Here’s an exercise and a challenge. The idea is to take close-up photos of some of the more interesting areas of your work — cropping them off into smaller compositions. My thought is that you might send a few of these to us and I’ll ask Andrew to put up a representative group in a future clickback. If you have the time, give us your thoughts, particularly if you notice something that you didn’t see before.
This exercise can help an artist understand more about his or her personal style, mannerisms and “signature.” As well as having a compositional diagnostic, you enter the informative world of the “post-creative revised aspect.” In most cases you need to set your camera on close-up. You’ll surprise yourself at how delicious some areas are — how you were on top of your form or in control. You might just surprise yourself with hitherto unnoticed spots of beauty, as well as mysterious flashes of energy that you didn’t know were there. You’ll also discover how a conceived composition is often not as interesting as are some of its isolated parts. If you’re into this, it’s great for your self esteem too. I’ll swear on a stack of vintage Robert Henri books that when you give yourself a slide show you’ll say, “Goodness, I’m great.”
The quality of your photography is part of the exercise. Glare-free shots are to be had with vertical placement — generally in open shade on a bright day. If it’s through glass, get a dark area behind you and wear dark clothing. Impasto bits can be rake-lit for extra texture. Edges can be determined by the viewfinder or by cropping later with Photoshop or an exacto blade. The viewfinder is a moving window through which you may gently travel over your work. Sit down, be there, and make an art of cruising.
Creativity coach Eric Maisel has pointed out, “A composition is an arrangement, built out of parts, that aims at seamlessness.” Trouble is, we often fail at that seamlessness — particularly if we’re the experimental type. It’s part of the game. With cropping, a new integrity appears and winning abstractions flutter up like butterflies. The secret of this, or any form of second-generation looking, is to talk yourself into being somebody other than yourself. In this “otherbody” you can afford to be critical, discriminating, innocent, open minded, charmed, beguiled or bamboozled.
PS: “More things are wrought by cropping than this world dreams of.” (Joe Blodgett)
Esoterica: Recently, a dealer phoned and asked if I had any really small paintings kicking around — 6 x 9 inches, 8 x 10 inches, etc. I didn’t, but I told him I would have a look. Very shortly I found myself slicing a few good bits out of larger, less satisfactory ones. I mounted these canvas chunks with acrylic medium onto precut plywood panels. After overnight drying under slight pressure, I knifed off the surplus, signed and framed the little darlings and set them under the light. When the dealer came in he was pretty well salivating. He took them all. “Why,” I said to myself, “can’t I do compositions like this all the time?”
Cropping for Dummies
by Heather Matthews, Qualicum Beach, Canada
A few years ago I gave a series of ‘Creativity Classes.’ These consisted of various multi-media art and craft exercises and explorations for absolute beginners, women who had never so much as held a paint brush or crayon since the fourth grade! Each class focused on a different medium. We worked with paint, pencil, oil pastel, ripped paper collage, glue — you get the picture. The projects were small so that they could be completed in each 3-hour class, usually on an 8 x 10 inch piece of mat board. In every case, my ‘students’ would laugh and kid each other about their terrible work… and most of it was awful — the whole point was to explore and have fun. But at the end of each class I would take a small oval cut mat — the opening about 3 x 5 inches — and crop everyone’s work in an interesting place. Every time the room would fall silent as a piece of real beauty was revealed. It was like magic. Many of those little gems ended up getting framed and hanging on the artists’ walls, as a reminder that we all have art within us. It was wonderful.
Seamlessness means no edges
by Clyde Steadman, Denver, CO, USA
I always look forward to your letters; they often show me a new way of thinking of the things we do. However, Mr. Maisel’s quote struck me as simply wrong. My compositions are organized out of shapes, values, edges, and colors. The interactions of these elements are “seams.” In fact, “edges” is practically a synonym of “seams.” I cannot think of any normal use of the word “seam” in which it is not an element of my compositions.
(Andrew Niculescu note) The quote Clyde is referring to is, “A composition is an arrangement, built out of parts, that aims at seamlessness.” (Eric Maisel)
by Peter Ciccariello, Providence, RI, USA
This image for me reflects our personal journeys to locate or re-discover those people, places, and inner landscapes that we all have lost through time, distance and tragedy.
Your simple exercise gave me a welcomed opportunity to revisit this theme on a closer, more introspective level. My recent work has settled into an almost archaeological inquiry, as if by deconstructing and dismantling an image one can arrive at some sort of possible understanding of the subject. The cropping and selecting of a close-up image reflects the larger compositional thinking that formed the original image.
In analyzing these close-ups, you find a new, smaller world of chance compositions and a fresh new appreciation for detail and texture. As this is a native digital image, it reveals additional useful information about resolution, layers, opacity and translucency.
