Sewing Up a Composition with Edward Hopper
This is Edward Hopper's oil New York Interior. It has that casual, almost accidental pose to the figure that make you feel Hopper might have literally peered in through a window and seen just this. But at the same time the painting has that "just right" quality to it that suggests it is far from an accident.
I've always loved pose of the arms and hair of this seamstress. It's easier to see if one isolates key sections of the composition.
Here's the right arm. Look at how Hopper squeezes the empty space just below the woman's upper right arm by fluffing up that billowing white fabric she's sowing. Her arm and the uprising white cloth act like book ends pushing in on the empty brown space in the background. It's Hopper's way of instilling personality into the seemingly empty areas of his painting. He knew well that properly painted, every inch of his canvas could be made to speak to the viewer, stimulate their eyes and stir their emotions.
Hopper makes the sitter's other arm intriguing as well. Look at how he frames the slightly diagonal upper left arm with two long strands of her dark hair.
In both cases Hopper is exercising one of his greatest visual strengths. As he paints any one form he concentrates intensely on it, but at the same time he keeps shifting his eye off to the space next to what he is painting. This is not a small thing. I'm convinced that what art does for us is remind us that nothing really exists in complete isolation. Often hidden from us are the invisible threads that tie seemingly separate things together. In that first example I gave of Hopper squeezing the empty space under the models upraised right arm, Hopper is showing us how he keeps "scanning the field" of what's all around the arm as he struggles to realize a convincing limb for this woman lost in her sewing. I was a dreadful basketball player in high school. But I do remember the way the coach would sometimes have you practice a man-to-man defense, and other times would switch the strategy to a zone defense. In the latter, you had to keep sweeping your eye over an entire area instead of concentrating on just one opponent at a time. Painters like Hopper practice a "zone defense" when they painted. The basketball analogy comes to mind as Hopper was nearly 6' 6" and probably had a killer jump shot.
Here's my big oil painting From Day to Night that's on display in my solo exhibit at Friends School of Baltimore until Feb. 15.
The entire painting was done out of my imagination and some memory of looking down upon islands in the Penobscot Bay in Maine. Probably the key focal point in the painting is the narrow passageway between the two biggest islands. It was remembering how Hopper would move his solid forms closer together to make them appear to be pressing in on the empty interval between them that caused me to squeeze this passageway so tightly in my painting. It's a chance for the islands to bend and turn their outer contours into shapes that swell with importance.
My painting below, Deer Isle (currently in Inside Out: Still Life & Landscape, a group show at Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville, DE) shows some of the same kind of "look at the form next to what you are working on" philosophy.
The orange stand of trees at the left foreground was painted in simultaneously with the big dark mass of trees just behind them. They had to be as they reinforce each other. I had both batches of color mixed up and hopped back and forth between the two areas, careful not to let one rush to completion before the other. It's like two different musical notes sounding together as a chord.
Paintings don't talk. They don't move. Yet at their best they can touch the heart with surprising forcefulness. Painters have to see all the forms and intervals in their painting almost as living little beings. Each has a potential to play a specific role and exude its own special energy. A successful artist scans their eye across their forms, searching for ways to tie together what looked at first disconnected. This is one of the joys, and one of the essential meanings, of painting.