Up there on the scaffold we have Michelangelo shouting, “Form, form, form!” And then there’s Gustave Flaubert writing in French, “Art is nothing without form.” These commands might have you think form is everything. It is, just about. Here are a few ideas perhaps worth considering:
In portrait work, John Singer Sargent tried to find the facial form in the first few minutes and if he didn’t, he scraped it off and started over. Sometimes, for him, finding a likeness took a dozen scrapings. This effort contrasts with the more common practice of getting a face just about right, then massaging it into a better one. Trouble is, it usually goes the other way and gets worse.
Steeped in eternal mystery, this phenomenon has dogged painters throughout history, and there are probably tens of thousands being dogged by it right this very minute. Chilling thought.
Painters are well advised to render focal areas (such as faces) with high attention to form. Like Sargent, take it slowly and carefully at first. Even in the early stages of abstract work, painterly laziness is out of the question. Funnily, those Sargent faces are more the product of a scientific processing of shapes than as an exercise of born genius. “Catching” something like a likeness is gaining understanding of the distances between things rather than the lines around.
Teeth are not individual incisors and bicuspids; they are a curve of relative whiteness set in relationship to a uniquely formed facial opening.
Eyes are not eyeliner or colourful irises. They are dimensional sockets of significance in mystery and meaning.
Why all this talk about form in portraiture? Because every work we perform has a face or a focus. It’s generally called the “centre of interest.” This focus can be a tree, a Precambrian boulder, a horse, a barn or a goldfinch. Artists are well advised to determine this focal point and put some effort into its rendition.
Then, happily, even goofily, they can take a cue from Sargent and put all manner of formlessness, suggestion and illusion into the surround. Big surprise and benefit here: Form floating on formlessness takes on more form.
PS: “When the whole and the parts are seen at once, as mutually producing and explaining each other, as unity in multeity, there results shapeliness.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
Esoterica: Now think for a minute of situations where known forms have been abstracted or otherwise manipulated. Though some of those forms may appear strange, they may lead us to believe in their possibilities. Is this not part of the artist’s job as well? “An illustrational form,” said Francis Bacon, “tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact.”
Intersection of the thirds
by Brenda Swenson, South Pasadena, CA, USA
Many artists don’t know what the “centre of interest” is, in their sketch or painting. If the artist doesn’t know, neither will the viewer! The next item of concern is the placement of the center of interest. It is best to not place it in extreme corners, dead center, to high, or to low. What does this leave us with? We have a formula that has been used by artists for centuries, based on mathematical principals called “intersection of the thirds.” This simple principle creates a well balanced composition. You divide the paper into thirds, (either visually or with light pencil line), horizontally and vertically. You then locate the center of interest at or near the points where the lines intersect. The area that contains your center of interest should contain the greatest amount of contrast, color and detail. This works with all formats, landscape, portrait, square and panorama.
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What would John do?
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
Whenever I hear that Sargent did it this way, I must stop and take it seriously. I’ve been thinking how this might apply to my abstract expressionist painting. Usually, we work in a very generalized and organic way waiting to see what the painting will tell us to do. Finally, as the work develops we begin confirming marks and shapes and revamping colors. It would be quite deadly to get too detailed on what seemed to be the main issue before the whole composition was formulated. That said, I might just give this idea a try and see where it could lead. If it’s good enough for Sargeant, it’s good enough for Soffer.
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Getting faces right
by Gregg Hangebrauck, Wildwood, IL, USA
I paint more figurative and mostly all portraits, and as Robert said the dogging happens more often than not. There are times when you get it just right the first time, but most often you have to keep adjusting. Mouths are the worst for me. I have a hell of a time with them. Just one little distance, or placement of a tooth, or curve of a lip can literally make you want to jump out the studio window. It is important to be very close in reference to the model in the beginning which leaves you much freer with the periphery later on in the painting. My clients look at the faces. The rest of the painting is subordinate.
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by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
Actually, scraping out and re-painting vital areas is a good sign for me, and the more times I scrutinize the object of my desire, and ruthlessly scrape out an awkwardly proportioned limb, or chin, the better I feel about my painting as a whole. Especially in the beginning, where scraping out is effortless and virtually invisible, and mistakes in structure a faulty foundation on which to build a solid painting. But that would be in oils. Quick drying acrylic would be a more lengthy proposition. Still, I’ve had oils that had dried before I noticed something “off’ and I’ve done some major scraping and sanding.
The human figure seems to become the focal point of my recent work, but it’s interesting to attack a group of figures swirling around brightly colored objects with themselves in different colors. I haven’t used the figure in my paintings for forty years, so it’s a revelation to see how they animate a vibrant landscape. It is so exciting to try a new subject! But yes, if I get a limb too long or a chin too short, it doesn’t matter how brightly colored the robes or how large the crowd is that I’m painting, the errant limb must go!
