Welcome to Compose. There's lots of stuff here, all about composing paintings.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

In Praise of Gesture

Gesture drawing is our most direct tool for absorbing the essence of what we see.  Simply defined a gesture drawing captures the movement the artist feels within the subject.  It is the artist's rapid response to what the subject is doing, not how it appears.

Artists have been doing gesture drawing for centuries, but not until the early 20th century did it get its label, thanks to Kimon Nicolaides who left for us a comprehensive study program in his book, The Natural Way to Draw.  (First published in 1941 and available free in a PDF file HERE.)


We are accustomed to contour drawing where the shapes' edges are meticulously followed, our more deliberate or cognitive approach.  Gesture drawing does just the opposite, following the movement of the subject--a more intuitive approach.  Nicolaides taught that both are necessary, each balancing the other.

Here's how he introduces the comparison:










Below, from Nicolaides' book, student drawings illustrate the power of gesture drawing to express what the subject is doing.




Three of our historical masters--Rembrandt, Leonardo and Michelangelo-- each left us volumes of drawings with copious gesture studies among them.  Most often these would be quick studies, responding to something that caught their eye or towards an upcoming painting, but sometimes they would flesh out the gesture drawing with values, as Rembrandt does with his lion sketch.

Rembrandt van Rijn  "Lion Resting"    c. 1650
At other times, we get to see the pure gesture itself, exampled in these Rembrandt studies of a baby nursing and "St Jerome Reading to a Lion".

Rembrandt van Rijn   Study:  Baby Nursing      c.1635
 
Rembrandt van Rijn   Study for St. Jerome Reading    c. 1652

And among the hundreds of Leonardo da Vinci's scientific and analytical drawings are many gesture drawings.

Leonardo da Vinci   Study for the Trivulzio Monument, c. 1508
 Leonardo da Vincin     Study for the Sforza Monument, c. 1488-9 

Even among the many beautifully formed drawings of Michelangelo are his gesture studies.

Michelangelo Buonarroti   Sketches for two separate projects    c.1503

My favorite drawing of all times is Michelangelo's study of Madonna and Child where we see all the gestural lines and restatements along with his beginning to flesh out the form within the gesture drawing itself.
Michelangelo Buonarroti  Madonna and Child Study  c. 1525
One of the most intriguing and exciting uses of gesture I've seen lately is that of artist Omar Rayyan.  His paintings begin with a gesture drawing.  (You may click on any of these to get a larger view.)


Within this drawing, Rayyan searches for the image and begins to develop it in paint.


He continues by refining the drawing and adding more paint as the piece develops.


This process continue until the piece finds its conclusion.

 Omar Rayyan   "The Duel"   Watercolor, 11x17      2011 

Gesture drawing is the closest thing to meditation an artist can experience:  it is drawing without thought, responding with the senses without making judgments.  It is the purest form of observation, taking the artist directly to the essence of the subject. It requires letting go and taking in the world as it is without any intention other than experiencing the subject.  It is fun, relaxing and gives the artist a refreshed sense of renewal.

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Friday, May 4, 2012

Switching a Few Gears


Let's switch gears a bit and take a look at our work habits.

No matter our style of painting or our personality, there are ways to enable our painting process to move along more smoothly if we practice just four simple tips:
  1. Do quick idea studies before beginning to paint.
  2. Squint, not just once, but often throughout the process.
  3. From time to time, turn the piece upside down to check how the composition is working.
  4. Stand back--often.
Doing idea studies: 
Call them scribbles, gesture drawings, concept drawings, preliminary sketches--the label doesn't matter.  What does matter is that we get involved with the subject we've chosen before we begin to paint it, and that we explore a few composing options while we are becoming acquainted with the subject.  It is surprising what we see once we make the first quick sketch.

Here is one of my idea studies and a painting that followed:


"Sautee Herefords"    OIl on Canvas    2008

Here are a couple of idea studies Andrew Wyeth did for his painting, "Karl."
Andrew Wyeth     Studies for "Karl"

Andrew Wyeth     "Karl"   Egg Tempera  
As you can see, neither my little gesture drawing nor Wyeth's initial sketches depict our final compositions.  Rather, they are both initial reactions to what each of us saw, a kind of private note-taking, getting to know the subject while  mulling over how the composition might work.

Squinting:
Nine times out of ten, it's the details of the images that get between us a good composing.  To squint at the subject, not just once, but often from beginning to end switches our attention to the structure of the whole thing, showing us how darks are connected, how lights flow from one area to another, how an array of colors fall into a simple value range.

Then squinting at the painting itself enables us to see how the parts are fitting together and how what's happening within the painting is relating to the subject matter.  It's as crucial to the overall process as the brushstrokes themselves.

Dianne Mize  "A Look Back"   Oil on Canvas


Turning the painting upside-down:  
Turning the painting on its head periodically during its development can tell us volumes about how the composition is working.  Oddly, if it's working right side up, the composition will work upside-down.

Here's one Pat Weaver's paintings.  Notice how her composition works both ways.


Pat Weaver       "Racetrack"     Watercolor




Standing Back:
     We can't really see how a painting is developing unless we put some distance between it and ourselves.  Several times during the process, it's a good idea to stand back at least ten feet from the painting to see how the whole thing is coming together.  The larger the painting, the further we need to stand back.  Even very small works are more accurately seen from some distance.


With all the things we're giving attention to during the act of painting, it's easy to let slide the more simple things we can to do to keep check on what's going on.  If you're not already practicing them, I recommend these four tips as keys to better composing and stronger painting.


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