Archive for January 31st, 2015

I wrote this post several years ago describing how a certain composition from one artist can influence another, even though the results may seem light years away.  I often look at work of others in different ways, sometime focusing on the quality of the colors or how their handling of the paint.  But  often  I find myself looking at how the composition comes together, breaking away the the surface details in my mind to reveal the  bare bones or armature underneath.  Sometimes this sparks something and while looking at someone else’s work I will see a painting of my own growing over this armature.

I thought today I’d recall how this worked with a very famous piece:

WhistlerThis is James McNeil Whistler’s most famous piece, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1:  Portrait of the Painter’s Mother.  It is, of course, better known as Whistler’s Mother.  It was a painting that I was casually familiar with as I grew up but it wasn’t until I looked more closely at it after I had started painting that I saw the brilliance of it’s composition.

Whistler always asserted that the painting was not about his mother but was more concerned with creating mood with color and composition, which the primary focus of almost all his work. This piece achieves it’s mood with beautiful diagonal lines formed by the woman’s form and contrasting verticals and horizontals that create great visual tension and energy.  The stark whiteness of the matted print on the wall behind shines like a full moon against the pale blue-gray sky that is the wall itself.  The head of the old woman seems to be almost lit by the light from the moon/print.

This is not a portrait of an old woman.  It’s a nocturnal landscape.  That’s what I saw when I looked at it as a painter trying to glean what I could from it for my own use.  This was a composition that had a geometry that just felt so right immediately.  It had such a sense of perfection in the way color and form combine with sheer simplicity that I knew I would have to use it for myself.

And I have, quite a few times over the years since I first really looked at it, sometimes with slight variations in the placement of the elements but still basically with the same compositional base.  And inevitably, they are pieces that have great immediacy in their impact, pieces that carry great mood whatever their subject matter.

The following day I wrote:

Yesterday I wrote about how I have often used in my own work the composition from the James McNeil Whistler painting popularly known as Whistler’s Mother.  I did so without illustrating the point so I thought I’d take quick moment to show how I might block in my own work with Whisyler’s composition.

GC Myers - the-way-of-lightGoing into my archives, one of the first things I look at is a painting from a few years back, The Way of Light.  At first glimpse, this piece has nothing in common with the Whsitler piece.  First, it is not portraiture ( although I often view my trees as such) and it is a landscape.  It is obviously a different palette of color than that of Whistler and the elements are rendered in a less realistic fashion than you would see in Whistler’s work.

WhistlerBut if you put those differences aside and quickly take in the shape and form of each piece, you can begin to see the similarity.  The line of trees on the small mound of land in my piece take the place of Whistler’s dark curtain on the far left.  The water in mine becomes the floor of his. The body of his mother is replaced by my island and her head becomes my red tree.  The framed print is now my moon.

Here, I overlaid my piece with the Whistler piece to further illustrate the point.  Obviously, there are worlds of differences separating the two pieces, as I pointed out above.  But the composition and use of blocking and light help us each achieve a sense of mood that is the primary goal in both cases.  Like Whistler, I am often more concerned with the mood and emotion of a piece of work than the actual subject matter.  In this pursuit I have come to view much of my work as Whistler did his, as musical compositions rather than merely representative images.

In color and shape there is rhythm, tempo and tone.  The placement of the compositional elements of a piece are much like the placement of individual notes in music, each affecting and reacting with those around it.  All trying to evoke feeling, response.

Well, there’s my illustration of how Whsitler’s iconic piece fits in with what I try to do with my work.  Hope you can now see the connection…

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