Saturday, April 17, 2010

A lesson from Jan Davidsz de Heem: Spatial Relations

I received a commission for an oil on canvas based on this painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem, called A Table of Desserts, 1640 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]. I always cringe a little when a client wants to re-arrange the Masters. "That's nice," they'd say, "but can you happy it up a little?"

Being the mercenary whore that I am, I agreed to happy it up.

In this case, I was asked to remove some of the detail from the table top, and to include some elements of interest to the client. Champagne flutes, a vase and armoire belonging to the home owner.

I began by sketching everything in in monochrome to get a sense of comparative value, then adding layers of color in glazes. The dark colors were translucent, running up to opaque impasto in the highlights.

I laid in a tone in the background that I liked, to give me a sense of the overall temperature of the painting. I knew the fruits and elements on the table were going to be high chroma, so I wanted a more subdued and cool background to balance it a little.

Finally, I added details.

I should have resisted the request to re-do the background. I'm not exactly sure what happened there, but I ended up putting a pattern (!) on it. I woke up screaming a couple of nights that my eternal soul was damned for eternity, but I got over it when the check arrived. Here's the finished painting.

Right, now for the self-flagellation (I am Irish after all):

In my eagerness to jump in and start, I overlooked the fundamentals yet again. I'm talking about composition. It's a common error I have made in the past, and I try to be conscious of when starting any new project. Here, there are some pretty bad ones.

Fortunately, we're simple creatures who get easily distracted by shiny objects, so basic flaws go un-noticed when you throw a little glitter on them.

When you look at the footprint of the table elements, it's clear that there's some serious overcrowding going on. It's physically impossible for them all to occupy so tight a space. They'd be pushing each other off the table. It's obvious that I did not paint this from life; a simple lesson in spatial relations that can be solved by simply arranging the elements in the real world.

Now consider the large bowl. What happened the bottom end where the arrow is? Did it just snap off?

And what about that perspective: Where exactly is the vanishing point? Where is the horizon? The table shoots off into the stratosphere at (B), top left, yet the armoire is grounded (somewhat more accurately) towards the center of the canvas at (A).

Is that 'cherry twig' nailed down to the table? What is stopping it from falling off?

The lesson to be learned for me is a simple one. Take the time to study the space that the painted elements occupy. Block elements in and be mindful of their three-dimensionality. And above all [note to self]: do not pick up the tiny brush until you're done with the big one!

There are famous examples of the same issue. Carravaggio can be seen to flatten the spatial plane, but gets away with through his painterly flourishes and exceptional skill in depicting dramatic reality. Speaking of spatial discontinuity within his painting The Cardsharps, Eleanor Harper writes:

"Although three figures are rendered within this space, compositionally it is a painting with little cohesiveness and no perceptible depth. As we have seen before, the foremost model is utilized twice, appearing as both the cheat as well as the naive youth on the left hand side. The central figure glances down at his fellow player's cards, and yet his gaze is misdirected. Rather than improving his own chances, he stares unnaturally at the back of the naive youth. These two figures appear to be on the same spatial plane, with the central figure awkwardly and illogically to the left of the naive youth."

With regard to Salome with the Head of the Baptist, she writes

"As one examines specific works, spatial relationships, fragmentation, and a collage-like quality become increasingly apparent. While one may not notice such illusionistic qualities within individual figures often rendered very naturalistically, in fact the entire composition itself is overpowered by spatial discontinuity and a lack of cohesion. Figures appear layered, as though rendered upon the canvas successively rather than collectively, thus limiting the capacity for three dimensional space. Salome with the Head of the Baptist occupied Caravaggio's brush more than once. Great sensitivity was applied to the representation of Salome's facial features, yet she bears no physical relationship with her surroundings."

The same could easily be said of Carravaggio's The Musician

Want to test yourself against the Masters? John Baldessari once said, regarding the essential constitution of Art, simply that “you choose one thing over another. That’s the bottom line.” With that in mind, he chose Abraham Van Beyeren’s ‘banquet still life’ (1667) as the basis for a fun (and free) iPhone app. Play with the elements individually to create your own Dutch Still Life.


  1. You're not being hard enough on yourself.
    Who can tolerate this kind of sloppiness?

    Better break out that horsehair shirt and refund the payment until you can get this stuff right!

    LOL. *wink*

    Brilliant as usual.

    I love how you justify ineptitude with that other hack, Carravaggio.
    Don't let us down anymore, OK? We are expecting perfection after all.

  2. Like my Dad once said; "Don't be too soft on yourself!" ;)

  3. I was utterly educated and utterly charmed by this post. You even brought Caravaggio, my very favorite bad boy, into the saga. Bravo!

  4. This information is fabulous and I shared it will all my art students. Thank you for making the time to share your learning experience, it has been invaluable. Your work is exquisite and your sensitivity to detail and accuracy will only make you better with each painting. Hurray for you.

  5. I have only just discovered your blog last night and I am very enthralled with what I've read so far. Love the lessons you're imparting and your own critique.