The longer I paint the more my eye focuses on how great painters presented their ideas rather than what they painted. Here are three wonderful paintings where the great 19th century American Winslow Homer gives our eyes some delightful fashion tips (OK, I'm kidding about the fashion tips part, but he does show us how inventive he can be in his paintings. Images courtesy Art Renewal Center). Let's take a look at what Homer can do with arranging his costumes to pump up the expressive volume.
At the top is Homer's watercolor Early Evening. The two women at the right have the spiffiest aprons. Both women stand totally erect, and without their aprons blowing off to the left, they'd look like two telephone poles. Almost undoubtedly the diagonal sweep of the aprons was something Homer consciously inserted into his scene, knowing it would breath life into his women. It's a note of visual surprise. Without it, these two women wouldn't draw our attention the way they do.
Below is Homer's oil Girl in the Orchard, where he takes the woman's outfit and does the exact opposite, letting the fabric fall straight down. The figure seems as vertical as a pillar on a Greek temple. But her job visually is to contrast as dramatically as she can the wildly wiggly and diagonal tree trunks that surround her. Homer understands that playing off of opposite qualities against each other makes the visual energy that drives a great painting. It just feels right when you see it done so well. The woman seems lost in thought, the trees perhaps echoing the liveliness of her internal monologue.
And below is Homer's watercolor Portrait of a Lady. It's a close up view letting us see all the folds and creases of the model's dress. Yet look at how light Homer keeps the shadows in her clothing. He doesn't want us to get lost in the fabric as he has bigger things in store for us.
This woman too has a strong emotional presence. This feeling has to be evoked in the viewer, and Homer uses all his tricks to make it happen. He wants us to feel this woman genuinely connects with her garden surroundings (too often, figures in paintings don't). An obvious invention by the artist is the arm of what looks like a rose bush reaching out in front of the woman's legs at a 45 degree angle. Just to the right of the endmost leaf, a slashing highlight continues that thrust downwards and to the right.
He doesn't stop there. Higher up he poses the woman's forearm to run exactly parallel with this same rose branch. Notice the little black accent of her belt showing you the angle of the elbow, and the strong note of the black scarf emphasizing the thumb side of her closer hand. Winslow is telling us where to look.
For dessert he wraps a black headband around her hair and sure enough, the same key diagonal appears again. What's so amazing about a painting at this level is how it creates this abstract network linking rosebush, forearm, and headband together with a shared movement while making it look so natural. Most viewers won't be aware of his compositional tricks, but they'll savor their mysterious flavor nonetheless.