Saturday, 30 June 2012

Three Analogues: Brown & Kollwitz

How do artists express emotions when these feelings are non-visual?

In literature, TS Eliot popularised the term “objective correlative” for describing emotions and other intangible feelings in terms of the circumstances supporting them. In the visual arts, the representation of such non-visual experiences can be approached in a similar way. For example, to portray melancholy an artist can allude to the condition by the symbolism of setting, lighting, colour and body language (if a figure is featured). More exciting than relying on pictorial tropes, however, artists can also employ the essential structure of such experiences as an analogue configuration (i.e. a non-representational pattern of lines matching what the experience “feels” like) as the compositional structure for an image. The following discussion focuses on the use of analogues to express meaning through three compositional arrangements:

  • configuring an image to match a predetermined analogue of an emotion;
  • superimposing an analogue of an emotion on top of a subject; and,
  • using imagery that matches the essential constructs of a predetermined analogue of an emotion.

Let me begin with the first approach where an image is reconfigured (i.e. warped) to resemble an analogue drawn as a reflexive response (i.e. an instinictive automatic response) to an experience. If an artist were to conceive that the feeling of depression is like a v-shape (see diagram below)—mindful that not all artists would necessarily see this dreadful mental state in such a simplistic structure—then this schematic arrangement of converging lines descending to a low point would be the compositional arrangement that the chosen image would be configured to replicate. Of course the degree of the distortion of the original image is the variable where artistic sensitivities play a role in what otherwise would be a simple game of anamorphic distortion.

Analogue of depression

In my drawing of a very corroded lock plate—a relic found in an architectural excavation by the Archaeology Department at James Cook University—I have digitally manipulated the original drawing (shown below) through three stages of reconfiguration to demonstrate the process and outcomes. Of course, the “success’’ of communicating a state of depression from these adjustments can only be determined by each viewer’s reading and there are far too many variables to ever be certain that meaning can ever be express clearly. For instance, not all viewers will sense that depression is a downward flow. Moreover, some will not have the “right” mindset to wish to negotiate any meanings let alone depression and some may never have experienced the feeling at all to be able to pass judgement. If I may stretch this point even further into territory that I fear the most: some viewers may not have been acculturated to looking at art to know what they are looking at and have the skills to negotiate any meaning.

James Brown
Door Lock Plate (an architectural feature from the old East Flinders Street printery and excavated from the site by the JCU archaeological team), 2012
Pen and ink on watercolour paper, 76 x 57 cm
I am selling this drawing for $850 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button below.

James Brown, Door Lock Plate
Three stage distortion to match a v-shaped analogue of depression

As a corollary to the analogue structure of depression I have reconfigured the original drawing to match an inverted v-shape compositional structure (see diagram below) envisaged to be the complementary emotion to depression: joy. In the three drawings shown further below, hopefully the different degrees of skewing the original drawing to match the inverted v-shape expresses in each of the three consecutive stages of distortion a heightening of this uplifting feeling.

Analogue of joy
James Brown, Door Lock Plate
Three stage distortion to match an inverted v-shaped analogue of joy

The second approach involving the superimposition of an analogue on top of the portrayed subject may seem like a simple task of unceremoniously drawing the abstract pattern of an analogue as a final layering of marks. Although this is essentially true, the real art of employing this approach is to integrate the lines of the analogue with the underlying image. This is not easy. Ideally, the outcome should be an inseparable “marriage” of the analogue with the underlying image to the extent that a viewer will only see the analogue pattern subliminally and not wonder what the analogue pattern is “doing there.”

In the three-stage superimposition of the analogue of joy (the inverted v-shaped pattern) shown below, the upper image blends into the original drawing to some extent by virtue of the colour of the analogue. In the lower two images the analogue is softened so that the pattern is barely discernable.

