Monday Motivator: Object or Atmospheric?

“It’s not always necessary to have an obvious focal point in a painting. Sometimes, I find it better to construct an atmospheric field that the viewer needs to adjust to before they can start to make out any elements of interest. Think of this kind of picture as wandering through a swirling fog, attempting to make sense of the surroundings, seeing objects but not being able to define their exact shape or purpose. Isn’t that a reasonable reflection of how we truly experience the world, never quite knowing where one thing ends, and another begins? 

Because we are a material society, we’re inclined to be ‘object centric’, obsessed with individual things, when maybe we’d be better served by acknowledging that everything is part of everything else.”

Artist-writer Nick Bantock, Facebook 10 January 2023

Soft, blurry edges versus hard, definite edges.

Blended colour transitions versus sharp colour contrasts.

Suggested versus stipulated elements.

A composition to meander in versus one with a clear path to a focal point.

The choices are not binary: either one or the other. Pick and mix, use your favourites and occasionally try the others to see if you might now enjoy them.

If you don’t like colour fields or “busy chaos”, try compositions with a primary and secondary focal point.

Primary focus: the stairs, the part where the angles change. Secondary: the church on the top of the hill. The stone wall, tiled roof and white wall on the left provide three large blocks of relative visual calm.

The Colour Theory Triangle

My favourite starting point for colour mixing is the colour triangle rather than the more familiar colour circle. I think it’s easier to understand and makes remembering complementary colours simple.

(If you don’t see the video above, click here to see it on my Vimeo channel.)

The fundamental rule of colour theory for painting is that there are three primary colours: red, blue and yellow. The second rule of colour theory is that mixing two primary colours togethe creates secondary colours, that is purples, oranges, and greens. On a colour triangle, the three primary colours are at the points, and the three secondary are on the “flat bits”. All you need remember initially are the three primaries, because you can always mix two to remind yourself what they create.

The other reason I like the colour triangle so much as it makes it easy to remember complementary colours. These are colours that make one another look brighter, and also desaturate each other (make them less intense in colour). On the colour triangle, complementaries are the colour opposite, so Blue + Orange, Red + Green, Yellow + Purple..


The first color triangle is attributed to the 19th century French painter Delacroix. A notebook of his dating from around 1834 has drawing of a triangle with the three primaries written in as rouge (red) at the top, jaune (yellow) on the left, and bleu (blue) on the right, plus added the three secondaries as orange, violet, and vert (green). Delacroix adapted the triangle from a color wheel in an oil painting handbook by J.F.L. Mérimée, a painter he knew.
(Source: “Colour and Culture” by John Gage. Thames and Hudson, London, 1993. Page 173.)


Colour Theory Triangle

Stacked Perspective

The Sagami River woodcut by Hiroshige has seven 'curtains' or layers in its composition

A stacked perspective is when, rather than relying on a vanishing point as in one- or two-point perspective (“the railway lines thing”), elements are piled (stacked) one above another in the composition to give the illusion of depth and distance. Or to put it in art speak: when objects are placed higher on the picture plane to create spacial illusion.

It’s easier to understand by looking at an example than reading about it. In the book “Japanese Prints : The Collection of Vincent van Gogh” I came across a fabulous example of stacked perspective in a print by Hiroshige. Van Gogh copied this print into the background of his “Portrait of Pere Tanguy” painting.

In the photo of the print below, start counting the stacks or elements with the white heron at the bottom, or Mount Fuji at the top. Then look at how the elements overlap, linking the parts of the composition whilst creating the sense of some things being behind others.

The Sagami River woodcut by Hiroshige has seven 'curtains' or layers in its composition
The Sagami River, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Edo, fourth month 1858, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858). Colour woodcut on Japanese paper, 36.4 cm x 25.5 cm. In the collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Hiroshige’s composition is extremely sophisticated, involving a stacked perspective of seven ‘curtains’, starting with the white heron in the foreground, and ending with Mount Fuji in the distance.” [Quote source: “Japanese Prints : The Collection of Vincent van Gogh” by Chris Uhlenbeck, Louis van Tilborgh, and Shigeru Oikawa, 2018, p. 108]

Calling the elements or layers “curtains” and imaginging transparent shower curtains with images printed on them, really works for me in terms of understanding “stacked perspective”.


  • The Van Gogh Museum website has a section on the Japanese prints that Vincent van Gogh collected, here.
  • To see sample pages of the book, go to Thames & Hudson’s website

Two Questions About Monet’s “Apple Trees” Painting

This is Monet’s “Apple Trees in Blossom by the Water”, painted in 1880.

Monet Apples Trees in Blossom

Two questions:
1. What’s the focal point?
2. Where’s the water mentioned in the painting’s title?

Turn page 90 of Monet: The Seine and The Sea 1878–1883 by Michael Clarke and Richard Thomson, where it’s explained that:

“Such is the density of the surface activity that the painting has no conventional focus or compositional base. … This is a canvas about touch, texture and colour…”

Monet apple tree painting about colour

The trunk does leads your eye up into the branches, but then it takes it off the top. There’s so much going on with the leaves and shadows it’s hard to make out any single bit but simultaneously inviting you to get lost in it all. Paintings don’t have to have a traditional focal point, positioned according the Golden Mean, with a composition leading the viewer’s eye towards it. It’s your choice.

The water in the painting is supposedly implied by the sense of a tree growing on a bank. (It’s thought it’s one of the paintings Monet did from a river boat .) I’m not sure I’d think about it if it weren’t in the painting’s title. Would you?

Mostly I find myself wondering how Monet didn’t get fedup with all those shades of brown from burnt umber to beige, and whether in real life the painting has more yellows and green visible. What would your third question be?

 

No Kissing! (In Your Paintings, Anyway)

Too-neatly aligned. Just touching. Tentatively overlapped. Kissing.

It’s a venial sin of artistic composition.

Elements should either be definitely apart or definitely overlapping. No kissing please, as this creates a weak, connected shape which will distract the viewer’s eye, causing a momentary pause as they puzzle it out.

Composition Rules -- Kissing Elements in a Painting

This example is from a series of paintings I did in the early noughts called “Heat”. My solution to the sun and land kissing in the top photo was to add a hill to the land in front of the sun, as seen in the lower photo. Other options could have been to add a definite gap between the sun and land, or move the sun down behind the hill or remove the white line so sun and land merged. It’s not that any of these would have been better, though the result would have felt different.

Save your kisses for elsewhere.