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Sunday 26 February 2012

Saints & Sinners: Van Ostade

Why do saints face towards the left?

Arguably, the reason that saints are often portrayed facing towards the left may have a simple explanation: the Occidental practice of reading and writing from left-to-right has acculturated both artist and audience to view the left side of an image as the immediate past and the right side is the impending future. Consequently, saints facing to the left are perceived as contemplating the past whereas saints that face the right are perceived as anticipating the future. Such a perception also applies to unsaintly folk in that figures can be portrayed as thoughtful if they face to the left and may project an attitude of indifference if facing the right. 

Adriaen van Ostade’s (1610–1685­) etching, Peasant with Hands behind His Back, c.1640, is a fine example of how such perceptions can arise.

Adriaen van Ostade (1610–1685­)
Peasant with Hands behind His Back, c.1640
Etching, 88 x 63 mm (plate), 107 x 80 mm (sheet)
Lettered with the artist's initials 'Av. o' at bottom left

Condition: Printed on laid paper with slight foxing on the left of the image and light tanning marks from previous mounting (outside of the plate area). Otherwise the print is in good condition. There is a faint pencil inscription (“#7522”) on verso.
Bartsch 1.21.11 (361)
I am selling this print for [deleted] 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
In Ostade’s print, an aproned figure of man is shown divorced from his surroundings that would otherwise have provided a context to visually explain his slightly bowed stance and trace of a smile. For instance, a context appropriate for his clothes and body language could be a tavern scene in which he is cast as an amiable tavern attendant listening to an order. Alternatively, the context may place him as a butcher, or from some other occupation requiring an apron, engaged in conversation or bemused in a state of reverie. Whichever is the context that Ostade envisaged a viewer’s reading of the fellow’s disposition changes as the image is flipped from its original direction (shown above) to a mirror image view (shown below).

  Mirrored image of Peasant with Hands behind His Back, c.1640

From my standpoint, the mirrored image—the way that Ostade drew the figure upon the etching plate—gives the character a fresh layer of intelligence when compared to the figure facing to the right as shown in the print. To my eyes, the mirrored image suggests the man is engaged in looking at, or dealing with, something specific. Going further, the viewer literally reads into his face following the light direction cast from the top-front-left and looks at the figure as if he is facing the viewer. By contrast, the character in the original print appears more abstracted in thought and disengaged from reality. In the print the light no longer emanates from the viewer’s left-to-right reading direction but comes from an unknown source on the right. Such a lighting direction, as all movie buffs know, is the direction that characters move towards when exiting to unknown fate at the end of a movie.

No doubt the affect that the direction a subject faces in connoting saintliness or the mindset of ordinary folk rests with each viewer’s personal reading of meaning. While this reality is clearly true, a viewer's reading may be molded by other visual devices working in tandem with a subject's orientation and the Western convention of lighting a subject from the top-front-left. For instance, when looking at the mirrored image of the peasant, I wish to draw attention to the ease with which a viewer can read “into” the figure by virtue of the broken treatment of the figure’s left silhouette edge (see detail below on the left). Moreover, the reading is constrained by the uninterrupted and enclosing outline of the figure's shadow side (see detail on the right).

  Details from mirrored image of Peasant with Hands behind His Back, c.1640

This flow and hesitation in the articulation of viewer's reading arising from the two treatments of line in the figure's silhouette edge is important. One only has to compare the mirrored image with the original image to determine which figure appears more saintly.

  Details of Peasant with Hands behind His Back, c.1640
(left) Original image                                        (right) Mirrored image

Saturday 11 February 2012

Graphic strength: Frans Masereel

What underpins graphic strength in imagery?

The 1920s was a special time for graphic novels (i.e. narrative books featuring sequential images without text). This was the period when the first wordless books were published and one of the artists who played an instrumental role in promulgating this purely visual way of storytelling is Frans Masereel (1889–1972). Beyond Masereel’s role in revitalising the woodcut tradition for his book illustrations, a key attraction of his work and its influence on fellow illustrators (most notably Lynd Ward) is the graphic strength of his prints. By this term I mean that his prints have the very desirable attribute, especially in book illustration, of being able to catch and sustain a viewer’s attention and to express meaning clearly. The following discussion focuses on explaining this strength with regard to Maserreel's woodcut, Angel (see below).

Frans Masereel (1889–1972)

Angel, 1964 (illustration from Das Gesicht Hamburgs)
Pencil signed and signed with initials in the plate
Woodcut on handmade paper
12.9 x 10.7 cm (plate); 24.3 x 16 cm (sheet)
Condition: Strong impression and in pristine condition with blank verso. I am selling this print for $235 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.

Broadly speaking, the graphic strength of this print rests with two properties: the simplicity of its composition to express meaning and the arresting use of line to portray light and dark. Regarding compositional simplicity, Masereel employs symmetry to divide the image centrally, by the vertical edge of a wall. More subtly, he also divides the image horizontally, by the alignment of distant ships (see below).

Vertical and horizontal divisions in Angel

Overlaying this formal arrangement and spanning from the top of the composition to its lower edge is a symmetrically placed “V”-shape created by the angle of the angel’s cross-topped lance and the angle of the angel's wing (see below). This “V”-shaped rhythm is the critical element giving the print its graphic potency and meaning. I see the perceived angles of the “V”-shape as inviting my eye downwards to a demon that the angel subjugates. In short, the simplicity of symmetry underpinning the composition draws a viewer's attention to the narrative of godliness trampling on evil.

