Pushing the Composition Envelope, Melissa Hefferlin Still Lifes

Effortless Complexity and Boundless Imagination

Decades ago, Melissa Hefferlin told me that growing up, whenever she did something wrong,  her scientist dad would sit her down with paper and pen to make columns of pros, cons, and alternatives to her bad behavior. She dreaded these episodes (apparently they took place fairly often). But they served her artistic mind very well, especially in composition.

Challenge to Picasso and Vermeer

Art is very complex with many elements such as color, light, form, emotion, imagination, subject, etc. But composition is the granddaddy of fine art. Composition in painting and drawing is the arrangement of contours on a flat surface. Two important parts of it are groupings and the balance of the entire work. To try to create something new in composition is a daunting task and throws down a challenge to Vermeer and Picasso. It seems that Melissa is unfazed by the project. 

In full disclosure, I mentored Melissa in the early 1990s, but I can’t claim any credit for her brilliance since then. 


Hefferlin, Journey of a Higher Hare, oil on linen, 36” x 29″

In Higher Hare, my photoshop markups below reveal the play of a triangular pattern in the cloth, table, and part of the wall. When an artist is composing they have some flexibility to accent patterns they see or sense, Melissa takes full advantage of utilizing these angles. Another artist might not see them and paint only what he/she literally sees, but that doesn’t create these almost music-like beats. 

Hefferlin, On A Rabbit’s Wings, oil on linen, 24”x 32″

The bend motif of the famous Coca Cola design on the wood grate sets a pattern of tapered contours as the visual theme of this painting. Look at these elements: the tapered creases and folds in the gray fabric background; the red ribbon and its cast shadows; the tapered edge of the red table surface in the foreground; and the tapered red material on the left. Also notice the ribbon-like highlights on the glass bottles. I counted about 13 tapered contour ribbon-like patterns. 

Conceptualizing Visual Perception

What Melissa is doing is organizing, through her consciousness, millions of visual details into coherent patterns and shapes. We as humans have subconsciously trained our eyes to do this to a lesser degree, but in studying Melissa’s works, she helps us conceptualize our visual perception to see patterns that we were unaware of before. In a somewhat similar way to Michelangelo conceptualizing touch to sight. We then might find ourselves seeing real life in a more comprehensive way. 

The motifs in this painting are the ubiquitous hook and curve patterns. They even show up inside the main glass bottle. I think Melissa saved the denouement for the red reflection in the throat of the bottle. 

Hefferlin vs. Picasso

It is interesting to contrast Hefferlin with Picasso (he is one of my favorite artists). He created some of the best compositions of all time, but he frequently distorted the subjects – like the woman’s face, body, and other objects – to make  very clever compositional arrangements. But in distorting reality so much he threw the baby out with the bathwater. He was visually saying that reality is a chaos of distorted perspectives that are not true to real life. What is exceptional about Melissa is her ability to tweak these pattern motifs while keeping a realistic perspective, a feat of integration that Picasso doesn’t match up to. 

This brings up very interesting philosophical questions about the roles of perception, discernment, and sanity in making art. 

Think about ranting. When we see a street bum pontificating incoherently, the disconnect can be frightening. Sometimes the rant makes sense in an internal logical way, suspending our disbelief, but the disconnect from reality is still there. Picasso is a brilliant ranter, hacking away and distorting reality till he leaves us a barely recognisable subject. Taken to extremes, that approach can lead to a total break with reality, an aesthetic psychosis, defined by dictionary.com as “a mental disorder characterized by symptoms, such as delusions, that indicate impaired contact with reality.” Reality in life and art grounds us. Yet if an artist only copies reality, he/she forfeits discernment; in other words, he/she shows us a ton of details without a guiding hand. So there is an interesting balance between abstracting information and reality.

Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror 

Composition and Balance

Hefferlin, Against the Light, oil on linen

As important as groupings are, the crown in composition goes to how the entire canvas or paper is divided up into contours – the shapes of things and the spaces between them. In art terms, contours define the edges of the positive shapes, such as the bottle, and the negative spaces, such as those between the bottles. And overall compositional balance includes how the positive and negatives interact with the edge of the canvas. Notice the width of the wall’s blue stripe on the left. That width is about the same size as the negative space between the bottle’s cork and the upper edge of the canvas. That width is repeated on the right edge of the canvas. It is also the same width of the cast shadow of the little bottle in the foreground. And it is the same width of the gold frame. This creates a visual harmony, making the eye comfortably roam around sensing balances and complementary “weights” of shapes and spaces. 

I think it is fun to pick a negative space or positive shape in Melissa’s works and find corresponding shapes. 

Hefferlin, Spanish Rhythms, oil on linen, 30×15″

In this painting, notice how the big bold shapes of the gray background wall and the side of the cream-colored table balance out the elaborate patterns of the silk scarves. For me the splash of interest is not the fabric with its red sparks but the fascinating balance of the gray shapes in the bottom left corner with the upper right corner. Looking at this composition, I’m aware of an extremely thoughtful mind weighing visual balances and accents with the playful, mischievous confidence of a master. 

If you have the time, you might study the exceptional execution of compositional balance in the first three of Melissa’s paintings shown above.

Thank God For Dad Hefferlin

There are several things I didn’t discuss in Melissa’s work, such as color and content. But it is interesting to see how by looking at just one aspect of composition we get great insight into Melissa’s methodology of creating a painting. When viewing any artwork, the artist is sending you clues to their epistemology (methodology) and metaphysics (the subject). It is a great and rare experience not only to relate to how Melissa composes but to discover in the process new and exciting ways to compose a painting. Thank god for Melissa’s Dad, I am sure he would be proud that he helped develop, in my opinion, the greatest living artist of composition. 

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