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Saturday, November 5, 2011

What make a great painting?

Peter Paul Rubens Descent from the Cross [detail: center panel] From Art Renewal Center

Naturally this post is a lot of opinion, but it is opinion based on a lot of study. One of my favorite artist is Peter Paul Rubens. The painting above shows many of the elements that I think make a great painting. These elements include composition, light and shade movement, color and great drawing.  In future posts I will discuss these elements in much more detail. For now I'll just touch on these in order to take closer look at a how these elements work together to make a great painting.

When I look at the above painting the first thing I notice is the movement of light and shade, also know as chiaroscuro. Notice I did not say just "light and shade," but "the movement of light and shade." Chiaroscuro is not just  a contrast of light with shade, but the switching of light and shade. In other words in some  places the subject is lighter than the background, in other places it is darker, this helps create movement, one's eye does not stop idly on just one spot, it moves. In great art one's eye moves throughout the painting. 

Notice that in the painting above you eye tends to enter at the bottom near the leg of the person in red, this is in part because of the composition, which we will get to, and in part because of the dark areas on each side of the leg.  The viewer's eye then follows the light on the red rob up to Christ, the subject of this painting, where it rests for a while, but Rubens wants us to know that there is more to this painting than just Christ,  the light leads us farther up to the man holding Christ's arm.   From there the light leads us down the figures on the left  side and finally to the figures at the bottom.  But it never lets us out, there are no really light areas near the edge of the painting.

The composition, how things are arranged and shaped, reinforces the travel of the eye through this picture created by the pattern of light. The pattern of light  by the entrance foot is shaped like an arrow leading the viewer in. Then the long shape of the red robe draws the viewer up. The arrow shape of the cloth Christ is on and the position of his left arm leads us farther up and to the right.  Less we are drawn  all the way up and out of the painting, Rubens places the cross piece of the cross and the chest of a man  here, at the top end of the cloth.  You can't go too far off to the right  here because the man's bent arm brings you back.  Your eye then follow the cloth across. The next man then  holds the cloth at a right angle forming a triangle. This is counteracted by a triangle formed by the cross. Christ's right arm and the arms and body positions of the people on the left repeat this triangle shape. The legs of the figures  at the bottom left  thrust to the right thus reinforcing the idea that your eyes should enter this  painting from the leg of the man in red.

At first this painting doesn't look very colorful and compared to modern paintings we are used to seeing, it isn't. However, there are subtle colors,  the green  and purples of the  robes in the  figures on the left and the blue of the robe of the figure behind them, and the red robe we have talked about. By  keeping most of the other colors subtle, one thing Rubens does is attract our eye once again to the red robe, and up and into the painting. The warmer (closer to red) colors of the green and purple robes help to separate them from the blue behind them, as does the reddish and blond hair of the women on the left.  Warm colors  give the illusion of coming forward, while cool colors give the illusion of receding into the picture plane. The overall look of this painting is warm. giving it  a harmonious feel.  A good painting should take advantage of the different properties of color while maintaining the over all feel. In this painting Rubens does that masterfully.

There is of course a lot more to what makes a great paining  great, and each of these elements is far more complex than what I have touched on here. In coming posts I'll go into  much greater detail, about  the elements of painting, but this should give you a fair introduction to what we will be touching on.  For those of you who came here for the FREE art lessons and expected a how to demonstration, have no fear that will be coming up soon too. But, there is a lot to learn by studying the great masters, and if you can't learn from  Rubens, who can you learn from?

Please check back often there is a lot more to come. Next up: Frans Hal. Oh boy this should be fun. 

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