Eyes on the Prize

What Are You Looking At? Turkey Lurkey (colored pencil, 10×5) by Allison Fagan.

If the goal of art is to get the viewers? attention and evoke a reaction, then the colored pencil painting Turkey Lurkey is certainly a success. This is a painting that can?t be ignored. The subject may lack the pleasant aesthetics of a preening peacock, but Allison Fagan?s straightforward presentation leaves us little doubt as to its regal presence. Strong, arrogant and demanding, the focal point unabashedly controls the picture plane with its center-stage composition. The real beauty of this rendition is its ability to make us smile.

What adds to the energy of this painting is Fagan?s decision to juxtapose contrasts (through color, detail, intensity and temperature), which produces an underlying tension. However, as arresting as this portrait is, it could be improved with a little more attention to composition, value and depth.

Art Principles At Work
Integrating the background with your subject. Backgrounds are probably the most underrated (and most overlooked) area of two-dimensional artwork. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that they?re so challenging. Many emerging artists will enthusiastically dive headfirst into the subject matter without giving any regard to its foundation—that?s why we see so many paintings of floating fruit, flowers and faces.

In this painting, the ambiguous backdrop for such a detailed rendering was a good choice. But as depicted, there appear to be only three planes of depth: the turkey in the foreground, shadows in the mid-ground and green grass in the background. Actually, the dark shadow to the right of the subject is another (or fourth) plane. It would be less confusing, and perhaps more interesting, if the background receded in a deeper illusion of space between each plane. This could be accomplished by:

  • Employing a greater variance of values between the subject (foreground) and the first and second shadows (mid-ground).
  • Sublimating the form, colors and brightness of the repetitive feather shapes in the background (bottom left of painting) through the use of soft and lost edges and by graying down the light pink and blue areas.
  • Changing to a slightly cooler temperature between the subject and shadows by adding deeper blues and violets in the background. (Some shadowy areas appear to be burnished with lighter colors; if Fagan was hoping to make the shadows less textured, a colorless blender would smooth out the pigment without changing its value.)

Reducing distractions from the focal point. Fagan was concerned that the green tone in the painting?s background may be ?too garish,? but I think it works beautifully. This bright hue serves as a foil to the dark masses and makes the dominant red area vibrate.

What is distracting, however, is the shape of the dark forms and the patterns they produce. The green ?holes? under the turkey?s beak and to the right of its neck demand attention, while the V-shaped dark areas that created them lead your eyes out of the picture frame. Repositioning the background shapes to eliminate the holes would make a clearer statement.

Adding to the confusion is the repetitive shape of the beak and waddle with the background shadow and pink highlight under the neck. A black-and-white version of this painting (below) shows how these two areas look connected. Once again, a change in value and shape, as in my sketch on page 36, would divide this section into two separate planes.

Tweaking the composition. The tightly cropped vertical composition dramatically zones in on the subject, but it also limits the artist?s options for establishing background patterns and movement. Extending the left side of the painting just another inch would add more background space to the left of center. This would make the composition less static while still maintaining its vertical appeal.

Lessons Learned
When the subject is so strong in its presentation, a softer refrain will still support it. You can eliminate competing elements. The key is to not feel obligated to take your reference materials literally. Work in your own style and evaluate your intentions. Remember to give as much forethought to your subject?s surroundings as you would any other aspect of the painting. The best plan is usually to sublimate the background into a supporting role. This can be accomplished by diffusing values, simplifying patterns, abstracting certain details, varying temperatures and creating distance.

Turkey Lurkey, which was painted with obvious verve, is anything but a still life. Rife with attitude, the subject?s whimsical appearance and blatant posturing elevate the stature of this otherwise ordinary creature. Using a myriad of contrasting elements, Fagan has successfully animated an unlikely model to hold the viewer?s interest.

About the Artist
Allison Fagan, from Ontario, Canada, is a signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America, having been juried into three of its international exhibitions. She?s also a workshop instructor and frequent guest artist at the primary and secondary school levels. ?It?s my goal to get others as excited as I am about this wonderful medium,? she says. ?It?s thrilling to see a timid student let go and just have fun with pencils.?

Loraine Crouch is associate editor for The Artist’s Magazine.

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