Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Composition Part 11 - Serpentine

Serpentine means “serpent-like”; a winding, writhing snake shape. The map above was made during the Great Depression, and shows the various riverbeds of the Mississippi over the last several centuries. This shape suggests a freeform, organic object like a river, rolling hills, or the human body.

William Hogarth (1697 to 1764) called it the “line of beauty”, and thought that any object had to embody the serpentine shape to capture true beauty. In his self-portrait he prominently displays a serpentine curve on his palette in the foreground.  

Dolorida by Antonio Parreiras is a composition swarming with serpentine lines overt and hidden, contrasted by the horizontal lines formed by the arms and orange stripe.

Georges Clairin’s portrait of Sarah Burnhardt is also dramatically serpentine from top to bottom.

My own figure sketch in charcoal is naturally full of serpentine lines. In drawing the female figure it is hard to avoid the serpentine theme.

Tossot’s Emigrants depicts a subject and pose that would not normally evoke the line of beauty, but he composed the figures and ships in such a way that you can see a series of interlocking curves cascading down the canvas. This is a good lesson for any architectural illustrator who thinks that a rectilinear building precludes any curving composition.

 Hexenmeister by Carl Spitzweg does the same thing as the Tossot above, but does it more overtly and with a more imaginary subject (to say the least – wizards and dragons).

A mountain landscape is a potential treasure chest of curved serpentine lines, as can be seen in Picking  Flowers by Pedro Weingärtner.

Rivers, lakes and the sea seem to be a natural source of sensuous curves. Church’s Niagara Falls is an example of this.

Sometimes the perspective and the curves of the landscape work together to create a sense of distance and depth to an image. Rinsing Linen by Valentin Alexandrovich Serov takes the far thin line of the horizon, pulls that line down to the foreground in a widening pattern, and flows off the canvas in a broad, muddy stream. Of course rinsing cloth in a muddy stream during the winter is a way to shock the sensibilities -  which I suppose was the point.

Mountain Lake by Albert Bierstadt suggests a series of lazily swinging serpentine shapes creating a beautiful, peaceful scene.

The same peaceful view is captured by Mike Kowalski in his architectural rendering of Sun Mountain

Yarmouth Pier by John Constable uses the towering clouds (for which he was famous) to describe a softly scribed “Z” shape across the canvas.

Pure Development Barbados by Michael McCann mirrors the curves of the headland in the serpentine swing of the beach awnings.

Getting back to the hard straight lines of architecture… perspective and shadows can be used to create serpentine shapes where they wouldn’t show up in plans and elevations. Hubert’s painting; Ancient Ruins Used as Public Baths does this beautifully.

Of course some buildings are designed with curves as the informing element. Sky Lounge Busan Tower South Korea by John Pisketzis captures the atmosphere of aeronautical shapes well.

Turner, in his later paintings turned ordinary landscapes into wildly sweeping fantasies. His painting Quillebeuf, at the Mouth of Seine shows a natural seeming building surrounded by a sea and sky that have erupted in an ecstatic dance.

You may not want to go the “Full Turner” when rendering your project, but looking for a serpentine pattern in a view can make a static image into a dynamic, and eye catching centerpiece to a presentation.

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

1 comment:

  1. Lee

    This is an incredible blog! It is nice to see someone giving so much of themselves back!!!

    You must get this out there for many many people to follow!

    thank you! Andy Hickes