Cropping and not cropping

Dear Artist, 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. Best regards, Robert 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.”   Liu Dan

“Scholar’s Rock 1”
ink on paper, 80 x 65 inches, 2007


“Scholar’s Rock 2”
ink on paper, 80 x 47.6 inches, 2012


ink on paper, 2007


“Ink Landscape”
ink on paper, 1991


ink on paper 80 x 65 inches, 2007


“Taihu Rock from Jiemei Studio”
ink on paper 110 x 68 inches, 2006


ink on paper 63 x 54.5 inches, 2011


“Strange Rock”
ink on paper 73 x 37 inches, 2005

              Cropping figures by Alan Feltus, Assisi, Italy  

“Wine and Words”
oil painting
by Alan Feltus

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. There are 3 comments for Cropping figures by Alan Feltus
From: Don Cadoret — May 31, 2013

Wine and Words is quite fine! Cropping, to me, is all about composition also and espEcially effective the way you employ this important tool.

From: Sharon Knettell — May 31, 2013

Love that painting. A modern take on the figurative that is well done and designed.

From: Sharon Knettell — May 31, 2013

Wow! I just took a very brief look at your work- I will have more time later. Brilliant! And for those who know me- I rarely say that. Will look at your paintings more in depth later. It is hard to find really good figurative work today -maybe because we are ‘flooded’ with formaldehyde sharks.

  Definition of wabi-sabi by Marion Evamy, Victoria, BC, Canada  

“My muse”
acrylic painting
by Marion Evamy

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  

“Eye & Headlights”
pastel painting
by Warren Criswell

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.

“L’Absinthe” 1873
oil painting, 36 x 27 inches
by Edgar Degas

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.”     There are 2 comments for Camera introduced cropping by Warren Criswell
From: Anonymous — May 31, 2013
From: Mishcka — May 31, 2013

Warren, excellent!

  When in doubt, crop it out by Sheila Psaledas, ME, USA  

“Sea path”
oil painting
by Sheila Psaledas

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  

“Late Afternoon”
oil painting
by Rick Rotante

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  

“Autumn Gold”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

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  

mixed media painting
by Louise Francke

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.   There is 1 comment for Painting without boundaries by Louise Francke
From: Mishcka — May 31, 2013

I love this painting! I went to your website hoping to see more in this abxstract style. While your work on the website is utterly charming there is nothing of this kind of work. ???

  Highlight your story by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

“Mary Lou’s Garden in May”
oil painting
by Diane Overmyer

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. There is 1 comment for Highlight your story by Diane Overmyer
From: Sylvia — May 31, 2013

Delightful painting!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Cropping and not cropping

From: Sridhar Ramasami — May 27, 2013
From: Rick Rotante — May 29, 2013

Cropping is an important element of painting. In landscape nature is abundant and gives artist’s 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 they 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.

From: Anonymous — May 30, 2013

Robert I hope one day you will enlighten us with your views about physically cropping (cutting to a smaller size) an already finished painting. And then offering the smaller parts for sale. In watercolors, this is commonly and easily done – but I’m not sure if it’s a legitimate practice. Would love to hear your thoughts – and from others – on this. Perhaps you have covered this topic in a past letter?

From: Anon — May 30, 2013
From: Mike Barr — May 30, 2013

I re-crop all the time and it can transform a painting. We’ve got to remember that we are the boss of the paintings we produce and can do anything with them!

From: Oksanna Crawley — May 30, 2013

I visited China in 1973 when the only type of art allowed was art that celebrated Communism. As a novice, I would really like some illustrations to show me what you are describing about what we should and shouldn’t do with edges. Just a suggestion.

From: George Vernon — May 30, 2013
From: Andre Satie — May 30, 2013

I often like to put in an overhanging branch and a patch of shadow in the foreground. It gives the viewer (me) a place to stand, so to speak, and I can feel that I’m inside the picture.

From: Margery Friedlander — May 30, 2013

When I went to see the Warriors we were not allowed to take photos (and one person in our group had her video camera confiscated so the guards could remove the film from her camera!). Can I assume that the pictures you displayed were purchased from their souvenir store?

From: Shirley Apple Jenkins — May 31, 2013

Thank you for your informative blogs. Your last article is timely for me since my grandson is an American exchange student in Xi’an. I teach watercolor classes and enjoy sharing your blog with the students. Please continue.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — May 31, 2013

The subjects of cropping and scholars’ rocks led me to look up the word “outcropping.” Layers of rock or other substances that emerge from another, different substance. Crops are grown to be cropped? I will stop now.

From: Chow En — May 31, 2013

Everyone your letter printed out and translate our class into Chinese for language study as well as art study. Handed to everyone it give look into some ideas about paint life. Thank you for this chance writing you in English another language.

From: Marvin Humphrey — May 31, 2013
From: Laura — May 31, 2013

It’s wonderful to see Chinese artists starting to participate in Painter’s Keys! This couldn’t have been possible just recently. Welcome!

From: Dennis — Jun 01, 2013

This is such valuable material. Watching my fellow artists at workshops and plein air sessions, I often notice their tendency to let their subjects fall short of the edges–or, worse still, have subjects come up to edges and stop there. I’ve found a framing box to look through a fine device that allows me to get control of edges and crop properly.

From: Charles Kronenberg — Jun 01, 2013
From: sally pollard — Jun 02, 2013
From: Jacob Staub — Jun 02, 2013

I do my paintings and often crop afterwards. Cropping almost always improves my compositions. Trouble is, it makes for odd sizes.

From: sally pollard — Jun 02, 2013

Among my artist friends it is the water colorists and people who work on paper who physically crop the most freely. I would say it would be better to plan the composition better to start with rather than cutting it later. However one friend uses collage/ mixed media and cropping her final piece is just part of the process.

From: penny mackenzie — Jun 05, 2013

Thank you Robert for providing such an inspirational and thoughtful site for artists of all levels to share, challenge, and learn from each other. Just one session has so many layers…….

  Featured Workshop: Brian Keeler 053113_robert-genn Brian Keeler workshops Held in Italy   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.      woa


acrylic painting by Lorraine Duncan

  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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