Balthus – Competing Considerations

Balthus – Solitaire – 1943 – 161 x 164 cm – oil on canvas

These two lovely paintings by Balthus executed ten years apart remind me of how many notable artists struggled with the competing considerations between composition and information in figurative painting.  Which is to be the primary intent, the level of accuracy or the arrangement and altering of the subject matter to lyrically convey feeling.  The choice is with the artist.

In the earlier painting Balthus leaned towards information, focusing on the the figure and her surroundings to ensure our recognition of the when and the where.  We see it in the furnishings, the decor in the room and the style of her clothing.  We are more involved with the information rather than the compositional relationships.

The composition is beautifully considered but is subordinate to the figurative considerations. This was his intent.
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Balthus – Patience – 1954-55 – 90 x 88 cm – oil on canvas

The second painting has a very different “feel” because we respond to relationships and harmony (either consciously or subconsciously) and these compositional considerations were foremost in his mind when working on the painting.

The rhythms and integrations are magnificent.

Let me begin with his sensitive reduction of the room to three horizontal divisions which provides the sense of place.  The tops of the table and stool add to the horizontal rhythmic structure.  I love the elegant vertical arrangement of the legs of the table and stool, with the candle stick and her upper arms.  Can you feel how the horizontal and vertical structure support and integrate with the figure?

Two magnificent integrations (or site paths) are apparent when we notice how the right leg of the table connects with the opening below her torso and right arm and how her left arm integrates with the cat’s tail.  Please note how the shape of the cat echoes the wonderful opening and is also in harmony with the curve of the top of her hair.

The dark patches on the cat also commands our eye to move across the bottom of the painting ensuring a beautiful rhythm supporting her shoe.  Imagine how awkward it would be to return from her black shoe without them.

The shadow from her shoe, the stool and table legs relate to her shadow on the table top. You are meant to feel the relationship rather than see it.

I must mention the subtle rhythmic support for her left wrist.  We sense connection to the shadow on the table which loops, embracing her focus.  The shape of her hair, the curve of the bottom of her sweater and the curve of the stripe on her skirt return us to her contemplation masterfully.  When we engage on this level we actually connect to the artist’s considerations when developing the composition.

We become engaged with the primary reason for the painting because there is less competitive representational detail.

Let us return to the other painting for comparison.  Take in the fingers on her left hand and the creases on her skirt.  They are very well painted of course but do they lead you away from her focus.  Maybe this is why they were changed in the later painting. There are many other adjustments for you to engage with.

We should be thankful to Balthus for presenting these two wonderful paintings for they do teach us how to appreciate art.

My Work – Responding to Composition

Weights-and-Sketches-9½-x-12¾-in-mixed-on-paper

Weights-and-Sketches-9½-x-12¾-in-mixed-on-paper

I began this still life by building up layers of mixed media to establish a textured surface which invites marking and scoring.  I then marked in the table top quickly and gouged the heavy line spanning the wall and turning upwards at the right.

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detail one

I next determined the shape of the table cloth to provide an entry from the bottom edge of the painting.  Then, once on the table, changing it’s direction to harmonize with both ends of the table top.  I decided to have this direction emphasized with a series of parallel edges and lines, and these in turn determined the placement of the sketches and soaking pan.  The rhythm continues with a spatial plane (see detail one) to the right of the table finishing with the edge of the wall.

I used the same considerations horizontally as well, but with some “shifting” to convey the feeling of occupying space, especially along the top edge of the table.  I’m very pleased with the downward shift of the stripes adjacent to the soaking pan and the angle just above (see detail two).  I feel a sense of energy there.

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detail two

 The wall above invited the two rectangles and the circle.  I played with their placements until I was satisfied with how they supported the items on the table.  I especially like how the delicate circle offers a gentle place to pause away from the focus of the weights and soaking pan.

The top of the painting felt a little vacant, and this prompted the arrow, which introduced the finishing touch for the rhythmic parallels below.

The black edge of the soaking pan then needed rhythmic support, resulting in the appearance of the black weights.  I readjusted their placements until they felt right.  The triangular feel of the lower weight in the pan was determined to relate to the shape in the sketch at the left providing the finishing touch for the composition.

I’m always open to where the composition will guide my considerations.

William Scott – Integration with Line and Shapes (Shape Motifs)

William Scott – Still Life – 1955 – 61 x 91 cm (24 x 36 in) – oil on canvas

 William Scott paintings resonate with me and I often visit his work.

This wonderful still life is a splendid example of how sophisticated the reductive process can be.. Any other markings or additional subject matter would be superfluous.

