What Makes This Painting Beautiful?

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

-Anton Chekhov

Have you ever told a joke and the punchline was so clear that you couldn’t bear to say it, because if you did, the joke wouldn’t be half as funny?

Some things are better left unsaid!

Our brains get a thrill by filling in the gaps—the missing pieces of a puzzle. This is as true in comedy as it is in art, music, and just about every other creative form of expression.

With this in mind, take a moment and consider what makes the above watercolor painting by Joseph Zbukvic so intriguing.

This is a great example of leaving things unsaid. Notice how little of the buildings or cars is actually rendered in this painting; most of the work is left up to the viewer to imagine.

Aside from the excitement the mind gets from completing the visual story on its own, there is another motivation for leaving certain details out of a painting: Zbukvic’s work is a story about the atmosphere of a rainy Parisian day, not one about cars and buildings. We are not interested in how many bricks fill each facade or in reading the bumper stickers on a passing Peugeot. We want to experience the heavy air and play of light that defines such a specific time and place. By leaving out extraneous details, Zbukvic helps the viewer see what he wants us to see and experience a specific moment, and one can almost hear the muffled echos of traffic and wet pattering of tires along the road.

If you’ve ever struggled with elevating your own artwork to something more than a simple copy of your subject, consider omitting the details. Show only that which is relevant. What are the essentials? What parts of your subject strike you the most? Why did you want to depict it in the first place?

I’ll conclude with a few more examples of Zbukvic’s tactful omission—but the details, I’ll leave up to you…

Revealing the Tricks of Richard Schmid

Make your art a gift of inspiration to others to work toward better things.”

Richard Schmid

The celebrated contemporary painter, Richard Schmid, certainly lives up to his advice in the above quote. His virtuosic work has galvanized representational painters for the past fifty years, elevating Schmid to a living legend among artists in the genre—often being compared to masters like John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, and other influential artists of the late 19th century.

The above painting is a beautiful example of Schmid’s style. This piece is very much like a symphony of well-applied techniques, working in perfect harmony toward the final image. The execution of strong composition, use of edge, value, drawing, and interest are just a few of the key players in the success of this masterful work, which we will study closely here.

The composition of this piece is achieved in several clever ways. To begin with, the direction of lines throughout the painting move the eye toward the focal point, the hands. Notice how the arms, mirror, and folds of cloth direct one’s attention—corralling our eyes ultimately to the main area of interest. This is also achieved through the use of value, as the arms and hands are much brighter than the contrasting environment. When one “squints down”—using a technique often referenced by Schmid—one can notice how the bright shapes of the arms are the most unique structures in the overall composition, standing out from the more nebulous forms throughout the rest of the image. By squinting, we also can appreciate that the overall composition remains balanced in value, where the rear wall shadow is compensated by the dark plant and bookshelf. All of these features set the strong base upon which the other technical aspects of the painting can be used effectively.

The use of edge is one of Richard Schmid’s most mastered tools, invoking excitement, realism, and directing the interest of his painting’s audience. Hard edges are used very sparingly in this painting, found most notably in the carefully rendered hands of the figure, but in three other areas as well: the mirror, the flower, and the kettle. These four emphasized areas serve almost as a secondary composition, overlaid upon the first, sending our eyes bouncing between each item, helping to tell the story of the scene. The soft edges used elsewhere invoke the gentle feeling of the natural daylight, coming from an unseen window. The lost edge in the bottom left corner, where the curtain and table would have met, was a smart omission, as the alternative would have detracted from the overall composition.

The use of value here has already been mentioned in terms of composition, but it is also Schmid’s other most well-employed technique, which helps to achieve a strong sense of realism. Schmid’s ability to accurately render values of light is one of the most gripping features of his paintings. His careful attention to the “falling off” of value in this scene clearly communicates the quality of light entering the room. This, in combination with the neutral temperature of the light, one feels that this painting was likely made on an overcast day. In addition to Schmid’s careful attention to proportion and the accurately drawn figure, one is struck with a very realistic painting.

