Spirit (oil, 14X18) by Marian Fortunati captures the spirit and energy of its subject. The painting’s success is built on interesting, expressive shapes, with strong contrasts of light and dark and energetic brushwork working together to express the movement and excitement of kids at play. Fortunati’s work is a great illustration of the Japanese concept of notan—the idea that a successful painting should be based on an abstract pattern of tonal values, even if it’s a representational image. Notan literally means dark-light and can be defined as a pleasing and attractive design made of contrasting light and dark shapes. The Japanese call this visual music.
When Spirit is reduced to a simplified value pattern, you can see how it is composed of interesting black, white and gray shapes (as shown in the accompanying diagram). What makes a shape visually interesting? An interesting shape has varying dimensions so no two intervals (such as the lengths of the sides) are the same. A good shape also has “innies and outies” that interlock with other shapes, as well as an oblique thrust that isn’t parallel to the sides of the frame. The diagram shows how shapes that make up this composition possess these characteristics. The diagram also reveals the composition’s alternating rhythm of tonal values. There’s a balance of alternating black, white and middle gray shapes, which keep the eye moving through the composition.
A few changes could make the picture even stronger. The lower left corner is awkward; the boy’s arm and hand seems to be crammed uncomfortably and unnaturally into the corner, almost as if the edge of the picture was an impenetrable wall stopping forward movement. Either cropping the hand and football, or allowing more space to the left of them would have prevented this sense of cramping. If the hand and football had been cropped by the edge, the viewer’s eye could move out of the frame, normally something you DON’T want to happen, but in this case, that outward thrust is appropriate for the subject.
The brushwork throughout the painting is energetic, giving the picture an appropriate sense of movement and action to its surface. The brushwork is neither too neat and regular nor too haphazard. And this is a minor point, but the cool brush strokes under chins of the left and right figures are too close in value to the faces, making the boys’ chins difficult to identify.
Overall, Spirit does indeed capture the spirit of its subject. Interesting shapes, strong value contrast and lively brushwork combine to make this heartfelt painting a moving image (in both the sense of motion as well as emotion).
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