Monday, May 13, 2013

Art Machines 2

I ran across this article in the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks ago, but didn’t have the time to post and comment. It essentially notes that Van Gogh (as well as Degas) used “perspective frames” more than was previously suspected.  “There are references to the frames in van Gogh’s letters, says Ms. Vellekoop, but until now researchers thought he ‘only had one.’ Now, she says, we know he had several in different sizes. New infrared examinations revealed that he actually traced the outlines of the threaded frame right onto the canvas, fixing a sense of order early on, and giving a hidden rigor to paintings that are admired for their wild expressiveness.”
It all makes one wonder if other artists took advantage of “perspective frames”, or similar tools. It also makes me wonder why such technical information is missing from all the art history books I had available to me most of my life (1960 to 2000)?

There are a couple websites that cover van Gogh’s techniques. First there is Van Gogh's Studio Practice.

An excerpt from a letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo:
My dear Theo,
In my last letter you’ll have found a little scratch of that perspective frame. I’ve just come back from the blacksmith, who has put iron spikes on the legs and iron corners on the frame.
It consists of two long legs:
The frame is fixed to them by means of strong wooden pegs either horizontally or vertically.
The result is that on the beach or in a meadow or a field you have a view as if through a window. The perpendicular and horizontal lines of the frame, together with the diagonals and the cross — or otherwise a grid of squares — provide a clear guide to some of the principal features, so that one can make a drawing with a firm hand, setting out the broad outlines and proportions.1 Assuming, that is, that one has a feeling for perspective and an understanding of why and how perspective appears to change the direction of lines and the size of masses and planes. Without that, the frame is little or no help, and makes your head spin when you look through it.
I expect you can imagine how delightful it is to train this view-finder on the sea, on the green fields — or in the winter on snow-covered land or in the autumn on the fantastic network of thin and thick trunks and branches, or on a stormy sky.  
With CONSIDERABLE practice and with lengthy practice, it enables one to draw at lightning speed and, once the lines are fixed, to paint at lightning speed.
It’s in fact especially good for painting, because a brush must be used for sky, ground, sea. Or, rather, to render them through drawing alone, it’s necessary to know and feel how to work with the brush. I also firmly believe my drawing would be strongly influenced if I were to paint for a while. I tried it back in January but that came to a halt — the reason for stopping, apart from a few other things,2 was that I was still too hesitant when drawing. Now six months have passed, devoted entirely to drawing. So now I’m beginning anew with fresh heart. The frame really has become an excellent piece of equipment — it’s a pity you still haven’t seen it. It has cost me a pretty penny, too, but I had it made so solidly that I shan’t wear it out in a hurry. On Monday I’ll start doing large charcoal drawings with it, as well as painting small studies — if those two things come off, I hope that better painted work will soon follow. 

Another website is, Van Gogh Museum Journal.
It has more information on van Gogh’s use of the perspective frame and its effect on his art …for instance, inclusion of “framing posts” in the drawing/painting itself.
Florist's garden on the Schenkweg 1882
Landscape with farm and two trees 1888

The use of the perspective frame also influenced his treatment of panaraminc views of countryside…
La Crau seen from Montmajour 1888
Landscape of Montmajour with train 1888
And just a bit of history for those interested…
Da Vinci used a “Transparent Plane” to accurately draw complex objects…
…and, Durer used a “net” to do the same thing: his etching of the technique above.

Both da Vinci or Durer were capable of drawing accurately with aids, but both were intelligent enough to know that the value of art is not in the avoidance of tools, but in the genius of the artist in creating a fresh and profound idea.

-Art Machines 1

Friday, May 10, 2013

Composition Part 10 - Star Burst

Glancing at my desk I saw this image.  Weird, I thought.

 Walking around the desk, the image rotated, but I still did not recognize anything.

Finally, with the newspaper oriented correctly I saw the familiar painting by Winslow Homer.  The Life Line is not a favorite of mine, but I have seen the painting dozens of times over the years.  Why couldn’t I recognize it?  Part of the problem was the rotation, but more important is the fact that Homer is working hard to disorient the viewer.  There is no horizon, no vanishing point, and the figures have been crumpled into a dark mass with only one face visible.  

Here, however, is a painting that I would easily recognize upside down, but on the other hand, it creates a strange abstract in black and white.

The Ecstasy of St. Paul by Nicholas Poussin does not camouflage the figures as Homer does, but the horizon and architectural elements are severely downplayed, while the heavenly “explosion” of arms, legs and angel wings is bewildering. 
The “floating” effect of both paintings and the absence of horizon and perspective make them both hard to place in the real world.  They are, in a way, the exact opposite of the usual architectural rendering, which is solidly moored to the ground, and is sensibly cognizant of perspective and gravity.  I suppose that is another way of saying that architectural renderings tend to be boring.

Other examples of the “Star Burst” composition include paintings that depict violent action. Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter is full of violence and action, in spite of the crisp and brilliant modeling.

The Fall of Ixion by Cornelis Corneliszoon van Haarlem is another explosive painting of violence and destruction.

Turner’s Flare in High Seas from 1840 takes a distant drama (a ship in distress), and makes it exciting by obscuring the normal reality in a composition of angles and swirls.

The subject of a Star Burst composition doesn’t have to be “sturm und drang”, but can simply be action and drama. Thalia, Muse of Comedy by Jean-Marc Nattier gives the viewer the feeling of an opening night curtain riser, complete with mystery, allure, and sensuality.

Manmade structures would seem to be unsuitable for the Star Burst composition, but, as Hoisting the Upper TGallant 1900 by J.M. Groves shows, viewpoint and perspective can go far in producing interesting patterns.

As noted above, perspective gives a natural Star Burst effect. Depending on the design and the viewpoint, a fairly straightforward architectural rendering can produce it. Briarcliff Development Grand Stair by Dick Sneary shows the subtle effect in an otherwise static view.

Aerial Perspectives will often produce a dynamic image that would be impossible at ground level. Gangwando Ski Resort by Art Zendarski exemplifies this possibility.

Interiors can be quite boring if viewed from a normal viewpoint. Looking up at in interesting ceiling, or down from a multistoried atrium can produce amazing results. Sony Center by Angelo De Castro takes such a viewpoint, but uses the addition complication of seeing the space in mirror panels which distort the reality. It is quite a tour-de-force, even if the information is obscured.

Use a Star Burst composition to express excitement and drama. Use it to focus on some feature in the rendering. Or, use it to break up a too static image. But don’t lose the reality which is the whole point of architectural illustration.

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