My current related photographic work has also focused on these attributes, as well as experimenting with unexpected optic effects by using unusual, trash or found lenses especially in macro situations.
Finding oneself, as in “Finding Troy”, entails an introspective journey that brings us closer and closer, layer after layer, revealing finally the base layers that make us what we are. You are correct about the parts containing the “spirit,” or “signature” of the whole, which seems true, also, of most of life. Composition, an arbitrary, inexact process at best, appears to be guided best by intuition and chance rather than science.
Peter Ciccariello Experimental Photography
Cropping with lots of photos
by Carol Ubben, Mount Morris, IL, USA
This was a fun exercise… paintings in paintings. I do spend a lot of time “cropping” images before I paint them… sometimes I take more than 50 photos of something before I get the view I want. Nevertheless, no matter how hard I try to get everything “right” I always find something wrong when I finally get to the business of painting it. I guess it’s because no matter how much time you spend studying something, painting it gives you a totally different understanding of it.
Carol Ubben Cropping Examples
This picture is part of a cactus which is part of a still life with an Indian and all kinds of other “stuff”…
Colour comes first
by Annette Waterbeek, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
This image was cropped with the viewfinder and macro lens. My first thought was color when I took the shot. After the download: Shape, Value, Placement, Foreground, Background, Importance and Support. My strongest response is still my first: color.
by Jamie Gray, Calgary, AB, Canada
I tried this with some photos of glass I’ve done and it was an interesting exercise. Trying to determine what to crop, how much, whether to crop from an area attractive for colour or an area attractive for shape (or, in fact, ignoring the obviously beautiful bits and going for something that might be more mundane like a base) — very interesting. I’ve attached three photos, all of glass. I like the little reflections that show up, ordinarily ignored in the face of the larger picture. These little shots of light seem to form a landscape of their own, part of and yet quite separate from the overall larger design. Thanks for the challenge.
Jamie Gray Cropping Examples
Eyes opened wider
by Jillian Penney
This was fun. Thanks. What surprised me was how much more pleased I am with them, now that they’re standing on their own. Perhaps it’s because I was drawn to photograph my favourite parts. Perhaps because in my head they can’t really be isolated from the original whole. (I am forgetful, but not that bad!) But whatever the reason, it has been a very valuable exercise. My eyes have been opened a little wider.
Jillian Penney Cropping Examples
Making a statement
by Cherie Hanson, Kelowna, BC, Canada
One of the reasons that digital art has become a passion for me is that it allows the deconstruction/ reconstruction of an image to infuse it more exactly with what captured my eye in the first place. Is the image revised or is it presented more truly? What is known from studies on perception is that there is no “seen” object. So much of what is “of self” informs perception that the image becomes lifeless unless it is a statement about the act of perception. I frequently crop my pictures to make a statement about line, shifting planes, textures. In this image I was impressed with how the light burn across the cement was so like the texture of my jeans… so all else is removed except the concentration on the texture. Bringing up contrast and applying filters does not “change” the image but rather allows me to present to others that which I have observed.
by Rosemarie Manson, Smithfield, RI, USA
In our watercolor class, our teacher has exposed us to delicious cropping. It is exciting to know that small compositions are hidden in the big picture. Hopefully, what we achieve ‘by accident’ will help us become more aware of our innate abilities and thus help us develop better skills. Below are an original, done on Yupo paper with watercolor, and three croppings. I scan my work and then play with cropping using Adobe Photoshop.
Rosemarie Manson Cropping Examples
Assortment of mats for a treasure hunt
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada
This cropping exercise is one I do regularly with my students. The last class is a group critique and when a painting is not working well and the student is discouraged (in spite of my attempts to focus on the positive) I bring out a vast assortment of mats and see if we can find a part of the painting that is worth framing. It’s amazing how one can sometimes find two or three small paintings that are quite effective within one larger painting that has gone wrong. I have also framed and sold small paintings taken from larger ones myself. This generally happens with those experimental paintings I do during the summer or Christmas holidays, when I throw caution and planning to the wind and just mess around. The lack of planning usually means the composition is not great but the energy and excitement often create lovely passages that can be “discovered.” The two art groups I belong to have both adopted a tradition of exchanging tiny matted paintings at our Christmas pot-luck, so early December is my time to bring out the problem paintings and the mats for a treasure hunt. I do sometimes discover delicious things that motivate me to move in a new direction.
