Gurney Journey | category: Composition


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

Taking the Right Advice

Early in his career, Andrew Wyeth did this painting of his neighbor Walt Anderson walking through a field. 

Taking the Right Advice

Andrew "showed the painting to his father, N.C. Wyeth, who told his son to put a gun in the subject’s arm and a couple of hunting dogs in the scene.

"'When he left, [Andrew's wife] Betsy told him, ‘Don’t listen to him, he’s wrong,’ ” Jamie Wyeth said. “The father, N.C., was worried that his son wouldn’t be able to sell a painting like that, but he completely missed what his son was doing, and Betsy, at that young age, realized what he was doing – a lone figure walking away from you.'"

"That painting became 'Turkey Pond,' a 1944 egg tempera that served as precedent for 'Christina’s World' four years later."
--Quotes from Jamie Wyeth

Composing with a Keyhole View

Here's a new a YouTube video  based on a gouache painting I did in the old boatyard in Greenport, Long Island.

A little glimpse of the harbor and the far shore is framed by the boat and the buildings. I call this composition a "keyhole view." 

Artists in the past have used keyhole views to lure the viewer's attention back in space. 

This painting inside the farrier's shop has a keyhole view on the doorway at the left. It's by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (Austrian, 1793-1865).

Lawrence Alma Tadema (Dutch, 1836-1912) uses a similar compositional strategy.

And there's a keyhole view in this painting by Ilya Repin (Russian, 1844-1930).

First Reading, Second Reading

First Reading, Second Reading
Jan Verhas (1834-1896) The Lion

In a painting, you've just got just one image to tell the story. But you can design it so that the viewer begins to receive one impression, and then switch to a different impression after a moment or two. This is called the first reading and the second reading.
In this picture, I'm aware of myself reacting that way as I decode the image over the first two seconds. "There's a lady with kid reaching up....The kid is scared...Oh! There's a crouching did he get in that house?....Oh, I see, it's a lion rug, and her little brother is under it, pulling a prank."

First Reading, Second Reading

To carry off this narrative device, Belgian realist painter Jan Verhas had to make sure the viewer recognized the snarling lion before the boy's face.
Related post: "Invite and Delight"

Why Should I Mass Values?

After yesterday's postCa.Via.seattle asks: "WHY is value massing so important? I’ve read your entire blog, including everything about shape welding, read Arthur Wesley Dow’s book on notan studies, and have generally scoured the internet, so I know HOW to mass values, but still don’t have a deep understanding as to why it is so important and powerful. Can you possibly elaborate?"

Howard Pyle
Good question. The reason value massing is so important is that a simple tonal design has much more impact. You can tell at a glance what's going on, and it reads from across the room or when reduced to a tiny size.

The parts of the scene that are less important can be relegated to the light-on-light mass or the dark-on-dark mass. The parts that you want the viewer to notice are highly contrasting.
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret
Here the wedding dress connects to the tablecloth and the female figures behind, while the people dressed in dark clothes join together to make a simple shape. 

Here's the YouTube video demonstrating value grouping. (Link to YouTube)
Previously: Shape Welding
Plein-Air Tip: Grouping Tonal Values
Books: Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color
Composition tips in: Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist

Plein-Air Tip: Grouping Tonal Values

An essential composition strategy is to organize values or tones into a light group and a dark group.

In this plein-air painting of a house in Sebastopol, California, my main focus is to create a single unbroken mass of dark for the trees, which then connects to the shadowed parts of the structure and the garbage can.

In this 15 minute video (Link to YouTube) I demonstrate my approach, including a little about perspective, painting procedure, brushes, and compositional design. 

I'm using a limited palette that includes M. Graham watercolor in just four colors: yellow ochre and transparent red oxidetitanium white gouache and black gouache.
Related post: Shape Welding

Breaking the Footline

Artists have long resisted placing elements that are cropped by the footline, or the bottom edge, of a composition.

Breaking the Footline
Painting by Thomas Frederick Mason
Even in busy, crowded scenes, such as this outdoor market, the footline is uninterrupted.

Breaking the Footline
Stepan Kolesnikov
There's a lot going on in this encampment: a horse, a wagon, and three figures. but the footline is empty.

Breaking the Footline
Jean Béraud
Like an actor walking up to the footlights of the stage, the male figure comes close to the line, but not past it.

