Some interesting thoughts on the origins of complex composition inspired by a flashback of my childhood.

-By Ron Lemen

First of all I would like to thank the many beyond amazing talented artists here at Muddy Colors that gave Vanessa and me a chance to share some of our stories, history, and knowledge with all of you. I will admit that when I first heard about this I thought I had everything together and would blaze through the first article with flying colors but they were soon muddied up when I began. But in all honesty, just thinking about this first article really broke me open with some glimpses from my past, a history of sorts as to why I choose some of the choices I make as a preferred way of working. I’d like to share this discovery as my first article before launching into a series of “how-to” articles. Thank you all again and I look forward to sharing what I can to help you improve your craft.

I like raised paint with lots of energy in it and brush strokes with many colors in them you cannot meticulously paint one by one. I love story and I am taken by complex design. I didn’t become aware of why I make life miserable for myself and build pictures that are too complex for short deadlines, painted in a way that is little appreciated unless standing before the actual piece, and reproduces like crap because of all the shadows that the brush strokes cast when lit from ANY direction until I wrote this article. Here is what I discovered.

This Dean Cornwell example shows thick paint throughout and the top left corner is a series of “chords”, a complex colored brush stroke.

This is a close up of a Nicolai Fechin painting.  Here you can see the thickness of the paint and how beautiful it looks and how meaningful the stroke is to what he painted.

I have vivid memories as a child of exploring antique stores and glass stores, and watching my parents as they mined bins and box after box of bits of colored glass called panels regardless of whether they were square or a broken shard, looking for just the right color, just the right texture, just the right noise in crazy cavernous buildings throughout the Sacramento Valley all the way out to the San Francisco Bay Area.  These were adventurous places where caution was exercised, because with just the right pressure glass would shatter (barely touching or leaning against), or skin would rip and tear with ease just turning around down an aisle.  BUT oh man, the colors that danced around the rooms and aisles between bins and stalls were fantastical like a kaleidoscopic portal to a child’s dreamland.

These glass racks pale in comparison to the aisles of stores we used to frequent.

In my eyes all those bits of glass my mom and dad would sift through looked like chunks and shards from broken things, and I couldn’t quite grasp their jubilant cries of victory when that “special” piece of glass was found.  These shards of glass were gold nuggets to my folks if the streaks or the misty frosted bubbles flowed in just the right direction and more so if there happened to be a unique splash of colors combined together.

Some interesting pieces of glass panels.  Notice the interesting marbling, swirling, etc. that look very much like brush strokes.  These patterns are chosen very carefully to be used in a stained glass window, lamp, etc. very much like a brushstroke in a painting.

My parents worked to transform several famous Sacramento painter’s works of art into stained glass windows for private collectors.  Each piece of glass represented a brush stroke and the “recording” of the stroke, or the orchestration of colors in a “chord” if any glass could be found that mimicked these complex brush strokes of many colors.  Each brush stroke carefully planned to look spontaneous, and my parents had to find the perfect glass to emulate this effortless look and feel that was never effortless to begin with.

I was exposed to exquisite colors from these amazing pieces of glass.  I was also exposed to texture and noise with the different colors blown together.  And no matter how many photos they would shoot of the windows they made, nothing every beat the experience of looking through them live.  My parents put together complex drawings and diagrams of the paintings they were replicating and mapped them out on illustration board that would then be cut out and used as the templates for each piece of glass they would cut and assemble into the final window.  And with these thoughts going through my head as I was thinking about the history of painting and how it originated with stained glass windows and tapestries, and as I had a flash flood of images from my childhood, I started to see the connections to my favorite artists, my style of working, my preference of color choices, and my taste in compositions more clearly.

An example of the intricate detail of a stained glass window.  All those shapes are calculated and worked out before any glass is cut.

I love painters like Dean Cornwell, during his first two periods or styles, P. P. Rubens, Fechin, Mucha, Brangwyn, Wyeth, Rembrandt, Rockwell, etc.  I love them in print and double that, no, quadruple that when viewing their canvases live.  I see the marks they made, the design they perfected, and the life and energy they found in the materials of their craft that I believe is why the canvases they made of the stories they tell are so vivid and feel more alive than they look painted.  Whether I succeed or fail, and fail a lot, this is what I search to find in everything I craft.

