A trip to Bangor, Maine, inspired Marilyn Van den Bogaerde to paint American Beauty. She tells us: ?Porches, rocking chairs, Fourth of July Americana and growing up back East were my inspiration—hence the name.?
This watercolor does a good job of leading the viewer?s eye to its center of interest, with directional help from the stairs, railings and cast shadows. The artist wants to tell us about the chair and window, which form a nicely overlapping duet on her ?stage.? At that well-placed focal point, she uses the only accent of warm color, a perfect complement to the more dominant blue of the wall.
The painting has a good value range and it?s nice to see some color mingling in the big washes. Since the artist?s goal was to show the rocking chair and window, the viewing angle is of utmost importance, and so is the depiction of the two main elements.
Art Principles At Work
Playing down distractions. It?s difficult to look at Van den Bogaerde?s focal point without being distracted by the details of the near railing. Perhaps she could have moved over a step or two to the right when painting (or taking the photograph) for a less obstructed view. The railing might not even be necessary at all, or it could be hinted at rather than given so much attention.
The other disadvantage of the railing is that it obliterates the telltale shapes of the chair. It?s actually a bit unclear that this is a rocking chair and not a regular one. While you don?t have to show every part, you do want it to be obvious what the object is so the viewer doesn?t waste time trying to figure it out. And sometimes, one shape outline will steal the thunder of another one. Here, this is the case with the nicely described outline of the newel post, which unfortunately blocks our view of the chair edge and armrest. Repositioning the chair or, again, shifting the viewpoint would help this problem.
Choosing the format. Whenever there?s something confusing or less interesting in a scene, a vignette approach can be something to consider. That way, you simply skip over (or just suggest) the less important parts. Vignettes are more difficult to execute, because the remaining white areas have to be designed with just as much care as the painted scene, but a properly executed vignette automatically takes the viewer to the center of interest.
The size and orientation of your painting surface also play a vital role. Ask yourself: Would the subject be better displayed in a vertical or horizontal format? A narrow city street scene, for instance, might be best expressed vertically. A little advance planning—such as my rough sketches at right—will give you ideas for the most effective way to make your statement.
Guiding the eye. Gradation is another wonderful tool for directing the viewer?s eye. On the house wall, for instance, it stands to reason that the top would receive less light than the lower part, which is more influenced by reflected light. This creates the opportunity to glaze a gradated wash over the blue wall, down to the existing shadow value.
Sketching Your Composition: Quick, rough sketches before you begin painting can help you determine the best way to tell your story. In these two thumbnails, I turned the rocking chair and shifted the point of view to avoid any distractions or confusing intersections of lines.
Making the most of reflective surfaces. Reflections give you a great opportunity to use alternating values, colors and temperatures. That?s what makes the bottom half of the window in American Beauty so effective. Unfortunately, that chance is missed in the top half. Think about what it could reflect; perhaps the window looks out on greenery. You could use a warm, complementary color next to the cool blue wall or pick up a reflection from the porch edge itself, as shown in my value sketch at right.
Using shadows to describe forms. Cast shadows take on the contour of whatever they?re covering and are therefore ideal to use as form describers. The cast shadow on the porch wall, for instance, describes the flatness of that wall. In addition, as shown in the sketch above, it could crawl over the window casing, become part of its shadow, drop deeper onto the glass and even describe what?s behind it. In my sketch it hints at curtain folds and a dark interior. Cast shadows will help to give more depth to the area.
Put Your Shadows to Work: Notice how the cast shadow in this sketch jumps over the window casing and helps define its form. I?ve also added depth to the scene by using shadows to outline curtains inside the window. The top of the window now also reflects its surroundings in a more effective way.
When painting a representational scene such as American Beauty, try to remember what?s important. What was the reason for choosing this subject? Don?t let a supporting player steal the limelight away from the star on your stage. The great California artist and teacher Rex Brandt used to advise his students to write a title on a slip of paper before starting a painting, then to look at that title sporadically during the painting process to stay on track. Another trick is to always look at the center of interest when painting, even when you?re working on the areas around it. That way you can achieve an ?in focus? and ?out of focus? look to your work—which helps the viewer zero in on exactly what you?re trying to say.
About the Artist
Marilyn Van den Bogaerde, of Marina, California, has been painting for seven years. Her work has been selected for local and statewide juried shows and she?s won second place and honorable mentions on several occasions. ?When my painting efforts fall short of my expectations,? she says, ?I consider it a learning experience and turn those pieces into bookmarks.?
Joanne Moore is managing editor for The Artist’s Magazine.