Painting By the Rules

When an artist chooses a medium that complements his temperament and describes his ideas and emotions through visual means, he communicates. In Geraniums (alkyd, 24×30), Canada-based artist Michael Swanson tells us something about his preference for classicism and formality. Furthermore, Swanson communicates his sense of drama in this work. The unexplained mystery of the happenings inside the room makes an interesting contrast to the clearly defined exterior. What allows Swanson to communicate successfully is his careful manipulation of standard artistic principles to serve his expressive purposes.

Areas to Work On
This particular subject allows Swanson’s compositional skills to shine. His expert use of the most essential components in painting, especially variety and contrast, keeps me interested in the scene. My eyes weave back and forth between the intriguing interior and textural exterior of the subject. But although this piece is quite well-done overall, two main areas—the geraniums and the interior room—seem to be fighting for dominance. A few simple adjustments will make this painting even stronger and more appealing.

Art Principles at Work
Adding interest through variety. The four major components in any composition—in order of importance—are shape, tonal value, color and texture. All of these components need to be presented in a variety of ways to keep the painting exciting and fresh. And Swanson has accomplished a great deal of variety in all of these areas. For example, the sizes of the irregular rocks in the wall are varied and different from the large, rectangular window shutters and the tiny foreground flowers. Likewise, rough textures on the exterior wall provide a nice foil to the smooth surfaces inside the room. Swanson has also used a wide range of tones, from the white of the towel hanging in the window to the dark window frame.

Directing the eye through variety. In addition to providing interest, variety can be used to guide a viewer’s eye around a composition. Swanson has cleverly combined static (or straight) lines with curvilinear (or rounded) elements to keep his audience involved in the piece. The dark beam above the window and the smooth mortar patch on the right frame the composition without distracting from it. Then the gentle sweep of the geraniums at the lower left continues the circular motion. And although the white tea towel overemphasizes that area a bit, it does serve to complete and re-start the path my eye is following.

Enhancing the center of interest. As the title suggests, the central feature of this painting is the mass of geraniums, not only because the overall shape is large, but also because red and green are complementary colors that vibrate and attract attention when used together. Swanson also wisely chose to surround the bright flowers and leaves with contrasting, neutral tones, which immediately draws my eye to the colorful mass. However, the interior room as seen through the window is almost equally dominant, causing the two areas to conflict.

Perhaps one reason the interior of the room seems so distracting and prominent is that the colors used here are inconsistent with the overall palette. This central block of cool colors interrupts the unity of this warm-toned piece. Instead of mixing what appears to be a black diluted with white, Swanson could mix complementary colors to create neutral, lively, warmer grays for inside the room, and limit his cool tones to a few small accents throughout the painting. Within the room, the bird cage could also be modified to be more subtle. Additionally, the dominant mass of flowers would benefit from a bit more variety to add interest. The small, repetitive shapes of the leaves could be varied, and some of the flowers could be increased or decreased in size to accentuate particular areas. Together, these color and shape adjustments would diminish the secondary focal point, giving greater prominence to the geraniums.

Lessons Learned
One of the greatest challenges faced by every artist is to have enough discipline to use rules that work without being obvious about them—and to know when to break them. Swanson is truly a skilled technician who used variety and contrast to bring graphic strength to his work. But perhaps more importantly, he put his heart in this painting, filling it with honest emotion and excitement. That’s how a true artist turns a nostalgic subject into a visual serenade, and communicates a message to his viewers.

About the Artist
Michael Swanson, a full-time painter, says art is a field of constant challenge. “Just when you think you’ve got it, you see or experience something in a different way. Suddenly, you’ve got to find a new way to express the experience.”

After studying at the Cornish School of Art in Seattle and at the Art League of California in San Francisco, Mary Ann Chater had a successful career as an art director for an advertising agency before taking up painting full time. Of her current career in watercolor, she says, “If someone I’m meeting for the first time asks me what I do and I say I paint in watercolor, the reaction is usually, ‘Oh that’s so hard.’ I don’t want anyone to think that making art is easy, but I’m always tempted to say, ‘Oh no, it’s not!’ “

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