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?