James Brown, Door Lock Plate
Three stage superimposition of an inverted v-shaped analogue of joy

For the third and final approach to using an analogue as a compositional structure, the subject itself is explored until certain arrangements of its features are found that resemble the analogue pattern. As an example of this approach a small section of the original drawing of the door plate has been extracted (see image below) that has the same the essential upward converging lines in its compositional structure as those in the inverted v-shaped analogue of joy. By intention this small section as an artwork on its own will embody and project the feeling of joyful elation. Of course this image is simply a cropped part of the larger image and to truly communicate the feeling of joy then a plethora of other visual devices will need to be brought into play to assist in the projection of meaning.

James Brown, Door Lock Plate
A fragment of the original drawing resembling an inverted v-shaped analogue of joy

A prime example of how an artist uses other devices to supplement a fundamental analogue structure is Kathe Kollwitz’s very beautiful and emotionally resonant etching Betendes Madchen [Woman Praying] (shown below). Here the underpinning compositional structure fits broadly with the first v-shaped analogue discussed above that arguably projects a sombre mood. In addition to this structure, however, the contrast of a mechanical style of cross-hatching, raised in strong relief by the intaglio process rendering the background, juxtaposed beside the delicate lines portraying the woman’s hands and face presents the praying figure as spiritually removed from the temporal world. Interestingly, this print also features lightly inscribed lines laid over the rendering of the figure’s torso. These loosely-made gestural lines may be viewed as the equivalent of the second approach of superimposing an analogue pattern on an image.

Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945)
Betendes Mädchen [Woman Praying), 1892
From the 1931 von der Becke edition with blindstamp (Klipstein 11: IV b)
Etching, drypoint, aquatint and sandpaper in dark brown ink on thick cream wove paper
19.4 x 14.9 cm (plate); 31.4 27 cm (sheet)
Condition: very strong impression in excellent condition. There is a tiny fox mark on the upper left edge and faint toning from the print having been mounted.
I am selling this print for $870 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button below.

Kathe Kollwitz, (detail) Betendes Mädchen, 1892
Kathe Kollwitz, (detail) Betendes Mädchen, 1892

Perhaps an even more powerful image by Kollwitz and one in which the subject is clearly modelled on an analogue structure is the very large etching, Inspiration (shown below). In this image, an elderly woman seen with her back nestled into a crouching man has the man’s arm stretched across her front in a protective way by virtue of the implement he grasps—a hoe? The angle of his protective arm and its grasped implement, when seen in combination with the angles of his legs, create downward converging wedge-shaped arrangement expressing a heavy mood. Such a reading rests not only on the directional thrust of this wedge shape. The point where the critical lines converge—the tool head of the implement—is the punctum point (see the earlier post “Dujardin & Dietricy: Punctum”) that projects the layering of implicit symbolic meanings of this point: rural life, hard labour, grim determination and, with insight into Kollwitz’s other prints, revolt and war.

Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945)
Inspiration, 1905
Originally created for The Peasants' War, but ultimately not included in the cycle.
From the 1945 von der Becke edition with blindstamp (Klipstein 91: IX b)
Etching, drypoint and soft ground etching in dark brown ink on thick cream wove paper
56.8 x 29.5 cm (plate); 78 x 45.8 cm (sheet)
Condition: very strong impression in excellent condition.
I am selling this print for $970 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Be aware that as this item is very large it will be rolled and posted in a cylinder. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button below.
Kathe Kollwitz, (detail) Inspiration, 1905

Kollwitz’s prints are so rich in visual devices designed to express meaning that this discussion could be ongoing. Nevertheless, there is one print that should not be ignored when looking at ways of using analogues of emotions: Woman with Folded Hands (shown below).

Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945)
Woman with Folded Hands, 1898
From the 1931 (?) von der Becke edition with blindstamp (Klipstein 41: VI)
Etching, in dark brown ink on thick cream wove paper
29 x 23 cm (plate); 42 x 33.7 cm (sheet)
Condition: very strong and crisp impression. There are two moisture stains well away from the image and a roughen strip in the paper, again well away from the image, at the top of the margin from a previous mounting.
I am selling this print for $900 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Be aware that as this item is large it will be rolled and posted in a cylinder. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button below.