Breaking the Footline
Summer 1904 by Joaquín Sorolla
The advent of photography, with its weird accidental croppings, is usually credited with awakening artists to the possibilities of an interrupted footline. Edgar Degas is often credited with being a pioneer in cropping the bottom edge, and many other artists started doing it, such as Joaquín Sorolla.

I find it still takes conscious effort to crop figures or other elements by the footline, but it adds greatly to the effect of naturalism.

Two WWII Posters

Recently we saw the exhibition of World War II posters at the FDR Library and Museum in Hyde Park.

Out of all the posters in the show, let me focus on just two of them with a very similar concept: machine gunners in action. Let's compare the compositions:

Two WWII Posters
"Your Metal is their Might!" 1943 Jes Wilhelm Schlaikjer (American, 1897–1982)
The Schlaikjer painting shows three figures, a background that's light and dark, lots of bullet casings flying, and a slight upward angle of the gun barrel.
Two WWII Posters
"Let's give him Enough and On Time" Norman Rockwell
What strikes me is how much simpler and more memorable the Rockwell is. There's just a single figure; we don't see the gunner's face; the background is black; the image is divided by a straight diagonal line; and the typography reads clearly against the light yellow background. 

By leaving out non-essential information, Rockwell makes a much stronger statement. In a poster, simplicity is crucial.   

Two WWII Posters

Rockwell usually started out with a sketch made purely from his imagination and built his final concept around it. This germinal idea, which says "Are you backing me up?" is similar to the final, except that the soldier is turned toward us.
The exhibition "The Art of War: American Poster Art 1941-1945" ends December 31, but unfortunately, because of the government shutdown, the museum will be closed.

Book Review: "Fundamentals of Composition"

Book Review:
Preliminary studies by Ilya Repin, from the book Fundamentals of Composition
It's difficult to learn about the teachings of the Russian Academy because not much information is available in English.

Book Review:
Sketches and finished paintings by Peter Paul
Rubens, Karl Bryullov, and Aleksander Deyneka
Fortunately, a few years ago, Vladimir Mogilevtsev, a professor at the Russian Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, released two books: Fundamentals of Drawing and Fundamentals of Painting, which I've reviewed on the blog

Now the third book in his series, Fundamentals of Composition, is also available in English.

Book Review:

Rather than thinking of composition in purely aesthetic terms, he starts with an emphasis on the concept or story that drives the picture. 

In this respect, Mr. Mogilevtsev's approach is similar to Howard Pyle, who always focused on the concept that powered the picture and made sure the design supported that idea.

Book Review:

The book covers basic principles, such as variety, shape, silhouette, edges, unity, rhythm, color, and texture. But his coverage of these familiar ideas is fresh and original, and he provides lots of examples. 

He avoids laying down rules or laws, because one generation of artists breaks the rules of the previous generation. All of the basic principles are universal enough to have remained in place despite the changing styles through history.

Book Review:
Ilya Repin, Jesus Raising Jairus's Daughter
Most of the examples used in the book are from old masters, such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt, as well as 19th century Russians, such as Valentin Serov and Ilya Repin. 

Book Review:

Repin's painting of Jesus raising Jairus's daughter's is analyzed in terms of the hierarchy of details. 

Instead of trying to reveal a hidden grid of geometric relationships, this approach breaks up the picture into interest areas to show what's most important in it. The shapes are mapped out like a puzzle and numbered according to their importance.    

Book Review:
Alexander Ivanov, studies for The Appearance of
Christ Before the People,
The second half of the book presents a wealth of examples of unpublished preliminary sketches and studies by Russian painters such as Surikov, Repin, Serov, and Ivanov (above). Alexander Ivanov produced hundreds of exquisite studies over a 20 year period in preparation for his painting of The Appearance of Christ Before the People.

As with the other books by publisher 4Art, the production is high quality. The book is hardcover, 9.25 x 13.5 inches, 88 pages, printed throughout in color on chrome-coat paper.
Book Review:

Book Review: -----
Books in the Fundamentals of Art series:
Fundamentals of Composition (English Edition
Fundamentals of Drawing (English Edition)
Fundamentals of Painting (English Edition)

Related books:
Anatomy of Human Figure: The Guide for Artists (Tan cover, below left, Russian Language)

Academic Drawings and Sketches (Blue cover, below right, Russian Language)
Book Review:
Book Review:

Previous blog posts: 
• Russian Books on Academic Drawing and Painting
• Best How-To Art Books 
Survival Guide for Art Students

Evolution of a Picture, Part 1: Compositional Studies

Although many artists studied in the 19th century ateliers, few of them published practical information about the actual methods used by masters of academic realism. 

