Friday, November 9, 2012

Focus, Dammit!

Do we even know why we do things? How many times have I said I can't do something when what I really mean is that I don't want to. It comes down to lack of awareness. 

So, why can't you meet me? 
"Because I have to take my cat to the vet". 
What'll happen if you don't take the cat to the vet? 
"It'll crap on the bed and my girlfriend will hate me." 

Okay, so you've weighed the consequences and chosen not to meet me. There's a clear distinction here between "I have to" (meaning I have no power) and "I choose not to" (meaning I have power). We make unconscious choices in our painting practice too. 

The awesome Dan Witz

For example, we could choose to go totally nuts on a portrait and paint every last pimple and split end on Angelina Jolie's head (she must have at least one), but why bother? I mean that honestly. Fine if you do that, but know why you've chosen to. Personally, I'm impressed by photorealism from a strictly technical standpoint, but I've little interest in it artistically. I choose to paint more loosely (or maybe I just can't paint that well). But the point is that anything short of exact duplication of nature is a deliberate choice, so why choose to paint loosely in this or that passage and tightly in another?

Bellini's painting of St. Francis in the Desert coming out of his cave in utter rapture is a great example. I've stared at this painting so many times, and it's crystalline clarity still makes me dizzy. Every element in the painting is given equal focus and attention to detail. In this instance, the technique serves the painting. Bellini made a deliberate choice to spend a bazillion hours painting every last blade of grass. But why?

St. Francis has clearly spent some time in this hermitic barred cage. His back to the sun, head buried in the Book and surrounded by the trappings of Man, his awareness of the world outside is like that of Plato's cave; limited to shadows cast on the walls. 

Bellini depicts the Moment of Clarity beautifully, where St. Francis turns around and seems to experience the world and the glory of it's creation for the very first time. Leaving his cane and sandals in the cave, he walks out and appears to scrunch his toes in the gravel (who doesn't love walking on sand for the first time in summer?), almost frozen in awe with arms wide open to the  world. he almost seems skewered on a sunbolt. It reminds me of the old shamanic vision quest. There's something distinctly hallucinogenic about the landscape, and it's one of the most powerful paintings I've ever seen.

Camille Corot

Or on the other hand maybe you like the soft landscapes of Corot and might choose to paint like that, where everything is blurred, hazy and romantic. The decision doesn't have to be an overall one. You could choose to manipulate the softness of individual edges within your composition, based upon your idea for the painting. Some amount of softness makes for charm, and is extremely popular.

"Corot developed a treatment (of) looking at trees with a very wide focus. He ignored individual leaves, and resolved them into masses of tone, here lost and here found more sharply against the sky. Subordinate masses of foliage within these main boundaries are treated in the same way, resolved into masses of infinitely varying edges. This play, this lost-and-foundness at his edges is one of the great distinguishing charms of Corot's trees." [source]

Vermeer, Milkmaid (detail)
Vermeer created the softest red haze around his painted flesh which makes it seem to glow. Everything is ever so slightly out of focus, perfect for those dusty, quiet interiors.

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (detail)
Hans Holbein rendered textures beautifully, but distinctly and with tightly bound outlines which makes them stand alone in his compositions. Whether we choose to leave the whole painting or even just a particular edge blurred or in tight focus is a matter of personal preference, but should be a conscious one. 

From the laws of human attraction to the kind of landscape we like to lay down our blanket and picnic in, there’s an innate human need for mystery. Don’t spell every last detail out for me; let me search for it. I do the same thing with my cat when I stick a treat into a rubber ball and let her find a way to get it out. We’re simple creatures, after all. J. R. R. Tolkien called it "that shimmer of suggestion that never becomes clear sight, but always hints at something deeper, further on."


  1. Good post, After attaining a basic skill level, knowing the why is even more important than than knowing the how-to to make any work of art. I see so much sculpture that may be polished but is not well thought out.

    1. It's amazing that the arc is from looseness (as an innocent child) to tightness (as a developing artist) and back to looseness again when we get old. It's the same old story, over and over.

  2. Interesting post,as always, thank you. I would love to see Bellini's St Francis in person. Have you read Pictures and Tears by James Elkins (Routledge)? It is an interesting book about why paintings move us, and that particular painting is featured at length.

    1. Thanks for the tip, alison. I'll definitely pick it up

  3. Great post Al...just read your interview on artisphereonline....i am in awe...bravo !! keep doing your great are an true inspiration ...All the Best Sylvie

  4. I've seen Bellini's St Francis before, I believe it is in the Frick Collection. now I have to go back and see it again.
    lil, side note for Dan Witz though, I saw one of his gallery shows and asked him about his process. Apparently, he prints a photo on to his canvas and paints over it in oil layers. Thats one way to speed up the process!

    1. That's hilarious about Dan Witz. I've done the same thing for some of my decorative panels, but never for an actual painting!
      Yeah, the Bellini is in the Frick collection. Just a fabulous painting, and huge too. You get kind of mesmerized in front of it.

  5. One would think that the focus on all the detail would make the eye stray from St. Francis, and yet it doesn't. What I notice is that the lights and shadows of the rocks point to him, then the rustic lattice stops the eye. What a great painting!

  6. Brilliant! Great painting to focus on (no pun intended- well, ok, maybe a little.)

  7. if I lived near the Frick I'd be there every day I could manage. Here is SF we had a Bronzino at the Legion of Honor that had a similar effect on me (re focus) but it's gone now. I think it got traded for a second round draft pick and some cash.

  8. Hi Alan. I'm really enjoying your site. Diana

  9. Bravo bravo as i said
    Allready ...
    Ça me prend du temps à lire mais c'est très ..... Instructif!