Linking Darks

It's a design strategy you've probably heard of before, but it bears repeating:

If you link together your little dark shapes into bigger units, you can simplify your value organization and give your composition more impact.

Stanhope Forbes The Seine Boat
This is not as easy as it sounds, and it takes deliberate effort to do it. Note how Forbes doesn't use too many values when rendering the dark garments and the net. By keeping them flat and nearly uniformly dark, they join together to frame the important light shapes.

Edward Simmons Old Woman Peeling an Orange
Simmons connects the woman's dark shawl to the door and the wall behind her, giving her head and hands more importance. I sometimes call this "shapewelding," and others have called it "notan" or "massing." It was an idea that was current in academic painting and illustration between about 1880 and 1920.

John Singer Sargent Padre Sebastiano
Sargent links the hat to the coat on the bed at left and the priest's shirt to the garments and other dark shapes behind him. He also unifies the white papers to the sheets on the bed. Then he takes it a step further and concentrates an oval of illumination in the center of the composition.

This concentration of light brings attention to his face, and raises our awareness that he is gazing out of a window behind us, where, judging from the plants on the desk, there must be a garden. These design choices give psychological power to the portrait: Am I reading into it, or does it make him seem embedded, ensconced in his cloistered cell, reflecting on his inner and outer life? Sargent didn't find this composition, he made it.

All of these paintings are nearly monochromatic; you could copy them with black, white, yellow ochre, and burnt sienna....Except for that wonderful little dash of blue in the Forbes.
"Shapewelding" is one of the compositional devices mentioned in my book Imaginative Realism. If you order a copy from me today, you can get it signed and shipped tomorrow. It's also available unsigned at Amazon
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