The Nexus of Attention

posted in: Painting | 7

When a pirate couldn’t sign his name he made his mark, frequently an  “x” or a “T”.  The nexus of  our attention is where two perpendicular lines cross to make  a cruciform or X pattern. This is a most basic and ancient design form. We can’t help looking at this area of maximum contrast.  Crossed strokes minimize  distraction and amplify the significance of  the single point of contrast, the intersection of marks. While DaVinci explored the design possibilities of various signs, like the triangle and the circle he also experimented with the cruciform design. You  see him use it in his unfinished painting of  St. Jerome ( example 1). Through the centuries artists have tested the cruciform design because of its inherent stability. And, stability is also its problem. Stability is fine if you are making an alphabet letter or a religious symbol but, it’s  too static for a painting. Da Vinci tried destabilizing the cruciform design as did other artists like George Inness ( example 3) and Richard Diebenkorn ( example 4).  All of these artists moved the center of the cross out of the center of the painting to give it  more dynamic balance.

As an example of the historic role of the cruciform shape and its relationship to the idea of balance I have  a 3200 year old ancient Egyptian example (example 4. Jackal Faced God Anubis weighs the heart of the recently deceased). Notice that the central intersection of the scale has been further accentuated.

example 1. Da Vinci’s Unfinished St. Jerome.april14,7, Leonardo Da Vinci,StJerome,unfinished

example 2. George Inness, Late Work. april14,7, George inness, late

example 3. Richard Diebenkorn. april14,7,diebenkorn streets

example 4. Egyptian example,1285 BCE.april14,7,JackalFaceAnubisWeighsHeart1285BC

Tilting the cruciform design or one of its arms can improve the dynamic potential of the design. I have tried this in addition to blurring the horizontal crossbeam in an effort to  invest more motion in this otherwise super-stable  form ( example 5, Grand Central Terminal’s Kiosk and Clock, oil , 36×36). I  also  pushed the central axis off to one side as Diebenkorn did (example 6, Grand Central Terminal, horizontal, 24×48). Diebenkorn would eventually push the vertical axis far to the side. Example 7 presents another less overt example of the cruciform design. Even more subtle is example 8, a photograph. I over-painted this photograph (example 9) with a new emphasis on a receding central perspective. This idea of convergence to a center is also used to augment the design in examples 5 and 7.

example 5. Grand Central Terminal, with off center cruciform design.april14,7,GCT, Light Patterns, oil on  anodized aluminum, 36x36_edited-3

example 6. horizontal of Grand Central Terminal.april14,7,GCT, Sideways , oil on anodized aluminum, 24x48

example 7. Grand Central Terminal, less overt cruciform design.april14,7,GCT,Time Travelers, 24x48

example 8. photograph with cruciform design.april14,7, city interior,met life lobby1a_edited-4

example 9. painting over the above photo.april14,7, city interior, 13x13_edited-1




7 Responses

  1. Gail Ingis

    David, thank you. You point out the importance of the most obvious. Another suggestion of yours that I will enjoy exploring.

  2. Jennifer Richard-Morrow

    Degas’ Absinthe Drinker is one I’ve always liked for that kind of composition. Thanks, these essays are alwys informative. (Looking forward to July’s workshop!)

  3. Summer

    Wow! to example 9.
    I recently started reading your postings, after viewing and painting with your dvds on landscape through time. I learned a lot from them all.
    Thank you, Summer

  4. Fredric Neuwirth

    Example #5 has a somewhat religious tone where the cruciform is incidental to the radiant light.
    #2 George Inness & #3 Diebenkorn the cruciform is more subtle and hard to find, less obvious.
    #9 to my eye has great potential but I would prefer it w/o the cruciform in the center; try for infinite space.

  5. William Child

    You continually impress me with your introspection into the past and present of specific artists and their works, speaking with an educated personal viewpoint that you present in an easily understood way. What an interesting and so poignant observation, as you many greats realized eventually, that stability is also the problem. I think when anything is totally stabile it anchors the perception and in some cases might be outstanding, but as an artist in most cases to offset the balance to some degree makes for a better attraction to the piece.

  6. loretta sharpe

    This is the first Diebenkorn I have seen that knocked me off my feet so I think I glimpse why so many artists are in love with his work.

  7. Sylvia Keller

    David, I have been watching your TV show every week and enjoy every step. Now I’ve purchased your oil painting DVD and hope to learn more. Thank you for your great teaching methods.

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