Edward Hopper (1882-1967) made beautiful shapes out of shadows. You notice it best in his etchings (see below). Big, dark masses that emphasized compositional design and added just a drop of “poison.” By his hands, those shapes went further to create a sense of brooding or mystery, even.
I chose to paint this snapshot (pictured above) from a trip to the Isle of Skye because of the big, dark shape created by the side of the building and its shadow on the grass. I love that shape. I love its size, its density, its contrast to the bright sunlight, its encompassing nature that obscures the line between building and land. It reduces the area to a wonderfully shaped mass—the hard angle of the roof and the prickled, natural edge through the grass. This reduction adds a touch of abstraction to an otherwise strictly representational picture. I wish I could paint shadows like that all day long.
Hopper was a student of Robert Henri (1865-1929), who taught the importance of identifying the major shapes in a picture and getting those right before moving on to anything else. For Henri, it was a matter of being organized (“A good painting is a remarkable feat of organization.” Amen.), and by establishing the “four or five largest masses” one could map out the picture and make better, easier choices in the details. “When we know the relative value of things we can do anything with them” (Henri, The Art Spirit, 1923)
Over in France, with a little career head start on Hopper, Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was painting stunning compositions with masses of color. He still employed strict draughtsmanship, but he pushed his shapes further toward abstraction. I wish I could paint like that all day long.
Very different painters in style, but all three wanted to depict the essential character of their subjects, and to get there they used the essential elements of design. I have trouble sticking to my “essentials,” and one of Henri’s suggestions is to paint quickly, after establishing the larger masses, of course: “Do it all in one sitting if you can. One minute if you can. There is no virtue in delaying.” Okay!
I Heart Art
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