This image, with its centrally placed figure dramatically lit with chiaroscuro lighting, is a fine example of how to use a flow of emotionally charged lines that may be read as analogues generated by deep emotion. These lines seen as a downward curving flow from the upper right edge of the image down the shadow side of the figure (see these lines in the details below) to my eyes show a dark concern weighing down on this pregnant woman—or a woman that I assume is pregnant based on the way that her left hand gentle rests on her belly. With regard to the above three approaches to using analogues, this treatment falls into the approach of superimposition of analogue patterns where the graphic space of the analogue marks are integrated with the pictorial space of the portrayed women (see the earlier post “Haden & Brangwyn: Graphic & Pictorial Space” concerning these two spaces).

Kathe Kollwitz, (details) Woman with Folded Hands, 1898
For an excellent explanation of analogues I recommend looking at Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Artist Within.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Graphic & Pictorial Space: Haden & Brangwyn

How do artists create meaningful images when one component of their brain is analytical and the other is intuitive?

In an earlier post focused on Daniel Heimlich, I proposed that his arrangement of subject material matches the constructs of the Foote, Cone and Belding Grid in engaging the viewer’s left and right brains' functions. For the present discussion I will move the focus away from the concept that the analytic and intuitive leanings of our divided brain prefer certain arrangements of imagery and focus on how these two propensities of the brain impact on the way that artists’ make images. More specifically, I wish to discuss how Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818–1910) and Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867–1956) present their very different ways of looking at subjects into coherent images.

Before exploring these artists’ approaches I must clarify that the following explanation is based solely on what can be seen in the prints examined rather than being based on privileged knowledge about these artists’ motivations and intentions when they made the images.

At first glance, Haden's etching, Thames Ditton—with a Sail (shown below) may appear to be an easily understood image. Essentially, the immediate foreground shows the broken remains of a tree trunk. The left silhouette edge of this tree creates an arching rhythm leading to a sail strung loose on a mast with water behind it stretching back to a cluster of houses in the distance. On a closer inspection, however, this initial reading of the scene is not so straight forward. The foreground tree is not an objective representation of what Haden would have seen (see detail further below). For instance, the treatment of its upper region is far from being an accurate description of bark and twigs. But this does not mean that the drawing of the tree is inappropriate. It is a wonderful tree. From my standpoint the treatment of its representation with a web of seemingly searching marks expresses clearly Haden’s emotional response to the non-visible spirit of the tree. Just as important, this very subjective rendering of the tree juxtaposed beside the mimetic treatment of the rest of the image projects a mood of unease arising from the note of discord the contrast between the two drawing styles creates.

Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818–1910)
Thames Ditton—with a Sail, 1884
Etching on cream laid paper
14 x 20.6 cm (plate); 26.8 x 36 cm
Rare early edition before the typographic inscription “Bords de la Tamise”, “S.Haden sculp.” and “Imp.Delatre, Rue St.Jacques 303, Paris.”

Condition: strong impression slight foxing otherwise very good condition.
I am selling this print for $430 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button. 

(Detail) Thames Ditton—with a Sail, 1884

(Detail) Thames Ditton—with a Sail, 1884

(Detail) Thames Ditton—with a Sail, 1884

What Haden exemplifies in this print are two essential ways of drawing. One way is by visual representation of superficial appearance arising from the left brain processes, as exemplified in the mimetic rendering of the landscape beyond the foreground tree. This approach also involves the mechanics of drawing (e.g. perspective, sight-size measuring, construction of shadows. reflections and all the other subtleties of portraying form) in a very conscious and disciplined way. In short, this approach is to create what may be described as “pictorial space”—a space of three-dimensional illusions. The other way is by analogue representation of essentially non-visual experiences arising from right brain processes, as exemplified in the web of gestural marks describing the foreground tree. This is a more intuitive approach wherein artists configure their gut feelings about a subject into marks, shapes and rhythms onto the drawing support. This concept of intuitively sensing the subject and configuring the drawing to match the experience may be described as “graphic space”—a space of synthesised ideas and non-visual feelings.  

