Thursday, January 31, 2013

Composition part 4 - Light Spot

This image (filtered for contrast and color) caught my eye a few days ago.

Eakins’ painting The Gross Clinic came to mind, as did other group portraits.


It was nothing so important artistically,

Or historically for that matter…

It was simply a photo of soldiers carrying a body on a stretcher in China after a landslide (WSJ Jan 12/13).  Funny how a photograph of an activity which happens hundreds of times a day around the world became imprinted on my mind.  It is essentially an unrecognizable light spot on a dark background.  Nothing that important, but to my eye and brain it was something worth spending some time with.

Portraits are the most obvious examples of the light spot grabbing your attention.  I have always liked Titian’s The Young Englishman, in part because it resembles a friend from my younger days, but also because of the scattered light spots.  It happens that Titian’s style of portrait painting became the standard for the next 400 years.  Use a relatively dark neutral background to compliment the light flesh color of the face and hands.

Titian used the same idea with a different shape in his Woman in a Black Robe.  The light colored trapezoid is almost an abstract design in its simplicity, but the reality of the woman herself quickly comes into focus.

Landscapes have also been enriched by a roughly centralized bright spot, as in Gainsborough’s Returning from Market.

…and, the action of “framing” a view has always been a good, unifying strategy.  Francesco Guardi, whose View to a Square is seen here, was a contemporary of Canaletto, and really should be better known.

On to architecture….

Tuck a town into a forested area and you will get a natural “light spot” because man-made construction is generally lighter colored than a forest canopy.  

A night view of nearly anything will end up as some sort of bright spot.  Joseph Urban’s rendering of the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City (1927) is as straightforward, dramatic and believable an example of the light spot composition as I could find.

Masonry buildings all too blandly fit into this pattern.  To do it justice you have to add some detail, gradation and mystery, as Hugh Ferriss did in his rendering of the Greater Penobscot Building in Detroit.  Ferriss has gotten into two different posts already, and being one of my heroes, will get his own page.

A reflective glass building is harder to fit into the light spot motif, but with a little jiggering of the sky and light it can work well and appear quite believable.  Here is a preliminary sketch for the Dahesh Museum on Columbus Circle in New York City.

Another approach when illustrating a glass building is to treat it as a lantern.  Turn on all the lights, and it glows in the evening, like this rendering of the Museum of Architecture and the City of San Francisco by Christopher Wardana.

My illustration of a proposal for the Main Library in Vancouver (Hardy Holzman Pfieffer Architects), is a mix of masonry and glass, but the entry is a glass cube which is rendered as a glowing box in the misty twilight.

Urban Glow at dusk is the theme of this evocative scene in Boston by Jeff Stikeman.

If there is a practical rule in the light spot composition it might be, “play with the spot”.  A nice white box sitting in a field is pretty boring unless there is more to it.
Enticing the viewer to look more closely is the point, and an off-center, partially masked composition is a good start.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Vignette

In my post on Goodhue last week, the vast majority of the drawings were vignettes, that is, drawings that trailed off before reaching the edge of the paper or border.

In Wikipedia “vignette” is defined as ‘a word that originally meant "something that may be written on a vine-leaf"’.   The Compact Oxford English Dictionary* (2nd edition, 1989) agrees with the vine derivation, but traces it back to the French Vinet, “A running or trailing ornament or design in imitation of the branches, leaves or tendrils of the vine, employed in architectural  or decorative work.”   The specific definition in the Oxford English is “…any embellishment, illustration or picture uninclosed in a border, or having the edges shading off into the surrounding paper, …”.

Vignettes have been around as long as humans have drawn on flat surfaces.  Paleolithic man did not worry about borders and edges when painting on the cave walls of Lascaux, and doodles have been found in the margins of ancient manuscripts.  Artists have always sketched on a page with no thought for completion and 
framing, as with Borromini’s sketch of St. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.

However, the vignette as a specific technique is cotemporal with the invention of printing and the use of small wood block or copper engravings.  Thomas Bewick for instance, was a master of the wood block in the late 18th century (and here he very topically has provided a grape vine).

Goodhue was a master of the vignette.  If you haven’t checked out the post on his life and work, it is here.

In no way was Goodhue alone in using the technique.  Beaux Art style books were full of vignetted architectural details, such as those in the Petits EdificesHistoriques by Antonin Raguenet (1897).  Here are sculptural details from the Church de Lepine in France.

There were many talented artists recording the ancient architecture of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Samuel Chamberlain sketched any number of now forgotten townhouses and farmsteads in Europe during the Victorian Era.  Below is his view of the Gateway on the Chateau at St. Pierre sur Dives.

Run of the mill public buildings also got the stylish vignette treatment of the time.  The post office in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (about 30 miles west of my house) was illustrated with surprising panache by David Maginnis in 1898.

