Composition

The Dynamics of a Blank Piece of Paper by Jeannine Cook

We artists have all faced the blank sheet of white paper or canvas, time and time again. It can be a daunting moment. Yet it can also be the start of a fascinating balancing act, whose dynamics hark back to the earliest cave drawings, the origins of calligraphy and the vast heritage of both Eastern and Western art-making.

"Tabula rasa"

"Tabula rasa"

Some while ago, I found a marvellous statement by the wonderful British artist, Rebecca Salter,about the state of a piece of paper. She talked of an old Chinese saying that "a piece of paper is not empty until you have made the first mark", a saying which underlines the dynamics between a mark that you make on that paper and the blank space around it.  She continued by saying that "the word 'blank' is, however, misleading as the space, instead of becoming a space of nothingness, is 'activated by the presence of the drawn or painted mark".

This concepts seems to go to the very heart of composition, of a sense of balance and fitness of the symbiotic relationship of the marks placed on that surface.  It also ensures that your particular style, your hallmark as an artist, will be evident from the dynamics of your choices of marks made on that blank sheet of paper.

Calligraphy, from all traditions, has been based on this concept of dynamic balance on the page.

Japanese calligraphy

Japanese calligraphy

Ottoman tugra of Suleiman the Magnificent,1520, with flowers and  saz  leaves

Ottoman tugra of Suleiman the Magnificent,1520, with flowers and saz leaves

Present-day Western calligraphy

Present-day Western calligraphy

These examples from different types of calligraphy are wonderful examples of the dynamics that can be created on a black piece of paper. However, we can all be mindful of those potential relationships that we can work with when we face that sheet of paper.

Abstract Organisation by Jeannine Cook

Thinking further about composition and the fact that the path to achieving a successful painting or drawing often takes one into abstraction reminded me of a quote that I had found by British painter, Royal Academician and art professor at St. Martins, Frederick Gore. He was writing about abstract art back in the mid-fifties, rather against the tide of art in England at the time. He remarked, "The meaning of a figurative work of art lies in its abstract organisation."

Late Evening Looking towards the Crau,  Frederick Gore (image courtesy of John Adams Fine Art Ltd.)

Late Evening Looking towards the Crau, Frederick Gore (image courtesy of John Adams Fine Art Ltd.)

During his long and productive life, Gore produced a huge body of work, often working en plein air, and frequently travelling to different parts of the Mediterranean region. It is interesting to look at examples of his work to see how he used abstract organisation to compose his paintings, and thus allow their meaning and impact to be strengthened.

Above, Late Evening Looking towards the Crau shows this abstract underpinning: wedge shapes are counterbalanced by thrusting mounds that echo each other through the painting, each shape linking in subtle fashion with the next.

Paysage du Luberon,  Frederick Gore, (image courtesy of Charlotte Bowskill Fine Art)

Paysage du Luberon, Frederick Gore, (image courtesy of Charlotte Bowskill Fine Art)

Paysage du Luberon, another painting done in France (image courtesy of Charlotte Bowskill Fine Art), shows the same strong abstract organisation. Gore used not only the different shapes to form an abstract pattern but he used colour to lead the eye through the picture. This painting is a wonderful example of what American watercolour artist and teacher, Edgar Whitney, always talked about, namely, that a strong shape in a painting is "irregular, unpredictable and oblique".

Puig Mayor from Fornalutx, near Soller,  1958, Frdereick Gore, (image courtesy of the British Government Art Collection)

Puig Mayor from Fornalutx, near Soller, 1958, Frdereick Gore, (image courtesy of the British Government Art Collection)

Another painting, done in Mallorca of Puig Mayor from Fornalutx, near Soller, uses the shapes of the olive trees to organise the painting, with the distant mountains echoing the clumps of trees. As a counterbalance, Gore used the wonderful orange-yellow-russet fields to pull one through the whole composition.

Landscape near Deya  1958, Frederick Gore,(image courtesy of the British Government Art Collection)

Landscape near Deya 1958, Frederick Gore,(image courtesy of the British Government Art Collection)

In an even more brilliant depiction of Mallorca, also done in 1958, Frederick Gore painted this Landscape near Deya. He organised the canvas into four main abstract forms and one smaller one, always a powerful way of dealing with a composition. The olive trees again lead one into and around the painting. The abstraction allows total coherency in what Gore was meaning to say about this hot, sunlit Mediterranean mountainside.

On a more personal note, I always love seeing how other artists respond to the landscapes of Mallorca, an island I know and love deeply. Despite the more than fifty years since these two paintings were done, this part of Mallorca is not that dramatically changed, something to be celebrated.

