Composition: Carving Up Space

September 30, 2009
study of transparent forms used to illustrate the concept of dividing up space to create a balanced composition, oil on canvas, 9x12 in.

study of transparent forms used to illustrate the concept of dividing up space to create a balanced composition, oil on canvas, 9x12 in.

Transparent objects provide wonderful opportunity for practicing the concept of dividing up space to create a balanced composition. The overlapping areas and reflective surface of glass offers a wide range of geometric forms and repeating shapes.  The values in the shadows of these forms create a rhythm of their own that takes precedence over the objects themselves.

For example, there is a compositional guideline that many representational painters follow almost literally–not placing an even number of objects, particularly just 2 objects, in the composition. The above is an example of how 2 objects can create a balanced layout from the shadows, transparecies and placement in space chosen during the initial design of the composition.

For this piece, I began by placing the major shapes of the bottle on the right into the composition–the flattened oval of the bottle’s body, the round-edged rectangular bottom, and the top ellipse of the neck. All of these are placed directly on center of each other (I drop a center line down the middle after placing the first shape). Next, I connect the verticals, when satisfied that the first bottle is proportionately correct, I move on to the next element. I use the first bottle to gauge the placement and proportion of the second bottle. Beginning with the shoulders of the bottle, I work through the bottom ellipse and top ellipse of the neck and connect the verticals. I now have two forms that overlap, plus a series of sub-forms that were used to initially form the bottles. This arrangement allows me to map in the dark and light values next, creating a balance of dark, medium and light values based on the transparency and shadow areas of the transparent surfaces. I also have the additional forms of the shadows on the table top and the reflected light to create more variation in form and value. So in other words, 2 objects  taken as a whole are actually a series of many sub-forms that can be used create a harmonious composition.

Color can further be used to strengthen the dynamics of the composition. The darks used in both bottles are made up of cobalt blue and burnt umber, this unifies the two objects in the shadow areas and reinforces the illusion of transparency where they overlap. The use of warm and cool highlights on both objects makes a further connection across the the surfaces of the objects. The fact that the forms run off the page on several sides further reinforces the abstract nature of this composition, even though it is painted in a loose representational style.

Try not to get trapped by taking compositional guidelines as “rules”. Don’t think of your subjects as objects, think of them purely as forms made up of sub-forms. This is also a wonderful way to begin an abstract painting–it provides enough structure so that you have a basis upon which to add the non-represenational elements in the form of value, surface texture and color.



September 29, 2009
urban landscape, gesture study, acrylic on paper

urban landscape, gesture study, acrylic on paper

Capturing gesture is a good way to inject expression and spontaneity into your work. Gesture is not limited to figure studies, all drawings and paintings regardless of subject can incorporate gesture. I always look at the dynamics of the forms in the composition as they are defined by the dark and light values to develop gestural studies.

In the example above, the thing most interesting to me in the composition are the strong shadows that make up the perspective of the street and the buildings. So instead of trying to draw in each individual building and car, I focus on massing in the dark values first that create that strong sense of motion and space. I work from dark through the middle values and leave the white of the paper for the lightest values. My aim is to imply the action that is going on rather than to capture every detail. Studies such as this help to identify the important elements of the composition and to keep me focused on those elements and not distracted by details. My goal is always spontaneity and freshness, I always challenge myself to see how few strokes I can use to convey the subject I am painting. Gestural studies go a long way in stating the visual message in a way that quickly and efficiently gets to the point.

The Result

September 26, 2009
acrylic (and a little bit of pastel) on paper, about 16x20 in.

acrylic (and a little bit of pastel) on paper, about 16x20 in.

close up of color variation acheived by transparent layers of acrylic paint

close up of color variation acheived by transparent layers of acrylic paint

This is the result of my little experiment with creating color purely from imagination. If you scroll down to yesterday’s post (or click here), you will see the underpainting for this piece. I did the under painting (value study) in burnt sienna as a demo for my painting students. I decided to add color without any reference–I didn’t set the still life up again or take any reference photos from the classroom. Color choices were made purely from my imagination based on my favorite palette (cobalt blue, light red ochre, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, burnt umber, burnt sienna and titanium white). I also mixed in a tiny bit of cobalt turquoise to add a little something unusual. I’ve primarily used color transparently in this one, with water being the medium (layered washes). In the close up, you can see some of this effect, which is hard to see in a digital photo.

I’m relatively happy with the result–it  proved to me something I’ve wanted to try for awhile, the idea of working out value studies and then developing the color elements with less reliance on the actual subjects.  I do this frequently even when I have reference photos or am working from life, but this time I wanted to see what would happen with no reference at all. I would have liked to push this a bit further but since I am working on paper it won’t hold up and might get overworked looking, so I’ll stop now. But I will definitely incorporate more of this approach into my “real” work, the things I plan to exhibit and sell.

