Michelangelo’s Drawings: The Conceptual Transformation from Touch to Sight

Michelangelo, Study of Haman for the Sistine Chapel, 1511, red chalk.
Michelangelo, Pieta, 1519-20
Michelangelo, Pieta, 1519-20

Conceptual Flip

One of the most rewarding studies of painting and drawing is discovering how a thought, perception, or emotion is transformed into a purely visual medium. Michelangelo’s drawings serve as examples of translating the perception of touch to sight. In other words, his drawings convey to our sight not what we would see but what we would touch.

Continue reading “Michelangelo’s Drawings: The Conceptual Transformation from Touch to Sight”

The Sky Problem in Landscape Painting

Newberry, California High Desert, pastel on dark paper

The Problem: A Bright Sky

In real life the daylight sky is bright, much brighter than the landscape’s trees, vegetation, mountains, and water. Think of it as a large lamp. But when you paint a landscape truthfully the effect backfires, the sky will be bright but the earth part will be dull and muddy. Light on the green trees, stone buildings, and red flowers can’t complete with the sky’s light. Even though you are seeing a sun filled landscape, your painting won’t feel that way, but you’ll feel disappointed with your skills.

The Lie

Claude Monet Landscape
Claude Monet

Continue reading “The Sky Problem in Landscape Painting”

Damn Complex Chaos to Visual Language

newberry-orb-3-oil-pc

Cutting to the chase a painting that is flat is more like a cereal box than like a Rembrandt. What makes painting interesting is transforming forms, depth, and light from the real world to a canvas. It is a very complex visual language that conceptualizes how we see, and it triggers suspension of disbelief, rewarding us with the perception of movement and light.  A painter cannot just cut and paste reality to the canvas, the transition deals with how we perceive, how light bounces off forms and textures, painting techniques, and oddly, even how well our studios are calibrated for light.

Some years ago I was having trouble painting. I would stand back and see a mistake and try to paint a correction, but when I got up close to the painting I just couldn’t capture the nuance I was hoping for. I was getting near 60 years old and I decided to totally re-educate myself about painting (even though I already had four decades of painting behind me). The project was to paint a  sandstone orb that has personal significance to me. My studio has the greatest daylight from 11 am to noon, and I like to paint into the night, so figuring out the artificial light was essential. I painted each orb under different artificial lighting conditions. I also used every painting technique I knew, from thin liquid applications to scumbling to super thick blobs of paint. This series of nine alla prima paintings, all in private collections, were the result of these explorations.

Mark Making Movement in Pastel

Newberry, Woven Baskets, pastel on dark paper, private collection
Newberry, Woven Baskets, pastel on dark paper, private collection

There is a smoky quality to dark pastel paper that has a depth and softness of the infinite. I am surprised that some conceptual artist hasn’t done a show using store bought pastel paper with nothing drawn on them. Nonetheless the paper calls for light, and I try to leave much of the original paper to give a depth and mystery to the shadows. The bowl’s cast shadow on the left and background right are almost pure paper. If I draw careful gradations of light from a smidgen lighter than the paper to the brightest lemon-white I create a hierarchy of tones which in turn is a part of giving the feeling of light. An equally important but overlooked part of drawing/painting light is to place the marks through space, like stepping stones from beneath our feet that extend off in the horizon. Combining the dusky shadows, light, and depth transforms flat paper into an alternative reality. This bridge is what I find magical about art.

To see more my Pastel Archive.

True Lies: Warp Negative Space

Rembrandt, Socrates Contemplating the Bust of Homer

True Lies: Warp Negative Space by Michael Newberry

Rembrandt, Socrates Contemplating the Bust of Homer

“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
Picasso

With this tutorial I will show how to shape negative space by warping it, thereby creating a believable 3-D image on a 2-D surface.

Painting is made up of positive forms and negative spaces. Think of planets and the empty space between them. In this Rembrandt, one example of negative space is the dark triangular space between the bust, the back edge of the table, and the folds of the man’s sleeve.

Lost in Space

Many artists spend a great deal of energy on making the forms of the solid objects, such as people and tables. But when it comes to the space between the objects they tend to get lost in the emptiness.

Warping the negative space into a shape is the way to go.

rembrandtDP

This is a detail of the above painting’s negative space. Rembrandt has warped the negative space by a subtle tone shift. The triangular dark shape is more diffused, softer, as it goes back towards the sleeve. And it gets darker as it comes closer to the edge of the bust.

