Yesterday we talked about portraying a place of stillness in a larger story, and we heard Howard Pyle’s argument for avoiding high action.
The development of high speed photography and the perfection of animation opened up an awareness in artists and public alike in the keyframe pose, a momentary phase of action that suggests the larger movement.
As Smurfswacker deftly pointed out in yesterday’s comments, a lot of mid-20th Century illustrators chose peak action to grab reader’s attention. I was always fascinated by Al Dorne’s over-the-top magazine illustration of a barbershop brawl, which was one of the demonstration drawings from the Famous Artists Course.
Action brings in the fourth dimension of time, but effective action paintings don't ignore two-dimensional design considerations. This painting by N.C. Wyeth shows Long John Silver pulling Jim Hawkins along on Treasure Island. The scene is activated by diagonal movement and opposing forces. It beautifully expresses the powerful forward energy and determination of the pirate, contrasted with Jim’s frail reluctance.
The key to successfully portraying a single moment of action is to find that instant that invites speculation about previous and subsequent events.
Photographer Cartier-Bresson (above) called it the “The Decisive Moment.” He said, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
French philosopher E. Giard called this instant the point mort (dead point), a pregnant pause in the continous action of a figure or animal.
In the scene above from World War 1, Fortunino Matania has cast the soldier’s fate into doubt as he is frozen in a moment of great risk.
Tom Lovell shows Alexander first setting foot in Asia Minor to begin his historic conquest. Far from being gratuitous action, this moment points forward to epic events that lie ahead.
Whether you choose to paint a scene with stillness or action, try to give your image the greatest emotional resonance and narrative reach.
Decisive Moment definition.
More images by Matania from Palace Press.
Download a big file of the Dorne brawl scene from Leif Peng's Flickr sets.
This is one of the topics I cover (with different examples) in my upcoming book, Imaginative Realism.