Balthus - The Bouquet of Roses on the Window - 1958 - 53 x 51 in - oil on canvas
Balthus shows us how elegant a very popular subject can be. It’s not the subject, but rather his interpretation and knowledge of composition that makes the painting great. In this posting I will focus on how he supports, or as I prefer, how he integrates the flowers with the fields and trees behind.
Lets begin with the tree to the right and how the circular shapes in the foliage harmonize with the flowers and also lead your eye towards the bouquet. Another great relationship is how the top shape in the tree echoes the shape of the largest rose. Balthus rhythmically uses a circular motif, which is very sensitive and sophisticated. Also, can you feel your eye being carried upwards from the lower part of the rose through the smaller rose then connecting to the tree through the leaf? A great example of how poetic integration can be.
I should mention another very sensitive integration. There is a small “S” like vertical line in the field at the upper right. I hope you can feel how the line rhythmically integrates with the delicate tree at the bottom right. It is meant to be felt, even subconsciously, more than seen.
Now to the left of the flowers where the rhythmic movement of the foreground trees integrate beautifully with the bouquet. I am taken with how the small rose bud flows into the large tree and how the leaf just below the bud integrates with movements in the field, especially the curved one below the tree which harmonizes beautifully with the curve in the leaf.
I have only touched on a very few of many sophisticated considerations in this painting and I hope you will try to discover more of them. One I would like to mention is how Balthus emphasized the shading in the shutter to connect to the distant hill, the green field as well as the hedge. Everything is assessed with composition in mind. I also love the triangle motif harmonizing the fields with the windowsill. His thoroughness is masterful!
Giacometti – Self Portrait – 1921 – 32 x 28 in – oil on canvas
Giacometti’s command of composition is absolutely marvellous in this superb painting.
I will focus on his wonderful integration of the figure with the other elements in the composition. Let’s begin with how your eye is taken across the painting from the seat of the chair, along the bottom of his jacket, to the bottom of his right leg, then you are guided up to the verticals behind. Another beautiful integration is how the curve at the bottom of his pant leg rhythmically connects to the curved element to the left, which in turn, guides you up to his hand. I love it! Also take note how the bottom of his trousers connects to the lower edge of his other leg and how the bottom of his pant leg then integrates with the chair leg. I was and still am taken with how he integrated the other chair leg (between his legs) with his pant leg. Can you feel how the angle in the chair runs into his pants creating a small blue triangle? (see detail)
This very impressive small dark blue triangle provides a sense of overlapping. The top edge of this gorgeous little triangle also parallels a dark line above which in turn integrates with the edge of his palette. Can you feel the movement and shapes? There is also another sense of an angle at the bottom of the dark line (creating another plane) which parallels the angle in the chair leg. There is more. That dark line also connects to a subtle purple line which carries downward into his leg, creating another wonderfully subtle triangle.
Note the line just to the left of his pocket and how this guides you up to the front of his neck and how his chin and his collar connect to the horizontals behind. Just one more, it’s how he leads you upwards through his arm from the opening in his jacket.
There is more for you to engage with, and I hope you enjoy this wonderful early composition by this twentieth century master. I am impressed with how Giacometti permitted to show Cézanne’s influence.
Willem de Kooning - The Glazier - 1940 - 137 x 112 cm - 54 x 44 in - oil on canv
In this painting Willem de Kooning conveys his superb understanding of spatial planes. The sophistication of his considerations is very impressive, providing a sense of space without the appearance of freezing the subject matter, as we would see with traditional perspective. If he had used representational detail and modelling, the image would appear frozen in time, in the same way a photo captures the moment. This would be fine if that was the intent, and fortunately de Kooning and many other artists wanted to delve further, and explore the possibilities of planes and time in painting.
Let’s begin with the five vertically arranged planes at the right which include the mirror behind the vase Their positions are intentionally ambiguous in space, inviting the viewer to determine where they should be. Note how the plane in the table cloth connects to the upper three and how the bottom right of the painting is a plane as well. We sense flatness and depth simultaneously. We feel time because it is not clear where they are in the space because de Kooning intentionally leaves that for us to determine.
I am very impressed with how de Kooning integrated the figure with the plane (the mirror) with the brown triangle, (which is another plane). How he integrated the triangle with the figure is masterful. The top edge connects to the left shoulder and the bottom carries across the figure to another brown triangle. This is truly sophisticated.
