Reviving Classic Designs

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In 1559 Pieter Bruegel the Elder understood a principle now known as “gradient shift” which means:  patterns not only get smaller in the size of their parts as they appear to recede but also lose edge acuity, lose complexity, and blend together. This sequencing gives a painting a feeling of depth as you see in Bruegel’s drawing of waves (example 1).  I recognized Bruegel’s example when I discovered a similar pattern in a mat of leaves laying on the surface of a slow small river.  Like Bruegel I moved the beholder’s point of view close to the surface (examples 2 and 3).

Example 1. Pieter Bruegel the Elder drawing from 1559,

Example 2. Step one of painting of leaves on a river, 36×36,

Example 3. Step two of painting of leaves on a river,

I find these patterns especially when I lower my point of view. Example 4 presents a similar composition with a similar gradient shift to example 3. This photo was taken in Yosemite National Park on the Merced River.

Example 4. Example of gradient shift from Yosemite,

My painting (example 3) also provides an example of a subtle bright serpentine shape cutting through the leafy matrix in the lower central area. Farther up in the painting I use a long slow dark bending shape to enhance the sense of deepening space.  This use of a proximate serpentine shape topped by slow bend can be found throughout art history.

First consider example 5, an ink wash sketch by Claude Lorrain in the mid 1600s. Here is the classic serpentine wending through a valley (above Rome) past the iconic Mountain (Soracte).  Similarly example 6, a design sketch from 1700 by Gaspar Van Wittel of the Tivoli Gorge demonstrates how the serpentine design unites a composition. It is the foundation of this composition.  An artist like Van Wittel made this sketch on location first in graphite and then later added pen and ink with ink washes. The painting would have been made in his studio, not in plein air.

Example 5, the classic sketch by Claude Lorrain, mid 1600s,

Example 6, Gaspar Van Wittel preparatory sketch from 1700,

In 1816 J.M.W. Turner traveled up to Crook of the Lune to paint the watercolor you see in example 7. Notice how close his composition is to the Van Wittel and also recalls Claude’s composition. Turner provides more of an aerial view by elevating the beholder’s point of view and letting the design appear more map-like.

Example 7. J.M.W. Turner watercolor using the serpentine design, 1816.

Flattening through fattening the serpentine shape can convert an image into a map-like state. If you flatten and fatten and, also sustain the qualities of “gradient shift” your image will appear to recede as well as scan vertically as you see in my examples 8 and 9. The beholder scans the image almost as if it were a map.

Example 7. Stonebridge reflection patterns with a superimposed diagram of the serpentine shape, 

Example 8, Stonebridge reflection patterns painting, 36×36 oil on white dibond,

I invite you to join me for a lecture at the White Gallery in Lakeville Connecticut on Saturday October 14 at Noon. The subject is “The Science of Expression”.  I will demonstrate how my exhibition there uses psychological and neuroscientific discoveries to make emotionally engaging images. The White Gallery at 342 Main Street in Lakeville, Ct. at 860 435 1029.

I invite you to join me at The Silvermine Art Center on Sunday evening October 29th at 4:30 PM for my lecture: The Science of Expression: How We Make and Express Emotion in Art and Ourselves.  Silvermine Art Center in New Canaan, Ct. call 203 966 6668 ext 2.

Join me this November at Art of the Carolinas November 12.  Contact Jerry’s Artarama.

November 12 workshop is: Fast City Life. Explore new methods, tools and perspectives to evoke cityscapes. Use registration code SU1709.

Visit then, enter art of the Carolinas in their search box to register for the workshops or, go directly to or, call 800 827 8478 ext 156.

If you find yourself near Sharon or Lakeville Connecticut then please visit the White Gallery in Lakeville, Connecticut, 342 Main Street. The exhibition is titled “David Dunlop’s Electric Cities”. Friday through Sunday Noon-4pm, 860 1029,




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