The final bits of interest—or the “jewellery” as Schmid sometimes calls them—are the dabs of color that help give the painting its extra sparkle. Without those cool notes of blue scattered sparsely around the image, the painting would not have achieved the same sort of serenity it ultimately has. Another dynamic element of interest comes from the handling of the brushstrokes, in particular, the rendering of the leaves and the cloth in the foreground, which have a kinetic energy to them, appearing as though motion blurred. This sense of movement adds excitement to what could have been a more subdued or static scene.

It’s always a joy to study the works of this wonderful painter. If you enjoyed this analysis of Richard Schmid’s work, please let me know in the comments and perhaps share this page with others who may also benefit. Did you notice anything else that strikes you about the painting? Which painters inspire you? I’d love to hear from you below.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

For those painting outdoors, particularly landscape artists, one is confronted with an abundance of green; from fields of grass to forests with countless leaves and needled trees, the color is unavoidable. For many, this many not seem like a matter worth fretting over, but as we will see, a careless approach to green in one’s painting can ruin an otherwise fine work of art.

A quick image search for landscape paintings on Google can give us a sense of the jarring green that tends to pervade many works.

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Before I proceed, I should make the disclaimer that art is a matter of taste, and for some, the above is not only acceptable but perhaps embraced. That being said, in my experience, I have found that most people tend to connect stronger with a different approach. For comparison, let’s try googling “master landscape painting” and view the results.

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Quite the difference! In fact, despite the fields and trees, the bright green we tend to associate with grass and leaves is almost completely absent from the above images. There are a number of reasons for this, which we will touch upon in a moment, but before we continue, I’d like you to consider your own reaction to the two different approaches. You’ll likely agree that there is certainly a different mood associated with the latter paintings—one I would define as more complex in emotion. The former set of paintings are no doubt full of life and a sense of positivity, but almost singularly so.

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An interesting consideration is the color sensitivity of the human eye. As it turns out, bright green is the hue most easily seen by people, hence its use in improving visibility of safety equipment, etc. The reason for this is due in part to the fact that sunlight is strongest around this range, a feature of which the human eye has taken advantage. This is also the reason why plants reflect green light—essentially, they are preventing over-exposure.  So, in a sense, painting this bright green color is something like singing a pure, high note—beautiful but best used in moderation. 

“Fair enough,” you might say, “but if the landscape is green, isn’t that what I should paint?”

Yes and no.

You may know that the grass can be green but is that actually what you’re seeing? Often times, the artist’s inaccurate perception of color is behind their overzealous application of green. You may have noticed that many of the paintings in the second image search depict times of day when the sun is either setting or rising, casting warm colors throughout the landscape. Inevitably, those warm colors will neutralize the greens, forcing them toward muted tones or into the reds altogether. For many of those artists, they chose that particular time of day because of this effect of light. If you wish to do the same, be sure to observe carefully the changes to your scene. Take a look at the painting in the first set, bottom row, third from the left. If the clouds were truly so pink and orange, it is very unlikely that the grass would be as glaringly green as was painted. In addition to sun effects, atmosphere also will affect color temperature. That is, as objects approach the horizon, they will cool in chroma, tending toward blue. While we can see that observation rendered in many of the above paintings, a couple of the images from the first set did not appear to take this into account. Furthermore, on clear days with a  midday sun, cast shadows will almost always take on blue hues from skylight. Simply painting a “dark green” shadow without accounting for a shift in color temperature will perpetuate the overly saturated sense of one’s painting.

Even in ideal conditions, like a field in direct sunlight, you will likely discover many colors other than green between the blades of grass. What do you see? A good exercise I like to do is to view a scene and ask, “Do I see any red? Purple? Blue?” etc. Let your eye highlight any objects that so much as suggest changes in temperature or chroma, and then be sure to include those observations in your painting. Depending on your style and tendency toward impressionism, you can push these color changes further, exaggerating them to an exciting result. I’ll leave you with a painting by the master of this technique: Grainstacks in the Sunlight, Midday by Claude Monet.

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