Posts Tagged ‘contrast’

On the Road to Discovery: Abstraction to eliminate distraction

Monday, May 1st, 2017

I find that it’s all too easy to get so caught up in the literality of a subject that the key elements of the abstract compositional design are overlooked.  One way I hoped to overcome that tendency – and train myself to do so habitually – was to focus solely on the abstract design, if necessary sacrificing detail and other minor elements for the sake of emphasizing the overall compositional design.

I decided to look at line, value, saturation changes, interplay among hues, and contrasts of all these elements to see if they alone, without extraneous detail, could capture my concept of the subject.  Could these elements alone express my primary impression?  I felt it was a question worth investigating.

A Japanese-style iris garden provided a promising subject to play with.  The angularity of the man-made element of a boardwalk across a garden pond contrasted in an interesting way with the curving sweep of the pond’s edge and the natural, rounded forms of the interspersed plantings.  I also took advantage of the boardwalk as an opportunity to introduce (and exaggerate) greater hue and temperature contrasts beyond those minor temperature biases found simply in variations of the dominant hue.

"Watergarden Boardwalk" (#170308wh)

“Watergarden Boardwalk” (#170308wh)

The original 8”x10” composition incorporated far too much detail outside of the focal area.  Although the extraneous shapes and lines helped to balance the overall composition, they were superfluous and distracting in terms of the concept.

"Watergarden Boardwalk" (#170308wv)

“Watergarden Boardwalk” (#170308wv)

Cropping the composition down to 7”x5” (and changing the orientation from horizontal to vertical) eliminated most of the unnecessary information.  The encircling lines of the shoreline and the white boardwalk enfolding the plantings were sacrificed.  But the crop now emphasized the boardwalk’s angularity in contrast to the rounded shapes, thus enhancing my original concept.


Saturday, January 1st, 2011

When eliminating elements from a photograph, the artist should be careful to eliminate corresponding reflections elsewhere in the composition, such as in puddles, color bounced off nearby opaque surfaces, and in polished or otherwise reflective surfaces.

Lucca Rain

In “Lucca Rain” (#101103), I omitted several elements from the original photograph to simplify the composition. I had to also be careful not to copy their reflections, as it would have been confusing to include reflections, for instance in the puddles in the foreground, of elements that did not appear.

Reflectivity should also be taken into account when changing the appearance of the sky —an overcast sky casts softer shadows than a clear or partly cloudy sky does; contrast is lower, and (in general) colors appear more muted. Exceptions are those elements that appear more highly saturated when wet or when juxtaposed with the other, more muted tones surrounding it, such as tree trunks (which often appear darker when wet) and brightly colored clothing.

There is a strong temptation to limit use of a contrasting color to the focal point in the composition. However, it is a mistake to introduce any color, particularly a saturated one, into a composition without reflecting that hue elsewhere in the painting—whether in direct, mirror- or water-type reflection or through bounced color. The hue can appear more muted in shadowed or obvious reflections areas or be repeated at any level of saturation in minor elements elsewhere in the composition. This helps to unify the painting and keeps the contrasting color in the focal area from appearing out of place.

The reds of the woman’s jacket and umbrella in “Lucca Rain” are repeated faintly in the asphalt underneath the row of trees to her left and are reflected to a lesser degree in the puddle beneath her feet. An underlayer of red was also used in the roof dome above her.

Reworking erroneous alterations

Friday, October 15th, 2010

When a painting is “finished” enough to be given a title and inventory number, it may not have really been completed at all. I often have second … and third … and fourth … and even more … thoughts about a painting long after it has been set aside as complete. Usually, any subsequent changes I make are based on careful evaluation and are judiciously executed. Occasionally, however, I come to regret my alterations.

090105 Fritzie in Profile, version 1

In this early example of my work, the original painting (#090105) of a grey schnauzer, Fritzie, was largely pastel toned. I went against my better judgment and darkened the background to a mid-tone to comply with someone else’s suggestion. Although the dog’s white eyebrows show up better against the contrasting background, the painting lost its luminosity with the loss of the light background. The dog’s coat looks duller, and the painting as a whole appears flatter.

090105 Fritzie in Profile, version 2

My main problem with this painting was that I didn’t trust my own style and interpretation of the subject. Instead, in changing it, it lost its magic. To punch up the color, I would have done better to darken and enrich the colors in the dog’s coat rather than changing the background.