Dean Cornwell after he studied with Harvey Dunn.  This is his first period of illustration, the influence of Harvey Dunn is very evident here.
This is Peter Paul Rubens.  The figures in his paintings are mostly life size, the canvases enormous and the compositions flawless.
Nicolai Fechin.  The figures in this painting are life size, the brush work loose but accurate and lively.
An example of Alphonse Mucha.  These are a series of paintings depicting the four seasons.  Even the frames of his canvases were designed meticulously to match each canvas.
Frank Brangwyn and his exquisite color and shape control.  It looks and feels so much like a tapestry or stained glass window.
N. C. Wyeth and his impeccable shape design and color control.
Rembrandt and his amazing control of paint, unlike any other painter in the history of painting.
Norman Rockwell and his fantastic control of composition, light, form, color, texture, um, just about everything a painter aspires to master all in one.

These painters painted with clear, easy to read shapes.  The differences in light and shadow, and the half tones in between are easy to read and clear to the eye.  The colors are controlled and well designed together.    The textures within each shape space are cleverly designed and do not take away from the whole and are not overly busy or demanding.
These painters were very much inspired by the complex compositions developed by the artisans, craftsmen, and smiths of medieval tapestries and stained glass windows, the complex Byzantine murals, or by artists who were inspired by these historic craftsmen.  In fact, it is said that the many complex geometric composition templates in painting were borrowed from the mathematically calculated grid systems developed by the mystery artists who drafted the cartoons for the ancient tapestries, murals, and windows.  These tools were predecessors to our modern grids and tools that help to control all the elements within a pictorial space also called the pictorial matrix. 
Here you can see the complex spaces well controlled and abstracted to serve as a whole.  Renaissance painters sought out this mastery of control by studying these windows and the tapestries and murals of the ancients.

This tapestry is The Story of David.  Remember that tapestries are made 1 fiber at a time, and are not painted on after they are woven.  This requires intense planning and preparation for every fiber to land exactly where it is supposed to go.

An example of Byzantine craftsmanship.

Crafting a painting of this level of complexity means that the drawing which precedes the painted finish needs to be thoroughly designed.  This stage of building the composition is about converging the story, all of the props and figures together, bound by an invisible complex design grid hidden in the story like a magician’s mirrors to the tricks performed.  All of this so the painter can focus solely on the final performance and to finish with whatever elegance or bravura necessary in the brushwork.  In many ways, the design of the piece and the final shapes designed within its matrix are what inspire the brushwork and the quality of the paint that represents the various spaces, surface facets or changes, and textures.  These tiles are in many ways very much like painted shards of glass.

Here is a great example of one of Dean Cornwell’s fantastic drawings.  These are purely utilitarian, no vanity drawing in his preparation drawings.  Every design is worked out, the abstractions built and all the parts of the picture are connected and designed as a light, half tone or shadow tone.

Here is a fine example of a sketch by Peter Paul Rubens (After Leonardo daVinci).  The different colored washes and chalks help denote form and space, light and shadow.  These drawings were done to this level of finish to work out the forms for the final painting.

The painters I have listed worked with controlled color and push the color beyond a  tonalist approach.  All of these painters worked with the properties of the paint, sculpting with it, layering it and playing with mediums to elevate it or suspend it to create surface effects and the illusion of textures.  And in many ways, one could say that a good number of paintings by these painters look like stained glass windows or feel similar to the ancient tapestries.

This Dean Cornwell is a great example of a painting that looks and feels like a tapestry or stained glass window.

This Frank Brangwyn painting also feels very much like a controlled tapestry or a stained glass window, right down to the heavy lines that seem to surround almost every color in the image.
Many of the painters I have mentioned above are also linked to one another through a lineage of teaching using certain tools that ultimately lead us to what we have today as the current methods of teaching using what are called the “construction method” and the “Reilly method” of figure drawing and figure composition.  These modern tools of the trade share a direct lineage back to stained glass windows, tapestries, murals and sculptural reliefs.

An example of the Reilly abstractions that were coined by Frank Reilly, who gleaned most of this knowledge from Dean Cornwell, who got it from Frank Brangwyn who learned it from his father and the other craftsmen he worked with in his youth who learned abstractions and composition grids from their mentors that learned from theirs spanning back to the medieval period and possibly before that.

It is really interesting what grabs our attention, what we favor or enjoy and what we end up doing in our own work because of the influences we have in our lives.  Until recently, I have not really stopped to pay too much attention to these things in my life.  While it doesn’t help me make a better brushstroke I do feel more complete understanding how I have come to be the way I am as an artist and why.  I also find it fascinating that what I do might really have been informed so early on in my life.  I wonder just how much what I like to look at and do in my own work has been from discovery along the way or was it shaped early on and everything after that time is nothing more than collecting what we already have a certain bias towards much like collecting iron with a magnet in sand.

I hope that you caught on to many of the little nuggets of information that I dropped in to this article that we will certainly revisit very soon.  I have several talking points I wanted to make in this first article but this diversion really helped me figure out a way to briefly touch upon them here and allows me to expand upon them with greater detail later.