Sunday, June 27, 2010

"The New School Marm"

This painting is called "The New School Marm" by John Falter.

The composition tells much of the story here. Putting a figure at the exact center of your picture can make a stiff and static picture but it's also a very powerful statement. If you want to make a powerful and commanding figure there's no better place to put them than at the center.

There's a nice circular frame for her that keeps your eye moving around her and keeps your eye from sliding out of the edges of the frame. The signs, the lamp, the porch, the horses, the old man, the kid, the dog and the stagecoach all create a circular frame for her. If you cover up the dog you will see how the picture would suffer if he wasn't there...there would be too much of a gap between the sidewalk and the stagecoach and your eye doesn't really bridge the gap, it gets stuck and might slide off the bottom of the page.

As I always say contrast can bring a lot of interest to a picture. Certainly that's true here.

First of all it's worth noting that she's the only female in the picture so she's already very different from everything else in the picture. Her stiff symmetrical pose (accentuated by her symmetrical bags) make her seem very stiff and full of tension and contrasts nicely with the natural, asymmetrical poses of the other figures.

I particularly like the storytelling of having the young kid in the lower right part of the frame. He's lower than her (so she feels more powerful than him) and I like his pose - his pose feels like he was just caught doing something wrong. That along with his bare feet seem to tell a seems as though his carefree days may be coming to an end with her arrival. And the pose of the man who has just taken his pipe out of his mouth also suggests that he, like the boy, is a bit awed and is witnessing something momentous in her arrival ...the picture captures such a great "pregnant pause" of a moment.

You'd assume that most great illustrations are about the most important moment of action or violence or characters interacting, but it seems to me that many great illustrations seem to be, instead, about this type of moment: the weighty pause before the action happens, before people meet or interact with each other.

All of the other figures are in the shade which helps to group them together and make them one unit. By contrast she's out in the sun which makes her seem separate and different from them. Also that way there's more contrast on her (and now when I say contrast I mean the difference between the light parts and the shadows) which, again, makes her feel more severe and powerful, and the bigger difference between dark and light draws your eye to her and gives her more "weight".

Always remember that the eye will always be attracted to the biggest area of contrast - if you put black against white in your picture that will be the biggest contrast. If there's no black against white then whatever the closest thing to that will draw the eye - either black against light grey, or white against dark grey....whatever it is.

Take a look at the way that stagecoach is leaving the frame to the left. Normally that can be a tricky thing to do because it's a strong directional thrust that could make you eye go to the left and out of the frame, especially because you're only seeing part of the stagecoach and horses. However the illustrator did several things to keep the stagecoach from ruining his composition. Certainly the woman is a strong visual "anchor" (for all the reasons I mentioned above) that keeps your eye revolving around her. Other things that help are things like the fact that the stagecoach is totally in shadow so the contrast (the difference between the light and the shadows) is lessened and doesn't attract your eye as much as the strong contrasts on her. Also he was careful to make sure the movement suggested is minimal...if the stagecoach seemed to be thundering out of there at high speed not only would that hurt the static feeling of the picture that makes it feel like such a momentous moment but also it would be directing your eye to the left and out of the frame in a stronger way that would hurt the composition. Also the back edge of the coach works as such a great frame for her (along with the edge of the porch) that it becomes an organic part of the composition that is all about her, so the coach becomes just another part of the overall story. Also the eye direction on the coach passengers is carefully handled so that none of them is looking out of the frame in a strong way. That would direct your attention out of the frame in a way that would be bad for the composition.

The man on the porch and the boy (even though we only see the back of his head) have very strong and clear eye direction towards the woman. And the woman has a very strong clear look back towards them. So that helps keep us anchored around them and again helps soften the effect of the stagecoach's direction to the left.

Anyway, I liked that picture when I spotted it. It's a nice simple picture but there's a lot going on there. Hope what I wrote about it does it justice and I hope that's all clear....

Also, if you're having any trouble with the new template (font too small, etc.) leave me a comment and I'll try to fix it.

More of the "Kicks in the Head" coming soon.


Wirt said...

Illuminating as always.
I like how the "Rooms and Board" sign next to the woman is obscured so the text doesn't distract.

Rafi said...

Thank you - I always enjoy your insights on composition.

There is one thing I'm not sure about: You claim that without the dog, our eyes would "slide" down out of the picture.
Don't you think the fact that the woman is so centered and contrasted (as you pointed out) would prevent that?
I think the dog completes "too much" of a frame around her, becoming too static.
Also, for variety, it would be nice to have some clear space between the coach on the left and the porch on the right.

In general, I wonder how much of a basis is there for this whole "eye sliding out of the picture" theory - I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on it.

Rodney Baker said...

Congrats on wrapping up your part of the film... and it's great to have you blogging again!

I hope this'll make sense...
I know you are addressing mostly composition but the thing that feels off to me continuity-wise is for the coach to be departing while the new Marm is standing there gawking. Even if she had jumped off while the coach had barely stopped, she couldn't have been standing there for very long. In this sense the composition (considering time) doesn't make sense continuity wise.

Rodney Baker said...

(With apologies to the original artist... here is a novice's attempt at an improved composition)

As it is composed does the eye tend to follow out of the painting stage/coach right?

Perhaps the artist could have drawn more attention to the Marm if the coach was stopped (customers still on it) and the coachman was taking her bags off?

Rodney Baker said...

Sorry... one more time...

This change in stagecoach motion from departing to parked would also resolve the issue with the dog as the dog could still be at that position but look at or near the Marm.

Regardless, I get the point of your post and we can't change the artwork. ;)

pbcbstudios said...


a british word meaning an old school teacher, usually a bespectacled virgin. somewhat old and stingy. fond of floral print granny panties.

Anonymous said...

I'm somewwat old and stingy, bespectacled and like granny pants - does that make me a School Marm?

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