Monday, June 22, 2015

Moving the Eye - A Study in Sargent

Though known for his masterful paint handling and virtuosity in rendering light and texture, John Singer Sargent created striking, original compositions that did not rely on previous models or inherited rules of thumb. In fact, all of the "bravura brushwork" for which he is justly celebrated would be for naught -- if not for the unsung abstractions beneath those gorgeous surfaces.

John Singer Sargent, Venice boats, a watercolor

For me this painting by Sargent suggests the state of feeling very much alive, as when visiting a new place on vacation, where one's transported out of the everyday dullness of ordinary life. It's a moment of mild astonishment at the sparkling visual spectacle of life fully lived and fully seen.

The motif matters little (he has invested Venice's harbor with no metaphorical or symbolic value). Yet Sargent firmly places the moment's lively, semi-chaotic (physical!) properties fully at the service of the overall feeling expressed: the jostling boats, with their counterpoised rigging, prows, and sails, the gondolas' sweeping shapes, the marching masts' verticals vs. the rounded ropes and gondolas'  horizontality, and the arabesques of light and shadow on the water together convey visual excitement and beautifully "capture the moment" (a phrase I abhor, as it pretty much glosses over the whole astonishing reality that is painting).

Rather than teach my students the stock of familiar compositions, I try to encourage spontaneity within certain limits. By "stock" compositions, I'm thinking of the type illustrated in the pages of Edgar Payne's overpriced and out of print Composition of Outdoor Painting, the diagrammatic heart of which I've posted here for your downloading pleasure (it's a PDF of four pages of illustrated compositional strategies and if you don't know it, you should - it's definitely worth internalizing).

Creativity loves limits. The limits I impose on myself and my students are pretty simple, and come down to 1. fit the form to the content, but move the eye through the painting (and not out of it) and 2. create variety within unity (vary everything - size, shape, color, placement, temperature, tonality, marks/strokes, etc). I try to resist known compositional strategies, but I'm not often as successful as I'd like to be. Let's look at how Sargent accomplishes these things in the watercolor above.

Sargent's composition is original; he isn't repeating the successes of others. He always seems to bring out and cunningly arrange intriguing tensions and rhythms within his motif.


Sargent has set the gondola in the middle of the painting apart by contrasting its light with the more shadowy forms surrounding it. He has placed the greatest point of contrast here as well. And while there's no "rule of thirds" here and no obvious "point of interest" these help create a subtle one, as we'll see. Instead, there's a virtual choreography of the surface that I've tried to indicate with arrows and numbers.

At 1 or 2, the bottom of the canvas, the eye enters the painting and jumps toward the center cluster of connected shapes via the strongly directional prow of the boat on the lower left.  Much of the painting's immediacy and excitement come from the way "our" boat's prow is jutting up from the viewer's space into the picture plane - a hallmark of Italian Baroque painting.

at 2, a directional line (perspective is used to create its directional thrust INTO the picture) along the rope swoops in from the right like a roller coaster with enough propulsion to carry us up to the far left corner and then, at 3., down again and to the right.

At 4, we might end up leaving the painting if not for the masterful use of the gondola's graceful curving shape to scoop us up and cary us to the top right until gently returning us back to the center and starting point, which we now realize happens to be...

5. one of two figures, not at all visible at once. It's true the painting's lightest lights and darkest darks are here, in one of the "power quadrants" of the picture. And yet, the figures are only suggested (the female, to the right, though dead center in the painting, is so enveloped in light that I only noticed her after doing this analysis). In fact, it's so subtle a "point of interest" that it becomes only a brief resting place for the eyes which immediately continue circulating in and around the picture, creating that lively feeling of interest and dazzle we identified at the beginning.

It's a good idea to do studies like this of great painters' compositions once in a while, I think. I think it's preferable to memorizing lists of basic "design principles" said to inform good composition, especially as no one can seem to agree once and for all what those principles are anyway. 

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