These two spaces—pictorial and graphic—are equally evident in Brangwyn’s remarkable etching, Le Pont Valentre, A Cahors (shown below). Here Brangwyn’s analytical eye defines his vision of the bridge and reflection with finely hatched strokes rendering the tones in pictorial space while his intuitive eye describes in a layering of richly inked lines his experience of a tree on the right in graphic space. What I find fascinating with this print is how literally the two spaces are so unapologetically abutted. From my standpoint, Brangwyn is making a forceful statement with this print that the world of concrete mortar and bricks is also inhabited with the shadowy world of a brooding mood.

Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867–1956)
Le Pont Valentre, A Cahors, 1912
from Revue de L’Art Ancien et Moderne
Etching in sepia ink on cream wove paper,
printed by Chardon Wittman with original tissue guard
18 x 24 cm (plate); 22.6 x 30.9 cm (sheet)
Condition: beautiful impression in pristine condition.
I am selling this print for $310 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button.

(Detail) Le Pont Valentre, A Cahors, 1912

(Detail) Le Pont Valentre, A Cahors, 1912
Although the above discussion focuses on how Haden and Brangwyn integrated their divided ways of looking into a singular vision, for the viewer of their images the point needs to be made that composition also plays a significant role in how meaning is communicated. Again, like Daniel Heimlich’s arrangement of subject matter, these two artists’ disposition of pictorial and graphic space aligns well with the constructs of the Foote, Cone and Belding Grid: pictorial space is shown on the left and graphic space is shown on the right.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Human Scale: Jacque & Legros

How can an artist create marks exhibiting human dimensions (i.e. they appear to be natural and authentic)?

The following discussion addresses four ways artists can make marks so that they appear to be genuinely crafted by a “real” person (as opposed to being laid by a mechanical process or digital software).

Arguably the easiest approach is all about the angle of the stroke. Let me begin by discussing how typical artists who do not have any physical or other impediments draw when unconstrained by a particular motivation. Right-handed artists make lines slanting like a keyboard’s forward-slash: “/.” Conversely, left-handed artists make lines slanting like a keyboard’s back-slash: “\.”  Of course, both right and left-handed folk can choose to make marks angled in any direction they wish but here what I am talking about is what happens naturally. Consequently, the first consideration for an artist wishing to make marks that appear to be natural is to ensure that there is a general consistency in their angling.

In the etching, Peasant Women in the Neighbourhood of Boulogne, shown below by Alphonse Legros, for instance, the angle of the marks is very consistent with those made by a left-handed artist. Such an interpretation, however, does not take into account that this print is a mirror image of how Legros originally drew his lines on the etching plate. Mindful of this technicality, Legros must have been a right-handed artist.

Before moving to the next approach for connoting authentic strokes, I need to point out that although Legros’ print exhibits broad stylistic consistency, he (like all great artists) adjusts the angling of his marks according to the requirements of the subject and composition. For instance, note how the angling of the marks at the lower-left change to horizontal strokes at the upper-left and in turn connect with an area of cross-hatching at the top centre of the image. This transition in the angled alignment of the marks creates pictorial balance between the freely laid strokes portraying the two seated women with the tonally weighted “anchor” of carefully laid hatching portraying the dark doorway interior doorway behind them.

Alphonse Legros (1837–1911)
Peasant Women in the Neighbourhood of Boulogne, 1873
Etching on cream laid paper with chainlines
22.9 x 15 cm (plate), 35.2 x 24.5 cm (sheet)
Published by Seeley & Co., London in The Portfolio (ed. Philip Gilbert Hamerton), 1872

Condition: pristine condition. There are pencil annotations on the lower edge with details about the print and the date of publication at the top right.
I am selling this print for $220 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button.

