often coming up with really gimmicky art or just plain incomprehensive, ideosycratic silliness. Yet innovation (or just plain old rule breaking) is part of the positive heritage of art history. It's a tricky balance.

Sarah Faragher said...

"...there are great paintings that seem like they shouldn't work but do."

Amen. In the Kensett painting the sharpness of the land helps form the mood of the whole scene - charged, bleak, and clean. Weird but appropriate somehow.

Moose said...

Perhaps this beak is ok because the value of the water is so dark. It provides a bit of balance, doesn't it?

willek said...

I really like this picture and have not seen it before. Do you think the whole mass of the beak and shore is balanced by that little boat on the horizon? Your eye ultimately goes to that whitish dot.

Kevin Beck said...

Sorry to differ a bit with the group, but this beak bothers me. It may be well painted but I find it a rather boring picture. I have painted equally boring beaky Lake Michigan paintings I still have them stashed in my pile of "what were you thinking". I "get" what Phllip is saying but one of the best?

Anonymous said...

I often enjoy the comments here as much as the posts, part of the great fun and learning at this blog! For me, the power of the painting on an abstract level is the jagged ripping of the earth and shore through the fabric of the picture plane; earthly weight ripping through, penetrating the ethereal, infinite quietude of the sky and sea. A human run along the shore, into the distance, then a great leap and human existence picked up again far off into the distance. It’s an image of time.
Then again, the shore/earth also looks like the head of a roadrunner.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't find this picture particularly appealing. There are lots of Kensetts I like a lot more. It is a novelty act.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks; I will tell her hello.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't remember if I have ever seen the original. A lot of that luminist stuff works much better in person. Most paintings do.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Is balance a rule?

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is a weird Kensett. AT Bricher handled this sort of thing much better in my opinion.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't know, ti me it barely works. It is so spare and I guess that is part of it's charm.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think the little boat helps, I am not sure I think the painting works particularly well. Maybe it's just me though, I hate beaks!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I agree.You and me against the world!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I come down on the roadrunner side.