For many years I had a print of this painting by Rembrandt on my wall. I looked at it often. Something about the tonal arrangement gave me a strange feeling of satisfaction that I couldn’t quite identify.
It’s a simple design with a majestic feeling of of fading light. But what was it about that windmill that kept grabbing my attention?
All at once it dawned on me. The vanes of the windmill have been painted with great attention to tonal relationships. The upraised vane is light against dark (L/D). The one opposite that is dark against light (D/L).. The other two are subordinated. One is dark against dark (D/D)., and the other is light against light (L/L).. Each vane of the windmill represents one of the four possible tonal arrangements.
It’s like a Bach fugue that puts the subject through every possible inversion. The resulting effect marries the subject to the background in a way that both separates it and embeds it. In tonal terms, it invites and delights.
I started to look for “the windmill principle” in other painters. In this Anders Zorn portrait, the figure is rendered with all four conditions of tone in relation to her surroundings. At (1) she is light against light, at (2) light against dark; at (3) dark against dark; and at (4) dark against light. Note too that the subordinate edges at (1) and (3) are blurred a little more.
The windmill principle appears again here in this painting by Sir Alfred Munnings. Is this intentional? Were these artists aware of what they were doing? While we can’t ask them, I believe they were very aware of this principle, whatever they called it.
In my own experience, tonal designs like this take conscious planning, like writing a sonata. It doesn’t just happen. Look for yourself and see where you find the windmill principle.
Read about the Windmill Principle in my book, Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist
Previous GJ post on “invite, delight,” link.
More on Zorn and Munnings at ARC.
Thanks for the pics, Armand!