Composing a Memory

Simple Memories
Street of My Youth (watercolor, 9-3/4×14-1/2) by Drew Thomas.

Drew Thomas gives us a nostalgic glimpse of his old neighborhood in Street of My Youth, emphasizing some of the same lonely vibes reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting. One of this watercolor?s most successful ploys is the attention-getting bull?s-eye Thomas created by placing the pink house in the center of the painting and then surrounding it with greens. The variety of the slanting roof shapes adds another nice touch to the composition. Touches like these help create a strong overall design, and remind us of the elements we can use to do so.

Thomas? aim was to make a factual portrait of a particular place and time of day. He realized this aim by drawing what he observed, along with maintaining the perspective and the degree of realism. However, the paleness of tonal values thwarts conviction. Stronger contrasts in value and color would communicate a more positive message while retaining the nostalgic mood.

Design Principles At Work
Creating passages in the painting. Stringing shapes of similar value or color?what I call ?linkage??is a simple way to improve otherwise ordinary shapes and to provide visual circulation throughout a composition. In the diagram at top, right, you can see how each middle-value shape leads from one to another without compromising the representational look of the work.

Interlocking shapes is another design principle that integrates and bonds the different parts of a painting. Thomas has successfully interlocked the sky and foliage with a great edge along the upper right. The little club-shaped tree in the original, however, could be improved by being made into a more varied and interlocking shape like the tree in my diagram. In addition, creating a stronger cast shadow under this tree that moves toward the left would add drama to this area.

Making shapes. Shape-making is absolutely essential to paintings. After all, paintings aren?t created from things but from shapes of value. These values may or may not have color. The diagram at bottom, right, shows an adjusted value pattern of interlocking, contrasting shapes. Notice the large white shape that becomes the center of interest. It?s interesting in its own right even if disassociated from its function as part of the illusion we call a picture. This sketch is made of four values: white, light midvalue, dark midvalue and black. Such value clarity and contrast help project the shapes of a painting.

Using values creatively. We need to distinguish between values that are made for the sake of the picture (light and dark), and those values resulting from the artist?s chosen illumination (light and shade). In terms of the light and dark in this picture, the roof areas could be made much darker and the foliage darker yet. Darkening these areas would improve the overall contrast, making the lighter values more luminous.

As for the light and shade aspect, I?d make the cast shadows on the front of the main house darker to match the shade around the corner. Doing this would dramatize the cast shadow under the porch roof. Such shapes of shadow are typically slanting and offer a pleasing relief from the architecture?s insistent verticals and horizontals. Still another area of the painting that could benefit from a greater variety of values is the windows. Since glass is reflective, various tones may be arbitrarily used. And the front door could also use some darker values, perhaps then making it become the center of interest.

Adding excitement. It?s always good to have one longest line in each composition for variety of measure and to give the design a backbone. The oblique line of the curb, however, could be made more interesting if it were given a resting stop along the way, such as with a parked vehicle or a figure.

Another large expanse of space that could be interrupted and made more entertaining is the side wall of the third house. For instance, in both diagrams I added a taller fir tree. Its height allows it to reach into the background foliage, making a configuration that?s more exciting than the little tree alone.

Street of My Youth could be further enlivened with some small accents of bright color. All the colors here seem to have the same pastel-like intensities. The windows in the front wall of the pink house, for instance, could echo some darker, brighter greens. This would not only add zip, but also tie the subject to the background. Thomas could also use a more intense red for the chimney.

Lessons Learned
Since Thomas admires the works of Edward Hopper, among other artists, I?d like to share a quote from German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that was carried in Hopper?s wallet: ?The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by the means of the world that is in me, all things being grasped, related, created, moulded, and reconstructed in a personal form and original manner.?

The first part of this quote aims to subjectify the objective realm, meaning Hopper wants to see what?s outside himself, and then re-create it in terms of his feelings and thoughts. The last half of the sentence is clearly advocating unique composition. Hopper believed any digression from this large aim would lead him to artistic boredom.

With some additional consideration to value, shapes and color, Thomas could go a long way toward better capturing his subjects in a personal style with additional zip.

About the Artist
?My biggest inspirations include Georgia O?Keeffe, Robert Kipniss and Edward Hopper,? says Drew Thomas, an art teacher in Maineville, Ohio. ?Being an art teacher keeps me motivated to find new ideas not only for my fifth- and sixth-grade students to explore, but also for my own artistic growth. My goals include making art that people enjoy on a consistent basis, as well as teaching art to children for as long as I can.?

Cathy Johnson is a contributing editor for Watercolor Magic, The Artist?s Magazine and Country Living. She?s currently working on a book on using watercolor pencils for North Light Books.

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