Portrait painters have long known that a standing human figure needs a little inventiveness to be interesting. El Bohemio, Poet of Montmartre by Ramon Casas i Carbo shows a character from Fin de siècle Paris, all in black – practically a silhouette. By adding a background of misty trees and wind mill, the artist gives the eye at bit of entertainment and tells a story. Note the geometric play between the top hat and the arms of the windmill, adding to the normal focus on the face.
In Vicomtesse de Montmorand Tissot uses a black fur boa to lead the eye around the figure, and emphasize the head. The effect is sensuous without being gauche.
James Whistler’s Symphony in White no 1 (The White Girl) is a white on white experiment. But the artist doesn’t leave it at that; he anchors the figure with the highly colored face at the top, and the head of the bearskin rug at the bottom. I’m not sure that Whistler meant anything by the juxtaposition, but he was not one to do anything without reason.
In Portrait of the Young Ladies by Ramon Casas i Carbo, you can see the simple effectiveness of having two figures instead of one. The subtle differences between the two girls make for an entertaining painting.
Vermeer’s Woman in Blue reading a letter is a fascinating abstract composition. Vermeer welds the figure into the context at the bottom, while playing off the vertical thrust of the girl and the horizontals of the map. The central location of the figure, along with the bright blue keeps the focus where it belongs.
Misdirection is the game being played by John White Alexander in Isabella and the Pot of Basil. Without the recognizable face and arm, you might be looking at anything except a human figure. The tension between the woman, and the mysterious abstractions keeps our attention.
A simple line sketch of a standing figure can be informative, but lacks a sense of solidity. It is a flat “spider web” with little to engage the viewer.
The same figure in silhouette has more solidity, but lacks much information. It is also flat and uninteresting after the first impression.
Adding the simplest elements of form and color suggests reality. By varying the lighting on the figure and the background, an interesting image begins to emerge; an image that can catch your eye from across the room, enticing with a mixture of clear reality and obscure mystery.
What does this have to do with architecture?
A straightforward modern skyscraper is essentially a vertical rectangle in a rectangular frame; much like a simple standing figure.
By handling the lighting in the same way that the nude lighting was handled, a simple rectangle jumps off the page and demands attention. The flexibility in the building modeling may be limited by the specific design, but the background, especially the sky is practically unlimited.
When I was sketching up variations for a rendering of Greeley Block (a proposal for the block south of Greeley Square in NYC) I quickly decided on a dusk or night view. This early sketch simply tested a light building against a dark sky.
In the next step I varied the building’s lighting, applying an artificial light to the stone base, and a reflection of a bright northern sky in the reflective glass at the top. The sky was developed to counter the values of the tower.
The final rendering is more detailed and realistic, but generally follows the second sketch. It emphasizes the unique design of the façade, giving the viewer a striking image that invites examination, and enough detail to reward that examination.