(detail) Peasant Women in the Neighbourhood of Boulogne, 1873
(detail) Peasant Women in the Neighbourhood of Boulogne, 1873

The second approach may seem at first to be 'far fetched' but from my studies it is helpful for projecting an intimate human scale in imagery even if it is at a subliminal level. Moreover, the principle underpinning this approach arose from my study of other artists’ drawings perceived to have this difficult to define attribute of human dimensions. This approach is simple to employ but more problematic to explain with a fully justifiable logic but I will do my best. In essence, the ideal size of mark embodying human scale in any rectangular image is one that is an eighth of the format’s diagonal length. For example if an image is 22.5 x 15 cm (the same size of Legros’ print shown above) then the diagonal length is 27.3 cm (based on my ruler measurement). If this length is then divided into eighths then the ideal length of mark would be 3.4 cm (i.e. 27.3 divided by 8 equals 3.4). The image below shows a ruler placed along the diagonal with the 3.4 cm segments marked out. This ideal size of 3.4 cm for the Legros format does not mean that each mark should be 3.4 cm in length but it does give a measurement that at least I find satisfying as an average length.

finding the ideal length of line based on 1:8 proportion of the diagonal

As a justification for this proportion, one can try out the following experiment. Fasten your wrist to a sheet of paper and, while holding onto a pen, mark the furthermost extremities that one can reach (see animation below). After defining the two marks, then relax the hand and establish the most natural (i.e. comfortable) length of line that one can then make. Hopefully the length of this natural line will approximate an eighth of the length between the two furthermost marks.

Animation of the wrist fixed when marking the extremities of drawing

As a follow up to the last experiment, try fixing one’s elbow and replicate the same experiment (see animation below): first find the length between the furthermost marks that can be made with the elbow fixed and then compare this distance with an average mark of natural drawing strokes. Again, the proportion should be that the natural mark will be an eighth of the distance between the extremities of what is possible. This same procedure can be duplicated when the shoulder is then fixed and even when the pen is attached to a long piece of timber and held by the arm. In short the proportion remains the same. 

Animation of the elbow fixed when marking the extremities of drawing

The very beautiful self-portrait etching by Charles Emile Jacque shown below exemplifies the above proposal of an ideal proportion of line but I now wish to discuss what may be an even more interesting phenomenon linked to this portrait: use of the return and hook strokes. If there is one way to ensure that an artist‘s lines project a human dimension then use of these strokes are perfect for achieving this goal.

Charles Emile Jacque (1813–94)
Self-Portrait, 1866
Etching on cream laid paper
31 x 23.5 cm (plate); 50.5 x 34.5 cm (sheet)

Condition: Strong impression in good condition with minimal traces of foxing.
I am selling this print for $230 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button.

The return stroke is a simple technique of not taking the drawing instrument off the paper, like the continuous scribble lines made by children, but with a difference. First, the artist makes a strong stroke. Next, this key stroke is followed by a more delicate return or connecting stroke that brings the hand back to the “starting” position for the next strong stroke (see the left image below). The history of this approach stretches back to Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1431–1498) in his famous Battle of the Nudes and his very deliberate emulation of this rendering style by engraving two sets of lines to “fake” the appearance of the return stroke.

Interestingly, the hook stroke (see the right image below) may also be linked with Pollaiuolo but by default rather than by design. What created the hook stroke in his engraving is the gradual wearing away of the return stroke through constant printing of the plate to the point that only the hook at each end of the line remained. Certainly Francesco Rosselli (1445–before 1513) adopted this fascinating stroke as can be seen in his engraving, Haggai. Regardless of where the stroke originated, however, this approach to mark making is one of the drawing styles that best exemplifies drawing naturally, confidently and with speed. In Jacque’s self portrait (see details further below) these attributes in his use of both strokes are clear.

(left) return stroke
(right) hook stroke
(detail) Self-Portrait, 1866
(detail) Self-Portrait, 1866

The fourth and final approach that I wish to discuss is the role that Golden Section proportions (a well-documented construct which I will be discussing more fully in future posts) can play in creating lines that appears to display human dimensions in terms of aesthetic sensitivities. Compare, for instance, a section of the return stroke shown below with the same section distorted on a Golden Section and how the swelling—at least from my standpoint—lends a sense of natural ease to the line. What is surprising about this simple arrangement is how effective it is in capturing genuine flow. Philip Rawson (1984) discusses the use of Golden Sections in the treatment of line in his marvellous book, The Art of Drawing: An Instructional Guide (see page 32).

Line without Golden Section proportions
Line with Golden Section proportions

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Advancing & Receding Forms (Part 2): Veyrassat & Wierusz-Kowalski

What are the ways to make a form either advance or recede?

