When a painter paints a rugged stone with its edges not touching the frame, the stone is saying, “I am stone — a monument — see me and ponder my presence.”
When a painter paints a sprig of bamboo with its leaves and stalk cropped by the edges with the implication that the subject is continuing on outside the frame, the bamboo is saying, “I am bamboo, but there is more to me than might appear.”
Realizing that composition was more important than reality, both Eastern and Western painting traditions devised remarkably similar cropping “rules”:
— Do not have curved areas or lines tangential with edges. Do not have a lot of small items dribbling along edges. Do not have spiky or angular items pointing too directly at corners. Do not have an even or symmetrical division of elements lying against the frame’s edges.
— Do have a design near the frame edge that has both positive and negative areas. Do vary the thickness of lines and patches that lie against, come up to, or approach those edges. Do have mystery, understatement, softening, incompleteness and wabi-sabi as part of your edge-consciousness.
Traditional Chinese painters grasped the value of cropping and bleeding. While panorama may be humankind’s natural preference, it’s cropping that often gives pictorial spirit. In many cultures a foreground tree or building is used as a foil for what lies beyond. Whether peeking around a corner or viewing through a screen or scrim, it’s the “principle of the window.” With the rise of individual vision and painter personality in both East and West, what was seen through the window was to be modified from what was actually seen. We artists allow others to see through our windows.
Many fine artists and not a few critics think the whole idea of the window is hokey. When shucked and released from its edges, the windowless subject stands alone as its own thing.
PS: “Even in front of nature one must compose.” (Edgar Degas)
Esoterica: To strengthen your work, slowly cruise your eyes along your edges. Ask yourself, is there enough variety? Are there spots that are overly busy, bumpy or boring? Are there too many on- and off-ramps? Do some parts of the trip bog you down or send you skidding off into the neighbor’s art? “Wise travelers,” said the ancient philosopher Lao Tzu, “know their borders.”
It looks to me like many of today’s Chinese masters are leaning away from cropping. In Suzhou, a city of six million, the I.M. Pei-designed museum is currently showing internationally known Liu Dan, whose large drawings of rocks follow the monumental “see me and ponder my presence” category. In a push-and-shove, noisy world, contemplating a drawing of a large, quiet rock floating in a void seems like a good idea. “One may see the way to Heaven,” said Lao Tzu, “without looking through windows.”
by Alan Feltus, Assisi, Italy
Being a figure painter rather than a landscape painter, I would have somewhat different thoughts on cropping. With the figure, if an arm or a leg is cropped at the edge of a painting it can be that the precise shape of that limb has to be such that the limb doesn’t seem to be able to extend beyond the edge in a way that would be too long. In other words, if it is cropped at a point where it has fairly parallel contours it may seem to keep going in our mind when we look at it. Whereas if there is the beginning of a curve — very subtle is enough — the mind continues that curve beyond the picture frame, edge of the painting and it doesn’t keep going and become too long.
Of course, there is Philip Pearlstein whose cropping is consistently random. Or that’s how we see it. He was very involved in composition but he broke the rules of conventional thinking and became known for doing that. With landscape it can be more a problem of making one’s painting not seem randomly cropped because a landscape can so easily be seen as something that extends in all directions beyond the edges. The painter frames a detail of the endless scene.
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Definition of wabi-sabi
by Marion Evamy, Victoria, BC, Canada
We all need a definition for “wabi-sabi” as it pertains to our edge-consciousness… or are you taking artistic license with a new technique and its linguistic description?
(RG note) “Wabi-Sabi is a traditional Japanese idea based on the acceptance of transience. It also means seeing beauty in imperfection, impermanence, incompletion and decay. This sort of beauty can be found both in nature and in man-made things.” (Robert Genn) Here’s a link to the complete letter written on Retsu Wabi-Sabi.
Camera introduced cropping
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
Cropping, to me, means something getting chopped off. The rock drawings of Liu Dan are not cropped. They are iconographic portraits of rocks in the grand tradition of portraiture, in which the subject is front and center, like a Russian icon or George Washington. My pastel Eye & Headlights is my idea of cropping. As Edgar Degas said, “Even in front of nature, one must compose.” But this kind of cropping didn’t occur to artists until the invention of the camera. The human eye doesn’t chop things off, but the camera’s eye does. Degas could not have painted his L’Absinthe before photography. Cropping is a way of introducing mystery to an image. What’s the guy looking at?… The empty area to the left is also mysterious, energetic in its emptiness.
