Monday, October 8, 2007


The best pictorial compositions are simple. Simple shapes are easy to recognize and remember. Busy pictures with lots of little separate shapes have less impact. My own work stands improvement in this area, so I’ve been trying to figure out how the masters did it. Below: Mermaid, by Howard Pyle.

Achieving simplicity doesn’t always mean restricting yourself to just a few minimal forms, like one apple against a blank background. You can have plenty of elements or figures and still have an uncluttered picture. The trick is to cleverly arrange the elements so that adjacent tonal shapes fuse together into larger abstract patterns.

According to Charles DeFeo, Howard Pyle used to say, “Put your white against white, middle tones (groups) against grays, black against black, then black and white where you want your center of interest. This sounds simple, but is difficult to do.” The picture above is by Mead Schaeffer, a grand-student of Pyle through Harvey Dunn.

You can unify shapes by losing them in an enveloping cloud of shadow, and the light areas can spill over into each other. The Lincoln picture below is by Pyle.

This automatically sets up unexpected larger shapes with great abstract beauty and expressive power.

To my knowledge there’s no word in art theory for this idea, so I would like to suggest the term “shapewelding.”

Shape welding shows up not only with Howard Pyle and the Brandywine School, but also with academic painters like Bouguereau (above). All these artists were clearly thinking about shape welding, but I don't know what they called it. The only word I’ve run across to name it is the French word “effet,” which in the academies meant the large overall pattern of light and dark.

Maybe someone reading this blog will know other terms that have been used by artists to describe this principle.


Eric Orchard said...

This is what I've been trying to achieve, thanks for clarifying it. I consider most of what I do drawing. It's hard to have line as an integral element and still arrange shapes and forms by value contrast or similar values. I think Wyeth could do this but I'd like to find other artists that could combine line and value effectively.

Andy Bennett said...

James - thanks for this post. I've just discovered your blog, and already it ihas been invaluable in my own efforts. In the sea of contemporary entertainment-oriented "pop art" blogs, yours has a truly classical, timeless, artistic tone that I didn't realized I was missing until now.

We met briefly at Book Expo in NYC last spring; it was a highlight of the trip.

Thanks again.

tlc illustration said...

I absolutely idolize Howard Pyle. He was so incredibly art-insightful, and inspirational in his efforts to pass his learning on. We studied him and his Brandywine school and subsequent students in college, but I'm finding the more I'm learning, the more applicable his instructions are. Thanks for his - and your - art insights!

Marc Hudgins said...

The arrangement of black and white (light and dark)is sometimes referred to by the Japanese concept of Notan. Arthur Wesley Dow wrote an exhaustive book on the subject at the turn of the century (19th/20th). It isn't exactly the idea of merging forms via value, but it is all about composition of light and dark value in an image.

I've been enjoying your blog immensely. Keep it up!

name said...

actually, that's brilliant. Thank you. I'm going to pass that on to a couple of people.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey Jones was also very good at this. His paintings feel like sculptures at times. Heavy shapes and attention to tone. Lighter on the details.

Timothy Callister said...

Gestalt Theoery might be intresting to look into