Saturday, July 27, 2019

Breaking the Footline

Artists have long resisted placing elements that are cropped by the footline, or the bottom edge, of a composition.

Painting by Thomas Frederick Mason
Even in busy, crowded scenes, such as this outdoor market, the footline is uninterrupted.

Stepan Kolesnikov
There's a lot going on in this encampment: a horse, a wagon, and three figures. but the footline is empty.

Jean Béraud
Like an actor walking up to the footlights of the stage, the male figure comes close to the line, but not past it.

Summer 1904 by Joaquín Sorolla
The advent of photography, with its weird accidental croppings, is usually credited with awakening artists to the possibilities of an interrupted footline. Edgar Degas is often credited with being a pioneer in cropping the bottom edge, and many other artists started doing it, such as Joaquín Sorolla.

I find it still takes conscious effort to crop figures or other elements by the footline, but it adds greatly to the effect of naturalism.


Timothy Bollenbaugh said...

"I find it still takes conscious effort to crop figures or other elements by the footline, but it adds greatly to the effect of naturalism."

You're right—I never noticed before.

Makes me want to say "abrupt vignette", an active sensation along with more focus on the line of action.
An exercise in discipline and imagination, provided a proper motivation and not for style's sake alone...and a potential resource.

Maybe Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble would stress the need for a proper motivation necessitating such a device.

Thom Rozendaal said...

Why do you think the footline was left clear for so long? Was it an unconscious decision that didn't become conscious until photography or do you think the artists had some reason for it?

James Gurney said...

Conventions in art are a funny thing. We don't notice them until someone breaks them. I think keeping the footline clear was a response to the feeling that the painting is like a little stage or open shoebox with figures set up inside. Howard Pyle often spoke of the painting like a stage with actors on it, and advised his students to have key actors facing the "audience." Of course all portraits have figures cut off on the footline, but even then they have to be cut off in certain places. Not at the groin and not at the ankles. OUCH!

N. La Para said...

Dear James,
Always eye-opening insights. Thank you.
Nicholas La Para

CerverGirl said...

I have not thought of that or noticed before. I thought one reason for the clear footline was the easel edge in front of the bottom of the canvas edge, lol, but I guess that is silly!

Bill Marshall said...

I read a quote by someone (sorry, can't think of the artist) saying the viewer should always feel they have a place to stand in the composition in order to be part of the picture.


Mario said...
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Mario said...
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Mario said...

I think a photo is similar to what hits our retina, while a painting is closer to what our brain thinks. In our brain, we don't crop objects. Our field of view may momentarily crop an object, but we tipically move our eyes to see the whole object, and, in any case, we are aware of the full shape of it. Painting is visual thinking, so it makes sense to arrange objects as our brain perceives them. But in landscape painters and "vedutisti" (view painters) like Canaletto, we often see some cropping.

Unknown said...

While not exactly a direct example of the broken footline - Repin's Krestny Khod (Religious Procession) in Kursk Gubernia is a painting I think of as a prime example of photographic composition.
The religious icon - what one would think of as being literally the centrepiece of the painting, is almost about to be cutoff at the veryright (in fact the men carrying it are cut off as a group)... and even more unconventional, the central area of the painting is an empty space.
In fact, there is a figure with a cane directing our eyes to to the middle which I want to imagine Repin used as a tongue-in-cheek device to point to the fact that he left the middle of this epic painting virtually empty.
This image feels like it could have been just one of many "snapshots" you would find on a contact sheet containing the moments that came before and after.
I will never tire of looking at this piece.