To flatten the picture plane or not to flatten the picture plane, that is the question…
August 12, 2013
In critically examining the depiction of pictorial space and experimenting with new techniques, my whole visual world is currently in turmoil.
My latest attempt to understand perspective in landscape involves a copy of a traditional Australian impressionist landscape by Garrett Kingsley. Mine is a life-size copy in pencil of a small 8×10″ oil painting. The texture of the brushwork of the original is very attractive and certainly this texture owes a lot to the “roughing up” of the painting surface by French artists after 1850. Personally, I prefer my paintings to show brushwork rather than disguise it. The painting has that lovely balance between rough and smooth: the rough Venetian red ground showing through the upper layers balanced with the very accomplished depiction of detail.
But personal preferences about brush technique aside, this is a curious painting because of the depth of brown in the lake/river, which occupies such a large area of the composition. It is both a traditional landscape with depiction of deep pictorial space – the trees in the foreground, the mountain range in the background – but the tonal value of the river and its dominance creates tension in the viewer (and thereby visual interest) by looking like a fathomless pit – a giant black hole in the middle of an otherwise normal-looking landscape. The pencil copy seems to confirm this.
I can’t be sure if Kingsley worked from a photograph or not from the painter’s date of birth and death; born in 1915, this painting looks like it was done in the 1930s but he would have been far too young at that age. No fifteen-year old could handle the small brushes needed to depict the cows lower left, for example. The test for painting from a photograph or not is to turn it upside down and wait for longer than five seconds. If it still retains its pictorial space and depth after five seconds, it’s done from life and not from photographs.
The problem I’ve got with the painting (and my drawing) is that the poplars in the background (right) are in the same tonal value as the foreground tree (right). The other major problem is the way the trees (left) merge into the brown of the river (probably the most serious weakness in the painting).
I think I’ve come to a dead end with examining this particular painting and doing a pencil copy in order to better understand the capturing of pictorial space. I do appreciate the fact that I’m using “direction-less” or “formless” line and getting away from “straight line” pencil lines.
Unflattening the picture plane in location sketching
In this pencil sketch, another local scene and laboriously worked on for more than an hour, I’ve tried to differentiate the trees on the page when in fact they are a mass of dark green shadows when viewed in real life. I worked hard to minimise “straight” line pencil strokes, aiming for something more formless and realistic in the depiction of light and space: a “poem of light”. I worked as hard as I could in rendering the background boats, trees, bridge and water, but the only way I could come up with a decent interpretation of pictorial space was to erase almost everything in the background. I’m not exactly comfortable with the conclusion that the only way to depict pictorial space and spatial depth is to make everything dark in the foreground and everything light in the background. That is, if there are darks in the background, how do I know if there is convincing pictorial space or not, or whether I’ve been duped (again) by the conditioning of photography into accepting a flattened picture plane as “normal”?
Flattening the picture plane in the work of watercolor painters
While I’m trying to understand how the early English watercolorists like Cotman, Varley, Cozens and Girtin came to grips with landscape and depicting pictorial space, I’m turning to the work of contemporary artists who have long inspired me. One of those is Charles Reid. In his book The Natural Way to Paint: Rendering the Figure in Watercolor Simply and Beautifully discusses flattening the picture plane. His rationale for the way he grounds his figure n any sort of background or context is that perspective is an optional extra; how often have we heard that perspective is something to be learned then quickly forgotten? It’s interesting that he refers to artists like Van Eyck, della Francesca, Uccello and others who portrayed their subjects on one picture plane. Van Eyck and Uccello, I accept, but Piero della Francesca seems an odd exception to his argument. The work of French modernists after 1850 is mentioned and we’re all still in the thrall of the work of Gauguin, Vuillard, Bonnard, Cezanne and Matisse (well, not so much the large works of Matisse – the really flat-looking ones are not all that redeeming in my view; their lack of depth makes them superficial) which Charles Reid mentions. Reid says that chromatic perspective is all well and good but “not to be taken altogether seriously”. I guess one has to reconcile oneself to his intense focus on modelling the figure in paint (most of his book is spent on this) while simultaneously accepting his subversion of all that good work by incorporating flat-plane backgrounds. He is big on running the brush out of the figure into the background, marrying the two, again flattening the picture plane. Within this marriage lies both the success and excruciating failure of large tonal background areas “fighting” against the subject. Subversion is big in post-modernism and certainly while I have supreme admiration for his attention to modelling form, I guess I just have to accept the random splashes of paint and the obtrusive backgrounds which rupture the effect as a sop to the popularity with audiences which Reid has, audiences conditioned more by viewing the world through photographs than from life, and accepting that if a painter or artist or sketcher renders real life, then it should end up looking like something taken with a camera.
Flattening the picture plane among Urban Sketchers
I’m casting a critical eye around for paintings which depict space convincingly and am re-evaluating much of the work of artists in the Urban Sketchers movement in particular. Much of their work has inspired me in recent years. Yet, the most common feature in the work of Urban Sketchers is to paint the background sky so dark and with such dominance that it appears to be in front of the streetscape or foreground building. As intriguing as Marc Taro Holmes’ watercolor paintings of Montreal are, the sky is thrust forward. Most Urban Sketchers come from a commercial illustration background where everything is on the same picture plane: distant objects are brought up close and close objects are pushed back. Is it possible to be an Urban Sketcher and not produce a “poster”, a flat design more suitable to a shower curtain than a painting for contemplation? While this “push and pull” creates tension within the painting, I think we’ve all been hijacked into creating noisy, aggressive paintings and sketches; rarely in urban sketching do I get a strong sense of any sober judgement and quiet examination. Instead, lots of static – lots of lights, action and movement, with little or no gravitas. Increasingly, I’m wondering if the only Urban Sketchers’ work I think I can live with is Butch Belair’s; similarly, I think the only living Australian artist whose work has any depth or sustaining interest is Rick Amor.
Consequently, I’m finding the work of Urban Sketchers very hard to live with; I can absorb it by flicking through a book (and most urban sketching is book-based, designed to be “read” flippantly, in a less-than-serious manner) rather than to be contemplated or meditated upon as a work of art. I appreciate that many Urban Sketchers don’t like being interpreted as artists and don’t view their work as Art, preferring the little-a “art” instead. I know modern art is all about moving art off walls. But If I can’t have it on my wall for a time and feel comfortable about its complexitiy and if it can’t reward me with constant viewing and re-viewing, I’m not sure it’s worth going to the trouble of trying to live with.