Saturday, May 16, 2009


A tangency is a point of contact between one shape and another so that they just touch without overlapping. A tangency can also happen when a shape touches the frame of the composition.

This picture by Howard Pyle is full of tangencies:
1. The pirate’s hat with the top of the picture
2. The ship with the shore
3. The chin of the far pirate with the dark hillock
4. The tip of the sash with the head of the digger
5. The tip of the shovel with the frame
6. The head of the kneeling man with the digger’s elbow
7. And the stock of the rifle with the man’s head.

Tangencies cancel out the illusion of depth. They reinforce the flatness of a picture. They’re often regarded as a common beginner’s mistake.

So why did Pyle use them? He was a master of composition and he usually knew exactly what he was doing. The idea of deliberately flattening a picture was very much in vogue at the time Pyle did this picture. His pen and ink works were influenced by Walter Crane and Aubrey Beardsley’s decorative approach to line. Pyle must have wanted the piece to be flat like a playing card.

Do the tangencies help this particular picture? As much as I admire Pyle, in my opinion, they don’t here. They call attention to themselves and get in the way of the larger ideas of story, characters, or mood.


Erik Bongers said...

That's an interesting balance to think about. Composition or story?
One often seems to get in the way of the other.

This specific example makes me think of Mucha. Pyle doesn't use the same 'handwriting' and decorations as Mucha, but a similar artificial composition that has indeed a flattening effect.

I tend to think that this is a nice way to stylize. And I kind of like the 'confusing' effect it has.
By playing with the balance between storytelling and composition, it gets me as a viewer out of balance, and I don't mind that at all.

Cody said...

Another possible tangent in this picture is the horizon line (ocean) meeting the waist and bottom of the shirt at the elbows. Seems to cut the figure in half there also. Maybe intentional?

Andrew said...

Ah, Erik, you beat me to it! I was going to say this Pyle illustration most definitely had a Mucha vibe, at least from my view.

James, is there an example of an illustration that uses tangents to actually guide the eye around the picture? It seems like that could have been part the intent in this piece, but with some of the tangents (like the stock of the rifle and the head crossing with the hillock), they don't really contribute much, if at all.

Cody said...

If the figure was intentionally cut in half (splitting the picture also) could the top half of the picture be the pirates life on the ship, and the bottom half his life on shore? Am I reading to much into it?!

Cody said...

One last comment about the figure, the red flowing sash could look a bit gruesome when speaking of splitting the figure, but could symbolize the pain of a split life? If all this were unintentional it can be a lesson about how people can perceive things different and unintentional in our pictures. I'm sure this happens a lot, even in music people come up with their own meanings of the lyrics. Life is what we make of it right!
Not only should we step back to view our pictures, and look at them in mirrors etc. to see mistakes, but we should step back and imagine ourselves as someone else and try to imagine what they might see.

Unknown said...

I don't thing they work here. I think in this case, Pyle went off on a tangent with his tangencies.

Patrick Dizon said...

The thing with tangencies is that there's this tension you just want to get rid of! It's like trying to break a wall, but you can't!

Vaughn said...

When I was in school I was always taught that tangents were a way to create so much tension that the viewer would become uncomfortable. (I even got in an argument with a fine arts professor who wanted a class full of illustrators to use tangents just because he liked them.) I know that if I were a viewer on a beach where pirates were working with shovels and booty, I'd be uncomfortable, so I think it works in that regard, but isn't the most effective way to achieve that result.

r8r said...

The drawing of the figures and landscape are so filled with perspective hints that they outweigh the mild flattening effort made by the tangents.

If that was indeed what Pyle was after...

kev ferrara said...

Pyle's genius was diabolical at times. This is one of those cases. The more I learn about Pyle the less surprising it is to hear that he was able to do five things at once or that his students utterly revered him for constantly billowing out their minds like sails unfurled. What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the classroom wall in 1905...

Jesse Hamm said...

I suspect Pyle is being given too much credit here. Maybe he was simply ignorant of tangents and their ill effects?

Notice that here, in the color version of that drawing, the tangencies have not been corrected.

Note also the tangencies in this painting between the rifle (far right) and the ship, or between the nearest vertical beam of the railing and one farther behind it.