Back in the day I used to do this in a lot in my paintings. The compositional challenge I posed to myself was how to balance something with nothing. I tried to figure out how to crop the main subject, or set it radically off-center, and yet make it feel balanced by the negative space on the other side. After a while this began to feel like a gimmick, and it became just another way to compose a painting. And then I had to learn how to do symmetry again! It’s better to let the image suggest its own cropping — and to try to forget what to “do” and “do not.”
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When in doubt, crop it out
by Sheila Psaledas, ME, USA
This article reminded me of my college days. One of my painting instructors used to say, “If your composition is bothersome, when in doubt, crop it out.” I do sometimes have paintings that I have labored over only to find that I should have spent more time planning my composition.
Power your composition
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Cropping is an important element of painting. In landscape nature is abundant and gives artists more than can be absorbed by the viewer. Cropping is one way to focus the eye, to pick out sections to emphasize. Accent the subject while minimizing what is not important to the picture. Cropping also moves the eye around the canvas. Small multiple shapes can be organized and made into one shape to improve impact of the work. Paintings gain power by composing the elements within the work. Leave off the unessential. Simplify!
In portraiture, the same is true. The subject is placed where it can be most effective. Too big and the impact can be overwhelming, too small and we diminish the importance. Placed too high and we cut off the space needed to frame the subject within the canvas. Painting is more than putting paint on canvas.
Rules and broken rules
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
This was a very interesting letter. Composing is very important to me, but uncomposed as a concept is also an exciting opportunity. It makes a strong point of inviting people into art on their own terms sort to say. As a viewer you can do different things — you can even hang the thing upside down if you like, or crop it yourself. This appeals to me because it’s playful, engaging and inclusive. But it’s not the same thing as just leaving any random painting uncropped or composing it poorly. If there is an attempt of a window, the view should be believable. Similar to this, figurative works that attempt realistic representation of human form should be anatomically believable. But, the concept of intentional anatomical deviations has been used interestingly by many great artists. I guess that every rule has its rule-breaking counterpart which makes art so much fun. Some of the rules that you listed have surely been successfully broken by someone!
Painting without boundaries
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
Recently, I saw a video on Pierre Bonnard‘s 1920-40’s work. What caught my attention was not only his attention to white as the stage for colors’ nuances, his illogical spatial constructs, his works not done from life but filtered through his memory and sketches; but, that he never worked on prestretched canvases. He tacked a long canvas up on the wall where he painted without boundaries. These paintings were only cropped and stretched at the end. How many times, no matter how many preliminary sketches, do I wish there were two more inches.
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Highlight your story
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
One of my first rules for plein air painting is “Edit, Edit, Edit!” As an artist I tend to want to include as much as possible when painting any subject, but with age and discipline I am finally learning to compose. C.W. Mundy says to treat elements in a scene like props in a play. We who paint are playing a similar role to the director of a play. Find your story line, so to speak, and high light that which adds to the message and down play or ignore that which does not. One of the most crucial steps that I teach my students is to take a few moments before diving into a painting and let nature speak to you. Ask yourself, ‘What really draws me to want to paint this particular scene or subject?’ Then remind yourself of that thought as you are painting and create an image that leads your viewer along the same journey.
I once read that you can choose to view a mountain in different ways. One can be from a distant vantage point, i.e. from an airplane flying over or around it. Or you can choose to explore it up close and personal, i.e. hiking and biking along various trails. Both are valid ways to observe and study the mountain. Both will give you different types of information, however, which will result in different, yet valid, viewpoints.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Edward Berkeley of Portland, OR, USA, who wrote, “Pars pro toto is the adage.”
(RG note) Pars pro toto, Latin for “a part (taken) for the whole,” is a figure of speech where the name of a portion of an object or concept represents the entire object or concept. It is distinct from a merism, which is a reference to a whole by an enumeration of parts.
In the context of language, pars pro toto means that something is named after a part of it, or after a limited characteristic, in itself not necessarily representative for the whole. For example, “glasses” is a pars pro toto name for something that consists of more than just two pieces of glass. Source – Wikipedia
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