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7. The Three Amigos

James McMullan writing for the NY Times

Originally published October 28, 2010, this is the seventh in a series.

There is something particularly satisfying about setting up objects for a still life painting. It's like a little world that you control. First you get to choose the inhabitants - maybe a vase, some flowers, a weird gourd, a plastic Mickey Mouse, your baby shoes - and then you get to move them around like a potentate.

Of course, this opportunity to combine a mélange of objects can lead to a too-complicated visual mess. There are a few fundamental decisions to make before you start a still life: deciding on how many elements to include, how to arrange them so that they overlap in a good way and how to position the objects to create not only a satisfying aggregate shape, but also ensure that the negative space is interesting.

© The Estate of Alice Neel, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York Alice Neel's "Symbols (Doll and Apple)," c.1933 Paul Cézanne

© The Estate of Alice Neel, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York Alice Neel's "Symbols (Doll and Apple)," c.1933
Below: Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne

We have many models in the history of art to help us think about still lifes. Cezanne and his apples immediately leaps to mind. His art, like the painting I include here, demonstrates how to build a complex but harmonious arrangement. Thinking of still lifes that are a bit more quirky, I show an early painting by Alice Neel that is full of strange psychological emanations. Some contemporary artists, like Wayne Thiebaud , arrange their objects in grid-like patterns. This style of echoing modern mass production dispenses with the old idea of compositional charm altogether. Many artists have chosen to paint still lifes simply to represent some idea of beauty rather than to make any particular narrative point, yet even the most "neutral" painting of apples or roses tends to suggest the abundance of life or its transitory nature. Too, the relationship of objects in a still life almost inevitably brings to mind the relative status or kind of connection that the objects have with one another.

The doll at the center of Neel's painting dominates the apples and the glove, whereas the three apples in the bowl in the Cezanne seem protected by both the bowl and the drapery, and guarded by the two outlying apples. I may be making more of a point about the implications that arise out of still lifes than perhaps Cezanne or the other artists ever intended, but I do it to show that the choice and arrangement of objects in a still life is less neutral and more interesting than you might have expected.

Although I am specifically dealing with the idea of a simple still life here, the issues of the relative scale of elements, what goes in the foreground or the background, the rhythm of shapes and the effect of light and shade would be as pertinent to a composition of figures in an interior or a landscape, in fact any kind of complex image you can imagine.

James McMullan | New York Times | Three Amigos

James McMullan

I have chosen three objects: a dark glass vase, a bowl with apples and a cream pitcher. I will paint these objects in five different arrangements to show how the objects can overlap each other gracefully and how each arrangement affects the proportions of the picture, the negative space and the character of the objects' relationships.

James McMullan | New York Times | Three Amigos

James McMullan

In the photograph of the objects the vase is in the center, and even though the effect is of a school lineup, the vase is definitely the tall student in the class, and, despite the curves, possibly a bully or a mean girl. The arrangement is satisfyingly symmetrical and the rectangle of the picture is spacious enough to hold the three elements comfortably. In the painting just above, I have moved the vase to the left, possibly the head of the school line, and made some adjustments to the picture. I moved the white cloth that the objects sit on so that it cuts the foreground at an angle, roughly echoing the angle of the slant of light in the background. This balances the optical heaviness of the vase on the left, and enlivens the negative space in the picture. In these exercises I am making these paintings in very limited, almost monochromatic color, to keep the emphasis on the composition.

James McMullan | New York Times | Three Amigos

James McMullan

I now move the pitcher slightly forward. The group starts to feel more integrated - as though they have started some kind of dialogue. I include the line drawing that was scanned at an early stage of the art to show both my adjustments to the drawing and to the rectangle of the picture. I have also highlighted the significant intersection of this composition - the place where the pitcher overlaps with the fruit bowl. It was important to move the pitcher enough in front of the bowl so that the curve at the bottom of the bowl didn't start to ride up the front edge of the jug. I also made sure that the spout of the pitcher was above the rim of the bowl to make a visually satisfying relationship between the ellipse of the bowl and the hooked shape of the spout.

The general rule about overlaps is that they should clearly move one shape in front of the other and should avoid two shapes, particularly curves, just touching each other. In the painting's background, I darken the area at the right to help balance vase on the left, and I adjust the white cloth to allow a little of the table edge to show along the bottom. That dark bar visually stabilizes the composition. The shadows cast by the objects help to connect them and to bring a sense of light atmosphere into the image.

James McMullan | New York Times | Three Amigos

James McMullan

I scanned the line drawing at a moment when I was using the space relationship between the spout of the pitcher and the curve of the vase to judge the position of the pitcher. This was a clearer point to me than using the base of the pitcher to figure out where it sits in the field. I adjusted the rectangle after I realized that I needed more space on the left to match the space on the right. In the painting, the shadow cast by the vase on the back wall becomes a significant factor in the feeling of the whole picture. It both dramatizes the top lip of the jug and it further separates the jug from its companions. Now the jug poses a question and one apple leans forward skeptically. The vase is mute.

James McMullan | New York Times | Three Amigos

James McMullan

Uh, oh! Poor juggy had too much heavy cream at the party last night and he's not feeling tip-top. Artist James is also having a little trouble with the proportions of the rectangle, but after four tries he gets it right.

In the intersection of the jug and vase it was important that the curve of the spout clear the base of the vase. It creates a little negative shape that is more interesting than having the two ellipses pile on top of one another as they would have been if the jug had been higher in the composition. Comparing the drawing with the painting you can see how much the tone of the back wall and the cast shadows help to pull the elements together.

Another reasonable alternative to this formation would have been to have the jug lower down, clearing the shape of the vase altogether.

I hope this will encourage you to choose three relatively simple objects and try some different compositions. It will give you practice in drawing objects and getting a feel for how one particular relationship of shapes can feel wrong, and yet one that's only slightly different can feel right, right, right!

The fact that the rectangles I drew in these exercises were not accurate, or that I had to change them as I proceeded, does not take away from their usefulness in my mental process. Drawing the rectangle free-hand as a first step makes it come alive in my thinking in a way that simply accepting the edges of a drawing pad as my "field" would not. That first movement of my pencil or brush to choose those four edges as the space in which I will make my future choices is as much a part of my drawing as all the other lines I will make.

I suggest that in making compositional sketches you draw a rectangle on your pad as a beginning step, rather than always planning your composition using the full area of the pad. You might want to consider a bigger pad than you usually use to give you more possibilities in the shapes that you can draw.

In the next column I will investigate how to analyze the forms in drawing heads.

Next: "Plumbing in the Head "

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