Monday, December 10, 2012

Simplified designs in iconic paintings

Winslow Homer, Fog Warning   The Museum of Fine Arts Boston
I write often about design. Design is what I call that part of  painting which is neither color or drawing. I prefer the word "design" to the word "composition" because it implies deliberate  and thoughtful human action.


 I have been playing with some images in my Photoshop program that divides everything into either a black or a white pixel. Looking at paintings that way is rather like squinting at them, which is something I routinely do. Like squinting it eliminates all the detail and reduces them to their basic value structure. Simplification is the root of design. There is a concept in Japanese art called notan
 ( I will smugly let you assume I know my way around Japanese art). Arthur Wesley Dow 1857 –1922 who was from Ipswich, Massachusetts wrote an influential book published in 1912. In it he discusses Notan. That is the use of  simplified arrangement of the dark and light in an image. The book is a classic text on the subject of design in painting.

  Below is Winslow Homers painting above reduced down to only two values.

Not all   fine paintings are as reduced as these but I think many iconic paintings are. They have a big and very spare design. Like the ability  of great orators to succinctly say something with a few words that stays on your mind, these paintings make a bold and unforgettable statement without many complicated and busy shapes. Brevity  is  eloquent. The Homer has a  big dark of a somewhat bizarre shape (the pointed shapes of those clouds is so strange!) accented by a slash of light, the fish.  The clouds look eerie as befits a dangerous development in the weather for the Gloucesterman in the small boat. Those spiky shapes say threat. Homer has played the lights and darks in the water close enough together that it remains one big shape. Had he pushed the lights and the darks there further apart he would have destroyed the unity in the big shape of the water. The sea remains a single shape decorated with variation rather than a  collection of different and separate shapes. Subordinating value changes within an area preserves the large shapes and yet still allows for the variations necessary to convey the drawing.

Here is a favorite Rembrandt of mine, A Woman Bathing, from the National Gallery in London. This is likely Hendrickje Stoffels his housekeeper who became Rembrandts lover and common law wife. That was a scandal that sorely affected his standing in Amsterdam.
Below is  the reduced version.

It is a big, somewhat complicated, but single light shape against a dark field. Not much question as to where we are supposed to look and what the subject is here. There is enormous bulk and solidity in this figure. It has weight and mass. The picture also has the earthy humanity for which  Rembrandt is famous. The impossibly rich darks contrast brilliantly with smash of light on the simple gown she raises to a nearly indecent height. Only the shadow of its hem hides her underneathies from our prurient gaze.

Here is Bougereau's Nymphs and Satyrs belonging to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.  I understand this is now on loan to the Metropolitan in New York. I have always felt they had a weaker Bougereau than was fitting given the superlative quality of their collection and their place as the premier American museum.

This painting reduces down to a diagonally placed oval anchored at one end by the  female wonderful figure that counterbalances the struggling satyr.This oval is an intricate rhythmic collection of shapes silhouetted against the darkness of it's background Evidently, according to myth Satyrs fear water.

Above is a Dean Cornwell, a great American illustrator, and  below is it's reduced version.

This design is a loop of intricate shapes, dark against a light background. Notice that each of these shapes is totally different from each other. That gives it the maximum visual interest, as opposed  to  repetitive quickly read too similar forms. All of those darks are  linked by  the way. You can  place your finger on it anywhere and trace its entire circumference without lifting your exploring digit. If you divide the picture at the center the weight of the two halves balances. The largest most bizarre  and alluring dark shapes surround the man in the chair at the middle left, as he is the main actor in this drama and Cornwell wanted to make sure you knew that.

 © The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery 
Here is Edward Seago again, a superb designer. This thing could be a  Franz Kline it is so abstract.This is a powerful and arresting design, brutal and like the harsh world of the arctic  where it was painted. The bold and aggressive design carries the story as much as the rendering of the objects.There must be only about three different values in this painting. This thing is boiled down to it's essentials also.

Again, all of the darks are linked. Notice the white negative spaces, they  are each different in area, giving maximum variety to their shapes.

Here is The Hundred Guilder Print by Rembrandt You can squint at this and see it's simple arrangement also. It is really a big dark field with a pointed wedge of light extended into it. Within that doorstop shape is a triangle at whose apex is the figure of Christ.

Here is an early 20th century etching by Edward Blashfield (1848-1936)  an English artist. The Breaking up of the Agamemnon. This is an example of the use of bold shapes in design. There was a great revival of etching in that era and in the better works of that day were great examples of design. I have studied them to learn their moves. I guess I should do a post on etchings of that period. Perhaps I already have, I forget, I have written so much.

I have scheduled another Snowcamp, a winter painting workshop in the White Mountains of New Hampshire . Held at a rambling late 19th century inn.  The Sunset Hill in Franconia, New Hampshire which is very romantic and old timey.The workshop will be held January 26 through 28.  I have done this for a few years now and it is my favorite workshop of the year. The inn is the perfect place to do a class and the scenery is fabulous. The White mountains are spread before the inn like a movie set. 


It might be cold but the inn is right at our backs as we work so we can run inside by the fire and drink more coffee if it becomes too much. The inn has helped me do workshops for years now. They even provide us with our own dining room, where we can eat together around a big round table every night.  I do a talk  on art and design while our dinner is prepared by the inn's chef. If you are interested, please click here.