In the first post with its focus on Turner, I discussed the importance of the direction a subject faces and its placement in the overall composition when portraying movement. The following discussion revisits this concept and introduces some additional principles relating to the depiction of advancing and receding forms.

Let me begin by returning to the idea that the direction a subject faces is an important consideration when portraying movement. Rather than rehashing the issues previously addressed with Turner regarding sideways movement, I now wish to propose principles for representing movement by shifts to either the left or right direction of advancing and receding forms. 

The principle behind achieving the illusion of advancing forms by the direction they face—and this is only one of a number of visual devices (i.e. tricks) that I’ll be discussing—is as simple as saying “advancing forms should face towards the right side of the image.” Conversely, for receding forms “they should recede towards the left side of the image.” These complementary principles are simple to say but the question as to whether they work as convincing illusions in practice can only be shown by demonstration. Compare, for example, the advancing horse-drawn cart in F Dielman’s etching, Merry Morning, after a painting by A Wierusz-Kowalski with the receding horses in Veyrassat’s Two Horses (shown below).

Frederick Dielman (1847–1935)
A Merry Morning, 1891
After the painting by Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski (1849–1915)
Published by Gebbie & Co.
Etching on cream wove paper
30 x 21.3 cm (image) cut within plate marks; 32.5 x 26.3 cm (sheet)

Condition: The print is a strong impression but there are condition issues. There is a nibbled lower-right corner and a diagonal crease on the upper-right corner. There is a light water stain diagonally stretching from top-left to lower-right.
I am selling this print for $54 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button.

(detail) Dielman, A Merry Morning, 1891

Jules Jacques Veyrassat (1828–93)
Tow Horses, c. 1867
Etching signed in pencil on warm-white laid paper
8.2 x 10.8 cm (plate); 13.1 x 15.7 cm (sheet)

Condition: Crisp impression and in pristine condition.
I am selling this print for $167 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button.

(detail) Veyrassat, Tow Horses, c. 1867

From my viewpoint, Wierusz-Kowalski and Dielman’s horse and cart advancing to the right suggests unconstrained flow, as any movement in this direction matches my left-to-right reading direction that ultimately leads “out” of the print. If this image is mirrored so that the same advancing party moves to the left instead of the right (see below) then my perception of movement is constrained, as my left-to-right reading direction metaphorically “fights” with the flow of movement portrayed in the image willing the horse and cart to change their direction. Needless to say each viewer may have a different response to the mirrored images but if my reading is shown to be true than there is validity in the principle.

(left) mirror image of Dielman, A Merry Morning, 1891
(right) Dielman, A Merry Morning, 1891

To help clarify the validity of this principle, Wierusz-Kowalski did many paintings of advancing horses and in the video clip below the question as to which direction is more appropriate for advancing forms may be tested further.

Wierusz-Kowalski Alfred Uploaded by polscymalarze on Apr 16, 2010

If I may now turn to Veyrassat’s receding two horses, the direction in which they travel diverts my left-to-right reading to look pictorially into the image. This adjustment to where I look is very different to the “fight” against the flow of my eye as is the case with the mirrored Merry Morning.

There is a more fundamental approach to suggesting advancing or receding movements and it is often used in cartoons: for an advancing form, the middle area of its front surface should be portrayed in focus and the form’s silhouette outline blurred. Conversely, for a receding form, the middle area of its front surface should be portrayed as blurred and the form’s silhouette outline in focus.

Veyrassat’s etching is a fine example of how this approach works in a practical application for receding forms. Here the middle of the front plane of the two horses—their rumps—is much harder to interpret as horse backsides and yet the horses’ clear silhouette outlines makes their receding direction easy to see.

With regard to Dielman’s advancing horse there is a problem: the whole horse is in focus and there are no features that are focally blurred. To demonstrate what would happen if the outer edges of the horse were blurred while the middle area were in focus, the digitally exaggerated altered image below may be revealing.

