What’s important in painting? Master the basics and the mark-making will take care of itself.
Mother of Pearl and Silver: The Andalusian, 1888–1900, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. This painting demonstrates the power of letting a single value dominate the composition.
My husband has this thing he likes to tell young musicians: “Just do what you’re doing but do it in time.” That’s because they like to try things that are more complicated than their skill supports, and they end up losing the beat. He wants them to understand that the beat is what’s essential, not slick fingering.
Of course, young musicians are fascinated with ornamentation. For one thing, it’s actually easier than keeping the beat.
On Monday, I wrote, “I never bother much about my mark-making [in drawing]. It can take care of itself. I’m mostly interested in applying accurate values.” If it becomes your focus, mark-making can be the slick fingering that makes you lose the beat.
That’s not to say that mark-making isn’t important. But what’s essential in painting is:
Values: A good painting rests primarily on the framework of a good value structure. This means massed darks in a coherent pattern, simplified shapes, and a limited number of value steps. In a strong composition, one value generally takes precedence over the others. It in effect ‘sets the mood.’
Weymouth Bay, 1816, John Constable. This uses closely analogous colors to create cohesiveness in a painting of raw natural elements.
Color: Right now, we focus on color temperature, but that hasn’t always been the case. Every generation has had its own ideas about color unity, contrast, and cohesion. A good color structure has balance and a few points of brilliant contrast to drive the eye. It reuses colors in different passages to tie things together.
Movement: A good painter directs his audience to read his work in a specific order, by giving compositional priority to different elements. He uses contrast, line, shape and color to do this. If nothing’s moving, the painting will be boring.
Line: These are the edges between forms, rather than literal lines. These edges lead you through the painting. They might be broken (the “lost and found line”) or clear and sharp. Their character controls how we perceive the forms they outline.
Even the most linear of painters uses movement to direct the viewer in reading his work. The Grand Baigneuse, also called The Valpinçon Bather, 1808, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the Louvre.
Form: Paintings are made of two-dimensional shapes, but they create the illusion of form. That is the sense that what we’re seeing exists in three dimension. While some abstract painting ignores form, a feeling of depth is critical in representational painting.
Texture: A work is called ‘painterly’ when brushstrokes and drawing are not completely controlled, as with Vincent van Gogh. A work is ‘linear’ when it relies on skillful drawing, shading, and controlled color, as with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
Unity: Do all the parts of the picture feel as if they belong together, or does something feel like it was stuck there as an afterthought? In realism, it’s important that objects are proportional to each other. Last-ditch additions to salvage a bad composition usually just destroy a painting’s unity.
Loose brushwork does not mean lack of drawing or preparation. Vase of Sunflowers, 1898, Henri Matisse, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Balance: While asymmetry is pleasing, any sense that a painting is heavily weighted to one side is disconcerting.
Focus: Most paintings have a main and then secondary focal points. A good artist directs you through them using movement, above.
Rhythm: An underlying rhythm of shapes and color supports that movement.
Content: I realize this is a dated concept, but it’s nice if a painting is more than just another pretty face, if it conveys some deeper truth to the viewer.
By the time you master these, scribing and mark-making will come naturally to you.