Archive for May, 2019

Composition design – conscious or unconscious?

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

When I show my students various master paintings to illustrate artistic principles and how they can be applied to enhance a composition, they often ask if the artist thought about all these principles before they began painting.

My answer is “yes and no.”

Most accomplished artists are well aware of the principles and how to apply them to enhance their visual concept for a composition.  But do they consciously plan how to use every one?  In some cases they do.  But to an even greater extent the principles may be applied intuitively rather than consciously … because it “feels right” to the artist.

Let’s back up a bit and look at the question from a different perspective.  The principles have been identified for a reason:  They work!  But which came first, the chicken or the egg, the principle or the application?

I believe the principles were identified because, originally, artists worked intuitively, positioning focal areas based on what was important, using color in ways that served a specific purpose, adjusting harmony to establish a mood, and so on, not because they had been taught to but because it was pleasing to their eye or served their aesthetic sense.  The commonality among the most pleasing works identified for subsequent generations of artists the principles that could be applied to create similarly pleasing or effective works.  So those principles were passed along to yet other artists so they wouldn’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” stumbling through so much of the process of trial and error themselves.

Trained artists today know how to consciously plan their compositions to most effectively express what they want their work to say, and they often spend a great deal of time working out many alternative approaches to the design, based on generally accepted artistic principles.  But those principles are not intended to create an image from scratch.  Instead, they merely refine and enhance the artist’s initial intuitive concept, guiding them in how to emphasize or de-emphasize certain elements to most effectively make their visual point.

So yes, some artists are very much aware of the principles and consciously use them to design a composition.  And no:  Other artists work intuitively, drawing primarily on their own aesthetic sense (usually based on the same aesthetics that are the basis for those principles) and what “feels right” to them, so are still applying many of those same principles but less consciously.

The former group is likely to have greater technical success because of their reliance on the principles, but may have more difficulty creatively if they become too insistent on following the “rules” too closely. The latter group may feel freer to paint creatively but is more likely to have inconsistent technical success because they may be overlooking potential enhancement opportunities or not recognizing some factor that actually weakens the design.

Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”  With purpose.

I expect that artists who do exactly that create the most consistently appealing work by consciously planning how to apply many of the principles as appropriate to convey their artistic vision while also allowing certain deviations for the sake of individual purpose and creativity.

Casting light on the subject … and on the palette

Wednesday, May 1st, 2019

One of my recent plein air outings taught me a valuable lesson.  I had gone with a plein air group to a local livestock ranch.  The morning was bright, sunny, and promised to become uncomfortably warm by mid-day.

As I wandered around, looking for a promising vista, I entered an open barn and, from the dim interior, was taken by the view out the open doorway.  I set up my easel to capture both the frame of the barn’s entrance and the view to the pastures beyond.

Setup in the barn.

Setup in the barn.

But as my eyes struggled with the intense contrast between the inside and the outside lighting, I discovered that they couldn’t adjust sufficiently to compensate for the low ambient lighting where I stood inside the barn.

By location, I knew which pile of paint was which on my palette, but the balances of the various paint mixtures were not so clear.  And though the value differences were somewhat easier to judge, the chroma was not.  Polyisochromes all appeared neutral, as indeed they were all leaning increasingly toward a neutral gray the more I worked with them.

I knew I was in trouble but, rather than finishing with the interior aspects and then repositioning my easel into better light, I struggled to continue in the original position.  That was a mistake.

After closing down and putting away my equipment, I checked the painting in the sunlight and was appalled at the outcome.  I later made some revisions to it in a well-lit studio, which helped.

"View from the Barn" - original version

“View from the Barn” – original version

“View-from-the-Barn,” with studio revisions, by Charlotte Mertz (6″x8″ oil, #190401-o)

Lesson learned:  Be sure there’s enough light on the palette to discern and judge the colors clearly.