The composition is an exquisite orchestration of rectangles which provide the rhythmic structure. Their arrangement is splendidly supported by a sub-motif of ovals, which include the pears and the two “Cezanne-like” ovals in the glass.

The rectangles are energized by three slightly leaning vertical lines, as well as the left edge of the warm rectangle at the right, and the right edges of both the plate and glass. These “oblique parallels” rhythmically connect the background with the subject matter. The vertical edges of the table and the warm shape at the left support the upright stems and the glass beautifully.

The connection of the glass with the warm shape above is matched with the integration of the pear at the left with the other warm shape. This is a great example of rhythmic integration

Another beautiful consideration is the relationship of the curved side of the glass with the curved edge of the right most pear. Also note how the horizontal stem at the left provides lateral movement supporting the curves of the plate, the glass and the other pears. The structural impact of the angled edge of the left pear magnificently ensures the connection with the glass.

I feel how Scott avoided overlapping the pears is fantastic, as this would have disrupted the rhythm of their placement, which brings me to another wonderful consideration of not indicating cast shadows on three of the pears. This is a superb example of not permitting literal information to interfere with the composition. Yet another wonderful consideration is the Cezanne-like shifting of the table top, which enhances the feeling of space.

I would like to finish with Scott’s sensitively assessed focus of the painting with the beautiful green oval embracing the stem of the vertical pear at the right. When your perusal arrives, you find yourself gracefully being held, which is a fantastic example of orchestrating composition.

Mark Rothko – Integration with Parallels and Shapes

Mark Rothko – Untitled – 1938 – 50 x 37 in – oil on canvas

 

The best way to appreciate an artist’s mature work is to be as familiar as possible with their earlier work.   In this painting from 1938 we see not only how varied the journey can be, but also how accomplished Rothko’s command of composition is.

We feel the couple’s relationship very strongly through his marvellous use of distortion. His integration of the couple with shapes and parallels is wonderful.

I’ll begin with how the rectangles of the structure behind are repeated in the woman’s hat and the collar of her dress.  The integration ensures she is well connected with the structure, conveying a feeling of strength and stability.

Next, the couple are beautifully integrated with each other with a series of parallels.  Let’s begin with the angle of the man’s left arm at the shoulder.   If you follow the angle downward, your eye will connect with the angle of the black shadow on the woman.  The under side of his arm also reinforces this angle.  Other parallels appear in his vest and the collar of his jacket.  The parallel positioning of their forward-stepping feet and their shadows bolster the rhythmic connection.

Value is most important for ensuring the importance of the movement.  If you blur your eyes, the strength becomes more apparent.  I should note the small parallels in the structure behind as well.  Rothko was very thorough and these considerations are meant to be more felt than seen.

There is another series of short parallels, leading us in another direction, which provides more subtle integrations of the figures.  They occur from their right feet up to the man’s right shoulder to the angle of the woman’s hat.

I haven’t forgotten the horizontal and vertical integrations and will let you discover how Rothko used them to integrate the couple with the background.

His thoroughness is wonderful.

To finish may I divert your attention to the fabulous spatial plane in the lower portion of the woman’s dress.  Can you feel how the vertical rectangular shape just above her forward step comes forth?   I love it.

Matisse – Colour and Pattern within Shapes

Henri Matisse - Reader on a Black Background - 1939 - 92 x 74 cm

I would like to engage further with the wonderful movement Matisse provides, both with colour and with his sophisticated use of pattern within shapes.

Let’s begin with colour.   When we focus on a colour we intuitively take in the same colour else-where in the composition.   This creates movement which Matisse orchestrates through scale and placement, like musical notes, determining lyrical engagement.

For example, when we look at the blue rectangles, we also sense the blues in the bouquet, as well as the vertical in the white rectangle at the right edge of the painting.  Do you feel the circular movement?   The little notes of blue on her shoes ensure we are not held in a tight area at the right of the composition, and instead bring us gently to the left, to engage with the wonderful movement through the warms of the figure and the small notes above and to the right.   The same goes for the other colours as well.  I should note that the temperature of the colours is also a factor in movement as we connect the orange with the red shapes Matisse provides the lyrical harmony through using shape motifs.

Another great consideration is using patterns within shapes.  In other words, not permitting the complexity of the subject to disrupt the harmonious relationships of the shapes.   In the bouquet, Matisse does this beautifully by treating it as an oval containing an arrangement of smaller ovals.   The two white oval shapes containing the pattern of yellow ovals and grey markings (which match the line drawings) are a great example of pattern within shapes.  Even the light grey areas in the bouquet with the blue markings read as ovals.

