Thursday, January 17, 2013

Composition part 3 - Dark Spot

A couple of summers ago a part of my neighborhood lost power.  There was no moon and the darkness was absolute.  Looking down the street was like looking into a black hole; it was spooky.  I kept staring into the blackness searching for the houses and trees I knew were there.
We are naturally afraid of darkness, but we are also fascinated by it.  There must be something in the seeming nothingness.  We think that an unlighted area must contain some hint to its contents so that the human brain can go to work creating a reality.  The lack of all information is profoundly unsettling.
The Horsehead Nebula is a classic example of an imperfect silhouette that provides a reality through its limited illumination and translucence.  Seen directly through a telescope it is pure black, but in long, multiple exposure photographs some detail of its structure can be seen, and the awesome reality imagined.  
In painting you are bound to run across a situation where the object is darker than the background.  Van Gogh’s shoes are an example…
…as is Delacoix’s portrait entitled Nègre au turban.  Any composition of this type will tend to have a light colored background, with white paper or canvas representing white stone, white cloth, or a bright overcast sky.
Of course you don’t have to create a sharp line between the dark spot and the lighter background; you can develop a mid-tone area to mediate between dark and light.  Tete d'arabe by Nasreddine Dinet used a hat and shadows to “spin” a simple portrait into an entertaining puzzle.
But the essence of the dark spot is the silhouette.  And, a silhouette can be highly informative, as in The Drummer Boy by William Morris Hunt.  Squint you eyes to blur the details and you will still recognize a human figure.
A mixture of the familiar and strange, as in The flying carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov, yields a pleasing riddle.
While the seemingly abstract silhouette found in The Herring Net by Winslow Homer tends to draw us into the picture searching for more information.
However, if you are going to tease the viewer with a darkly mysterious silhouette, it is common courtesy to provide the key to the mystery.  Ilya Repin does this beautifully in his preliminary study for Viktor Vasnetsov.

…But, this post is about architectural illustration, right?

Yes, it is.  And in that regard the dark spot approach has some major draw-backs. 

Whereas a vignette aerial view (such as that of the University of Maryland above) is a successful example of the pattern, other sorts of examples are few and far between.  The main problem with using the dark spot is that a detailed rendering of a complex form, such as a building, is difficult when you are limited to values between black and grey.  
The above aerial shows an interesting dark spot in an urban grid, but as you can see, the detailing lacks punch and there is some ambiguity in the building’s position in the context.  Still, this is about as good as it gets.  I’ve found surprisingly few architectural renderings that illustrate this difficult approach.
One, rather unusual use of the dark spot is shown in the above site drawing by Gary Shuberth.  The white sky, walls and foreground create a perfectly realistic but blank background, while at the same time the highly sculpted dome and tower provide an abstract dance of dark spots.
Goodhue (who I will cover more thoroughly later) occasionally plays cat-and-mouse in a similar way by dissolving parts of the building into the sky, while playing up certain dark patches. 
Hugh Ferriss, on the other hand, dives head first into the dark in his rendering of the Radiator Building in New York City.  But note that he splashes a triangle of sunlight across the midsection to break up the form.
One area where a pure silhouette can be used is in establishing a foil to the subject building.  This night shot uses an equestrian statue to set off the lit façade of the two towers behind.  The statue needs no additional detail to read, and the flat void of it and the sky lets the façade pop out.  This rendering was created with oil pastel, the only time I have ever used that medium.

If you have had better experiences with this compositional approach I’d like to hear about it.

A caveat for all posts on composition.
You don’t want to produce total chaos.
You don’t want to create banal order.
You do want to entice, hint, and suggest.
You want to create mystery, even if the subject appears to be obvious.

 - Composition Part 17 - Value Studies

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