The real “golden age” for vignettes was in magazine illustration about a hundred years ago.  The “trailing ornament” in books developed into full color illustrations which brought drama to the page while becoming a part of the magazine layout.  Saul Tepper was only one of the talented artists who excelled at this.  His painterly portrait below tells a story with an erotic palette.

Charles Shelden’s painting of the ballerina Hilda Butsova (born Hilda Boot in Nottingham, England) is both realistic and abstract.

As with sketches of architectural details, any torso study is essentially a vignette.  In this drawing, as in most of my work, I try to walk the fine line between 2D and 3D; between paper and flesh.

A quick sketch will naturally fit the “unfinished” description, as with this sketch from a trip to France decades ago.

Or, the vignette can be studiously designed for the effect it produces on the paper, as with this drawing of Amiens Cathedral.

Architectural illustrators still use the vignette occasionally.  This watercolor of Canadian Martyrs Church by Ron Love, is both a fascinating vignette, and a beautiful study in color balance.

The aerial below, of a guest ranch in Montana by Ric Heldt, presents the idea of open space and wild scenery with a minimal touch.

The vignette is not a technique that works for every job.  Most paintings are completed to the edge specifically because they will be framed.  Vignettes are by their nature art with a light touch; they are suggestive, accommodating and often shy.  But they have their place; a well conceived vignette can be a spectacular tour-de-force of the hand.  Next time you have a pencil drawing that seems overdone, lay another sheet over the offending work and redraw the essential parts in ink.  Then step back and add only as much as strikes your fancy from a distance.  Knowing when to stop is the key.  Trusting your eye is, as always, a necessary gamble.  But you may be surprised by the result.

*The Compact Oxford English Dictionary is a very large book with microscopic type, just barely readable with a magnifying glass.  No wonder I need glasses.  Is there no sacrifice I will not go to for this blog?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Inspiration - Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue

“The best architects have been artists first.”

There are times in your life when the artistic and the personal seem to intersect in one person.  Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue is that intersection for me.  His drawings were “love at first sight” for me although they were intimidating.  Youth tends to search for roll models, putting much importance in superficial similarities, and I am no Goodhue.  But there were parallels between our lives which made me feel closer to Goodhue than to any other architect I studied.

Goodhue was a Connecticut Yankee, although he had nothing in common with Mark Twain’s character in King Arthur’s Court.  His family roots were deep in 17th century New England, as are mine.  He had a Revolutionary War hero in the family; ditto there.  And, he was a self taught artist who also loved history.  How could I not love the guy.  

However, unlike myself, Goodhue was poor, not formally educated, and grew up in a quaint Connecticut town a century before I was born.  He began drawing regularly at the age of ten, and by the age of 15 had developed a talent for drawing any sort of building with charming ease.   Being poor, he apprenticed himself to a New York City architect as an office boy, but he quickly advanced on the strength of his drawing.  At age 18 his rendering of a House and Lodge on the coast of Oregon (above) was published by Building magazine.  An amazing rise, and a totally different path than I followed.  I should also add that Goodhue was a genius, which I am not.  

At the age of 22 (1891) Goodhue won a competition for the design of the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Dallas, Texas (above), and became a partner with the firm of Cram & Wentworth in Boston.  In a sense his career was settled, but in other ways he was the most unsettled of young men.  He hungered for recognition, being outside the circle of Beaux Arts graduates and gentlemen architects.  His childhood poverty drove him to produce designs and drawings at a prodigious rate.  He was a functional manic personality, going from gregarious elation to focused depression, while spinning off images which dazzled his co-workers and clients.

That makes him sound like a candidate for the loony bin, but he also had a steely self discipline and an absolute belief in his abilities.  And people came to love him in spite of his sharpness and occasional severity.   His genius was obvious, and people accommodated his occasional quirks.

The previous two images are of All Saint’s Church in Brookline Massachusetts, one of the first projects that he worked on as a partner (the partnership soon became Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, and would be his base for the next 23 years).  His confidence, seen in the sure handling of the church’s complex form, is already evident.

Goodhue’s early professional years (1894 to 1902) had the usual “bread and butter” architectural work, but also involved site sketching (above).  In the end however, his professional career was originally defined by the delightful imaginary places he dreamed up and illustrated.  

The “sinuous streets” of “Traumburg” in Bohemia was first.  “In its humble way Traumburg is a very complete example of the Mediaeval German spirit.  By this admission I hope to disarm criticism of my poor attempt to describe it.  Let it also be admitted, and at once, that in Germany there does not, and never did, exist an architectural monument of the first class, - not even Cologne Cathedral.  But there is a certain quality, it seems to me, in German work that should possess greater interest, and for more people, than it apparently does.  I mean that quality that has given us the Teutonic Marschen – both for children and for grown-ups – of which the chief component may, for lack of a better term, be entitled the macabre.”