These are considerations used by many artists and Matisse did it better than anyone.

Matisse – Shapes and Eye Movement

Henri Matisse - Reader on a Black Background - 1939 - 92 x 74 cm

 

I love the way Matisse invites us to joyfully participate with his paintings.  My long standing admiration only increases with time.

In this posting I would like to focus on his beautifully choreographed shapes and eye movement.

By reducing the shapes to simple rectangles and ovals, he is able to focus on the relationships of these shapes, and guide us lyrically throughout the painting.  We move through the shapes because of his sensitivity to the spacing and integration.  Modelling or superfluous detail would only disrupt the harmony.

My own initial eye movement begins with the white rectangle.  Then, sensing the vertical integration upwards from its left edge, my eye moves to the light shape above the figure’s reflection.  The curved edge (partial oval) then carries me towards the rectangle with the figure drawing.  I then find my eye moving through the small white vertical rectangles to the blue shapes, which in turn guide me to the vertical green shape.  This leads my eye to the beautiful arrangement of ovals.

Another integrating eye path which I found exciting begins with the small black angle on the figure’s blouse, at the right arm.  Following its upward direction leads me to another line just above her head.  I hope you then can see the connection with a subtle series of parallels guiding our perusal through the red ovals and greenery to the hand of the figure drawing above.

I must point out an alternate path from the line just above her head.  It also connects to the reflection of her hair returning us to her face, providing wonderfully subtle containment.

I would like to finish with the orange oval feel of the figure’s legs.  If Matisse stayed within the lines, the lyrical harmony with her face would have been weakened.

There is so much more such as colour and pattern within shapes. I may do another post.

 

My Work – Shape Motifs, Reduction, Rhythm and Spatial Considerations

Blue Cup VI - 37 x 50 in - mixed media on canvas

This composition with my blue cup is a great example of reducing composition to an arrangement of shapes.  This seemingly basic approach opens the door to wonderful spatial ad rhythmic considerations.  The most important aspect of painting is the viewer’s engagement with how things relate, and one of the best ways to accomplish this is working with shape motifs.

This painting could be described as an arrangement of rectangles supported with a sub motif of ovals and a triangle.  The challenge is orchestrating them, which usually calls for considerable reworking, until I “feel” their relationships.  I become excited when this begins to happen and will stay with it no matter how many adjustments or refinements my sense of rhythm and harmony commands. I never tire of the process.

The primary relationship in this painting is between the cup and the rectangular pan.  The distance, or space, between has an energy which is embraced by the table top and supported by the rhythmic arrangement of the small white sketches.

Now to the very important play with lines and markings on the table.  I felt the ovals and half ovals needed rhythmic support.  Can you see the curved lines and feel their influence with the ovals?

The four lines (detail) between the cup and the pan were instinctively placed to support the four sketches. The triangle below was instinctively placed for a counter movement toward the sketches. There is also a small angle (detail) at the right which guides your eye back towards the sketches. 

The balance of the painting supports the rectangle motif with the lines at the top harmonizing with the horizontals of the table, especially the front edge.

A very important connection is a small line on the wall, just above the left edge of the soaking pan.  It carries you upward towards the strong white line carved into the painting.  I spent considerable time determining the placement, weight and length to harmonize its relationship with the cup and pan.  I also used the same consideration with the right edge of the cup and the edge of the white sketch above.

Striving to ensure every mark and shape have harmonious relationships and avoiding competition is the key.

If the shapes were not simple their relationships would not be felt as strongly.

 

 

Matisse – Shape Motifs, Site Paths and Abstracting

Matisse – Bathers with a Tortoise – 1908 – 179 x 220 cm – oil on canvas

This homage to Cézanne’s magnificent Bather compositions is a beautiful move towards more abstract considerations.

Matisse immediately engages us with the figures and tortoise by simplifying (abstracting) the background.  Their oval motifs and positioning create beautifully considered oval site paths.

If we begin with the tortoise our eye carries up the arm of the crouching figure to the orange of her hair.  We then move to the black oval of the standing figure’s hair which in turn leads to the black in the hair of the seated figure.  The oval feel of the third figure guides us downward along the direction of her feet returning us to the tortoise.  If you follow this path in either direction your finger will be drawing an oval.

There are others. From the tortoise to the angle of the seated feet, connecting to the curve of her back and head taking us to the oval in the standing figure.  We then move towards the orange, bringing us back to the tortoise.  If your eye path takes you from the tortoise to the exaggerated foot of the standing figure up the contour of her back you will continue towards the orange and return to the focus of the tortoise.  They are not intended to be apparent.  You will sense rather than see them.

