Let's take a look at a stunning portrait by Gordon Coutts, Waiting. I first saw this painting at the New South Wales Art Gallery. It stopped me in my tracks, despite it being a subtle painting in a dramatic room. Until that point, I had no idea who Coutts was. But it prompted me to learn more about his life and work. That's the power of a single painting.
I'll cover the following:
The whole painting is about the concept of "waiting". An immaculately dressed lady sits with a distant stare. Her bag packed ready to go. She plays the part well.
Waiting is a tricky concept to depict. It's subtle and nuanced, unlike anger or joy. Below are some key observations:
- Context plays an important role. The bag by her side, her jacket resting on the chair, her outfit and boots. She clearly has somewhere to go.
- She has a distant stare and relaxed facial features. There's no sense of joy or tension. No hint of a smile or tensing of the jaw. She is off in her own head.
- There is a sense of tension in her hands. I get the idea she is fidgeting in anticipation. That's what I do when I'm waiting for something.
Below are some others paintings that convey "waiting". It's worth looking for similarities between these works. Notice the subdued emotions, the use of negative space, and where the subjects are looking.
Below is the painting in grayscale. The subject is depicted with a full value range, from near black to near white. The background, on the other hand, is muted and compressed. Our eyes are particularly sensitive to value contrast, so our attention is drawn to the subject. The background falls back in terms of attention.
This isn't what you would see in reality. The background would have stronger darks and highlights. Coutts exercised his artistic license to manipulate the value range in order to direct our attention.
Tip: As the artist, you have the power to depart from the reference. You can exaggerate, cut, include, crop, or mute certain elements. But do so with reason. Use your artistic license to push your ideas about the subject. You're in risky territory if you depart from the reference without reason.
I created a notan of the painting using Photoshop (see below). This is the most basic design of lights and darks. It reveals an interesting and organized design. Notice how we can make out the subject even in this abstract form. That's the power of putting the right values in the right spots. You can convey a significant amount of information about the subject with a few light and dark shapes.
The notan also reveals two subtle links between the subject and her surroundings. Her hat links with the sky's reflection on the window. Her dress links with the light grass in the background. These links are less distinct in the full-color image. The notan tunes out much of the noise and allows us to see these basic value patterns.
As with value, there's edge contrast between the subject and background. The subject is sharp and crisp. She is depicted with mostly hard edges. The background is relatively soft and out-of-focus. Like we are looking at it through our peripheral vision. It is depicted with relatively soft edges.
The softness of the background mostly comes down to the use of rough brushwork. But the reduced contrast also plays a role. For example, take the two shapes below. Look at the edges separating the colors. The edges are sharp and distinct.
Watch what happens when we reduce the color contrast. Instead of orange against blue and red against green, we now have vivid orange against a weaker orange and gray against a lighter gray. Notice how the edges separating the colors appear softer and less distinct, even though the color transition is just as instantaneous. By reducing the color contrast, you can create the appearance of softer edges.
Highlights play an important role in reiterating key structures in the painting. The tip and bridge of the subject's nose, above her lips, and the contours of her ear. The edges and corners of the chair and shoes. These highlights act as exclamation points for these key structural areas. They tell us that there's a significant change in the surface's plane.
The fact that there are only a few highlights on her face suggests youth and feminine qualities. Compare this to Jan Lievens' Bearded Man With a Beret (one of the paintings analyzed in Composition Breakdown). More highlights, more contours. Fewer highlights, fewer contours, smoother surface.
The highlights are also subtle in terms of color. There isn't much contrast between the highlights and the surrounding light midtones. Even the glimmer of light in her eye is subtle. This plays into the understated nature of the painting.
Below is the painting with a three-by-three grid over the top (created with my free grid and grayscale tool), plus some key observations regarding the rule of thirds:
- The subject's torso follows the left vertical.
- The wall pushes just past the right vertical.
- Her body creates a diagonal line that moves through the top left and bottom right intersections. Notice the dark accents at each end: her hair and her boots.
- Her hands are close to the top right intersection.
- Each segment is unique.
Here are some key takeaways from this painting:
- A single painting can have a dramatic impact. Until I saw this painting in the New South Wales Art Gallery, I had no idea who Coutts was. It prompted me to learn more about his life and work.
- "Waiting" is a tricky concept to depict. It's subtle and nuanced. Look at master paintings about waiting and observe the similarities. You can do this with any subject or concept.
- Coutts exercised his artistic license to manipulate the value range. He compressed the background, pushing it back in terms of attention.
- A notan can reveal fundamental value patterns that can be hard to spot in the full-color image.
- By reducing the color contrast, you can create the appearance of softer edges.
- Highlights reiterate key structural points.
- Fewer highlights, fewer contours, smoother surface.
Thanks for Reading!
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