Wednesday, 4 May 2011

It’s a patchy world

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – May 2011.

John Ruskin, in his Lectures on art, wrote that: “All objects appear to the human eye simply as masses of colour of variable depth, texture, and outline.” and “Consider all nature merely as a mosaic of different colours, to be imitated one by one in simplicity.”

You can derive a useful exercise from these statements. Follow these instructions:

  • Compose a painting using a mosaic of shapes that vary in shape, size and colour.
  • Do not use any initial line drawing.
  • Use only one flat brush (this is a brush with a square end) - The larger the brush, the better.

Squint at your subject to eliminate the details. If you wear glasses, try taking them off when you look at the subject to work out the masses of colour and tones.

When you work this way, you learn to build stronger paintings.

On several occasions, when visiting art museums, I have admired paintings that looked detailed from afar and were in fact executed with bold brush strokes. This is to me the mark of true mastery. For instance, during a visit at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich (Germany), I was struck by one of Monet’s paintings titled “The bridge at Argenteuil” (1874).

La Seine à Argenteuil - Oil painting by Claude Monet (Source: Wikimedia)

This work is located near the entrance of the room and I therefore saw it close-up first. I could see the raw canvas apparent in many places: in the sky, in the foreground and in the reflection of one of the pillars of the bridge. Monet used a thin layer of paint throughout the canvas, apart from the light boat hulls in the foreground, which were painted with great vigour if not with much detail. The work is signed and dated in the lower right corner so, at least in Monet’s mind, there was no doubt it was a finished painting.

After looking at this painting for some time, I carried on with my visit around the exhibition. When I reached the opposite side of the room, I turned back and my eyes caught Monet’s painting again. From afar, not only the painting looked finished but it appeared full of details, even if I knew they were just marks on the canvas. The illusion was perfect.

Our brain is very good at filling gaps and interpreting images, even if they contain a minimal amount of details. For instance, if you use a computer to pixelize the picture of someone (i.e. to turn the picture into a collection of coloured squares) you can still make-out that it is a portrait and you may even be able to recognize the person despite the lack of detailed features.

Let’s come back to our exercise and review its benefits.

This exercise will help you to get rid of a too detailed approach. You can build a sound painting by laying the foundation with large planes of colours. Also, thinking of an image as a collection of colour patches simplifies your thinking and makes any subject, however complex, less daunting.

Working details too soon into a painting is like attempting to decorate your home before the brickwork is finished. The truth is that no amount of details will compensate for a weak composition and it is easier to establish a sound composition by building a picture and shaping it with masses of colour.

In the end, if you want, you can add telling details to suggest a fuller picture to the viewer.

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