Monday Morning Art School: simplification

This exercise, so critical to the success or failure of painting, is also important because it stresses the beauty inherent in all objects.

Prom shoes, 6×8, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, $348 unframed

A major part of learning to paint is learning to see, and in the process, learning to draw. Part of this is not getting caught up in the details, but perceiving the big shapes and how they fit together. This is fundamental to how painting has been done since the middle of the 19th century.

This means we stop thinking of the object we’re looking at as things we can identify, and start to see it as a series of shapes, or more accurately, a light pattern. That’s very difficult at first. That’s why my students have studied draperiesand reflectionsover the past few weeks. They’re tough subjects, because they’re ever-changing. There’s no cheating with prior knowledge.

A rude little notan I did of my own house.

A few years ago, my student Sheryl drew the lobster-boat Becca & Meagan, which is moored year-round at Rockport Harbor. It’s painted a signature red, and I have painted and drawn it many times. Sheryl measured and drew, and I patiently corrected her. This went on for most of the class, until Sheryl finally insisted that I sit down and take measurements with her.

Whoops! It wasn’t Becca & Meagan at all. Its owner had launched a new boat, Hemingway. She was painted the same red and moored at the same buoy, but with her own unique configuration—“flat, wide, and deep on the keel,” as her builder said. I was so used to seeing Becca & Meagan that I had stopped really seeing at all. I was looking straight at one boat and seeing another.

Another rough notan of my house. That was back before my painter mislaid half our shutters.

Likewise, if I set a teacup in front of a student, he’s guided in part by what he knows about teacups—they’re rounded, squat and hollow. That gives him some checks on his drawing, but it also allows him to assume measurements and values. That can be very misleading.

He has to stop seeing a teacup and start seeing an array of shapes, planes and values. For most of us, that takes time. First, we must do a drawing to figure out what we’re looking at. Then, we need to ruthlessly simplify our drawing into a series of values. When we catch ourselves thinking “window” or “door” or “boat” or “tree”, we must stop and force ourselves to relabel those objects as merely light or dark shapes.

Yep, that’s a carrot, a lemon and an empty box. You can make an interesting painting out of anything, if you start with the simple shapes.

All objects can be reduced to a certain, limited number of shapes, which build on each other to make a whole. When you see things as abstract shapes, you expand your possible subject matter. A plastic pencil case is not, inherently, much different in shape from a shed. A shed, in turn has the same, simplified, forms as a house. If you start with a shed, you can ramp yourself up to Windsor Castle in no time.

Notanand all other value studies are, above all, about cutting the picture frame into shapes, what Arthur Wesley Dow called “space cutting.”

Dow wrote the definitive 20th century book on composition, which sets down fundamental principles still used today. He taught his students to restrict the infinite range of tonal values in the visible spectrum to specific values—perhaps black, white and one grey. He wanted students see all compositions as structures of light and dark shapes. The success or failure of a painting rests on whether those shapes are beautiful.

Monday Morning Art School: notan

Notan differs from value study because it is based not just on what we observe. It is the orderly restriction of shapes into patterns. It is reality subservient to beauty.

Sextant, c. 1917, Marsden Hartley, oil on panel, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

When I saw this collection of eight paintings based on the color orange, I realized they could demonstrate notan as neatly as traditional value-based examples do. Orange is uniquely high in chroma, so it’s easy to notice. It’s easy to see how the artists made a pattern based on it. From there, it’s not a great leap to see how great paintings can be constructed around a value-pattern too.

The Gossip, 1912, John White Alexander, oil on canvas, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art 

Notan is a traditional concept that refers to the harmony of light and dark elements in a painting. It’s been integral to East Asian art for centuries, and it was introduced in the West in the middle of the 19th century.

On paper it is easy to see that dark shapes do not exist without boundaries, which are made by a surrounding area of light. Equally, light shapes don’t exist without dark to define them. (This is the Chinese philosophical construct of yin-yangin a nutshell.)

Card, 1971, Helen Frankenthaler, color lithograph with crayon, courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago

This concept of notan reached its apogee in the East Asian artform of brush painting. This was the fourth and final discipline a Chinese scholar-gentleman was expected to learn, because it was the most difficult. Through brush painting, a Chinese noble demonstrated his mastery over the art of line, which had supreme artistic (and cultural) importance.

Excavation at the White House, c. 1941, Mitchell Jamieson, watercolor on paper, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

The idea of notan came to the west with our 19thcentury mania for all things Asian. It was introduced as a teaching system by Arthur Wesley Dow, who wrote the definitive book on composition for twentieth-century painters. He taught students to restrict the infinite range of tonal values in the visible spectrum to specific values—perhaps black, white and one grey. He wanted students to realize that all compositions are, underneath, a structure of light and dark shapes.