The ambiguity and sense of planes at the left of the figure, from the ear down providing a feeling of movement is magnificent. His knowledge of the considerations in early twentieth century art is very apparent, and I feel he is truly mastering time and planes in this wonderful painting, especially between the figures legs. Ask yourself why he painted this the same colour as the pants and then you will sense a plane, emphasized by that wonderful vertical black line. Also, there is a wonderful curve at the top of the right leg giving us another sense of a plane.
One more beautiful consideration before I leave you to engage further with this wonderful painting. There is a subtle triangular plane overlapping the brown triangle pointing towards the face. Do you feel the plane it provides? Fantastic.
Ben Nicholson - Still Life with Jugs and Mugs -1929 - 38 x 56 cm - oil and pencil on canvas
This, what may seam to be a simple painting is really very sophisticated, and Nicholson was successfully developing his approach to the wonderful spatial considerations being refined in the twentieth century.
He has subtly provided us a sense of movement (our movement) by altering our position in space when we view the mugs from above and from a level position simultaneously. You are meant to sense it more than to see it, and the sophistication of his elegant simplicity is wonderful.
I love how he also provides us with the sense of space by rendering the mug handles in front of the mugs. This has stayed with me for years and I hope you can you feel and appreciate it. The handles also provide a lovely rhythm, integrating the two mugs with the jug at the right. Nicholson also provided other beautiful rhythms with the vertical bands on lower mug and the horizontal bands of colour on the pictures and the mug in the centre, which obviously brings us to the focus with strong use of colour. I feel the strong white shape balances with the strong combination of the green and reds and their combined power is on the verge of dominating. This is a great example of colour ratio, or in other words not having the colour compete or dominate the wonderful subtle considerations in the rest of the composition.
It is a joy to engage with Nicholson’s wonderful journey towards becoming a true master.
Balthus - Large Landscape with Trees - 1955 - 114 x 162 cm - oil on canvas
This great landscape by Balthus is a superb example of the power of shapes and rhythm. Before we get to that I would like to emphasise that Balthus is conveying a poetic scene for our engagement, and very aware that most of us will sense the sophistication without the need to analyse the composition.
Now to the great pleasure of analysing his masterful composition. Lets begin with the powerful large shape formed by the wall at the right and the hedge leading us across the painting to the dark trees at the left edge. Also the fields could be combined to form the feeling of a very large shape which dramatically draws us in. For me, the key of this brilliant arrangement of shapes is the power of the angle formed by the wall and the hedge, which contains and embraces the focus of the man and the horse.
The rhythms within this shape are wonderful, and I marvel at his level of contemplation. I love how poetically every tree supports the communication between the man and the horse. How the rhythm of the delicate light trees harmonize with their gestures and how the wonderful vertical ones gracefully support the figure. Note how the right leaning rhythm of the trees ends with ends by connecting to the tree leaning to the left, which in turn is supported by three trees at the left. Can you feel the harmony?
I will finish with the relationship of the dark tree just above the figure and how it relates, in shape and size, with that fantastic pull in the field above. One of the best pulls I have seen. You may carry on, as there are many other beautiful notes for you to discover.
Balthus was a great master of composition.
Balthus - The Sheep Farm - 1957 - 1960 - 50 x 102 cm - oil on canvas
I find myself revisiting Balthus for his work to remind myself how thoroughly composition can and should be assessed. I always discover something new, reminding me that there are no limits to refining a composition whether representational or abstract. I think it’s rather comforting knowing a work will never be fully realized. Time and experience will determine how well we do or assess.
Painting cultivated land provides a wonderful opportunity for integrating and developing rhythm in a painting and Balthus has done it beatufully in this serene farm scene. We are harmoniously guided through the landscape to the gorgeous group of buildings which Balthus adjusts to harmonize with the land. There are a number of pathways and rhythmic lines and shapes leading us to the buildings and I will guide you through a few.
Lets begin with a series of parallels which lead you towards the focus from the left of the painting. Your eye will run along the line with a little shed and you will then feel yourself gracefully moving to the buildings when you sense the rhythmic parallels below. You are also sensitively directed towards the buildings from the upper left and right of the painting. I marvel at how he supports the rhythmic movements with absolutely wonderful structure, integrating the fields with the buildings. He accomplished this with triangles which provide the primary motif of the composition.
I am very impressed with how Balthus adjusted the shapes of the buildings to harmonize with the land and discovering the reason for that small dark vertical at the bottom was a pleasure. It provides subtle structure and integrates with a leaning bush above which directs you to the buildings.
I must also the beautiful embracing arch above the large building and how it integrates with the buildings bringing us to the wonderful white shape, which is actually the focus. When you view the light areas on the buildings can you feel the pull of the tiny white shed at the left?
I will always return to appreciate and learn.