Frederick Gore certainly put into personal practice what he advocated. It is good to remind oneself of how to organise an eloquent, powerful work of art through abstraction.

The Whole Composition by Jeannine Cook

A visual artist always has a set of decisions to make at the beginning of a work - how to compose the picture, what to emphasise, what to convey by the way the picture is composed. That is in part why so many people advocate doing thumbnail sketches before embarking on a painting or drawing; one needs to work out a sensible road map, a composition that works.

Henri Matisse once remarked, "I don't paint things. I only paint between things." He paid close attention to the relationships between objects and how they relate to the whole composition. In a way, he was, in essence, creating an abstract web and underpinning to the composition by looking at the negative spaces, versus focusing on the "things".

Still Life with Geraniums , Matisse, 1910 (image courtesy of the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich)

Still Life with Geraniums, Matisse, 1910 (image courtesy of the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich)

Look, for instance, at this Still Life with Geraniums which Matisse painted in 1910. There is a wonderful, energetic structure going on thanks to the contrasts between the horizontals and verticals and the organically curvaceous objects and flowers. Half-closing your eyes and looking at the negative spaces in the painting leads to a really strong, dynamic underpinning to the work. Yet there is also a sense of space and airiness that was one of Matisse's great skills. His paintings looked out, not inwards in a hermetic fashion.

In the same way, the 1912 painting, The Window at Tanger, relies heavily on the relationships between the sense of space and spaciousness and the "things". (The image is courtesy of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.)

The Winndow atTanger,  Henri Matisse, 1912, (Image courtesy of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.)

The Winndow atTanger, Henri Matisse, 1912, (Image courtesy of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.)

The deep blue knits everything together, but flattens the space into a near-abstract image. Matisse visited Morocco in 1912 and again in 1913, and the bright colours and flat perspective show the influence that Islamic art was having on Matisse. He had already brightened his palette considerably with his Fauve period, so it was a logical development to embrace the brilliance of the Moroccan world. He used the "differences" in this scene from his hotel window to knit together an enormously evocative and energetic composition.

Another very different approach to the concept of composing a picture by concentrating on the spaces between objects can be seen in Rembrandt's prints. When he was working on his etchings, he was so technically skilled that he could fade out the contours of objects he was depicting and allow the "differences between things" to evoke the desired effect. Seventeenth century Italian art historian and connoisseur, Filippo Baldinucci, remarked, "that which is truly noteworthy of this artist (Rembrandt) was his remarkable style that he invented to etch in copper - that is, loose hatching and irregular lines and without contours he succeed in making profound contrasts."

Rembrandt's 1654 etching,  The Descent from the Cross

Rembrandt's 1654 etching, The Descent from the Cross

Rembrandt's 1654 etching, The Descent from the Cross, is one example. Few contours, wonderful spaces between "things" and an arresting composition all are rendered more powerful by this technique that Baldinucci described.

The Woman before a Dutch Stove,  Rembrandt, 1658 etching

The Woman before a Dutch Stove, Rembrandt, 1658 etching

In the same way, the spaces between, so expertly depicted and so vital to the composition, are masterfully achieved in this 1658 etching, The Woman before a Dutch Stove.

For every artist working now, it is always rewarding to go back and study attentively what has been done by the great artists of the past. The Internet helps greatly in allowing us to see these images, but there is, even now, a huge difference between these digital images and the actual artwork. That is when seeing how Matisse actually applied paint to the canvas as he evoked those relationships between things, or peering at Rembrandt's etchings, with their amazing hatching, through a magnifying glass, allow us to see the artist's hand and deft, skilled touch. Those details allow the ultimate consolidation and achievement of the composition, the relationships of things one to the other and thus to the whole work.

Design by Jeannine Cook

National Public Radio can always be guaranteed to provide interesting listening on the most diverse of subjects. This afternoon, in "All Things Considered", there was a piece about the "Behind-the-Scenes Partnership at Apple" between CEO Steve Jobs and head designer, Englishman Jonathan Ive. Apparently, ever since Steve Jobs discovered Ive working in a basement amidst a welter of creative inventions and designs in 1996, when Jobs had returned to Apple and was re-evaluating everyone and everything, the two have formed a very felicitous partnership.

