Saturday, July 21, 2012


Elements in a picture look more natural and three-dimensional when they're overlapped. This painting by Henry Herbert LaThangue (1859-1929) suffers from a lack of overlapping. We see the shape of each goose pretty much in its entirety, just touching the next one. 

LaThangue commits the same foul in this picture, which is full of tangencies. A tangency is a point of contact between one shape and another so that they just touch without overlapping. The front goat seems to be nibbling the leg of the one behind it, and the third one back is nibbling the second one's shoulder. The effect of both pictures is awkward, flat, and spotty.

This painting by Charles Sprague Pearce (1851-1914) is much more successful in this respect. The sheep form an interesting mass, yet still have individual identity. Some of them are hidden behind the shepherd or partly cropped off the edge.
Related post: Tangencies


David Mattingly said...

Strangely enough, I find the goose picture without overlapping forms more 3 dimensional than the Charles Sprague Pearce piece. Each goose seems to spring out of the picture. I even think the tangencies in the second picture work rather nicely. I suspect the artist was consciously playing with that artistic no-no, with rather interesting effect.

Josh Adams said...

The use of overlapping to create depth/dimension and the trouble that tangents create are perfectly valid, but I think the examples used are not supporting your point, especially the Charles Sprague Pearce piece which while it does use overlapping, it also has a muted narrow palette, shallow dimension, and the most vivid things in the piece are the moving elements whilst the static natural structures around them are blurry and give the impression of movement. If the Pearce piece was in it's execution simply an example of overlapping than it failed to convey that as it's weaker elements distract. The other two pieces use their palette and stylistic stroke to engage the viewer in an image of living things, almost defying the tangential relationships in the composition. I feel as if I can see the wind across the grass or the flitting light of the Sun shining through leaves while in the Pearce piece I am not engaged in the environment or the living elements moving through them and in that respect these pieces become more interesting for their ability to defy the taboos of illustration that they engage in.

Thanks for continuing to write great pieces about art and technique. I really do love reading what you have to say and look forward to your next piece.

-Josh Adams

MoStarkey said...

Claude Monet's 1876 painting of Turkeys is a good example too.

Rich said...

I find quite a few of these geese keep on overlappin';-))
and have to second Josh Adams - especially the geese Pastorale has got quite a few additional elements to create depth imo.:
the warm/cold contrast, for example, with the cool blue waterfront (including the front geese with a cooler tinge than their "earthy" followers walking in that patchwork of light and shadow). The warmer tones are receding into the background. Usually it has to be the other way round, we have a funny reversal here, "an ability to defy the taboos of illustration" perhaps, as Josh Adams says.

The herdsman, with no feet visible, is pretty overlapped too;-)
Then we have the overall perspective: the cool horizontal waterfront broadly spreading in front without limit, so to say. Whereas the warm lighted road representing quite a limited triangle with a fixed base pointing towards the horizon.

Whencesoever: I have a postcard with a motive from Hergé's Tin Tin comic somewhere. It shows in perspective a busy "China Town" road including a plethora of sign boards and all kinds of traffic. I'd call it "my favorite depth inducing overlap"...

David Teter said...

Yeah, I agree with the previous comments that the rule was intentionally broken and with good effect.
In the hands of an experienced artist it can be done.

Your point of tangents is still a good lessen and should be noted when learning the fundamentals.
Your point in this post.
You must first learn the fundamentals before they can be successfully broken.

When done by an inexperienced artist it works against a successful image and does flatten.

Instead of seeing the animals as a single mass, as we usually should, I think the tangents create a movement that reflects the character of the geese and goats. That kind of nervous jerky body movement of geese is communicated better by breaking the rule and gives the flock as a whole a frenetic energy.

Same with the goats, every goat I've ever met is kind of nervous.
The eye-leading movement of the two flocks also leads back to the herdsman in each, their overseer, a sign of an experienced artist.

Hopper, in his lonely cityscapes, intentionally broke rules to communicate a greater underlying idea when he wanted to create a subtle unease.

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of torn. I suspect LaThangue was very much under the spell of Bastien-Lepage, who was unafraid to be quirky with his compositions. The paintings certainly have depth and are successful paintings, but I have to agree with James that a tiny bit more of overlapping might improve them more than a tiny bit; however, that might well destroy much of their essence as "school of Bastien-Lepage" paintings.