I decided that the overall appearance could be improved by increasing the contrast. I began by darkening the background even further, beyond its current mid-tone.

090105 Fritzie in Profile, version 3

I also increased the color in the dog, darkening the collar, eyes, nose, and interior of the ear, adding some gamboges (yellow) to areas of the coat, and introducing some of the background hues into the beard. The darker background colors seemed too intense for the gray dog, so I mottled them with sprays of water, which moderated the values and added texture.

Alterations aren’t always beneficial. Whenever I realize I’ve goofed big-time, my options are to (1) leave it as it is, cut my losses, and start over from scratch or (2) keep tweaking it to try to salvage what I can. Did the alterations I made succeed? For what I was attempting to do—return focus to the dog and increase contrast in the picture—I feel that my efforts succeeded fairly well. On the other hand, no changes I make at this point will reclaim the luminosity of the original version that I spoiled by fiddling with the background in the first place.

Sleeping on it

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Most of the time when I “complete” a painting, I feel pretty excited about my accomplishment.  But I can’t really consider it finished at all until I’ve “slept on it” for awhile.  “Getting Acquainted” (#090502) is a case in point.  Here is the finished product (so far).

Getting Acquainted (revised)

But before giving myself time to carefully evaluate it, I was content with poor value contrast, as you can see below, merely because the likenesses to my daughter and new grandson were good.

Getting Acquainted (before revision)

Some of the spontaneity of brush strokes was lost in the touchup, but I’m convinced that the overall painting was improved by the revisions.  In any case, I learned something in the process.

During the time the bulk of the painting is being undertaken, I usually focus too closely on details to regard the overall composition with a very critical eye.  I almost invariably find that my work can be improved if I take time to distance myself from it and then look at it again with fresh eyes.

That’s why I try to give a painting several days’ rest before evaluating it for touch-up.  Perhaps I can add a greater sense of depth, or the perspective needs to be adjusted.  Sometimes a touch of color will enrich a “flat” area, an area of contrast needs to be exaggerated, or a highlight needs to be brought out.  In this case, the background needed to be lightened behind the profiles, the whiteness of my daughter’s teeth needed to be toned down, and deep shadows needed to be strengthened.

When I’ve given the painting a rest, and my mind something else to think about, a piece I had once been satisfied with might suddenly appear to me like a product of “the morning after the night before.”  Or I realize that a piece I had considered unsalvageable isn’t so bad after all.  In either case I take brush in hand again and do some corrective work.  In this case, I experienced both ends of the spectrum.  The painting sat, flat and unsatisfying to me, for over a year.  When I picked it up again and held a mat against it, I liked it for the first time.  But I became too eager.  It took just a single night more to reveal to me why it had been unsatisfying before and how I could improve it.

I hate to admit it, but some paintings require several touch-up and sleep-on-it sessions. (Amazingly enough, they rarely get wrinkled from all my nocturnal mental gyrations.)  In the long run, with a little tenderness and judicious tweaking (and maybe even a shot of eye-glass cleaner), we both usually come out looking better than before.

A color-contrast catastrophe

Monday, March 8th, 2010

In my last entry I wrote about incorporating contrasts to provide dimension and depth. One of the lessons I have learned is that not all contrasts are beneficial. To be truly effective, any contrast should satisfy a definable purpose.

When I first painted the picture of my daughter costumed as a Munchkin for a school production of The Wizard of Oz, I wanted her colorful costume to stand out from a contrasting background. At that time, when I thought of contrast I thought almost exclusively of contrasting colors. I knew that green, being opposite red on the color wheel, would contrast with the red skirt, so I decided to use a green wall as the background. This seemed appropriate for the context, since an off-stage waiting room is traditionally referred to as “the green room.”

"Standing By..." with the original background

The green wall did indeed contrast with the red skirt, but the shocking value of the wall color drew attention away from the focal area rather than enhancing it.


"Standing By..." after background revision

When I realized my mistake, I applied over the entire wall a light wash of the same red that had been used in the skirt. The red wash counteracted the green, muting the overpowering intensity of the background and providing a more effective value contrast that made the wall recede and allowed the child and her costume to take center stage. In this case I discovered that the more effective contrast was one of value than of hue.

You can also find the finished painting, “Standing By in the Green Room” (#081003), in the Faces and Figures section of the Gallery.