When people ask me what I paint, I ofen stumble through a very inadequate
response. I tell them that I do still life and landscape. Soon, I'll be
putting people in some of my work. This doesn't begin to describe what
I'm really interested in as an artist. "Structure, contrast and
movement" would be a more accurate description.
I’d like to take a look at a recent pastel, Nasturtiums (figure 1) shown by the Abbozzo Gallery
at the 2005 Toronto International Art Fair. I’ll talk about the role played by structure, contrast
and movement in this painting. Before I start, a few words about colour: it would be possible to
do a dozen tutorials on the subject, so I won’t talk about it much here. One tipthough; oranges
and reds work beautifully with grays.
To help us focus on elements other than colour, I’ve used Adobe Photoshop to convert the picture
to a grayscale image (figure 2). The use of tonal contrast is quite obvious in this image but I’ve
also used contrasting shapes to build the picture. The strong, geometric shapes of the window sill,
cylindrical vase and window contrast sharply with the flowing, organic shape of the nasturtiums.
This is a pictorial strategy that I use regularly. I definitely have a thing about windows!
Contrasting quiet, open areas with busy, complex passages is another kind of contrast employed by
artists like Richard Diebenkorn. He used large central areas of atmospheric colour surrounded by
complicated linear structures on the outer edges of his pictures. Think of a landscape with 98% sky
and 2% horizon at the bottom of the image; definitely not for the faint-hearted!
To help illustrate the importance of structure in painting, I’ve used Photoshop to highlight important
shapes that give the picture its foundation or structure (figure 3). At first glance, it may seem that
I’m talking about the same thing as in the previous paragraph. But I’m really not. These shapes
were partially invented to connect the focal point of the image to the edges of my paper. This
strategy is especially useful in landscape painting. I try to simplify areas of shadow into larger,
abstract shadow shapes that lend a sense of order to my painting. When I use the word design,
this is what I’m talking about. Cezanne and Vermeer are two examples of painters who made
beautifully structured pictures where each element fits together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
If you struggle with this concept or like to paint less structured pictures, try using a square format.
Abstract painters have known for a long time that a square doesn’t impose structure the same way
that wide or tall rectangles do.
Movement is the third aspect of this picture that we can look at. In the original image, you can see the rolling, circular movement of
the flowers. It’s something I wanted to be sure to communicate in my painting. I’ve always felt that successful painting, sculpture or
film has an almost musical rhythm and tension at its core. If you look at the blue swirl on the glass vase, the reflected light on the
window sill and the mass of flowers, I hope you’ll see what I’m talking about.
The next time you’re painting, try thinking about Structure, Contrast and Movement. I think your work will improve.