Saturday, July 11, 2009

Stillness and Action, Part 1

A painting presents itself to the viewer in its entirety, with everything visible at once. Without multiple panels or animation, you can show only a single moment.

The viewer scans the composition for clues about what has just happened and what might come next. If you want to show action, consider which part of the narrative has the most suspense, what Howard Pyle called the “Supreme Moment.”

To an extent, a painting can avoid showing action and can downplay the passage of time. Most of Vermeer’s paintings seem to exist in a kind of eternal present. Edward Hopper’s paintings (Nighthawks, above) often depict people waiting in an enigmatic suspense.

In this book jacket by Frank Frazetta, the Conan character is standing ready for action, leaving the threat for the reader to imagine. The design is stable, with the figure rising above the clutter of corpses below, his sword held in vertical stillness.

Pyle advised his students that “to put figures in violent action is theatrical and not dramatic.” He said that “in deep emotion there is a certain dignity and restraint of action which is more expressive.” The terror before the murder or the remorse afterward is more interesting than the act itself.

Most dramatic sequences build suspense toward a climax. Here in a pivotal moment of Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins and Israel Hands face each other in a life-or-death exchange. The outcome of the next moment is uncertain.

Often the Supreme Moment happens during a fateful meeting or departure. It could be the meeting of hero and villain, prisoner and captor, or lover and betrothed. Above, Ilya Repin shows the heartwrenching departure of a young recruit leaving the family farm.

N. C. Wyeth often chose a still moment that spoke for a larger story. Here a young worker pauses while sipping the cool water that the girl has brought him.

Tomorrow we'll look at the appeal of peak action.


Steve said...

Helpful concept.

We don't seem to have the final photo (Wyeth).

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Steve. I put that one in.

Smurfswacker said...

Your piece points up a difference between "wall painting" and classic magazine illustration. As magazine illustration developed from the late 20s through the early 50s, it was crafted to catch a browser's eye and excite them into buying the magazine. So magazine art, like comic book art, concentrated on the height of a dramatic moment: the plane crashing, the fists flying. It portrayed a very specific moment of a very specific story. After the magazine was sold the picture had done its job, and it was assumed it'd be thrown away.

On the other hand the "wall painting" is meant to be looked at constantly for years. Showing the beginning or end of an action--or no action at all--allows the viewer to make up a new story each time he or she views the painting.

This point was brought home to me years ago during the Cowboy Art craze. A former comic book artist had painted a stagecoach holdup. He took the illustration route: passengers cowered around the halted stage while a robber shot a guard who fought back. The victim was frozen in midair, his gun suspeneded in space admid swirling wisps of smoke.

Technically it was a beautiful painting. But after viewing the other pieces in the gallery, I saw how looking at this painting on your wall would be like reading the same page of a book over and over. Unless, like me, you admired it strictly for its technique, you'd soon tire of it.

Gabriele Pennacchioli said...

I'm daily checking your blog since you gave your presentation at Dreamworks. It is one of my favorites. Your deep analysis are always a true source of inspiration.

kev ferrara said...

Harvey Dunn said "seek within an experience of your appreciations for your picture."

A photographer can only seek without. And his light-grabbing machine has no appreciation for anything at all, least of all the truth of movement. Which is why photos are always Dead Moments and don't hold up next to a Frazetta or Wyeth. Or Pyle or Dunn. Or Dorne or Remington or Solomon or Delacroix or Meltzoff any other artist who can conjure real action by imagination.