Beth, 1960, Morris Louis, acrylic on canvas, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

But before Dow ever let his students get that far, he had them start with line drawing. Composition is above all about cutting the picture frame into shapes, which Dow called “space cutting.” We’re doing that every time we think about negative space, for example.

Untitled, 1958, Kenneth Noland, acrylic on canvas, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

Only when his students had created beautiful shapes did he allow them to start adding value. First black, then greyscale, and then—step by slow step—they could add color.

Child in Orange Dress with White Pinafore, 1911, Egon Schiele, gouache, watercolor and pencil on paper, courtesy Sothebys

Today we use the word notan as a noun, as a substitute for a value study before we paint. But the word never meant that to Dow or in the eastern cultures from which he borrowed it. Notan differs from value study because it is based not just on what we observe. It is the orderly restriction of shapes into patterns. It is reality subservient to beauty.

Church with Red Roof and White Walls, 1914, Maurice Utrillo, oil on canvas, courtesy Barnes Collection

Of course, notan encourages a specific aesthetic, one that we’ve pretty much abandoned over the last century. But it’s worth practicing and understanding, as a way to start thinking about the important tenets of composition.

A special thanks to Bruce McMillan, for cheerfully sharing his collection of orange paintings.

Monday Morning Art School: Visual Harmony

Five classic techniques for organizing your picture plane.
Kaikroddare by Anders Zorn (watercolor) uses the principles of opposition and transition.
Arthur Wesley Dow was a painter, printmaker, photographer and well-known art teacher in the beginning of the 20th century. He felt that composition was largely a question of proportion. He identified five elements of spatial harmony:
  • Opposition
  • Transition
  • Subordination
  • Repetition
  • Symmetry
Examples of Opposition. The intersections of lines are raw and unadorned.
Opposition is a principle we see both in nature and human objects. It’s when two lines meet or cross to form a simple and severe pattern. These crossings are always abrupt, and can even be violent.
The beauty of a door lies in its unmediated opposition and symmetry.
Transition tries to mediate opposition. A line or object is added at the join, softening the moment of impact. This is a strong and ancient goal for human designers. The columns at Karnak, which were started more than 4000 years ago, are softened with decorative capitals at the ceiling. We’ve been doing it ever since, with brackets, corbels, and other architectural elements to soften stark architectural lines.
Examples of Transition. A bracket is probably the most common example we see in everyday life.
Transitions also occur in nature. A beautiful example is the overlapping, trailing silhouettes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are far less stark than mountains looming black against the sky.
Kaikroddare by Anders Zorn, top, uses the principles of opposition and transition. The cross of the oars and arms is unopposed in the closer figure, who seems vigorous to us. The burden in the far boat softens the sharp lines of the oars, making that figure seem less vital.
Different forms of subordination.
Subordination: To form a complete group, elements of the painting are attached or related to a single dominating focal point. This is the fastest way to create unity out of complexity and confusion.
Subordination can happens in three ways:
  • By grouping around an axis, (leaf to stem or branches to trunk).
  • By radiating from a central point, such as petals in flowers, or water splashing over a rock.
  • By size, as with a mountain within in a mountain range, or a cathedral around its steeple.
Our Maine houses and barnyards are excellent examples of repetition.
Repetition: In a sense, this is the opposite of subordination, since the objects are generally the same size. It is made by repeating lines in rhythmical order. The intervals may be equal as in a fish weir, or unequal, as in a grove of trees. Our long run-on houses in Maine are visually pleasing because of their repetition.
A Bust of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten in the Luxor Museum, Egypt.
Symmetry: This is a technique that we often avoid in contemporary western art, being more interested in balanced asymmetry (which is in itself a variation on the theme). However, the most obvious way to create balance is symmetry, where equal lines and shapes occur on either side of a central axis. I’ve included a portrait bust of Akhenaten as a demonstration of its effectiveness. Used carefully, it has the same severity and clarity as opposition.
None of these, of course, produce great art on their own. The skill lies in carefully using them to create harmonious outcomes. That requires practice.
Your homework.
The above illustration contains examples of each of the principles of design as identified by Dow. Your homework today is to identify which principle is at work and then draw your own version. Depending on your confidence, you can either copy his drawings or draw something of your own.
It takes a lot of trial and error to make something that’s visually harmonious, even for experienced artists. But the experiments are fun and easy. As always, I’d love to see you post your work on our Facebook page.
Interested in real-life learning? I’m teaching four plein air workshops in the coming year. Message me here for more information, or visit my website.
Today’s lesson and illustrations are from Composition, by Arthur Wesley Dow (Doubleday, Page and Company, 1920). Mr. Dow taught at the Art Students League, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University.