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

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Natural Spotlights

Not long ago I was on a bench in Washington Square Park people watching. It is one of the better places in New York City to see the entire spectrum of humanity mingling on the urban stage. The sun was low in the west, and streamed into the square between the buildings on the west side of the park. This created a tight “spotlight”, making the area beneath the Garibaldi monument something of a stage.

The effect of “spotlights” is dramatic. It takes the scruffy street musician, and makes him into an event. While an urban “spotlight” such as that shown above is created when buildings block the sun, the same effect can be created by clouds on a grander scale.

The photo above of Providence Town shows a sunset spotlight highlighting the beach front. It is subtle, but charming. The unlit buildings to the left and right frame the view. Note that the edges of this “spotlight” are soft, whereas the spotlights at Washington Square were relatively sharp.

This computer tablet sketch uses the same effect to emphasize the part of the town with the church steeple.

The same effect is illustrated in Berthing Boats in a Dutch Harbor by Andreas Achenbach, painted in 1877.

Newburyport Meadows by Martin Johnson Heade shows the source of the spotlights that are playing across the meadows.

The Cactus Friend by Carl Spitzweg suggests how dramatic the spotlight effect can be, even when used in the simplest sketch.

This illustration (Babe’s Greatest Moment by Douglas Crockwell), may not seem to have anything to do with architectural illustration, but it is a blueprint for drama. Imagine a cluster of buildings lit by the rays of a sunset cutting in beneath the grey blanket of a thunder storm.

One occasion an illustrator can use a large fuzzy spotlight is in highlighting a specific part of an urban scene in an aerial perspective. LaCledes Landing could not be seen without the context of downtown St. Louis, but it had to stand out from the rest of the urban fabric. A very soft sky spotlight was used which shows everything in perfect detail, but gives the new development the starring role.

Die Propyläen auf dem Münchner Königsplatz Leo von Klenze is a beautiful example of soft and hard shadows. The soft edged shadow the makes the top of the structure lighter than the bottom is produced by the clouds that are miles away. The sharp shadow to the left of the entry is cast by the portico itself which is perhaps 15 feet away. The edges are soft or hard depending on the sharpness of the thing blocking the sun, and on the distance between the object where the shadow is cast and the object blocking the sun. Since the sun’s disc is not a point, the edge of a shadow becomes fuzzier in proportion to the width of the sun’s disc and the ratio of the distance from the casting object and the sun, and the casting object and the shadow.

Besides the sharpness of the edge of spots, the color of the light and the color of the shadow are important in getting the effect right. Note that the shadow cast by the girl is sharp (because she is close to the shadow), and cool compared to the lighted stone. This is because the major light striking the shadowed area is blue light reflected from the sky. The shaded cracks of the stone below her elbow are a warm brown/grey because they are primarily lit by light reflecting up from the surrounding stone.

Spotlights are an easy (and surprisingly forgiving) tool for producing drama. Try them out whenever a bit of emotion and showmanship is called for.