The “ancient” church of St. Kavin’s is an amazing conception that would fit nicely in one of the Tolkien movies by Peter Jackson.  The detail above shows the mastery of illusion that Goodhue had reached at age 27.  Note also the beautiful vignette composition making the church and landscape describe an elegant arc.

Another, more “touristic” view of the town.  Note the stork on the chimney.  “Traumburg,  A small but very ancient town, about twenty miles from the seacoast.  Chief place in the county of the same name lying between Grunefwald and Ruritania.”

St. Kavin’s from the cloister-garth.  “The Church is of little interest to the ordinary tourist because of its lack of unity, and is but rarely visited, owing to the fact that no railway passes within a number of miles.”

The fantasy for 1897 was “Villa Fosca and its Garden”, which had “hitherto escaped the observation of serious writers”

Again, the dream was developed both generally and in detail, with an inimitable sense of place.  “Along the southern face of the simpler pergola which encloses the kitchen gardens, and descending by slow degrees to the bay, is a ramp, crossed at intervals by winding pathways, all of which converge after long and intentionally mazy wanderings, at the Tenietto di Venere, which, like the billiard hall, is another triumph of the baroque.”  Goodhue has a way with veiled sarcasm. 

Finally, in 1899 he invented the Italian hill town of “Monteventoso”.  In his words: “It is but a poor place, this Monteventoso, and scarce worth discovering.”

“…despite the announcement, made by the proprietor of the ‘Albergo Della Ruota’, that in Monteventoso were to be found ‘notable’ buildings, the author must beg leave to deny any complicity in the statement.”

“As elsewhere, all the life and most of the interest of the town centre about the piazza, in spite of the fact that the principal structure, the church of St. Catherine, is perched on the hillside some little distance above.”

Goodhue goes on with 15 pages of delightful sketches and travel writing (with local gossip and traditional stories thrown in for good measure).

His explorations were sometimes more prosaic in nature.  For instance, above are two iconic “country churches” he produced in the same time period as his exotic travel sketches.  But even here is found whimsy; the tombstone reads, “B. G. G. deit MDCCCXCIX.”

Goodhue’s last imaginary journey was to Shiraz, Persia, where he set his story “Of Persian Gardens”. 

“…but the poetry is here, and the mystery, and above all else, the art – an art and craft of garden making no less perfect than that of Italy, but set in the midst of surroundings as different as east is from west.”

The pencil sketch above entitled “A Castle in the forest of Arden” seems imaginary, but is related to a proposed house for E.H. Harriman, in Arden, NY.  And so, Goodhue continues his habit of mixing the imaginary ideal with the paid commission.  It is also a clue to his rendering process: a well developed pencil drawing followed by a freehand ink tracing.  I would love to hear of other clues to his approach to drawing.

Proposal for a church in Cleveland, Ohio

La Santisima Trinidad pro-cathedral in Havana.

Todos Santos, Guantanamo, Cuba.  The poster being viewed says, “Cran runs with bulls”.  Goodhue apparently had a dry sense of humor, as well as the admirable discipline to leave paper blank and incomplete.

Proposed Episcopal Cathedral, Havana.

Proposed church in Winchester, Massachusetts.  The gravestone reads;  “This Stone marks the resting place of B.G.G’s pen”.

St. John’s Church, West Hartford, Connecticut.

First Presbyterian Church of Rockaway, New York.

Proposed Chapel at St. John’s School, Manlius, New York.

There is a pattern in the preceding images, no?  Goodhue liked the aesthetic possibilities of church architecture, and his partner, Ralph Adams Cram, was enamored by Anglo-Catholic liturgy and the architecture associated with it.  Add in some high social connections and you have a serious and growing practice.

Proposed Memorial Arch at the United States Military Academy, West Point.  This, and the chapel following, were a part of an on-going relation with the Academy.

The Chapel at US Military Academy West Point; showing that he could compose and render in pencil as brilliantly as he did in ink.  The chapel was built, and is worth a visit.

The above three images are wonderful sketches.  They are of a project (St. Thomas College, Washington, DC) which I have not been able to locate in the 1983 list of his projects.  They are included in the 1914 book, but don’t show up anywhere else.  If anybody knows where this place is, I’d love to hear from you.

Perhaps Goodhue’s most famous project was St. Thomas’s Church in New York City.  This pencil sketch of an early scheme shows a work in progress; the finished church is on Fifth Avenue, and is one of the better examples of a formal appearing church in a tight urban fabric.

By 1910 the practice had expanded beyond the east coast, with several commissions in California.  Here is a pencil rendering of a cathedral and hospital in Los Angeles.