It’s so funny you honed in on that part of the letter quoted in the last clickback from the perceptive comments of Miss Heynemann regarding Sargent because it really stood out like a jewel of knowledge. I was busy forwarding the whole letter/clickback to several artists and even printed it out myself to post next to my easel. The downside of all the scraping and sanding is that it’s still easy to overwork a painting and lose the fresh spontaneous stroke. Speed is the essence and confidence is a must, even if you don’t feel confident. Rhythm needs to be kept, in a slow swingy loose sort of way, which is why music is a must for me.
What about the divide?
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
I’m curious, Robert, as to what you think about the “divide” between artists and illustrators. It seems that in the not so distant past there was a tremendous divide between those who created art for strictly an aesthetic purpose, and those who created art (all sorts, even pottery, quilts, other “crafts”) for a commercial purpose. Illustrators, such as Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, and Robert Bateman, who is a fine artist but also seen as an illustrator, are deemed to somehow not be worthy of gallery space in the nation’s high art galleries. Why? My way of looking at what they do is that they need like any artist, to plan and use imagination to create their works. They have to be inspired, heck, Norman Rockwell designed his spreads carefully, planning them, photographing the subject material and then executing them with incredible skill. Same obviously, with N.C. But somehow he wasn’t in the same league as Rothko or Jasper Johns. I don’t get it. What am I missing here?
(RG note) Thanks, Karen. Sensitive eyes have always seen quality, unsullied by influence and dreams of investment potential, tax relief and perceived immortality through public gallery placement. There will always be people with more money than taste, many of them intellectuals. Wheeler dealers in cahoots with the published critic subculture fill this void. The phenomenon keeps art on edge and open to the possibilities of the new, but has little to do with what makes many evolved artists tick.
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Drawing between the fingers
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Back when the earth was cooling and I was in Art School, I took figure drawing and anatomical drawing classes religiously. When it comes to form, there is nothing like working with the human figure and a live model. I was having a terrible time with drawing the models’ hands and one day my instructor told me to be sure to not only draw the hand, but the form between the fingers. It was interesting to suddenly see the other side of the form and work backwards from there. I always draw on that lesson when I am drawing something and trying to make it work.
by Duncan Long, Manhattan, KS, USA
Since I was a child, I have had a crazy dream of getting a picture on a cover of a pulp science fiction magazine. Strange dream, I know. But after several years of being inspired by Painter’s Keys and many years of honing my craft, I finally submitted a portfolio to Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and — I’m happy to announce — have an illustration appearing on the Dec. 2009 issue. Dreams do come true. Thanks so much for the inspiration Painter’s Keys brings. You can’t imagine how much you and your contributors motivate and inspire some of who tend toward being overly cautious and insecure.
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How to find the time
by Blu Rivard, Rolling Hills, CA, USA
I thank you for all that you share, inspire, and help other artists understand that they are not alone in the many compromising situations that we all face as artists. But the real reason I am writing this is to ask how you find the time to travel, paint and share these incredible experiences?
(RG note) Thanks, Blu. As an intrinsically challenged ditherer and natural-born procrastinator, I just keep pencilling in near and distant wishes, and then, for some reason, they come around and they often happen.
What is form?
by Sebastian Koh
I will be forever grateful if you will spare a few moments to explain to me what the term ‘form’ means in art. I have struggled with it for years. I do not ask for a profound philosophical discussion. (For example, in an article, Form in the History of Aesthetics, Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz stated: The history of aesthetics reveals at least five different meanings of form. None of the lengthy elaborations helped me very much.) I simply want to know what exactly did you mean by saying ‘Sargent tried to find the facial form in the first few minutes’? More generally what did Flaubert mean that art is nothing without form? Is it possible for a painting, say, to be without form? It may be aesthetically poor but can one paint without form?
I grew up in Far East. Therefore ‘chi or qi’ seems to be a very natural concept to me. In the West many are puzzled by it. Indeed, more often than not, artists poke fun of this concept. For me, form is every bit as mysterious as chi if not more puzzling.
(RG note) Thanks, Sebastian. My understanding of form is the rendering through light, shade and other devious means, to create the illusion and heft of three-dimensionality. Lots of art does not contain this, but many of the Western classicists demanded it. When placed within a picture plane, the eyes of many cultures are attracted to the illusion of form. Like the noble concept of “chi” it’s a figment of the imagination. ‘Within the first few minutes’ refers to the curious phenomenon that likeness is often found in the first few strokes and is gradually lost as another part of the artist’s brain begins to take charge and dominate over the first understanding. Flaubert had a lot of strong and somewhat rigid ideas and a penchant for exactitude. He thought there were rules for just about everything. While examples of formlessness in painting are today endemic, form is still a valuable commodity and ought to be treated with respect.
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Form in writing
by Jack Friesen
The poet Robert Frost said, “Let cloud shapes swarm, Let chaos storm, I wait for form.” He was using the idea of form as a way to add concrete format to an art that has the potential to wander off in all directions. Form is as much organization as it is rounding things out. Those of us who write know all too well that without form there is only chaos and that clouds of formlessness eventually obfuscate, and while the material that sort of looks like writing may be interesting for a while, it doesn’t have lasting value.
Market Day, Florence
oil painting by
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Enjoy the past comments below for On finding form…