Friday, April 4, 2008

The Windmill Principle

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!


Anonymous said...

this is Great, thanks!
quick question: what does each of the lightning opitons mean? D/L, L/L,D/D and L/D ? i am guessing part is if light hits it directly and the other part the objects tone?

James Gurney said...

Hi, Anonymous. Sorry for the confusing shorthand. I've added the explanation in blue type to the original post. "D/L" means "Dark over Light," for example.

armel said...

Hi, James

I'm quite a new blogger on blogspot, writing from France but I've been enjoying your blog from the beginning. I just wanted to thank you for all the good advices you give. Here in France, I find it hard being an illustrator, but you give hope.
I find today's article particularly interesting. The way the composition with these four tonal arrangements can link the subject and the backgroun, and let each other live freely is a precious discovery.

Unknown said...

I think N.C.Wyeth and Daumier both would be interesting studies in this regard. I've studied Wyeth's dark/light combinations and I find them thrilling. Frazetta too.

Ted Dawson said...

Awesome! I've noticed this as well with some painters, particularly Norman Rockwell. Now I have a name to give it and that will make me more conscious of trying to incorporate it! The Windmill Principle! Thanks!

Mark Reep said...

Longtime fan, and regular reader of your blog. I’m a self-educated artist, and the insights you share on technique, process etc are valued, and much appreciated. I must admit that the term ‘tonal relationships’ isn’t one I’ve ever given much thought, if any- But reading “The Windmill Principle”, I realized that tonal relationships are essentially all about contrast, which, working in black and white as I do, is something I consider constantly, and probably the tool I employ most.

Several years ago, one of the most successful artists I know shared a simple piece of advice I’ve found invaluable: “Contrast is what sells.” I’ve come to understand since that contrast of one kind or another forms the appeal of nearly every kind of art, music, the kinds of places I enjoy experiencing most, and am most inspired by. Light and dark, solid and ephemeral, mass and emptiness- All those kinds of places and moments where unlike meet.

Well. That got wordy, didn’t it. Sorry. :)

Oh, btw- The Dept. of Art pylon is great too. :)

Unknown said...

Wow Mark,
"contrast sells"
I really love that!

Chris Oatley said...


This is amazing and insightful, as many of your posts are. I feel like I am in art school again.

Dinotopia was one of the reasons I got into illustration in the first place and I have no doubt that one of the things that drew me to that book was your masterful eye for painting (particularly light and color).

Thanks for another remarkable post. You are a delight to your fellow artists.

Chris Oatley

Paolo Rivera said...

Thanks for giving this a name. This is one of my favorite elements to play with in a composition.

Looking forward to you your lecture at the Society of Illustrators next week.

James Gurney said...

Armel: What a great blog you have! Thank you for showing your croquis, and your studies from the Carpeaux and Zorn.

Eric: I think you're right about Wyeth and Frazetta using this principle, consciously or not. Frazetta's experience in comics made him think in terms of simple light and dark masses.

Frazetta sure exemplifies what Mark says: "contrast sells," though he would probably say that subtlety or close contrast is what holds people after they start looking at your work, and that's what the two subordinate "vanes" of the windmill can do for the picture. Mark, I think you're right that contrast is at the core of all kinds of artmaking.

Chris--I love your vis dev work on And Paolo, thanks again for the awesome Ghost Rider comics you illustrated, and I'll see you at the Society of Illustrators in NYC on the 9th.

vrkaya said...


I have quite a few books on Rembrandt, one of my favorites written by Ernst Van De Wetering is titled "Rembrandt The Painter at Work".

This book was the first one that introduced me to the concept of "houding". Though the explanation of what it is was not crystal clear, the concept involves the practice of utilizing contrast and color to make objects in a painting move from "back to front" in the third dimension. It was also used to draw the viewer's focus.

Since most of my interest in Rembrandt is his portraiture and figurative work I had not studied his landscapes. The fact that the windmill blades caught your eye leads me to believe that this may very well be a landscape-version of his use of "houding", though I like the term you have coined for it too.

Rembrandt was one of the best at this concept. Another of his examples that utilizes it very well is the painting "The Night Watch". I guess about all of his work utilizes it well ;)

Regards, Ron

Lena said...

OO!!Klassic!I wish you creative successes!! Elena Gagarina. Moscow.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Wow! I don't think I've ever consciously thought about that, but I think I've seen this at work in other Rembrandt stuff (such as his etchings) and in Turner. It gives the scene a very "hyperreal" quality, in my opinion--or the feel of something very real yet also fantastical or mystical. Not sure why.

Art Exhibition said...

Very informative information.

Unknown said...

I come back to this concept often, every since I read it in one of your books. It's such a simple technique to incorporate and it makes a huge difference in the impact of a piece of artwork!