Painting by the Numbers

Martha Erlebacher gave us an extensive lecture on Thursday concerning the basics of painting. I’m retyping my notes here, half for the benefit of anyone else who has the desire to paint, and half to help the concepts gel in my own mind.

For an artwork to be great, it must have an idea that speaks to people. Therefore, when starting a painting, you must start with an idea or concept. In Western art, this is generally a statement about the human condition. Once the idea has been selected, the subject matter or narative should be selected. Then one may move on to the execution of the painting.

There are three main considerations in terms of execution.

1. Organization (Apparently she had read a book recently—“The Discovery of Pictoral Composition”—that convinced her that the Old Masters prior to Caravaggio were not concerned with what we term composition, i.e. the arrangement of shapes on the canvas, hence the use of the term.)
– Symmetry vs. Asymmetry : Symmetry tends to focus on a central dominant subject who is increased in prominence by the offsetting of equal objects about a vertical axis. In the previous generation, symmetry was taught as something to avoid in painting. However, one should not arbitrarily reject modes of operation. That is, if you want to promote a central figure, then symmetry of composition will improve the painting. Just be aware of the techniques you are using.
– Static vs. Dynamic : Static generally refers to strong horizontal or vertical elements in the organization, i.e. right angles to the picture plane. Dynamicism is created by the use of strong diagonal elements (e.g. Baroque art). This reminded me of the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy as well: static (Apollonian) representing intellect and a timelessness, dynamic (Dionysian) representing the natural and chaotic world. Note also that absolute verticality often represents the immortal, whereas absolute horizontal represents death; this is why Christ is more frequently shown vertical on the cross. And perhaps why the cross itself is such a strong symbol.
– Grouping Principles : Closure and Similarity. Closure refers to the clustering of items who share an outline. That is to say, items that are partially obscured by another object tend to group with that obscuring object. Thus, the number of groups in an organization is frequently less than the number of items. However, other factors such as similarity of shape or color can cause items to tend to group together, despite sharing an outline with a disparate group. The artist needs to be aware of the number of groups that are being created in the organization and ensure that groups are created based on intention.

2. Space. Space essentially refers to perspective. There are four types of perspective that we considered.
– One-Point Perspective : Everyone knows the rule of perspective that orthogonals converge towards the vanishing point. However, what defines one-point perspective is the orientation of the viewer to the picture plane and the major forms of the subject. In one-point perspective, the viewer is at a right angle to the picture plane and the major subject forms.
One Point Perspective
– Two-Point Perspective: Two vanishing points, used when the major subject forms are not at right angles to the viewer relative to the picture plane.
Two Point Perspective
– Affine Perspective: Not really discussed, but basically the picture plane is not at a right angle to the line of sight of the viewer. Interesting—I hadn’t considered that possibility before, not sure what that effect will be useful for.
– Isometric Perspective: Not really a form of perspective, in that the rule is orthogonal lines remain parallel. A cube would be made up of sets of parallel lines that don’t diminish as they recede into space. Used extensively in Japanese woodcuts.

3. Light : Light was discussed extensively in the last half of the lecture. Briefly, what must be considered is the following.
– High Contrast vs. Low Contrast light. High contrast light will tend to have shadow areas group with the (dark) background. This causes the subject to be broken up into smaller shapes of color (see Caravaggio). Low contrast will emphasis the silhouette or contor line of the subject. Neither is right or wrong; just be aware of the effect you are creating and ensure that it promotes the idea the painting is putting forth.
– Artificial vs. Natural Light. We talked at length about the difference. Basically natural light refers to sunlight (or reflected sunlight via the moon), and is therefore considered to be sufficiently far away that the rays of light are thought of as parallel. Artificial light has a definite source and therefore a cone of light is created from the souce. Structural Drawing difference must be conceptualized to portray one or the other “correctly”. Note the zone of tangency (i.e. delineation between the light and shadow sides) on a sphere: in natural light, it is basically a straight line perpendicular to the path of the light rays; in artifical light, it will be a geodesic arc relative to the cone of light.

We also discussed shading at length. Note that the darkest areas of the shadow side occur nearest to the light side. This is counter-intuitive, but is caused by the ever-present reflected light. Artists (such as Durer) have used the ‘dark to the edge’ method of shading, but it is considered too simplistic now and shapes should be gradated in a conceptually accurate way.

Other Gems:
– Remember that all organic forms (esp. human flesh) are continuously curved and the shadows must reflect this fact.
– Forms govern the shadows and NOT vice-versa.
– The artist must control the center line of the subject and the cross-contour shadows. Note that sharp shadow transitions denote a more acute curve, just as more gradual shadow transitions denote a more obtuse curve.
– The key to figurative painting is the Z-axis. (i.e. placing figures accurately in perspective)
– Any configuration will tend to be seen in its simplest manifestation. e.g. three groups of objects arranged in a triangle will be seen as a triangle (think of Leonardo’s dynamic pyramids).
– Fuzziness adds atmosphere which is the key to verisimilitude. Edges further from the picture plane should be fuzzier and soft, edges closer to the picture plane should be sharper. No edge should ever have a ridge of paint on it.
– At one point she admonished us to not visit museums and to close our art history books lest we become overwhelmed by the weight of art through the ages, though I think this was in jest (I think). Though still something to consider.

Bibliography: Martha’s Allegory – “There once was a student who read every book I mentioned; she turned into a great artist.”
– “Art and Visual Perception” by Rudolf Arnheim
– “The Discovery of Pictoral Composition” by Thomas Puttfarken
– “Varieties of Realism” by Margaret Hagen (out of print; difficult book)
– “Rembrandt: The Painter at Work” by Ernst Van De Wetering
– “The Practice of Tempera Painting” by Daniel Thompson (good discussion on pigments and mixing paint)
– “Oil Painting Techniques and Materials” by Harold Speed (I personally found his drawing book “The Practice and Science of Drawing” to be very useful as well)
– “The Materials of the Artist and their Use in Painting” by Max Doerner
– “Bright Earth, Art and the Invention of Color” by Philip Ball

Great lecture. Stuff we should have learned by now, no doubt, but still, I don’t think I’ve heard it laid out out in such a straightforward manner before. If you get a chance, google for Martha Mayer Erlebacher—her work is really quite exceptional. She isn’t just spouting theory: she has earned this knowledge through decades of painting.

– Jeremy







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