Pyle had no cause to minimize depth in these colored works. Perhaps the rule against tangencies wasn't so commonly known in his time?

Jesse Hamm said...

Oops, I see that was the color version of that drawing in the original post.

In any case, tangencies remain in the second image.

kev ferrara said...

Pyle was not "ignorant" of anything to do with composition, Jesse.

Jesse Hamm said...

There haven't been any new discoveries in the study of composition over the past hundred years? That sounds unduly pessimistic.

Rob Rey said...

This definitely raises some interesting questions. You always hear what tangencies don't do for a picture, but it's important to ask question such as this. What could they do for a picture?

In regard to the drawing that James posted I have a few theories to add as well. Perhaps Pyle was interested in this image looking somewhat like stained glass, He may have been studying it, or just had a temporary fascination. In stained glass, tangencies are often desired to add strength to the window and simplify the glass cutting. This seems possibly also simply because the image is line and flat color.
Another theory, the diggers are surrounded by armed pirates and maybe they were going to be shot when the digging was complete to keep the secret safe. Perhaps his intention was to make the diggers feel trapped within the picture. They feel very confined being squished in, head to elbow and shovel to edge.

Jesse has a point with the painting he linked to. I doubt that Pyle just didn't know or care about tangencies. Perhaps in more complex figure compositions such as the linked painting tangencies were regarded as something that almost can't be helped. There's just too many objects to get in just the right place and maybe you let a few of them go for other compositional interests. Perhaps in paintings he was only worried about tangencies of higher contrast and not within the larger shape of people standing.

kev ferrara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kev ferrara said...

Jesse, maybe I am wrong, but I believe that not only have very few advancements been made in the art of composition since the 1950s (most "new ideas" have essentially been rediscoveries, it seems to me), but an enormous body of knowledge has been all but lost. Part of the reason for this, IMHO, is that Dean Cornwell, who was essentially the lone repository for the entire history of composition, from Veruccio and DaVinci to Fechin, Brangwyn, and Pyle (via Dunn), did not write it down. But also because the change in illustration in the 1940s caused less of the top minds to seek out Cornwell-level expertise and carry it forward. The closest contemporaneous source we have is the Famous Artist Courses, which, the further you get into it, contain contradictory information (The body of the text was not written by one of the masters, it seems) and the Maitland Graves book, which was based on (stolen from, reportedly) Frank Reilly's lectures, which are very practical and technical but wholly disinterested in poetics, which is the heart of the matter. We are quite lucky to have someone of Jim's knowledge base in our time "writing it down" for posterity.

By the way, Jesse, I really think your comic pages are great! They remind me of Tony Salmons in a good way.

(Sorry for long ramble, folks. Carry on.)


Jesse Hamm said...

Kev -- Thanks! I'm a big Salmons fan.

It wouldn't surprise me if few advances have been made since the '50s, but remember that Pyle was active half a century before that. Ideas that were common knowledge to guys like Cornwell and Fawcett may have been unknown in Pyle's time. Even the famous Gestalt theories of human perception weren't published until after Pyle's death.

(Thankfully, though Cornwell didn't write down his knowledge, we still have the writings of Harold Speed, John Carlson, Edgar Payne, Solomon J. Solomon, and Robert Henri to occupy us.)

Rob -- I think the tangencies in the painting I linked to could easily have been avoided. Pyle would only have had to reposition that support beam slightly, or tip the gun, or slightly adjust the position of the ship.

Here's another Pyle painting that shows a trend toward tangencies. The hat brim of the far-right figure aligns with the picture frame beyond him, and his glass seems perched on the head of the seated figure. The seated figure's knee aligns with the edge of the table cloth, missing a chance to suggest depth. The glass held by the man with his hand on his heart aligns with the mirror frame and another man's collar, and his coat's edge aligns with the sleeve of the man gripping a sword. The nose of the man farthest from the viewer butts up against the edge of the mirror frame. The nearest figure's coattail aligns with the large bowl's edge. The young woman's hand and sleeve hew too close to the door's edge. And there are more instances besides. All of these tangencies could have been avoided with slight adjustments, giving the objects more breathing room and a better sense of depth.

Pyle was great, but I suspect tangencies were something he overlooked.

kev ferrara said...

