When Less Is More

With Brass Bucket, artist Herbert Berman has created a complex composition with several fascinating textures and surfaces. His delight in his subject is obvious and he’s handled it with enthusiasm. Likewise, his choice of oil has helped him achieve some very dramatic effects. The flowers, fruit and dried leaves are interesting touches, as well.

The first thing that bothered me about this painting, though, was the colors Berman chose to paint the bucket. The colors suggest to me that it’s made of copper instead of brass. Copper is usually orange or burnt sienna, while brass is golden in color. The incongruity between the title and subject matter is a bit confusing. This point notwithstanding, there are several things Berman could consider to help make the bucket the true star of this painting.

Maximizing Impact
In this pencil sketch I’ve made some minor revisions for Brass Bucket. First, I’ve eliminated the large rose to better focus the viewer’s attention on the bucket. And I’ve simplified the pattern of leaves and branches on the table, again to help focus the attention on the bucket. To integrate the vase of flowers with the rest of the composition and return the eye to the bucket, I’ve brought the rose in the middle a bit more to the left and closer to the bucket. The pear on the right also has been moved a bit farther to the left, connecting the bucket with the vase and avoiding an awkward passage. A space between the bucket and this pear would have been acceptable and more comfortable if the space had been somewhat wider.

Tweaking the Image
Focusing the viewer’s attention. While Berman has definitely taken some steps to focus the viewer’s attention on the bucket, simplifying the composition would better accomplish this. There’s a lot going on and the eye doesn’t know where to go first. It doesn’t really matter how many elements Berman uses, but he should strive to make sure they all relate to the whole and not compete equally for the viewer’s attention. For instance, the large rose resting on the bucket may not be necessary?the delicate blossoms behind it are enough to bring interest to that area of the painting. The dried leaves and stems on the tabletop are interesting and their color relates well to the warm tones of the bucket. Their pattern, however, could be better organized. Fewer leaves arranged in a casual pattern to direct the eye back to the bucket would do the trick. (See my revision of Berman’s painting at right to see what I mean.)

Editing reflections. Light dances playfully on highly reflective surfaces?that’s why they’re so much fun to paint. Reflective surfaces can be tricky, however, because they reflect not just light, but everything around them. And Berman, working from life, has faithfully recorded many of the lights, highlights and reflections he observed in his original setup. When you look at Brass Bucket, you see that the brightest light is a line down the middle of the bucket, which was probably evident in the setup. It may have been the reflection of light hitting the vertical line of the easel, or perhaps the light hitting the white edge of the canvas. The strongest light on the bucket, however, should be the highlight, which is on the left side directly facing the light source. It’s important, therefore, to stop and decide what a reflection represents before you paint it. If it’s something within the picture plane, it may contribute to the excitement of the painting. But if it’s a reflection of something that isn’t within the painting?the side of your easel, for instance?you probably shouldn’t include it.

There are examples in art history where things outside of the painting are reflected in a surface within the work. The most common example is that of the artist painting a reflection of himself, as was the case in Vanitas Still Life by Pieter Claesz. Probably the most famous example of this is Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas. A mirror hanging on the wall behind the subjects, Infanta Margarita and her maids of honor, reflects the king and queen of Spain who aren’t in the picture itself. But most of the time, painting the reflection of an object outside the picture plane only leads to viewer confusion. (See Controlling Reflections at right for tips on properly setting up reflective subjects.)

To keep a consistent light source, Berman could eliminate or at least soften the reflection in the middle of the bucket. He can keep the reflection of the pear on the right, though, because it’s within the picture plane. Finally, Berman should be careful not to let the intensity of this reflection compete with the highlight on the bucket. Nothing on the shadow side of an object should be as bright as the light side.

Keeping your perspective. It’s easy to remember that straight lines recede to vanishing points on the horizon, but we sometimes forget that rounded lines and shapes must relate to it as well. For instance, the closer a circle is to the eye level, the flatter and more elliptical it will appear.

The circles in this painting are good, but they could be improved. The top of the vase on the right is only slightly curved, suggesting that the artist’s eye level is only a bit higher than the top of the vase. All other circles in the painting must follow through and remain consistent with this established eye level. The circles of the horizontal design of the vase should be curved more slightly upward as they travel farther from eye level. This subtle bit of drawing will contribute to the overall sense of reality. The circles of the top and bottom of the bucket follow this same rule. (For more information on drawing circles in perspective, see The Drawing Board column in the May 2001 issue.)

Lessons Learned
The bucket, so enthusiastically painted, is the star of the painting. Berman’s passion for the light and his subject is obvious and commendable. With minor simplification and a bit of editing, the painting would achieve even better focus and drama. Spaces within a painting that are quiet and allow the eye to rest are very important and contribute dramatically to the success of the whole.

The center of interest would also benefit from some simplification. It’s important to carefully study the source of all of the reflections in an object. A reflection that isn’t explained often confuses the form and can diminish the importance of the single light source. So before including any shadow or reflection, be sure that you understand its source and make a decision about its contribution to the success of the form and painting. Resisting the temptation to include everything he sees in the setup can help Berman take charge of his subject and keep improving his art.

About the Artist
Herbert Berman has studied drawing and painting at the Brooklyn Museum School, the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. Though initially a student of abstract painting, he was drawn to realism after visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ?Most of my work is academic,? says the Corvallis, Oregon, artist, ?but I enjoy exploring other styles. Painting enriches my life and keeps me active.?

Greg Albert is a drawing instructor and editorial director of North Light Books. The Cincinnati artist has written or contributed to several books.

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