Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Stroke Module

If you paint in oil with big flat bristle brushes, it gives the painting a kind of “big pixel” look. Here’s a plein-air study I did of some rooftops.

On the left is the actual painting, and on the right is a computer interpretation. The idea of the digitized version is to suggest the approximate module of the patches or brushstrokes. Each square is more or less equal to the width of the brush. So for a 16 x 12 inch painting, the brush was about a half inch wide.

I don’t think this painting was very successful. Part of the problem is that the units of detail are all about the same size throughout the picture. The effect is kind of clunky and simplistic, and there’s no center of interest. It’s like a whole symphony played at the same tempo and in the same key.

Let me propose this principle: a broad handling works better if there’s a center of interest in sharper focus.

You may have seen my painting of a McDonald’s sign before, but I want to make a different point with it. In the actual painting (oil, 10x8 inches), the word “McDonald’s” is painted as tightly and carefully as I could manage while standing outdoors in the parking lot.

But the line of writing below “McDonalds” is almost not readable. And the type on the yellow and red signboards lower down are just suggested with blocky shapes. In the background, the scale of blockiness increases even more.

In the mosaic version of the painting at right, I’ve interpreted the image in two sizes of tiles, with smaller tiles near the center of interest to make the simple point about varying the module of brushstrokes.

This principle of the scaling of detail is one of the hallmarks of the late 19th century portrait painters, like Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla, or Valentin Serov. Serov isn’t well enough known in America. Here is his portrait of the composer Rimsky-Korsakov. Click on it; it's a big juicy file, thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

Serov painted the face in relatively tight focus, but he represented all other areas of the picture with rough strokes made with a bigger brush module.

I find this orchestration of detail deeply satisfying because it captures the way our eyes actually perceive the world. There’s a tight focus at the center of interest, and bigger shapes in the periphery. Serov gives us all the information we need to understand the character of the man, no less and no more.

Look at this background detail from the Serov portrait. It has a wonderful “pixelly” abstract quality, like something caught at the edge of vision.

And here’s another detail, placed out of context next to the rendering of the face, and turned upside down to help us see them abstractly. Note that these two detail areas are shown at exactly the same relative scale of enlargement.

In context, the strokes effectively describe the clutter of papers on the desk. They don’t call attention to themselves as strokes or as paint. Instead they convey what they need to convey and then they keep encouraging the eye to return to the face and hands. If he had painted the outer areas with the same level of detail, the sense of immediacy would have been lost.

I call this scaling of brushstrokes the “stroke module.”

It’s a good general rule to strive for variety in the stroke module. Use a smaller stroke module (with smaller brushes or digital brush tools) for the center of interest, and then use bigger brushes and broader handling for the peripheral areas.

Tomorrow: Line and Wash


Dean H. said...

Love it. Very informative....excellent example of selective detail in Serov paintimg. Thanks!


Tom Scholes said...

Well said! Thanks very much. You should consider compiling an instructional book!

Emily said...

So interesting! I'm going to try this next time I'm working on something.

Katy Hargrove said...

My friend just informed me that you have a blog. I'm really happy to see how art focused it is and I expect to learn quite a bit. Thank you!

The color masking technique seems super helpful and I want to try and apply that soon to see how it works for me.

James Gurney said...

Welcome, Katy, and thanks to all of you for leaving a comment. Hope this is useful for you.

Anonymous said...

haha, james its so hard to take your posts serious seeing those tron glasses, haha!!

i also wonder if you have any notes or ideas for future posts on the physical side of being an aritst.

such as do you have any health problems from sitting for long periods of time. i actually developed hip pain working long hours at the chair, and i've heard people have also developed prostate pain with long hours at a chair or desk. one of the main reasons i only paint standing up...but that can prove to be pain provoking too...

a post on that kind of stuff if you have any tips or ideas would be awsome. i'm interested to hear what you have learned from the physical side of being an artist and keeping physicall healthy with long hours at a desk or chair.

James Gurney said...

Well, Gator, lets see... eyestrain, sore back, dizziness from oil fumes, dry cuticles, and weight gain from being near the 'fridge. It's a hazardous business, and I guess I've had my share of all these complaints. The animation studios bring in professional ergonomic consultants and health experts.

But I can't really speak about this with any knowledge. Is there a doctor in the house?

Anonymous said...

not to mention a little dementia, i'm guessing by the tron glasses, haha

thanks for the reply, i guessed you would have some experiance with this too.....

"Maggie & Kevin" said...

An interesting process and one I plan to try. Because I work in Photoshop, it will be an interesting method to achieve.

Justin De Lucia said...

Wow, cool.