Every good painting should function as good abstract design. No matter how representational or realistic, a painting must be based on an underlying composition of interesting shapes, effective use of contrast, and a path for the eye. Jeffrey Dean’s acrylic painting, Geese at Daybreak (acrylic on canvas, 11×14) is a compelling example of how a recognizable subject can form a strong, abstract pattern and, in turn, evoke a distinct and appealing mood.
The coloration pattern of the two geese and that pattern’s reflection on the water creates visually interesting shapes because of the varying dimensions—the “innies and outies.” The artist also included just enough color, texture and surface detail to convey dimension and keep the otherwise flat, dark shapes from becoming dark holes in the canvas. Had the shapes appeared too flat, the illusion of 3-D forms in space would not have been convincing.
The near black-and-white contrast packs a visual punch and is a good example of what the Japanese call notan—the pleasing arrangement of dark and light shapes, often with some figure-ground ambiguity, in a harmonious and balanced composition. This composition would function well even if it were turned upside down or sideways. Notice that the shapes break up the overall rectangle into uneven quadrants, which are visually more exciting than divisions of equal halves or quarters.
The dark shapes on the left of the composition have lots of visual energy or activity. This activity is contrasted and balanced dynamically by the void on the right. Slight differences in the white tints running horizontally across the painting suggest sky, distant shore and water, hinting at the scene’s depth. Just as the dark shapes of the geese and reflections merge into one pattern, the sky, fog and water blend into a subtly modulated shape. This tension between strong dark shapes and subtle water and sky contributes to the painting’s mood.
Dean positioned the shapes to exploit our normal habits of vision. Most people (in Western cultures) are accustomed to scanning an image or page from left to right and top to bottom—a habit picked up when learning to read. The shapes bleeding off the left provide an entry for the eye and form a rough triangle pointing to the right. This, combined with heads pointing to the right and our implicit knowledge that the geese are swimming toward the right, creates an irresistible sense of movement.
The tension between strong, dark shapes and subtle background—together with the impression of geese moving silently on the water into an almost amorphous void formed by the coalescence of morning sky, fog and water—creates a mood of tranquil meditation.
Although the choice of subject matter is not particularly original, the artist took a tried-and-true subject and composed it in a fresh, inviting way. Sometimes true elegance is achieved with minimal elements; Dean says as a lot with a little.
Geese at Daybreak is a quiet, unimposing little painting, but the exquisite execution of its almost abstract pattern of shapes combined with the strong contrast that forms an entertaining path for the eye results in an outstanding work.
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