Digitally altered image of A Merry Morning

An important variable in the representation of advancing or receding forms is the speed that they are travelling. Certainly variations of colour from strong contrast of advancing warm colours (e.g. orange and red) and receding cool colours (e.g. blue and green) can play a significant role as can the variables of chroma (i.e. the degree of colour intensity), opacity, sheen and the attributes and placement of the marks used (e.g. agitrons/animation marks or effects mimicking second-curtain flash photography). But there is another more subtle and simple principle for portraying very fast moving forms and that is to portray the form as being top heavy. In this regard Dielman’s etching is a superb example.

In a future posts I will build upon this use of unstable balance to connote movement as it is part of a rich and interesting field of visual illusions that artists have employed.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Triangles of Light: Rembrandt & Berchem

Is there a tradition for portraying light in triangles?

Artists only employ principles if they function well in their artworks. I mention this as no matter how interesting a principle is in theory, the principle is only useful if it works in practice. In the following discussion I will address two ways that early artists have portrayed light in triangles for very practical purposes.

The first of these approaches is the well-worn phrase, “Rembrandt’s triangle of light,” popularised by advice given to budding portrait photographers. This approach to using light in a triangle involves physically lighting a sitter so that a triangle of light is created below the eye on the shadow side of the face. Purportedly, the term evolved from a comment that Cecil B. DeMille made to Sam Goldwyn concerning Rembrandt’s lighting of his subjects, but the idea has recently taken on a life of its own. The evolution of this triangle has now been codified with exact proportions: the triangle should not be longer than the length of the sitter’s nose and it should be no wider than the length of an eye. Moreover, the positions of where the photographer’s key and fill lights should be arranged have also been formulised (for a summary see

There can be little point in arguing whether this special angle of lighting creating the triangle of light on a sitter’s face really functions. One only has to look at Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings and prints featuring this lighting pattern to see the psychological dimension that the triangle adds. Of course, Rembrandt was not enslaved to the formulaic “triangle of light” promulgated with his name. Take for instance the subtle tonalities of his etching of Jan Cornelius Sylvius, Preacher (shown below). Here a smaller than usual triangle of light illuminates the shadow side of the preacher’s face (see details further below) but the size of the triangle is all that is needed to reveal his right eye attentively engaged with looking at the viewer.  

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606–1669)
Jan Cornelis Sylvius, Preacher [Janus silvius], 1633
Etching (with burin), 16.6 x 141 cm
Signed and dated at lower-middle left (in cross hatching): “Rembrandt f 1633”
Printed from the original plate and published in 1816 by J. McCreery for the 200 Etchings folio
Bartsch 266
Condition: The print is cut on the plate mark (as published by McCreedy). It is in very good condition and is not pasted down. The back of the print features a section of a botanical engraving from the 1784 edition of Stirpes Novae (see image below).
The trimming of prints and the printing on the verso pages from Stirpes Novae for the 200 Etchings folio is discussed by Lino Mannocci (1988) in The Etching of claude Lorrain (p. 28) and by H. Diane Russell (1982) in Claude Lorrain 1600–1692 (p. 300). I am selling this print for $670 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button.

Verso of Jan Cornelis Sylvius, Preacher

This print has been sold

Detail of Jan Cornelis Sylvius, Preacher
Red lines delineate "Rembrandt's Triangle of Light"

Detail of Jan Cornelis Sylvius, Preacher

Compare, for example, how the whole notion of attentive engagement changes if the triangle is increased to the proportions approximating those advised for photographers (as shown below and I apologise in advance for the audacity to digitally alter Rembrandt’s image.) The ability for a viewer to read the contours of the face may have improved with the increase in size of the “triangle of light” but the effect is "studied." The preacher now appears frozen in time, caught in an endless moment, rather than at the specific instant of looking up from his reading to the viewer. Of course, no matter how much rationalising of an image is proposed, ultimately, the reader alone must decide which of the two images is the more expressive.

