Workshop Series: Composition!

Some Guidelines For Great Compositons

In my workshops students have plenty of time to compose the work, the line drawing set up before painting begins. The following tutorials show techniques you can focus on as you map out the painting’s composition.

Composition in One Easy Lesson

Van Gogh, demo
For demonstration a markup of Van Gogh’s bedroom in St. Remy. This was one of our wonderful locations in our 2019 Provence Art Experience Workshop, and might be on our itinerary in 2020.

The lesson in three words: Make interesting corners. In this tutorial I show how some of greatest artists of composition, Vermeer, Cezanne, Picasso, Van Gogh, Diebenkorn, and Velazquez make fascinating shapes and lighting in the corners. It is a very simple way to get the most out of your composition without having to remember a million rules!

Abstraction in Representational Art

My mark up of Rembrandt’s One Hundred Guilder Print, showing how he grouped light and shade into large abstract shapes incorporating several figures. Abstracting is handy way to organize a composition.

Though this tutorial is not strictly about composition it will be helpful to see how one can organize abstract shapes in a compositional way. Using Rembrandt, Kline, and Monet I show how they group things into broader abstract shapes. This is an extremely powerful technique that gives the viewer an epic journey through the big picture.

True Lies Warp Negative Space

A markup of a detail of one of Monet’s Cathedral paintings. The gray and dark gray stripes mark the darker, closer edge of the doorway’s shadow and the lighter, further away edge of the shadow. A very exciting and dramatic tool to breath passion into your work.

A very surreal artist’s perspective but indispensable to give life to your painting is accenting the negative spaces of things. I go into detail showing how Monet, Rembrandt, Vermeer, myself, and William Wray manipulate negative space to create a sense of movement in the painting. If you can take a few seconds, while composing, to check the negative spaces it will add tremendously to making a powerful painting.

Pushing the Composition Envelope, Melissa Hefferlin Still Lifes

A still life from Melissa Hefferlin, one of the greatest artists of composition alive today. Her biggest strength is balancing negative spaces.

This is a very helpful article on how Picasso and Hefferlin arrange their compositions, and how Melissa manages to do so in a realistic way.

When you are taking a workshop with me you don’t have to hold all this info in your head, that is my job, but it is good to read up on these tutorials. I hope you enjoy them and I guarantee you that adding them to your technique will feel great and raise your art up a few levels.

For more about studying with me please introduce yourself and your work via email, mtnewberry at gmail dot com.

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. 

 Groupings

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. 

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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

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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

Composition in One Easy Lesson

Composition in One Easy Lesson by Michael Newberry

Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899

Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899

There are unlimited possibilities for what one can do with a composition; the combinations are countless. A composition is essentially the arrangement of objects/forms within the border of the canvas or paper. The aim of this tutorial is to illustrate that there is one essential ingredient to a superb composition.

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