This change is indicated by the gray and black stripe.

negative space sketch

Here I isolated the negative space, and stylized it a little bit to show that it is not a flat space. Rather, the negative space curves to come forward, towards the bust, then it goes back towards the sleeve.

Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat

This is my favorite Vermeer painting. The back of her head is turning away from us and the collar of the wrap is coming towards us.

redhatD

Here is a detail of the negative background space.

redhatDP

Notice how carefully the space changes: the tones get cooler and darker as they rotate back around the hair, and they get warmer and lighter as they rotate forward.

Monet, St Romain Soleil

Another favorite work of mine is this Monet.

monetDP

Here is a cast shadow inside the cavernous entrance to a doorway. It is a little tricky to discern Monet’s shifts of tone due to the ornateness of the building, and to Monet’s style of mark making.

But the tones do change and do warp the space. The front edge is flicked with darker tones, shifting the right edge towards us.

negative space demo

Here is a little demo of the idea.

Wray, Crystal Cove

This is a painting by one of my contemporaries, William Wray.

CrystalDP

If you think of the rocks as planets and the reflective sand and water as space, you can see how he warped the shape of the water–it comes zooming towards us on a dramatic diagonal.

Vermeer, Woman holding a Pitcher

Vermeer uses infinitesimal changes in tone to carve out space and light.

vermeerDP

Yet, he manages to warp the negative space of the back wall with very little changes of tone.

She has the slightest halo of light, which comes towards up to the edge of her headdress. The light then dims imperceptively, receding a few feet back towards the map.

negative space demo sketch

 

Here again I stylize the concept. The tones of the back wall change to bend the space forward.

Rembrandt, The Blinding of Samson

Rembrandt, The Blinding of Samson.

I wanted to use lots of examples for showing how negative space can be warped. It is really a very difficult problem. But once you have the idea of it, it makes it easier to isolate it when you visually study real life.

rembra34D

The sky in the tent opening changes dramatically in tone to shift the shape of the space.

rembra34DP

It follows the inner flap of the opening from some distance away and increases in light vibrancy as it wraps around and swings towards the soldier’s back.

Newberry, The Sculptor

In closing I would like to share one of my own.

This study of the problem gives a good idea how much I warped the space.

SculptorDP

I had to shift the space quite some distance from her arm and the back wall to come against the edge of the bust.

Again many artists would simply  think that the back is a flat space somewhere back there. But to be true to 3-dimensionality it is crucial to warp the negative space.

I hope you enjoyed seeing true lies in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry

Polyclitus’ Canon of Proportions

 

Doryphoros or The Canon, Polyclitus, Roman copy in marble of bronze original, c. 450-440 B.C.
Doryphoros or The Canon, Polyclitus, Roman copy in marble of bronze original, c. 450-440 B.C.

The 5th Century B.C. sculptor, Polyclitus, wrote the famous treatise about what methods make the beautiful (to kallos)  and good (to eu) in art, unfortunately now lost. We know something of it through historians such as Pliny and Plutarch. Often mentioned is Polyclitus’ belief in measurements of one finger joint with the next, then the fingers to metacarpus (base of the hand), and it to the wrist, and all of these to the forearm, the forearm to the arm, and so on.

Polyclitus, in his treatise, also dealt with issues other than proportions such as the organic balance of tension and relaxation of body parts.

Polyclitus called this sculpture, The Canon. I think it is wonderful that he wrote a treatise on art and “put his money where is mouth is” by showing what he meant as well.

Notice in the sculpture that he emphasized the man’s little finger, a little like an exclamation mark.

Polyclitus was working the proportions of the natural forms. For example, his fingers look natural, as do other parts of the body, and as does the whole of the body.  The forms weren’t generic shapes of measurements.

King Khafre seated Fourth Dynasty, reign of Khafre Graywacke Height: 120 cm (47 1/4 in) Egyptian Museum, Cairo
King Khafre seated Fourth Dynasty, reign of Khafre Graywacke Height: 120 cm (47 1/4 in) Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Contrast The Canon with this Egyptian sculpture, in which the rudimentary proportion of the overall figure is balanced. However,  when we take a detailed look the forms they remain generic and unnatural–as if they are rounded blocks.

Charles Laughton as the hunchback of Notre Dame
Charles Laughton as the hunchback of Notre Dame

It is also important to note that beauty is connected with pleasing proportions. The antithesis is that ugliness is unbalanced proportions. Think of an hunchback with a hump on one side of his back and topped off by a malformed and unsymmetrical head.

I hope you enjoyed seeing math in art in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, March 6, 2007