Sunday, July 12, 2009

Stillness and Action, Part 2

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.


Daniel Ljunggren said...

super interesting stuff!

Roberto said...

Futurism was an art movement from 1909-1929 which was concerned with with the depiction of movement, and glorified speed, violence, warfare, and the dynamism of the industrial age.
The poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti penned their manifesto in 1909.
Walt Disney served as a paramedic in France during WWI and was probably influenced by the movement to explore the use of animation and photography for the depiction of moving pictures. (Kind of a stretch, but still likely.) -RQ

Carl Knox said...

Looking forward to the book!

David Apatoff said...

James, are you still expecting your book to come out in September?

Rob Rey said...

Well put! Emotion is key.

S. Jones said...

Very interesting set of posts. I'll be sure to come back to this one later when I need it :)

I wish more artists worked this way. The number of fantasy covers out there that pay more attention to how badass the armour is than the emotions of the characters makes me sad.

Adam Cope said...

Fascinating & well thought through, James.

The neglect of 'action' & 'dead point' is probably the biggest difference between 19th & 20th century fine art painting ( ie not illustration art). Curiously it could be said to be making a come back in post-modernist painters such as Tuysman & Richter, where it 'hovers' in anxiety & incertitude rather than the inevitability of the 'penny dropping'.

Interesting cycle of exhibitions here in the Dordogne France about the action element in Prehistoric Cave painting, saying effectively that the action portrayed is closer to our notions of action in cartoons rather than action in static one image wall painting.

Great blog, best o' luck with the book.