What interested me was the parallel - in truth, hardly surprising - between the concepts espoused by Apple for design and those which an artist follows, ideally. It was apparently regarded as somewhat revolutionary in that industry that design was considered right from the beginning when a new product was being worked on. As Ive said, everything defers to the display, whether in the I-Phone, I-Pod or I-Pad - "getting the design out of the way". The user experience is the only important consideration, everything else is subservient.

In art, the design, or composition, is one of the important sub-structures of the piece. It should ideally be so discreet and integral to the work that it should not be noticed. The art should just look and feel "right". And the skill and experience to achieve this important underpinning of the work comes only with practice, thought and application. Indeed, one of the descriptions of Jonathan Ive at Apple in the NPR piece was "relentless", always working to get the thing "just right". That could, and should, be a description for everyone of us artists as we try to get our work "just right". Often, quite a challenge!

Negative Spaces by Jeannine Cook

I found an interesting comment recently: "It is the complexity of melody which makes music beautiful, just as negative spaces make a painting work. When next at the easel, remember we are making music for the eyes". Mary Kilbreath, a wonderful artist who paints in oils, made this remark. When you look at her paintings, she does indeed use negative space wonderfully.

I have always been fascinated by the power and necessity of negative space. Perhaps my childhood spent with Japanese wood cuts hanging on many of the walls of our home had something to do with my love affair with it. For example, this is a wonderful Hokusai study of The Dragon of Smoke emerging from Mt Fujiyama.

Hokusai. Dragon Flying over Mount Fuji. (Hokusaikan), painting on silk

Hokusai. Dragon Flying over Mount Fuji. (Hokusaikan), painting on silk

Negative space in art is the empty space between delineated objects, the area where the eye can rest. It allows a very strong underlying composition to be woven into a drawing or painting, directing the eye around the art in subtle fashion. It allows a rhythm between the positives and negatives, similar to what Mary Kilbreath was saying about music, the pauses and silences highlighting the melody.

The classic demonstrations of negative space usually use pedestalled urns which also read as silhouetted faces, but I found this cat image was an interesting way of showing positive and negative in simple fashion.

Positive and Negative Space, Feline Style

Positive and Negative Space, Feline Style

One of the aspects of using negative space that I relate to very readily - again thanks to the Japanese influence - is ensuring that the composition reaches to all four sides of the paper or canvas. Carrying shapes and lines to the edges not only implies more space and continuation of the composition beyond the confines of the paper; it also helps break up the composition into more interesting shapes. Negative space thus becomes easier to incorporate into the composition.

This is an example of my working to all four sides of the paper: Blue Encounter below. Negative space is part and parcel of the work.

Blue Encounter, silverpoint and watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

Blue Encounter, silverpoint and watercolour, Jeannine Cook artist

Playing in art - revisited by Jeannine Cook

I talked in an earlier blog about the insights into the value of play in our daily lives and the role that play has in allowing artists to develop and create. I was reflecting again on the way artists can play in creating art, and realised that there is another aspect to this activity of play.

When I am drawing or painting, a private game that I play with myself is seeing how I can convey the essence of my perceived reality - be it landscape, flower, person - with the minimum of lines (in drawing) or colour (in painting). I try to distill the subject to the absolute minimum of detail which still allows the viewer to recognise (more or less!) what is being portrayed. Each work is an endlessly interesting challenge in this respect. Organising abstraction as visual elements that convey reality is really a game to see how best one can succeed in minimalist depiction of the subject matter. Artists have done this since time immemorial - think of the essence of bison galloping across the walls of Altamira or the aurochs of Lascaux. Dolphins cavorting across the frescoed walls of Minoan palaces and octupii reaching around their painted ceramic jars come to mind too. In all these cases, the imagery is distilled and organised almost to the point of abstraction, yet utter realism results - powerful, arresting and memorable.

Altamira Caves, rupestrian art

Altamira Caves, rupestrian art

Dolphin Fresco, Knossos, Late Minoan Period (ca. 1500 BC)

Dolphin Fresco, Knossos, Late Minoan Period (ca. 1500 BC)

Old Masters, from Renaissance times onwards, also skilfully selected and simplified design elements to make their compositions more successful and beautiful. They used the abstraction of closely related values joined together in massed forms, which allowed the viewer's eye to be led to the focal points which are depicted realistically. Abstraction was certainly not the "invention" of the 20th century. If you carefully study any good drawing or painting, of no matter what era, that is purportedly realistic, you can see all sorts of amazing elisions, squiggles, blobs and lines that seem to have nothing to do specifically with the subject being depicted. Yet, when looked at as a whole, the art is convincing. I am sure, too, that the artist was probably having fun and enjoying playing as the work progressed.