Sunday, February 3, 2013

Controlling M-Faces

Above is a Sargent watercolor of Venice. I have written before about unity of effect and subordination of detail to the larger masses in which they are contained. In this post I want to show what happens if you don't control your emphasis. To do this I have messed up a few fine paintings using Photoshop.

Where you put your emphasis is desperately important in picturemaking. You might have intended to say "building with some windows", but instead said "building with some windows" by not subordinating the windows to the facade of the structure. Below is the same Sargent with the windows and details in the building exaggerated.

The building is no longer subordinated to the Gondolas in the foreground. It fights with them now for our attention . The picture no longer clearly tells you where to look, it is beginning to have two subjects rather than one, the boats. In the upper version the gondolas are dominant, in the lower they no longer are. This is a matter of emphasis. Just as in a stage play there is a star or lead role and there are supporting actors, if one of the supporting actors gets self important and begins blocking or outshining the lead he has to be chided, if not eviscerated by the director.

You as a picture maker are the director and it is important to keep the actors on your stage in check, lest they steal the show from your lead and distract the audience from the story that you want to tell. 


When making a design it is usually a mistake to give everything an equal emphasis, although it might be good in a blueprint or a schematic drawing. Part of a design is deciding what is important and what is not, what is the dominant, and what needs to be subordinated to that. Often this is about keeping your masses "big". That is, not chopping up every shape into an assemblage of the smaller shapes within it.

© The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery
 Above is an Edward Seago, I know I post a lot of his paintings but he is a great hero to me.  Below is the painting again, after my tender ministrations.

I have overemphasized the detail in the buildings behind the pointy feet children. It throws the whole thing out of whack.  Seago  subordinated the windows and doors beautifully to the larger and more important shape of the building itself. I have reversed the polarity, now the details are more  assertive than the larger form upon which they ride, and the unity of the painting has been destroyed. The building, formerly a supporting actor, has taken over the stage like a girl in the chorus line naked with a traffic cone on her head.

© The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery
 Here is another Seago, and below is my damaged version.

I have exaggerated the windows in the ocher colored building on the left, and lightened the contrast in the group of boats at center. Now instead of quietly occupying that side of the painting, the building is too assertive. It is stealing the show from the boats which were the artist's intended focus in the painting. Now the boats lead you through the painting to the building.

Every element you put into a painting has to be appraised for it's importance. Ask yourself "is this object important or should it be subordinated to the whole, so what is important can shine?" Sometimes during a critique an artist will hold their hand up to block from their view a part of the painting. When they do that it is usually because some element  has been overstated and is interfering with either the balance or the unity of the painting. You only get one subject per picture, if you try to have two the picture will fail. It has a problem I call "one for each eye" There must be
 one dominant subject and the other forms must be subordinated to that.

How you set your emphasis is a matter of your personal choice, and when you make choices you are making art. There are cameras that are made to be left strapped to trees in the forest to shoot pictures of passing wildlife. When the unwitting animal steps into the machines vision, it takes a picture. The machine is not an artist. It makes an image, but no decisions as to what that image will look like. Transcription is only accounting. Noise is not music. Like form, or arrangement of shapes, emphasis is a design decision and a human imposition of selective order onto nature. Nature in itself is not art, art is the product of a human decision about how to portray nature. This explains entirely why so little truly great art is currently being produced by the deceased.


Anonymous said...

great post, Monsieur Stape!

Naked girl...traffic cone? Your witticism are to be treasured!

So just like the rule, "all color is no color", so is the rule "All emphasis is no emphasis"

I love how you show and tell! Wonder what it must've been like going to school with you as a kid!


Stapleton Kearns said...

I sat in the back row with the greasers, piled books on the front of my desk and drew behind them all day. Every day every class I got dreadful grades.I had many dear friends in the greaser community.

Charles Valsechi said...

I have heard this before, but seeing it in the examples really makes all the difference. What a wealth of knowledge.

Billy Guffey said...

A very good lesson to be remembered. I always try to think, "If everything shouts, nothing gets heard."

Robert J. Simone said...

Not sure I agree.....the deceased might be producing great art. We're just not privileged to see it. I do like that last paragraph. "Noise is not music" is a line I think I may borrow. If you don't mind.

jimserrettstudio said...

Once again, you have blown my mind.

There are stories that you are ten feet tall, have porn star pink skin and paint brushes as finger tips.

Anonymous said...

So...everything is relative within the narrative, and only understood within context?

Erik Koeppel said...

Nice post, and I agree with the principle. I also note, that in each case your change which disrupts the picture not only draws attention to the disrupted object, but also removes it from its correct position in atmospheric space (bringing them forward to the front of the picture instead of staying back in the right place where the artist had them). That's a big deal when it comes to unity.

Robert Ellefson said...

I get the topic, but what is it about the title "controlling m-faces" that I'm missing?

Timon Sloane said...

Great post, but that's a pretty complicated way to explain "why so little truly great art is currently being produced by the deceased". It's even easier than that - hard for dead guys to produce more work :-).

Glad to see you posting. Great stuff. You probably have no idea what great reach you have.