Richard Diebenkorn - Girl with Flowered Background - 1962 - 103 x 52 cm - oil on canvas
How Diebenkorn integrated the figure with the Matisse like rhythm of the background is beautifully considered. Let’s begin with the horizontal black shape at the left of the painting and how it sweeps up and integrates with the blue shadow, through the red shape, then with her hair. The sweep also connects to the delightfully assessed black shape above her right shoulder, which brings the eye to the blue stripe on her blouse, very impressive. We then automatically follow the red stripe which not only integrates with her hair, but when you follow it down from her right shoulder you will eventually connect to the stem of the small flower above her left shoulder, which then joins with a white shape connecting us to the horizontal division of the painting. Very sophisticated.
There are two wonderful pulls permitting us to leave the focus of her hair and move through the painting. I’m referring to the beautifully balanced black shape at the bottom and the other one at the right edge of the painting. Remember, these are meant to be felt more than noticed and pulls relate through closeness in either value or colour.
The centres of the flowers provide a beautiful subtle horizontal rhythm supporting the division in the composition and gently relieving us from the strength of her black hair. Do you find your gaze moving to the dots when you focus on her? As I said these considerations are not meant to be obvious. They are invitations to a visual dance.
I must also mention the fantastic blue shadow which Diebenkorn painted as a shape. We see a master permitting preceding masters to influence his work. We can all join this great tradition, whether we paint or love to engage through cultivated study.
Richard Diebenkorn - Woman with Newspaper - 122 x 86 cm - oil on canvas
This painting by Diebenkorn has an excellent example of what I like to term a pull, which is a shape, value or colour pulling the viewer from the focus of the composition. Master artists are very aware of the viewer’s perusal, and how to guide the eye away from the focus without competing. This is not easily accomplished and it takes time before you find what works for you.
Diebenkorn masterfully takes us from the focus of the girl’s head to the black coffee, which is beautifully supported with the similar values below. I hope you can feel the pull as it should not be obvious. If it’s too strong we would have competition which in Diebenkorn’s hands, has been superbly avoided.
This is orchestration and good artists resist formula. The continuity, or style, comes from knowledge combined with intuition and of course experience.
Now there is a great pause(which is not as strong as a pull) on the newspaper in the shape of a “U”, gently taking you from the coffee. Can you see the path? He guides us from her hair, to the cup, to the “U”, (where you pause), and then back to her head. There are other avenues to guide us as well, which I hope you enjoy discovering and appreciating.
I must also mention how the figure is beautifully integrated with the background at her left shoulder. Do you see how the white shape curls up to connect to her hair? And I love that black line leading in and forming her knuckles. Great integration. What a painter!
Richard Diebenkorn - Nude on Blue Ground - 1966 - 206 x 150 cm - oil on canvas
This painting is a great example of a great painter permitting another to influence his work. In the Matisse painting below (posted on Oct. 19, 2011), we see how he brought the background, or a spatial plane, in front of the figure’s right shoulder.
Diebenkorn used shadows to achieve the same result. The shadow below her chin seems to be part of the background as well, and I feel the sharp right angle is the key. You can also feel the sense of a spatial plane below her left breast and another beautifully considered right angle on her right arm which relates to the angle under her chin. (Blurring your vision may help)
This sophisticated consideration provides the feeling the figures occupying space.
I must also point out Diebenkorn’s superb integration of the figure’s right arm with the line leading to the bottom of the painting and how this supports her. I also love how her face comes forward, very impressive.
Being aware of these influences can be very beneficial for developing artist’s. Joining with this great tradition is a great way to develop as long as you understand the difference between being influenced and copying. You need to connect to the thought process and knowledge of the artists you choose.
Edward Hopper - American Landscape - 1920 - 7.5 x 12.5 in - etching
This wonderful etching is a superb example of how important the knowledge of composition is in all forms of expression.
Hopper’s exquisite use of rhythm is one of the best examples I know of. The three cows rhythmically lead us into the landscape to a wonderful light patch, just above the cow crossing the tracks. This beautiful consideration takes us beyond the cows to the powerful shape of the trees and beyond.
There is also a superb integration of the centre cow with a small triangle structure just beyond the tracks. Can you see how the back of the cow’s neck connects to the triangle and then how you harmoniously read the other triangle at the right of the house? Another sensitive relationship is between the cow on the tracks and the sunlit side of the house. They harmonize in value and size beautifully.
The foundation of three horizontal rectangles in this composition is a great example of reducing to a few shapes. The power of shape motifs is very important and master artists are very aware of how superfluous detail can weaken a composition.
Great composition does not need to rely on size or detail.