Jesse, in my understanding, the idea of "gestalt" thinking in the arts was known long before it was written down in the 1920s. And I don't just mean among German Idealist philosophers of the 19th century, or The Old Masters, I'm talking Aristotle and Plato. Don't be fooled by the PR hype that passes for the history of the 20th century. Its mostly about selling.

Pyle's tangents are purposeful. You may not like them, but he's doing it for specific compositional and symbolic purposes. You can see the compositional and symbolic use of tangents in many of the great illustrators works. La Gatta was particularly instructive in this area.

When Loomis (and others) wrote about avoiding tangents he was trying to prevent accidental (and thus often inappropriate) tangents that ruin the images of young art students. Now it seems this hint for the inexperienced has been codified and generalized as some "law" of art. T'ain't so. It is only a rule if creating depth effects is the desire. It must be understood that most art books (Speed, Loomis, Solomon, and countless others) are essentially basic books that start with "this is how to sharpen your pencil" and proceed, usually, only at the very end to supply a small glimpse of the actual complexities of top level work. (Although, I haven't read Carlson except excerpts on Google books (seems like excellent stuff), and haven't been able to get my hands on Payne's book. I love Henri's book however.)

Anyway, sorry for being so noisy. This has all been my opinion, so take it with a grain of salt.


Drake Brodahl (pumml) said...

When I look at this image, it seems to me that Pyle could indeed have been testing that "rule" of tangents. It appears that he's purposely included as many as he could... and while they flatten the image in places, the illusion of depth is still there.

Jesse Hamm said...


Good discussion.

I'd be more willing to accept the idea that Pyle used tangents on purpose if there were a purpose in view. But for what purpose might he have used tangents?

He doesn't appear to want to flatten these images, since he uses perspective and modeling to establish depth, and layers figures back into the distance (instead of pushing them all to the foreground like Bauer or Matisse). Rob's point about tangents' use in stained glass is a good one, but Pyle doesn't appear to want to mimic stained glass here.

What's more, he could have created even more tangents in these paintings, yet he didn't. They only crop up here and there, so I find it likely that they showed up by accident.

The ideas in gestalt theory were hard-won and had little formal precedent, as far as I'm aware. If Plato or Aristotle wrote anything on the psychology of perception, I'd love to see it.

I wouldn't lump the books of Speed and the others I named with most art books. They were interested in getting to the heart of the matter, the essence of composition, rather than bothering with rudiments like pencil sharpening. (Well, except for Loomis's FUN WITH A PENCIL!)

kev ferrara said...

Jesse... Art itself is the creation of a gestalt. The history of art is the study of the psychology of perception to create interactive gestalt effects using symbols.

One of the misteachings of our school system is that the naming of a thing is in some way the discovery of that thing. Yes, gestalt understanding was hard won, but give credit where it is due... which is toward the discoverers and practitioners of gestalt effects, not the johnny-come-lately namers of it. Taxonomy is what collectors and academics do, not creators and innovators. Do you think Shakespeare wasn't aware of The Objective Correlative as he wrote? Or do we have to wait for T.S. Eliot to put the name to it before we acknowledge its invention? This is why I say that the 20th century "art history" is often a load of salesmanship. (See Wolfe's The Painted Word for further elaboration on the end result of the 20th century's obsession with text on the art field.)

As far as Pyle's tangents, respectfully, I think it wise to give him the benefit of the doubt. Look at his Attack on a Galleon and think about its construction, its imagination, and then come up with a list of compositional ideas or techniques that you think you know, but he didn't.

On the educational art books you mentioned, in terms of only composition, the "deep stuff" that appears is decidedly brief. Though they're all wonderful with the practical aspects of perspective, camera viewpoint, color schemes, value ranges, construction, lighting, etc. (I will need to find the Carlson and Payne books.)

Again, this has all been opinion. Sorry for the racket in here.


Unknown said...

What a robust healthy debate! -- without a hint of snarkiness. It's refreshing.

I'm not as "in the know" as some of you others, but I do agree that often theories come along and give terms to things that have been around for a long time. We can only speculate as to what an artist did that was intentional or instinctive, unless they kept very detailed journals!

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You give us a very useful ideas of Tangencies.I think the state of being tangent having contact at a single point or along a line without crossing.
The above definition is according to the web definition of the tangencies.

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