Monday, March 31, 2008


Twentieth century illustrators have used the term “confetti” to describe the small, colorful paint strokes that resolve into suggestive detail in the viewer’s eye.

Dean Cornwell sprinkled confetti-like strokes throughout his painting of an eastern procession. On the left is the full composition; on the right is a detail showing the riot of floating shapes behind the camel’s back leg.

Another master of confetti is the contemporary science fiction illustrator John Berkey. A detail of one of his spacecraft improvisations appears next to the full composition. Dots, squares, and dashes hover by themselves or in clusters.

Berkey’s approach to confetti balances two-dimensional abstraction with three-dimensional plausibility. The strokes are always arranged in perspective, with attention to lighting.

Contemporary photorealists like Richard Estes (detail, above) create miniature abstract compositions in the midst of their realistic canvases.

Before the impressionist and abstract movements offered realist painters the impetus to think of strokes as having their own existence as pure shapes, detail areas usually tended to resolve into recognizable forms. Here’s a bustling crowd scene by Beraud.

As we zoom in on one small section of the picture, we can make out what’s going on with each of the tiny figures. It’s as if the smallest atom of a picture is always representational, rather than abstract.

Even Canaletto (detail above), whose paintings are a bustle of activity up close, always keeps his strokes tied to intelligible forms: here a head, there a jacket, there an oar.

Personally, even though I’m a realistic painter, I welcome the contribution that abstract painting has made to our pictorial toolset, and I indulge in a sort of confetti, though my own preference is to stop short of strokes that draw too much attention to themselves. Of course, this is a matter of individual taste, and there’s room for a wide range of handwriting.

Here’s a detail of the crowd in the distance in Dinosaur Parade. The figures were blocked in with a square bristle brush. The detail is handled a bit like a mosaic.

To finish up, one last detail from Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara: a scene of a festival in Jorotongo. In the closeup, you can see how I sketched in the singers in terms of simple confetti-like shapes.

Related GJ post: Clustering
More images by John Berkey, Jean Beraud, Dean Cornwell


Anonymous said...

Personally, looking at the paintings of Beraud and Canaletto in comparison to your own examples, I think that your method of confetti helps make a more realistic representation. Having everything in focus and in detail doesn't really create a strong focal point, and our eyes don't naturally work like that. It resembles how in animation everything is in focus, where in reality the farther away something is, the more detail is lost and the more simplified the form becomes.

James Gurney said...

Thank you, Drew. That's a really good point. It speaks to the fact that as modern imagemakers we're all influenced not only by recent ideas from art history, but also by photography--especially motion blur and depth of field effects.

Shane White said...

The more abstract you get I think the lighting and correct color choice become more important because there is so little information left to convey figure and form.

Cornwell is certainly one of my favorite illustrators for his use of chunky paint.

The Russian Impressionist even moreso. (Fechin, Bongart, Timkov, etc.)


Anonymous said...

Hi Drew,

you are certainly correct on all points. I broke all the rules on a painting I just finished, titled Cindy's Cafe, which can be seen on my blog. I went over board with over defining everything in the painting. There is some confetti in the work, but its lost due to my over defining all of the edges. I now know to loosen up and try to focus on only the areas that matter. Thanks again to Mr. Gurney for pointing this out to me.

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