Tony Foti said...

Nothing really new here, but I do think LaThangue's geese are intentionally not overlapping. By not grouping them all into one unit, the geese feel more lively and chaotic, not to mention the depth added by the dot matrix of little birds all coming towards the viewer.

He seems to have used the shadows of the trees to keep the back geese from becoming too distracting, also negating a lot of the negative effects of not overlapping.

James Gurney said...

It's good to see that there's a healthy skepticism of compositional rules. I'm usually the guy with the skeptic hat, too. As with the rules of grammar, there may be reasons to boldly split infinitives or to find certain prepositions that you can end a sentence with. Or even to start sentences with conjunctions. However, beginners often breach the rules without knowing the rules in the first place.

In the case of Pearce vs LaThangue, I was not comparing their lighting or color, though, just their use or neglect of overlapping.

Frank said...

And what makes you think you can start a sentence with a conjunction?

Anonymous said...

I find the LaThangues much more interesting and involving than the Pearce. The Pearce is a very well-done sentimental painting. LaThangue makes you feel as if you are looking at a real scene. His two examples, especially the geese picture, give me a better feeling of reality.

pierangelo boog said...

Found and composed fine in the painting by Pearce is the position of the legs of the sheep. The sheep beside the sheherd boy is an echo and
to double in the movement related position in an open step. Behind the other two sheep: The first on the left
with legs together tightly. Can it be that these four sheep legs considered
as a composition also echoed the similar result to the boy and the sheep at his side in the foreground? :-)!

Ken said...

Klimt was another artist who intentionally broke the rules of overlapping.

Anonymous said...

But Klimt (when he was breaking these rules) wasn't trying to create depth and realism. He was interested in the tension between the spaciousness and the picture plane.

Ken said...

Apparently his early work was considered acedemic.

Cory Hinman said...

The geese in back near the figure cluster quite close together, then gradually spread out as they move down-stage. I think this emphasizes their movement down-stage toward the viewer.

Ezra said...

I have to agree with James on this. Even before reading what this post was about alarms were sounding in my brain at first glance of the geese painting. I recognized instantly that the painting could easily have been improved by utilizing more overlap.

The second image I even find difficult to look at because of the unpleasant feeling the tangencies give me from a compositional point of view.

The Charles Sprague Pearce image has a much more fluid and natural arrangement of objects. Of course the other two pictures may give you more pleasure in terms of color, light, values and rendering of subject matter, and while those are all wonderful things, they have nothing whatsoever to do with the issue that James is addressing in this post.

Unknown said...

I have to agree with James on this. the monotony of the geese and the tangetial nature of the goats almost touching are killers for me. As for the feeling of light, the Pearce painting actually utilizes a much more sophisticated pattern of values which relies on the Japanese notion of "Notan" This depends on the arrangement of local values rather than that of light and shadow. The feeling of overcast is absolutely effective and the mood of the day is perfectly captured. I also much prefer this understated and subtle color to that of the other two. The Pearce painting for me demonstrates much more skill in composition, value patterning and color than either of the other two. Just my two cents.

Anonymous said...

Some examples of Bastien-Lepage and Clausen that I think give context to La Thangue and compositional quirkiness:

Bastien-Lepage 1

Bastien-Lepage 2


James Gurney said...

Thanks, Etc. Those are really great examples of the great B-L and one of his Newlyn followers. Good grist for future posts.

Everett Patterson said...

Is it at all possible that LaThangue was doing the tangencies on purpose? I remember you posting about a Howard Pyle painting of a pirate and saying that he deliberately included tangencies, which were "in vogue" at the time, so as to flatten out the image and give it a more graphical quality. Do you think LaThangue was purposefully jumping on this bandwagon?

Pat Marconett said...

When I see paintings like this with grouped items that are not overlapping, I get the feeling they were focusing too much on the individual subjects, and not on the composition & story as a whole. Almost like they did such a great job rendering each subject, they couldn't stand to cover part of them up. And its one thing to design tangents in a way that it helps flatten out part of it, but when your brain keeps changing its mind whether something should be in front or behind, I think it takes you away from the story.