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Jul 1, 2012


Laurie asks...
Hi Thomas,
Thanks for all the great information you provide through your blog. It is so edularious (educational+hilarious). I learn so much from you and get a chuckle too. Today I think maybe I learned why my paintings are dead--cool and warm passages are lacking (undoubtably some other stuff too). That said, I'm not exactly sure what a passage is. Is it any area? An area of another area? What?? If you have time to tell me I would so appreciate it.

Well, that's me, "Mr. Funny Guy," I guess. Thirty-two years ago I started off with the idea of becoming a gag or political cartoonist but quickly discovered people didn't appreciated my sense of humor.

So I went into Fine Art instead. (ha!)

But seriously...

'ArtSpeak' is often subjective and my definition of what a paint passage is won't be different. So I'll try to clarify how I use the term.

Yes Laurie, a paint passage is an area in a painting. Usually a part the artist hopes the viewer will respond to in some way. And there is usually some sort of important transition occurring within that passage. So, in my art-lingo, passage and transition become synonymous. I use them both interchangeably to convey the same thing.

So I repeat: a passage is an area in a painting where something is changing. A common passage is when a sky in a landscape is greenish-blue at the horizon and then transitions into a redder-blue as it goes upwards. (Which is what we normally see outside during the middle of the day.) But in my mind, a paint passage can be more than just a shift in hue. How the paint is applied to the canvas can become a passage. Paint can be laid down expressively, ranging from thin to thick, transparent to opaque, and smooth to impasto – to list only a few.

And to perhaps expand on what else a passage can be – in my world it can be more than the handling of the paint. A passage can take the form of a narrative or compositional device. For example: a landscape painter can emphasize a road in the foreground, and move it upwards so that the shape enters the picture frame in a way that leads the viewer into the mid- or far-ground. Which is what Laurie has done with her painting here: 

In her painting, Laurie uses the convergence of the rooftops and road to move our eyes deeply into the picture plane, upwards at a slight angle, to our left. And she does so rather effectively. The only question remaining is whether or not she provides a suitable payoff for pushing us into that corner. (And no, I'm not saying either way. I am NOT offering criticism here. Just using her painting as an example of how an artist can direct the viewer.) I mention payoff because I believe if a painter is going to emphatically push viewers in a specific direction then there should also be a reward for making them go there. Otherwise the effort can feel like a misdirection – which can be aesthetically interesting in a contemporary context, but is difficult for most viewers to appreciate. (Personally, I love an painter who excels at misdirection. A lot of emotional tension is generated when it is done well.)

And finally, in my mind, a paint passage requires at least two  contrasting attributes to flow seamlessly into each other. Such transitions help the eye move around the image. Even unconnected shapes can create a transition if the painter arranges them artfully. The flow of many paintings depend upon transitioning from larger, simpler forms out on the periphery, to smaller more detailed forms in the center of focus. (Look at the Degas above. Yes, there are two large dancers in the foreground, but the real center of focus is the upright dance master.) Other paintings rely upon what I call the spotlight effect, which is when value relationships are consciously  manipulated to increase in contrast as our eyes travel towards the center of interest. (In this case, Jesus' decent from the cross.) Lost and found edges can be manipulated to do the same thing, with selective sharpness magnetically attracting the eye. (Look at the contemporary painter Richard Schmid. Study that guy hard. He's a master at it.) Hue and saturation can be manipulated too. Almost anything can be used to create a passage.

If an artist learns to combine any or all of of these things with a high degree of skill then he or she has developed a mature artistic voice. We can also say the artist has moved beyond mere mimesis into something more interesting. That is, making art.



If you are interested signing up my upcoming August 'Essential Plein Air Techniques' workshop, click hereThere are only three spots left on a first-come, first serve basis, so don't delay if you want to join the fun! Learn to paint en plein air with a knowledgeable and respectful teacher. This class will be limited to 12 participants to guarantee quality one-on-one time with the instructor.

UPDATE: Because workshop sign-ups this year have been so quick I may offer a second outdoor class the following week, if there is enough interest. That will be decided after the first week closes.

2 reader comments:

Brenda Boylan said...

Hey Thomas,
Great explanation on transitions/passages. You showed me transitions at the easel and am looking for them in daily life. Your post puts a new twist to it and is exciting at best. Love the clown transition, HA!

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Oh D*mn! I missed that one. I should have slowed down the transition going back and forth between myself and my clown twin. Then I could have worked that into the post too!

Maybe I'll paint int Easton with that get-up...