Saturday, October 15, 2011

Subordinate Forms and Thinking Front to Back

Sweet Summer, 12x20, oil, canvas

I thought it might be interesting to consider a little thing I call Subordinate Forms.  This is a handy little tool to add to your painting toolbox.  You can pull it out, and  it will help add dimension and depth to your work.  When we are painting, especially in landscapes, but this rings true even in still life, we are trying to create the illusion of depth and distance.  In order to do that, first we have to think FRONT TO BACK.  Too often, and this is really often true in still life, we think side to side, and set up our still life all in a row across the tabletop.  In landscape, we dot trees or barns or whatever and march them across from left to right like little soldiers in formation.
Using the idea of subordinate forms just means that some things are in front of other things, and that not all planes are created equal.  
Really, its easy.

To start with, here's a really obvious example of NOT using subordinate forms or thinking front to back. (This was an example, intentionally BAD, I used in a workshop).
yes, this is pretty awful.
But I've seen folks make some of the mistakes we see in this painting over and over. Let's look at it for a minute. Besides really bad drawing, there are three things I want to point out.
1. The house appears to be sitting on top of the grass, not settled in to the earth with grass growing around it.
2. The trees are all in a row.  
3. The double track road appears to be sitting on top of the grass, not a part of the ground.

The reason all those things are a problem in this painting is that the artist (me) didn't think front to back, or think of the planes. (not those kind of planes silly).

September Chores.
Problem #1, solution.  If the artist considered "front to back" thinking, then she would have realized that the house is sitting in a field of grass (or weeds, could be weeds I guess).  In this case, the foundation of the house is behind the clumps of grass growing in front of it.(I think of it as being subordinate to the grass.) There should be an uneven edge to show the grass cluster growing up around the house, as above. (please do not draw little lines of grass -more about that in another post)
Problem #2.Solution.. The trees might be growing along a fenceline or at the edge of the field, but there will still be some trees and branches in front of others, or you CREATE this effect for a more artistic presentation.
Spring Thaw, Rio Nambe
Here's one example.  Note in particular the row of red willows and the dark pines growing behind them on the top right quadrant of this painting.  Can you see how I was pretty intent on not lining them up in a row, and made sure that some appeared to be in front of others, etc?  Instead of a ribbon of bushes or trees running across the snow, there is now more depth and distance, just by that one little trick... Besides, that's the way things really grow. (you can click on these images for a larger view, by the way.)

Problem #3 Solution. This is one I really do see alot.  In our problem painting (bless it's heart) the road doesn't appear to be ground with grass growing around and in it.  somehow it sort of floats above the grass. In reality,  the ground plane is lower than the grass... the grass grows and rises above the dirt.  In order to show that, a couple of easy tricks are first to paint the ground with horizontal strokes. This alone creates the feeling of it being a flat plane.  Here's an example, 

even in the unfinished part of this plein air piece, the ground planes are painted with side to side strokes.
I usually start by painting the grass with the same horizontal strokes, and then come back and add some small upright forms to show the progression into the distance.  Even in a field of grass or weeds, some things are behind (subordinate to) other things. Think of the grass as a form, and the ground as a form.  Forms have edges, and dimension. That means they will have shadows too. Look at the left edges of the ground - do you see very slight indications of shadow from the (slightly higher) grass?  
It's really just common sense. If we stand in a field, we are looking at multiple layers of grasses and clumps and clusters of weeds that recede into the distance - we depict that by putting some clumps in front of other clumps.  Do it in a painterly fashion, not (please) little stems of grass sticking up like needles.
detail of field, showing this front to back progression.
If you have a cast shadow falling across something like this field, remember that the edges of that shadow will show this same progression of front to back.  Some of the sunlit grasses will stick up in front of the shadowed grass, and vice versa. Look at the first painting in this post.

This idea of subordinate forms is true in skies also.  Remember not to paint your clouds dotted across the sky, but rather think of the sky as a big dome overhead... or maybe like a beamed ceiling.  The beams (clouds) recede into the distance.. the ones closest to us are in front of the ones further back. I know, I know, it seems so obvious,  but how many paintings do you see with only one layer of cloud shapes?
detail  from Partly Cloudy
I hope you find this useful, and maybe it'll help you to start thinking front to back, no matter what subject matter you are painting.... 

It's true in Still Life also. Even in this small study, you can see  I was intentional about creating  some depth by
making sure forms overlap and and some are in front of, and behind, others.

I'm on #3 of my 120 paintings project. You can visit that blog to go to 120 paintings

1 comment:

Page Railsback said...

WOW..Your paintings are absolutely gorgeous!