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.
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.
Piet Mondrian - Farm at Duivendrcht - 1907 - 87 x 109 cm - oil on canvas
This beautifully rendered painting by Mondrian is a superb example of sophisticated integration. We see this in how he poetically harmonized the trees with the house. Let’s begin with the tree at the left and the subtle parallel of the lower branch with the roof line. The relationship provided is a form of integration and can also be considered harmony and structure as well. Now to the next tree and how it blends with the roof line. The third tree from the left also parallels the roof line, then connects to the chimney. The fourth tree follows the roof at the right and then continues up to form a triangle shape with the large tree leaning in from the right. This triangle form echoes the triangle shapes of the house, providing a beautiful rhythm, or triangle motif. We then continue with the rhytms of the earlier trees with the large branch going to the right in this large tree. The group of trees at the right form a large shape which provides a counter movement paralleling the right sides of the triangle shapes in the house. There are more waiting to be discovered.
I would like to mention the birds, which Mondrian used as a refinement to the composition. Note how they extend, or integrate with, the large shape of the trees, guiding you down to the left tree. And how two of the birds integrate with the large branch of the large tree at the right, and how that little bird at the right of the trees connects to the tree below. If the bird was further from the trees the connection would dissipate. The location of the bird would also integrate work elsewhere, the key is the distance between the chosen branch and the bird.
A master painter is very aware of the importance of every mark and how it relates to the composition.
I would like to take you to the water at the bottom right of the painting and why he choose not to show the reflection of the sky. The reason being it would compete with the focus of the painting by drawing us down to the bottom. This is an excellent example of composition before information!
It’s good to be aware that the movement towards abstraction came through figurative painters, as we see in Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Nicholson and many others in this period of great change in painting.
Ben Nicholson - Still Life with Jug, Mugs, Cup and Goblet - 1925 - 60 x 60 cm - oil and pencil on canvas
Ben Nicholson is a superb example of a painter who explored the great considerations of conveying depth and space by raising the subject matter to the picture plane. His dedication to this major shift in art is very impressive.
This early still life shows us his awareness of the importance of limiting perspective, conveying space through placement, as well as shifting the viewers sense of place. You can see this shift in the mug at the right. We are simultaneously level with the mug and above the others. This provides the feeling of space or movement!
Nicholson was also exploring another shift when he flattened the decoration on what we read as the curved surfaces of the mugs. This subtle dynamic is very sophisticated and is not meant to be obvious. Great artists are very aware of how we interpret subconsciously.
I should also point out some lovely integration. The shape entering the painting at the bottom taking us to the white cup and then the left of the cup integrates with the edge of the mug above. Also the top of the mug connects to the handle of the pitcher. Can you feel the integrations?
Nicholson was a great twentieth century master.
Don Farrell - Direction V (Moving Square) - 2008 - 137 x 137 cm - mixed media
In this painting I was exploring how to provide movement with a square within a square which was an interesting challenge. I reworked this painting many times before I had the feeling of achieving my initial intent, which finally appeared with the two parallel lines and the sense of an arrow at the right of the painting. I hope you can feel the integration of the lines in the square with the two parallels and how they pull you towards the arrow and then beyond.
Movement is the subject, or in other words, this painting is about something rather than of something and the viewer provides the movement!
This is truly a wonderful open challenge for artists to explore.
Andrew Wyeth - The Mill - 1959 - 35 x 57 cm - watercolour
Wyeth’s work is far beyond figurative considerations, engaging with us on so many levels, and in this post I will focus on his composition, which is remarkable. His integration and the wonderful movement he provides with parallels is very impressive.
First to the very sensitive rhythm of parallels he created with a diagonal board in the fence, the eave of the roof just above and the roof line of the building behind (see detail). These guide us to the focus of the painting which is the dark window and to the flight of the birds.
Now to his poetic integration of the birds with the tree and the fence post as well as the top curve of the pickets, is a superb example of how graceful and sensitive compositional structure can be. You either take the path of the post to the strong rectangular shape of the foreground which will return you to the parallels. The other path is absolutely fantastic! Follow the birds to the tree and then along the top of the pickets. We are then guided to the roof line returning us to the flight of the birds. I hope you can sense the wonderful shape, or loop, which also gently returns us to the focus. It is brilliant.
I must also mention the triangle shape projecting up from the large dark foreground shape pointing into the building at the right. Can you feel how it parallels harmonizes with the triangles all the buildings?
This is visual poetry! And there is more for you to discover. Enjoy!