In their books, authors like Harold Speed, Solomon Solomon, and Charles Bargue focus mostly on drawing and painting accurately when working from observation. It's much harder to find information about how academic artists developed their imaginative ideas. 

One exception is the following article from 1901 called Evolution of a Picture: A Chapter on Studies by Cabanel-trained Edgar Spier CameronThis stuff is gold. Because it's so useful, I present it to you in full in four installments.

Evolution of a Picture, Part 1: Compositional Studies
Portrait of Édouard Detaille by Basile Lemeunier 
"Many people who consider themselves well informed upon matters of art have but the vaguest conceptions of the way in which a picture is made. An artist does not sit down with palette, brushes, and canvas and dash off a picture when an inspiration seizes him.

"A sketch may be made in this way for the mere pleasure of doing it, or in order that the data which are thus secured may be preserved for future use, but the process of making a picture is longer and much more elaborate.

Evolution of a Picture, Part 1: Compositional Studies
The Single Effect
"The picture which expresses something, which has a raison d'être, is generally evolved with as much thought and care as a writer bestows on a serious article or a story and by somewhat similar processes. In a picture, whatever its subject may be, the "unities" are imposed by the means of expression.

"A picture cannot well represent more than one idea, one place, or one instant of time. All that the artist has to say must be concentrated into one single effect, and consequently all of his study must be in the direction of elimination from the multiplicity of suggestions which nature makes to him, the material for a picture.

Evolution of a Picture, Part 1: Compositional Studies
By Jules-Elie Delaunay
"As some writers are able to complete the composition of their articles in their minds before they begin to put their thoughts on paper, there are artists who are able to see their pictures finished before they begin to paint, but they are rare exceptions.

Evolution of a Picture, Part 1: Compositional Studies
Compositional study by Jean Leon Gérôme
Compositional studies
"For any important pictures requiring arrangement or composition, as is the case of nearly all figure subjects, most artists make numerous studies. The title "Study" applied to paintings shown in exhibitions is nearly always a misnomer. Such works are chiefly the work of students or painters who have more technique than ideas to paint, and were not painted as a study for something more important.

Evolution of a Picture, Part 1: Compositional Studies
Sheet of studies by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

"When an artist has received his "inspiration," or found a motive and given the subject sufficient thought to have decided something of how it is to be treated, he generally makes a composition sketch, possibly several of them, before the arrangement of the picture is decided upon. These are almost always made "out of his head," without models, with only the memory of effects previously observed in nature to guide him.

Tomorrow: Part 2: Studies and Études
Sources and More Info
Evolution of a Picture: A Chapter on Studies by Edgar Cameron in Brush and Pencil Magazine
Vol. 8, No. 3 (Jun., 1901), pp. 121-133

The author is muralist and critic Edgar Spier Cameron (1862-1944) from Chicago. He studied at the Art Students League in New York and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His teachers were Dewing, Inness, Cabanel, Lefebvre, Boulanger, Laurens, and Benjamin-Constant.

You can find more about these methods in my book Imaginative Realism.

What does eyetracking tell us about the rules of composition?

What does eyetracking tell us about the rules of composition?
Eyetracking heat map of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci   
Artist and blog reader Eric Wilkerson asks:

     "I had a discussion with another illustrator over composition recently. Specifically about the usage of directional lines and shapes to lead the eye to the focal point of the painting or cinematic frame in a movie.
     "I know you refer to it as spokewheeling and shapewelding. I learned all this back in college and it was drilled into us based on the old Loomis books.
     "Anyway, my friend says that all of that is nonsense due to eye tracking and that it doesn't matter where the lines are going because the brain is going to look for a face or random points of interest every time.
     "So do you think eye tracking negates spokewheeling etc or is it all a combination of elements to lead the viewer through a composition?
     "I'm firmly in the camp that it doesn't. I've been studying the work of some famous cinematographers lately and they compose whole frames through use of strong light, shadow, color and directional shapes to lead the viewer.

     "I don't know....So I'm writing you. Hope you can settle this for me or at least offer some insight."

