Which is more important, narrative or design? The answer is yes.
|Main Street, Owl’s Head, 16X20, oil on gessoboard, $1623 unframed.
Thomaston, ME, is a community of lovely, large Victorian homes that somehow maintain a whiff of the 19th century. It’s a little off the beaten path and the streets are quiet. I try to teach there at least once a season, focusing on perspective and architecture.
Ann Clowe and Cassie Sano had elected to paint the same house on Knox Street, an 1851 Cape that’s dwarfed by its attached barn (in the Maine way). It’s a strange shade of red that looks warm in some places and cool in others. Ann had painted it unsuccessfully three times before. She refused my suggestion that she look at other houses on the street. She was making her stand; she was going to defeat those red walls.
|Victoria Street, 14X18, oil on linen, $1275 unframed.
One of the most common questions students ask me about architecture is whether they should include that door, that window, or that bit of moulding. The answer depends on the design and focal point of the painting. If one is focused on the house, the details are important. If the house is an incidental part of the landscape, it’s possible to reduce it to a mere silhouette.
Every painting—even stark hyperrealism—has some extraneous detail edited out. One of the great virtues of painting over photography is that we can eliminate the telephone lines, gas grill and other impedimenta of modern life. We do this both for design reasons and to make the narrative stronger.
|Fishing shacks, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, $869 unframed.
Cassie, in asking me whether she should include a door, said, “but the viewer wants to know how these people get in to their house.” She’d answered her own question, and created a good test for whether to include something:
- If it’s an important part of the narrative, leave it in.
- If it’s not, make your choice based solely on design criteria.
In the 20th century, narrative became a bit player in painting; abstract design was key. Only the reactionary Wyeth family and a few others were still telling stories in their paintings. That impulse hasn’t totally died, but it’s a trend, not an eternal verity. Storytelling appeals to something so primary in our psyche that we’ll never eliminate it entirely from painting.
|Three Chimneys, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1159 unframed.
Storytelling ought to include telling the unvarnished truth about our current reality. That sometimes includes gas grills, cars, and telephone poles. As Cassie joked, “the viewers might want to know how they get their mail.”
The red house has a handicapped-access ramp running to the side door. It made a brilliant diagonal slash of light in the painting, but it was hardly in keeping with the house’s original design. It also told a story that’s achingly familiar to many of us. If it had been my painting, I would have included the ramp, and even focused on it. It says something laudable about our moment in history: we want to keep the elderly in their own homes as long as possible.