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.

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