Reverse-Engineering the Masters

In the movies, painters tend to be seized by bouts of inspiration at unpredictable intervals, upon which seizure they spontaneously and spasmodically squish paint into a masterpiece. Mike Leigh’s recent film Mr. Turner was no exception. The spastic-inspiration trope is the default mode for films about more Jackson-Pollocky types, of course, but Leigh’s William J. W. Turner was seized by this affliction when he gazed at the sea or the English countryside, naturally. In reality, painting and drawing a landscape is rather difficult, and Hollywood cliches like these are misleading about the mechanics and intentionality of composition that are actually required to make a picture of anything, including abstraction.  It’s too easy to assume that good landscapes come about through some kind of direct channelling of the scenery, making it all the more frustrating when beautiful or interesting scene you see in real life does not make a beautiful or interesting painting on your page. Even landscapes have to be composed by the artist. Composition is the mechanics, or machinery, of a picture. It’s how it directs your eye from here to there, lets in linger in some places, and return to the subjects that the artist wanted to you focus on. In the class that I just wrapped up, Making Your Own Work: Subject and Composition, a group of experienced painters exposed the picture-making machinery of the masters, teased out the separate elements of that machinery, and began to employ those strategies to their own ends.

We began the first few classes with gesture-drawing from art history. Recording what you see in the first minute of looking at a painting tells you a lot about where the artist has directed your eye.

A one-minute gesture drawing of Wyeth's Christina's World in ink and pencil

A one-minute gesture drawing of Wyeth’s Christina’s World in ink and pencil

Gesture drawing of Giotto's Annunciation

Gesture drawing of Giotto’s Annunciation

Your eye tends to look at the largest form first. In order to better see the hierarchy of forms, we broke them down into two tones, grey and white, simplifying shapes, to get a better idea of the overall order and direction in which one views the painting.

Sandy's two-tone interpretation of Vermeer's sleeping maid

Sandy’s two-tone interpretation of Vermeer’s sleeping maid

Vermeer - Girl Asleep

We also made quick five-minute interpretations in black and grey paper cutouts of projected paintings. Here are four different student’s quick collages of Manet’s 1862 Portrait of Jeanne Duval

: manet

And the original…

whitedress

Four interpretations of Andrew Wyeth’s Master Bedroom

wyeth

And the original . . .

Master Bedroom by Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth proved to be particularly helpful to study for composition. His subjects were deceptively simple, and he mastered the art of editing and simplifying, while working in the style we erroneously call “realistic”, as if it involved copying from nature. Really, nature is a mess, and you have to tame it. (Just ask Mr. Turner.)

Wyeth’s Brown Swiss, which seems to the untrained eye to be a straightforward rendering of a farm house, is actually a feat of engineering.

Wyeth, Brown Swiss, tempera, 1957  Image: Artstor

Wyeth, Brown Swiss, tempera, 1957
Image: Artstor

A photograph of the same spot reveals that the composition didn’t just present itself. The placement of the house just a wee bit from the left edge makes your eye run over there, too, but then jump down to the reflection before you fall off, then hang a right, sending you back into the painting.. The stream as a big, light, horizontal bar across the lower third was a deliberate choice: water can be dark or light depending on when and where you look at it. The reflection of the house didn’t just happen, either: The artist chose it as an element, its presence and shape dependent on where he stood and the time of day he decided to grab it from. The long shadow on the side of the hill under the house is essential, as is eliminating the sky: the long horizontal shapes are ordered by size, and alternate dark/light. Everything in the picture serves the composition. We can’t say the same for the actual site, which is a lot busier. Granted, the evergreen tree apparently wasn’t big enough to block the house when he painted the picture, but if it did I’m sure he would have found a way to make it work.

wyethphoto

Here is a sketch in which he worked out the composition. It’s possible he started with a more literal drawing and just kept blocking out what he didn’t need with ink until the shapes looked right.

wyethsketch

We tried to get inside long-dead artists’ heads and learn their tricks by reverse-engineering a composition. This is one student’s analysis, of shape, value, and directional lines, of The Judgment of Paris by Cranach the Elder:

judgmentparis

Lucas Cranach the Elder - Judgment of Paris

Students took their own subject-matter, in the form of personal or magazine photographs, and inserted them into the structure of the masterwork. Here a Vermeer becomes the armature for a reinterpretation of one student’s old family snapshot.

vermeergreysandygirls

Treasured snapshots are as difficult to work with as nature. You’re usually too close to the subject matter to know why you like it: Is it the figures, the furniture, the faded colors, or just its emotional associations? It’s nearly impossible to know what is worth keeping and what should be discarded in order to get to an interesting, successful painting. Sometimes the accidental nature of the composition, its very awkwardness, is the best part. This exercise was a way to get a bit of objectivity, and license to move reality around to suit the artist’s purpose.

A continuation of Making Your Own Work: Subject and Composition will begin in late April.

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