(left) Jan Cornelis Sylvius, Preacher [Janus Silvius], 1633
(right) the same print but with a digitally enlarged “triangle of light” on the preacher’s right cheek

Although the practice of creating an inverted triangle of light under the shadow eye serves a clear function in projecting a sitter’s psychological mindset, Rembrandt does not always apply this visual device. For example, there is no triangle of light in his etchings: Rembrandt in Soft Hat and embroidered Cloak (Bartsch 50.7-IV [X]) or in Rembrandt in Cap and Scarf, Face in Shadow (Bartsch 50.17-III [II]). In short Rembrandt employs this triangle of light when it suits his purpose and as such the device is merely a useful principle rather than an obligation. This is also true for other artists as well.

In Charles-Émile Jacque’s Self Portrait (shown below) for example, a strong directional light spotlights the artist’s face, but an inverted triangle of light is not visible on his shadow side. The reason or perhaps the multi-layers of reasons for his choice to portray himself in this way can only be conjecture. What is clear, however, is that Jacque wished his portrait to be seen as theatrically dramatic. Going further, he sought to align his use of lighting with the convention of chiaroscuro lighting handed down from the Baroque period.

Charles-Émile Jacque (1813–94)
Self Portrait [Portrait De L’Auteur], 1846
Etching on medium weight white wove paper
11.1 x 9.2 cm (plate); 28.5 x 20.8 cm (sheet)
Signed in the plate centre bottom
Guiffrey 139
Condition: Very strong impression in excellent condition with the identifying foul-bitten area at top-right. The etching is presented like a chine colle print but is actually supported on window-cut cream wove paper. There is an early pencil inscription listing the print details at the bottom edge of the support sheet.
I am selling this print for $85 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button.

This print has been sold

Regarding the second approach to using triangles of light, I now wish to leap from a triangle of light on the shadow side of a subject to a triangle of intense light positioned in the most central area of light falling on a subject. The use of this device may be termed “Bercham’s triangle of light” because, not only is the visual device to be found in Bercham’s artworks, but the position of the triangle is also the complement of “Rembrandt’s triangle of light.”

An example of Bercham’s triangle may be seen in his etching, Three Hunting Dogs, addressed in the earlier post focused on the Inverse-Square Law. In that discussion the standing dog in the print was described to be “rendered with the strongest contrast.” If I may elaborate on this previous discussion even more, I wish to draw attention to the triangular shape of light falling on the dog’s torso (see diagram below) and suggest that this shape gives pictorial expression to the light’s intensity.

Nicholaes Berchem, Three Hunting Dogs, c.1650
Red lines delineate "Berchem's Triangle of Light"
(This print has been sold)
Berchem’s triangle does more than signify an area of intense light in the print. The shape is also a pivotal point in the composition; one that simultaneously catches the eye’s attention and creates a centre of interest.

Cornelis Visscher’s etching of Berchem’s Mother with a Child on a Donkey (shown below) involves a more complicated arrangement of this principle. Here, a triangulated visual dialogue is created. First, there is a link between a triangle of light on the torso of a distant urinating horse and two abutting triangles forming a diamond shape of light on the back of a shepherd. There is another and much more intimate link between the diamond shape on the back of the shepherd and another diamond shape formed by two abutting triangles of light illuminating the shepherd’s wife cradling her child on the back of a donkey against which he rests (see diagram further below). This three-way relationship gives scope for the viewer’s eye to engage in scanning across the image from one triangle to the next and to negotiate meanings from reflecting on these connections (i.e. the connection between the shepherd and the animals under his care and the connection between the shepherd and his family driven by the shepherd's dog raised on its hindquarters and seeking his attention).

(Etcher) Cornelis Visscher (1619–62)
(Image designer) Nicholaes Berchem (1620–83)
Mother with a Child on a Donkey, c. 1657-8
Etching, 26.9 x 20.9 cm (sheet)
Condition: A very fine impression of the last quarter of the 17th century, in fine condition. Small margins all around; printed on laid paper; central horizontal crease; scattered very minor spotting; remains of an old mount in the corner of the reverse; very light surface soiling.

This print has been sold
Detail of Visscher after Berchem, Mother with a Child on a Donkey, c. 1657-8
Visscher after Berchem, Mother with a Child on a Donkey, c. 1657-8
Red lines delineate "Berchem's Triangles of Light"