Monday, July 02, 2018

Painting Composition

I've been following the Norwegian artist Nick Alm for a couple of years now.  Nick is a young guy who is a phenomenal figure painter.  There's a lot to look at in his paintings: his compositions, his use of light and dark, the way he paints the figure, his skin tones, the way he paints (or doesn't paint) backgrounds, the expressions of his people, and on and on.  This time, I'm going to take a look at a painting he just posted called "Cafe Scene".

Quick notes on terminology: "warm" colors are those in the red to yellow range; "cools" are blues and greens.  Not only that, but warm and cool are really only warmer or cooler than the colors around them.  "Value" refers to the lightness or darkness of a color.  A high-value area is one that's light, a low-value area is one that's dark.

Cafe Scene, oil on canvas, 47"x43"
Nick Alm

Click on the image for a larger view - please, it's worth it.

This painting is fairly large at 47"x43".  There are a lot of figures (12), all of them exceptionally well-rendered.  Now, the subject matter of a bunch of people sitting around drinking wine, and not having a particularly good time of it, doesn't float my boat.  Doesn't matter: look at how beautifully this thing is put together.  Squint and you'll see that the lower left is basically one large dark cool area, the top third is a cool mid-value gray, and the figures form a warm, light arch going from the lower right towards the upper left.  It's a very dynamic composition of light/dark and warm/cool even without recognizable figures and objects.

The arc formed by the figures is reinforced by the three tables.  Here again is a warm/cool balance: the warm figures against the cool tables.  The tables are all horizontal while the figures are vertical, except for maybe the girl at the peak who's apparently about to jump out of the guy's arms.  And each of the tables has a horizontal dish on it, with the tables and dishes in the upper left and lower right going off their respective edges.

Now look at the light, mid-value, and dark areas.  If this was a real cafe, everybody's clothes would be all different colors and values.  Alm tied the colors and values together so that they guide the eye.  The people in the dark area of the canvas are all wearing clothes that are pretty much the same color, a dark muted blue.  The mens' jackets are the same color, while the woman with her back to us is wearing a dress of essentially the same color, only lighter and bluer.  Her dress's specific color is echoed in the ties of the two men on the left side of the canvas.  The woman in the middle of the composition is wearing a dress of, again, the same basic color, only lighter and more muted.  The woman in the lower right is wearing a dress that is also the same basic color, only still lighter and more muted, but it transitions toward her shoulders toward a warmer color.  Then the outfits of the two women, the standing man, and woman are all warm tones, very similar in color.  They're all set against a background that is a neutral gray that is based on the very same colors used in the dark area.  

Over the past few years, I've become more of a proponent of using a limited palette of colors.  Alm's use of a very limited palette here shows how it can be used to help hold a painting together.

You can see how even the skin tones help guide the eye.  The skin tones are all warm against a cooler background, but he uses darker and paler tones to focus attention.  Look at the guy on the far left: he's darker and the skin colors are muted.  The gentleman next to him is also dark, but his color is a bit stronger, with a bit more variation between the lightest and darkest areas.  The angle of his head picks up the angle on the young lady's dress as it goes over her shoulder.  Her skin tones are very light on her shoulder and neck, but look at how dark her elbow is.  Most painters I know (including me) would not have made that strong a value contrast, but it's the right call here.  The woman next to her, with the light brown hair, also has light skin, but Alm covers up her shoulders so that they don't pull attention away from the other young woman.  Plus, her light brown hair does not present a strong value contrast against her skin, while the woman with her back to us has almost black hair against very pale skin.  The woman on the far right is not one of the focal points in the composition, so even though she's the closest person to the viewer, her skin colors are not as strong as others in the painting, and the light/dark range is smaller.  The woman whose head is sharply turned actually has the strongest coloring of all in the painting.  Her cheeks and lips have more red than anybody else's, which helps draw the eye to her.  

Another detail that Alm uses to guide the eye is, well, detail.  Alm uses details only in the figures that are most important: the man at the table, the girl in the blue dress, the woman with light brown hair, the woman whose head is sharply turned, the man who is holding up the celebrating girl, and of course the girl raising the glass.  And those figures are only detailed in the places where the details contribute to the story.  Look at the woman whose head is turned, for example: her face is detailed and the light/dark contrast of her eye tells us to look the way she's looking.  The man in the light suit is slightly detailed around the face and hair, but also the arm of the coat, just enough to show he's lifting her.  By contrast, look at his left shoulder: his jacket just bleeds off into the background.  The woman in the lower right?  She's closest to us, but the details aren't as apparent here because Alm doesn't want you spending much time on her.  Yes, her face is developed, but the paint strokes have generally softer edges, and her eyes are almost closed, so we don't look there.  

Speaking of detail, look at the background.  You get the idea that these people are in a room with a column on the left and a mural on the right.  But look at the wall: it's really just paint slammed onto the canvas with thick, juicy brush strokes.  The "column" is just a couple of vertical lines.  The "mural" is a slight bit of yellow and maybe burnt umber, slammed in at the same time the wall was done.  The looseness of the paint handling here tells your eye that (a) it's a wall and (b) nothing to see here, move along.  

I could go on.  Look at the wine glasses: all three that are being held are tilted at almost the same angle.  Look at how the edges of shapes are very sharp in some areas (where they're important) and almost non-existent in others (where they're not).  Look at where the colors are strong and where they're muted.  Look at how the direction of the light is consistent throughout the painting.  Alm had to have used photo references to put this together, since all the figures are anatomically perfect, but he had to have carefully staged each individual to get the photos he needed.

Bottom line: this painting is brilliantly put together.  The specific storyline means little to me, but I don't care: I could study this painting for a long, long time and still see something new in it.  I've done some paintings that are complex enough to require a lot of time spent on studies and putting lots of bits together.  But, in those, I see now that I was painting each item as a separate "thing".  I wasn't tying them together into broader shapes, or using detail to guide the eye, or even paying much attention to edges.  So now I want to put together a more complex painting using some of these techniques and see what happens.  Wish me luck!

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