Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wyeth Shape Design Analysis

This week I broke down the shapes in N.C. Wyeth's Treasure Island endpaper illustration for my classes during a discussion about shape design. The hallmark of all great narrative artwork is effective composition and I think good composition hinges directly on strong shape design. When designing an attractive composition, it is very important to consider the following items: 
  1. Positive shapes (the shape of the actual object you are depicting)
  2. Negative Shapes (the shapes around those objects)
  3. Masses of Light and Shadow
  4. How these masses merge into larger shapes
  5. How all of the above shapes and masses relate to one another
The top sketch shows a simple tracing of the major positive shape masses as well as the major shadow masses. See how simply Wyeth groups together his major forms in this piece.

Within those broad masses, are the shapes that define and separate the individual elements. In this case, the individual figures and details. This gives definition and nuance without breaking up the overall mass of the sihlouette.

The major light and dark tonal masses also act to define the individual forms. Note how many of the light and dark masses merge into one another when simplified.

Here is a posterized and desaturated version of the piece. More variation of shape is added to the broad shape and value relationships. to further strengthen the overall effect of the already effective shapes and silhouettes. No positive or negative shape is left unexamined. the result is an exciting and dynamic composition that jumps from the page and invites the viewer in.

By analyzing great paintings in depth, one can gain insights and new appreciation for the reasons why certain works are so appealing and effective. I think it all boils down to great shape design and composition.


Brian said...

I have to wonder if N.C. Wyeth broke down the visual logic of this piece as you have done ... or if it just came naturally to him? I wonder if it's a little bit of both?

The thing that jumps out at me about this painting, aside from the great composition that you had mentioned, is the overly exagerated features of the pirates. Their hands and feet are huge. Their faces are large and brutish. Their strides twice as long as normal. Their posture stooped. The weight of their shovels and weapons are convincing. This illustration is very much alive.

But your insight here is something I have overlooked, even as much as I have seen this painting both in book and in real life. Thanks, great post!

Greg Newbold said...

Brian, I agree. Wyeth probably didn't consciously break down the shapes as I have done here while he was working on it, but it is obvious that he had a great feel for what makes a picture work. His studies under Howard Pyle obviously grounded him well in both storytelling and picture making, which he used to his full advantage. The personality of his characters and the mood he achieves is something that can't entirely be taught, some of that has to come from inside, but studying great pieces like this helps us gain new understanding of why things work.