What does eyetracking tell us about the rules of composition?
Eye tracking scanpath  by A.L. Yarbus
on Repin's painting "The Did Not Expect Him"
Hi, Eric,
That's a fascinating question, and I'm glad you asked it. Here's the short answer: I believe that scientific insights from eyetracking challenges a lot of the art-school dogma about how we look at pictures. But don't throw out the compositional toolkit just yet. Many of those compositional devices are probably still valid.

What does eyetracking tell us about the rules of composition?
Eye tracking heatmap in a bar. Viewers apparently want to know
what brands of beer are on tap  
You and your friend are both right. Your friend is right that faces (or other psychologically important objects) will attract the most attention wherever you place them in the design. Eye tracking proves that. It also shows that the way each viewer explores the picture is highly individual. No two viewers will experience the picture in the same way.

What does eyetracking tell us about the rules of composition?
Venice by Turner. I'd love to see an eyetracking heatmap of this painting. I believe
 that I'm most attracted to the light buildings on the light background,
not to the areas of highest contrast. But maybe I'm misreporting my experience,
and maybe I look at this painting differently than others do.

The scanpath (the track of eye movements over time) of a given viewer depends to a great extent on what psychological or narrative expectations he or she brings to the interpretation of the image. Contrary to many dogmatic assertions that we learned in art school, the eye's path through the picture does not really follow passively along the directional lines. Instead it jumps around in unpredictable jagged leaps all over the picture. While we customarily speak about "leading the eye" or "forcing the viewer" or "directing the attention" by means of leading lines, we have to remember that the eyes are not driven in a deterministic way, like a train on a track.

Eyes are active extensions of a hungry brain.

Does this mean that those traditional compositional devices have no effect on our experience of the picture?

No, and here is where I think you are also right. I believe that most of the classical design devices (including  spokewheeling, chromatic accents, edge control, value organization, etc.) can influence the way we perceive a composition. When used intelligently, they can help the average viewer decode what's important in a picture, and they accentuate the viewer's satisfaction in having their attention anchored to the centers of interest as they further explore subordinate areas.
What does eyetracking tell us about the rules of composition?
Yarbus's data originally published
in "Eye movements and vision" (read more)

But it's difficult to know exactly how we're influenced by such devices. I suspect that we perceive them by means of our peripheral vision, even if we don't perceive them directly with our center of vision.

For example, let's look at the two paintings in this post. In "The Last Supper," Leonardo's placement of the vanishing point behind Christ's head seems to reinforce our focus on that important center of intererst.

But in the case of "They Did Not Expect Him," Repin doesn't place the vanishing point behind any of the major heads, but that doesn't seem to compromise the ability of viewers to find what is important in his painting.

Yarbus showed that people looked at the the Repin painting many different ways (right) depending on what question they were prompted with first.

Viewers are perhaps more influenced by leading questions than leading lines.

Science is beginning to reveal that visual processing of any image—but especially a realistic, narrative image—involves many areas of the brain. How we look at a picture appears to be affected by several interrelated factors, such as lines, tones, lighting, color, psychology, title, caption, and other factors. The leading lines and the shapes are just two of those elements.

My advice
Science can help us bayonet sacred cows, but it can't guide us very much in designing pictures. How we look at artwork is a topic that is still mostly unexplored by cognitive scientists using modern technology. Until more studies are carried out, we can't fully understand the logic behind pictorial design. My advice is to be skeptical when you hear any dogmatic assertions about composition. Instead, follow your instincts. Don't concern yourself with following compositional "rules," and don't bother with making your pictures pleasing or harmonious. Instead just work to make your picture interesting. Figure out what you want to say and say it emphatically.

If a graduate student in neurobiology is reading this and wants to devise some experiments, please contact me! I'll volunteer some of my paintings as guinea pigs.
More info
Previous posts:
Eyetracking and Composition (series)
Books: Vision and Art (Updated and Expanded Edition)
Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist

Taking the Right AdviceComposing with a Keyhole View First Reading, Second ReadingWhy Should I Mass Values?Plein-Air Tip: Grouping Tonal ValuesBreaking the FootlineTwo WWII PostersBook Review: "Fundamentals of Composition"Evolution of a Picture, Part 1: Compositional StudiesWhat does eyetracking tell us about the rules of composition?

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