An experiment

September 25, 2009
acrylic on watercolor paper, about 16x20 in.

acrylic on watercolor paper, about 16x20 in.

This is my demo from Thursday’s Intermediate Drawing & Painting class. The intent was to convey the idea of blocking in large shapes and thinking of the objects simply as forms, trying to show students how to get away from a narrative-driven approach to something more abstract. Yes, I know the objects still look like what they are, but when I paint them I don’t think of them as apples, bottles, etc., they are simply geometric shapes/sculptural forms.

I end up with a lot of under paintings as a result of all the demos I do. I plan to experiment a bit with this one. This was done from the set up I put together in the classroom. I don’t have a photo of it, the most I have to go on if I were to set it up again is the sketch, which is really all I need. However, instead of setting it up again, I’m going to work purely from imagination in terms of adding the colors. Theoretically, I have all the values mapped in and as long as I work with a harmonious color palette, I should get something that works…we’ll see.

I’m hoping to move further away from realism with my own work. I’ve never been a traditional realist or anywhere near a photo-realist. Impressionistic alla prima work is nice, but I would like to go beyond that, something with more raw energy. Urban subject matter helps, as does breaking compositional rules/guidelines (I will get that strong vertical in the middle to work).

But that isn’t enough to get the degree of rawness into my still life studio work as I would like. I need more of a departure from what is there, and I think relying more on my imagination and getting further away from the point of departure is the place to go next.

Intro to Drawing & Painting – Class notes 9/24/2009

September 24, 2009
charcoal and white pastel on light grey paper, about 12x18 in.

charcoal and white pastel on light grey paper, about 12x18 in.

Concepts presented:

  • Working on middle tone grey paper gives you a “head start” in establishing middle values
  • Use the value of the grey paper as one of the mid-tones in your range of 4-5 values
  • Begin by using the elements of the still life set up to break up the composition, do several small thumbnail sketches on newsprint before you begin
  • When you are happy with your layout, begin mapping in the basic forms on the grey paper
  • Next, work from dark to light and begin shading with soft vine charcoal
  • Once you have all of your dark and light values place, add some secondary light values with white pastel over the charcoal, don’t press as hard as you will for the pure highlights, let the white pastel sit transparently on top of the darker values
  • Last of all put in your brightest highlights with the white pastel, if necessary, go back and emphasize a few of your darkest values with either soft vine charcoal or compressed charcoal / black pastel

For next week, please plan to work in color in your choice of acrylic or pastel. If you are working in acrylic, you have the supply list of materials you will need. For those working in pastel, bring you pastels as well as appropriate paper to work on.

Visual Interpretation – Class Notes from 9/22/2009

September 23, 2009
pastel study of flowers, 9x12 in.

pastel study of flowers, 9x12 in.

Concepts presented:

  • flowers make an excellent departure point for abstract and semi abstract color studies / paintings
  • working in pastel, first block in composition and values with a burnt sienna hard pastel
  • next select the colors that you will use in the painting, try to limit yourself to 10 or 12 pastels, mixing colors whenever possible to create the ones you need, this will keep your colors harmonious and prevent the study from becoming garish or muddy
  • begin working with the darkest darks, through the mid-tones and leave the lightest, brightest colors for last
  • establishing your dark values will ensure depth in the painting
  • pastel can be a challenging medium, particularly getting the darks dark enough
  • a soft pastel in a dark neutral color (but not black) can go a long way in putting in selective darks to ensure the painting does not appear flat from a lack of dark values

Unfinished Alla Prima

September 21, 2009
alla prima demo, oil on canvas pad, 9x12 in.

alla prima demo, oil on canvas pad, 9x12 in.

I’ve noticed that my demo sketches often have a very spontaneous feeling to them, probably because I am trying to get them done in under 30 minutes so as not to cut into class painting time. The last painting I did of the ocean had that same spontaneity, much of which I attribute to a greater use of alla prima (wet-into-wet) painting as opposed to layering and glazing. Both technqiues can be effective, but alla prima serves to bring out the looseness and expressive qualities I prefer.

That was the goal of my demo today, to show how the alla prima process can help to make a painting more spontaneous. One of the things to keep in mind, is that a good value study as an underpainting goes a long way. When working alla prima on these small studies, I often will do the under painting in acrylic, particularly if it is a demo and I want to work on the piece immediately without the alla prima layer mixing with the under painting.

It’s important when working alla prima to let the colors lie next to one another, they can meet smoothly at the edges, but allow them to sit alongside one another instead of overblending.

Obviously, I have not finished this piece, but I have always liked unfinished work where I can still see the structure of the under painting along with the more developed areas. I will leave this as is.