Blown up image a revelation
by Sylvio Gagnon, Ottawa, ON, Canada
Your cropping exercise is very worth while and educative. It trains the eye for better composition and simplification. Also makes us focus on the essential. More importantly, for those who find it heart breaking to part with their work, it can turn rejects into keepers. Every two years or so my wife nags me about cleaning up the studio and getting rid of the rejects. But before I put the exacto knife to the “croûtes” I examine each painting to see if a section can be salvaged and maybe eternalized in a frame. Surprisingly, I would say that about 50% of the time I can recuperate at least one little painting. It might be one or more 5″ x 7″s or a medium size 16″ x 20″. The original uncut reject sizes are no less than 16″ x 20″. The idea came to me years ago when I examined my paintings with a magnifying glass and discovered that by viewing the blown up image I could travel in a wonderful world of amazing colours. Similarly, a close up detail of a larger painting often reveals those special moments of genius that Robert Henri talks about during the execution of the painting. I call them my little gems. And they become keepers. A recycling project that pays off. Now I understand the fraudulent scheme of selling 2 or 3 Jacksons from one original piece. To prevent such fraud I inscribe the size on the back of all my paintings.
Sylvio Gagnon Recuperated Art
Chaotic compositions that make sense
by Nicoletta Baumeister, BC, Canada
A student asked me yesterday, “Is it necessary for a composition to be balanced to be good?” After going over symmetrical, asymmetrical and occult balance, we talked about purpose. If the goal of the work is to be distressing, a balanced composition may not be effective. If a composition is seamless as your quote would suggest, can it also be full of tension, surprise, perhaps even distressing, ugly or shocking? What composition tools has an artist to use to bring to surface these sensations? I am finding more and more work today, particularly in design, that is not balanced, not seamless, not contextually correct, not paradigm consistent — that is rock your socks brilliant. The urban world at least is full of chaotic compositions that seem to make sense in a way that earlier decades and centuries could never have imagined.
by Max Elliott, Banff, AB, Canada
A few years ago the Alpine Club of Canada Gazette accidentally printed one of my glacier paintings upside down; I was delighted to see that the composition not only worked — it may actually have been improved by the inversion. One reader pointed out that the sky had become water, and the ice, talus. Elements that I thought had weight and movement before had become fully animated, until it didn’t even really matter what was what. The process of art-making is full of happy accidents — what fun!
Max Elliott Cropping Examples
Knowing what’s outside the border
by Cay D MacKenzie
I am reminded of a class I took earlier this year with quilt artist, Jane Sassaman. One of her points was that in a photograph (e.g. of part of a garden), the person looking at the photo knows there is more of that garden than captured in the photo. In that way, you can crop an art piece you’re working on and the viewer will know there is more to it than what is captured within the boundary of the piece.
In her class, I was working with a floral image as inspiration… though not with the intention of creating a likeness of the image. In the attached photo, the fabric elements have been mixed and the piece cropped by strips of white paper. When I look at this photo, I know there are parts of the piece that run outside the border (in fact — you can see some of them). After this cropping exercise, all the fabric pieces outside the white strips of paper were cut away so that only the image inside the white strips remained.
Cropping an art piece through photography is a great way of altering the image without affecting the original, noticing detail that might otherwise be lost or overlooked, and seeing more of a piece’s possibilities.
Off With Their Heads!
by Diane Mann, Los Angeles, CA, USA
In an article called Off With Their Heads!, artist Susan Avishai comments on how and why she came to do this type of work. Here’s an excerpt:
“I gathered up the courage to bring some of my drawings to Carl Belz (then curator of the Rose Museum at Brandeis University) to critique. He had a reputation for a shrewd eye and he welcomed artists stopping by. After scrutinizing a silverpoint rendering of a woman wearing a silk camisole, he covered her head with his hand and said boldly, “There’s your drawing.” By hiding the head, he removed her expression of coyness, and turned the narrative of a seductive woman into a study of a body influencing a fabric, which is what I had wanted all along.
“You’re too good at expression,” he said to me. “Stop trying to tell a story. If heads and hands are leading you astray, lop ’em off!”
Susan Avishai Fine Art
Will Wilson An Arrangement details
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Lobo, who wrote, “I thought of a workshop I attended a couple years ago… the artist very obligingly cut up several paintings for the benefactor so they would fit into specific spaces she had on her walls. The “new” paintings were just fine!”
And also Barbara Kerr who wrote, “You are right on target with the cropping idea. I do watercolors and put many away in my closet, then bring them out for further review. The second look often results in nice, little pieces. Cheaper to mail to my out-of-state galleries, too!”
And also Gene Black who wrote, “So often a large piece will be mediocre yet will have smaller pieces with wonderful composition and color. A feeling of amazement and joy fills the spirit when you find those little gems in a painting that was destined for the “recycle bin” (which in my case is the file of paintings to be gessoed over and used again).”
And also Melissa Brown who wrote, “Two of my favorite teachers said that each part of a great painting should in itself be a great painting. In every landscape, should reside jewels of abstract art waiting to be discovered.”
And also Leah Dunaway who wrote, “To streamline the cropping process… go to computer or disc files of photos of your work, open them in Adobe Photoshop (or whatever graphics software you have), zoom in on any part of an image, crop and print.”