Here, an illustration of a different proposal for a cathedral in Los Angeles.

And here, buildings for an international exhibition in San Diego.  These buildings are also extant and are part of Balboa Park in the city.

Goodhue did a number of jobs in Minnesota (my home state).  Above is a delightfully domestic house built on the shores of Lake Superior.

One big project that, sadly, was never built was the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore.  Luckily, we have these three pencil renderings (below) of the proposal.  The conception is more traditional than Goodhue normally liked, but they are all iconic images, and can teach an illustrator a lot about composition and value.

Besides churches and cathedrals, Goodhue was quite popular as a country house designer.  Like Edwin Lutyens, his English contemporary, he was traditional but quirky.  The images below might seem over done with ornament, but for his time Goodhue was restrained in his use of ornament, and would progressively simplify as a project moved toward construction.

The Parish House, Saint Peter’s, Morristown, New Jersey.

A half timbered cottage for a Ladies Home Journal article.

A house near Greenwich, Connecticut.

Proposals for a house at Briarcliff, New York.

Bertram Goodhue house, Montecito, California.

Anyone who has worked in an architectural office knows how much time a principal spends in meetings, travel and socializing.  As Goodhue became famous he was inundated with clients, and the time available for design and especially drawing became more limited.  By 1914 he left Cram and Ferguson and started his own office in New York City, which placed more pressure on him, but also gave all the fame and fortune to him alone.  From now on rendering was often done by others in the office, or farmed out to specialists such as Hugh Ferriss and Birch Burdette Long.  As his practice became nationwide, he found that “travel” involved long trips by train to California, Florida or Montreal, and jaunts by ship to Hawaii or Cuba; severely limiting his time in the office.

These three renderings of the Nebraska State Capitol building illustrate Goodhue’s later years.  The design is ground breaking in its simplified expression of forms, and its limited and orderly use of ornament.  None of the renderings however, are by Goodhue himself, but rather are by the anonymous office worker, a professional renderer (Birch Burdette Long), and a talented in-house artist/architect (James Perry Wilson).

One of the best renderings by Hugh Ferriss is the Convocation Tower designed by Goodhue as a portfolio example of his ability to design tall buildings.  And, yes, I’ll have to do a full post on Ferriss some time.

Although it is another project rendered by others, the Kansas City War Memorial (above) is too good to not include here.  Goodhue did not win the competition, but in the presentation drawings (actually watercolor wash drawings done by his office in the Beaux Art tradition) you get a clear idea of the direction his design ideas were going.  He had always been a romantic, but had also seen the need for the architect to balance mass forms with ornament, classical order with natural dynamism, and abstraction with narrative.

Saint Bartholomew’s Church in New York is another of the New York City churches he is famous for.  This rendering is by James Perry Wilson, from Goodhue’s office.

The sketch above is the last known drawing by Goodhue.  It was done while returning home from the west coast on the Union Pacific Railroad.  It is entitled; “View of the (poorer) business quarter of the city of Sarras”.  He died unexpectedly 10 days later of a heart attack in New York City; he was only 55 years old.  The sketch proves that he retained his visual creativity and romantic spirit to the end.  The title suggests that the early poverty that drove him his whole life was still an undercurrent pushing him beyond his physical limits.

“The sense of romance possessed him.”  -Ralph Adams Cram

Goodhue’s life was a balance between tradition and freedom.  This was a reflection of the age, and others were exploring the same dichotomy, and questioning the status quo of the Beaux Art and eclecticism.  Unfortunately, his career was cut short, so we don’t know what he would have made of the European modernism of the 30’s and 40’s.  

Anyway, we’ll never know…  The Great Depression and World War 2 came along and undermined the already shaky ideals of Western Civilization.  

The result has been an exciting, chaotic roller coaster ride that we can’t seem to leave behind.

In case you want to learn more about Goodhue, the best book about his life and career is Richard Oliver’s Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (1983).  Most of the drawings and renderings in this post are from a large format book published by The Architectural Book Publishing Company of New York in 1914, entitled, A Book of Architectural and Decorative Drawings by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue.  Other images are from Drafting Room Practice by Eugene Clute(1928).  Many of the later renderings in Goodhue’s office seem to have come from the hand of James Perry Wilson (noted in the post), a Columbia architecture graduate, who was also, like Goodhue, a talented artist.  An interesting site on his life is here.  

Inspiration- The Dreams of Lebbius Woods

Inspiration- Sargent & Structures

Inspiration- Louis Sullivan & Ornamentation

Inspiration- Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue

Inspiration- Winslow Homer

Inspiration- Dore & value studies

Inspiration- Hugh Ferriss

Inspiration- Waterhouse & Color

Inspiration- Bierstadt & Atmosphere

Inspiration- John C. Wenrich

Inspiration - Cyril Farey