Reducing the background to three bands was a bold move in 1908, and by doing this Matisse holds our attention on the relationships of the figures and tortoise.  Any detail in the background would only disrupt their rhythmic integration.

He masterfully provides a shift on the bottom edge of the blue band behind the standing figure.  Can you feel the sense of depth this creates?  The edge then moves downward at the right edge of the painting, enhancing the oval motif.

The emphasis of the length of the central figure’s left foot ensures the importance of the tortoise.  The weight of the seated figures feet sensitively anchors the composition by almost touching the bottom edge of the painting.

I must point out the how Matisse supported the seated figure with a simple dark green shape.   I have come to appreciate the sophistication of the reductive process.

This is a great painting, leading the way towards the marvellous considerations in twentieth century art.

 

Giacometti – Shape Motifs, Spatial Planes and Integration

Alberto Giacometti - The Artist's Mother - 1937 - 24 x 20 in - oil on canvas

Giacometti was a master of composition.  In this painting he demonstrates this with how he merged his mother with her surroundings.  I will do my best to explain some of his superb considerations.

One of the best ways to convey a sense of space is to frame the subject, which Giacometti does beautifully.  We are looking through a large rectangle which seems to be suspended in front of the figure.  Can you feel the space?  We then engage with the arrangement of rectangles which make up the structural elements of the wall behind.

A good entry point to how Giacometti uses these supporting rectangles is with the horizontal black line running across her chest forming the tops of a series of vertical rectangles.  These rectangles relate to another series of verticals on the wall behind.  If you look closely you will also see how they connect or integrate with the figure, especially with the vertical rectangle integrating with the light ones on her shoulder and below.  If you blur your eyes the integration is very strong.

Note how the lines of the wall support the figure, especially at the shoulders and that wonderful angle at the top of her head.  The lines extending from her shoulders, stabilizing her, is magnificent integration.

There are some wonderfully subtle rectangles which are actually spatial planes.  We have the feel of one in front her upper left arm with its top being the line extending from her shoulder (see detail)  It is not initially apparent, but becomes strong when you become aware of it.  There is another just below.  I should also point out the dark vertical rectangle just above and how it provides a very sensitive support for the figure.  Remember the intention is they are meant to be felt more than seen.

                  Her face is very complex with some wonderful cubist planes. (see detail)   The most noticeable are the white shapes in her hair above her forehead with the sensitive lines connecting and extending the planes onto her forehead.  I love the vertical one in front of her neck and mouth leading up to her nostrils, connecting to a thin line leading to the left forming the top of another plane.  The vertical also continues upward connecting to the vertical above, solidifying the figure with the background.  At the risk of over explaining this wonderful integration, reverse the direction from the top.  Your eye will connect to the light vertical leading down to her hands.

I marvel at the quality of the horizontal forming the bottom of her hair behind, then, at the right connecting to vertical shapes which create the feel of planes in front.

I mustn’t neglect how he relieved the strong vertical and horizontal structure with a very sensitive oblique rhythm of parallels.  Let’s return to the white plane in her hair pointing up towards the right. Just below to the right is another small plane paralleling the direction.  When you go to the left of her head you will find other markings echoing the movement.  And a most important light one below her collar.  We may not notice the oblique movement but we will certainly feel it.

Once you train your eye to notice the complexity you come to appreciate the sophistication of his considerations.

Ben Nicholson – (Influences)

Ben Nicholson - Still Life (Violin) - 1932 - 30 x 24 in - oil and gesso on board

 This painting is an excellent example on how artists allow recent influences to show in their development.  Nicholson engaged with Cubism as a means to refine and personalize his awareness of this major development in contemporary painting, and used it to provide a solid foundation for his journey towards abstraction.  Here, like Picasso and Braque, he uses the picture plane while simultaneously shifting our view to provide the sense of space.

The lines of the grid are both in front and behind the violin, conveying the feeling of space.   I love the repeating rhythm of a series of vertical rectangles and how their dance gently contains my perusal.  Can you feel how the white one is nearer and the others recede? You are meant to sense this dance rather than see the harmony they provide in the composition.  The two verticals patterned with dots is open to interpretation ( I think of the act of playing the instrument and the rhythmic lines at the upper left is the sound of the music.)

The wonderful “shifting of space” in the body of the violin, the positioning of the F-holes and showing us the side view of the neck and scroll not only shows Nicholson’s understanding of cubism, it also shows us his restraint and refinement of this great consideration in twentieth century painting.