  “V”-shape rhythm

Regarding Masereel’s use of line that gives the image its graphic strength, the arrangement of the composition is literally of pivotal importance. The vertical division in the composition (described above) is like a fulcrum balancing and separating the line work portraying a sunlit (moonlit?) harbour scene on the left side of the image from line work portraying a dark slice of architecture on the right. What makes the lines on the left so dramatically different to those on the right is the contrast between black lines (often described in technical terms as positive lines) shown on the left and white lines (negative lines) shown on the right. This contrast of two different types of lines separating the realm of light from that of darkness is not accidental. In fact it is so intentional that the effect takes a considerable foresight and effort.

To create the black lines on the left side of the image Masereel carefully cut away the woodblock so as to leave in relief those areas that were to be inked and printed as positive lines. This is a demanding process as each line to be printed must be rationalised as if it were an island-like shape on the block where the artist has not physically made a mark. Making the process even more demanding, each untouched shape on the block must also be viewed as a line shape that will ultimately be printed as a mirror image on a sheet. Fortunately the creation of white lines is much less demanding. To create these lines Masereel cut directly into the plate to create the void spaces that print as negative lines.
Graphically strong images, like Masereel’s Angel, consist of more than just compositional simplicity and bold contrast of line to attract and sustain a viewer’s interest. All the elements and principles of design play their roles in creating a memorable artwork. Nevertheless, these two components, when co-ordinated to address the same overriding meaning, are arguably the most important and the easiest to control by an artist.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Rendering tone: 16th century woodcut

What are the advantages and disadvantages of shading with parallel lines?

One of the most common ways of showing light and shade on a subject is to match the pattern of darks observed on the subject with rows of parallel lines (a process called hatching). If a large area is to be shaded a conundrum soon arises: whether to use uninterrupted lines from one side of the area to be shaded to the next or to break each line into manageable units (i.e. units of length that the artist can draw comfortably). The following discussion focuses on an early woodcut of a ram to illustrate some of the positive and negative outcomes of both approaches.

Anonymous artist
Ram, c.1550
Woodcut on laid paper
6.3 x 9 cm (image); 6.5 x 9.2 cm (sheet)

Condition: Strong impression with breaks in the outer borderline. The print is trimmed with fine margins and is printed on laid paper faintly darkened with age. It is not pasted down. Verso shows printed text in old German, a mounting hinge and light pencil inscription.
I am selling this print for $65 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 woodcut

This print has been sold

I will begin by proposing what would happen if this unknown woodcut artist had chosen to use long marks stretching from left to right across the shadow areas of the ram. Be mindful, however, that each stroke showing in the print is in fact created by the artist carefully carving away the “white areas” rather than being created with direct mark-making.

In the digitally altered image below I have used straight lines to show what happens if the short lines in the shadow areas of the ram are replaced with mechanically ruled lines. For some viewers the outcome may be desirable if they are seeking aesthetically clean imagery (i.e. images that are free of the inherent signature gestures of the artist such as naturally occurring interruptions and varying thickness of a line). For others the continuous straight lines shown in the detail below lessens the graphic strength (i.e. the visual impact) of the image. This lessening of graphic strength can be explained partly by the lack of natural phrasing of line—the gentle broadening from the start to the centre of a line and then an equally gentle narrowing towards the end. But there is also a suspension of credibility in the mechanical look of the lines. By this I mean that viewers see the length of the uninterrupted lines as unnatural in terms of their own experiences of hand movements when drawing marks. This perception of the mechanical attribute of the lines makes the rendering style inappropriate in terms of an image projecting a palpable aura of the artist.

  Digitally altered image with uninterrupted shading lines

Keeping in mind the idea that a line can express a human dimension, each curving mark in the parallel shading style seen in the original woodcut can be perceived as evidence of an intuitive sense of mark-making. In short, the inherent gesture and length of mark showcases a natural way to draw. Of course, displaying natural looking marks does not necessarily mean that all natural marks are ideal for rendering shadows. In the detail of the woodcut shown below, some issues of ambiguity with the shading style may arise regarding how the artist’s marks are interpreted.

  Detail of Ram, c.1550

For instance, some viewers may perceive the curved strokes in the shading as contour marks portraying folds in the fleece of the ram. Alternatively, the curved stokes may be interpreted as surface patterning on the fleece. This is a difficulty faced by all artists wishing to portray shadows: how to describe form without the visual devices describing more than their intended role. There is a way, nevertheless, that works. In the digitally altered image below, the parallel style of shading in small marks is still employed. Here, however, the individual lines are meshed together like a random arrangement of rain drops to avoid the suggestion of folds or surface patterns.

  Digitally altered image with shading lines randomly aligned in parallels like rain drops

This style of hatching relates to one of the first historical approaches consisting of “short lines arranged with regularity like bricks in a wall” (Bliss, DP 1964, A History of Wood-Engraving, Spring Books, London, p. 35). With this convention the centre of each line becomes the beginnings and endings of the lines above and below. A good example of the “brick” rendering style can be seen in Bidpai’s Das Buch der Weyßheit der Alten, Straßburg, 1536.