Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sidebar: All Joking About Composition Aside

"Sidebar" by Jim Carpenter, Acrylic on Paper, 30" x 22" 

In The Center From The Beginning...

The center is the hottest spot on the canvas. That is, your eye is going to go there and stay there for a while. I often refer to it as the "hitting the audience over the head with a bat" spot. Might as well also shout, "Do you get it? Do you see? It is about these 3 figures!"

The "abstract start" for this painting was especially intriguing because the most luscious part of it was in the center of the paper, and warning flags plagued me throughout the process of carving out first one, then two, then three overlapping figures in the center of the painting. Despite the rule that says "don't put anything in the center of the paper," I just couldn't help myself. I had to do it.

Yes. This is the start!  Makes you wonder, doesn't it!

It is fine to warn about "the center" of the paper. It is a good guideline, but sometimes the center of the paper, just like the center of the stage, is not only ok, it can also be perfectly perfect. The "in your face" spot is the perfect spot for Dolly to take in the big showstopper "Hello Dolly." It's perfectly ok to put anything there you want to put there as long as you feel the subject warrants it.  
That doesn't mean though that I was not concerned about these figures being in the hot spot. I just decided to allow it and deal with the results later.

I also found myself once again dipping into my bag of "staging the scene" tidbits as I worked with the three central figures.  The differences in height, gesture, and costume are all elements of the unspoken narrative and character development inherent in dramatic text. The story is told and character is revealed not just with words but also with position, gesture, physique, and costume.
 And so, a story - however you want to spin it - begins to develop around those three figures.  One might think that it's all about them.  On the other hand, maybe it is not.  

The Key Distraction

Ok, yes, it would seem that this painting is all about the three authoritative figures, who stand together robed and in conference smack dab in the middle of the canvas.  But then there is the nondescript figure off to the left side of the paper that keeps pulling my eye over there.  Why is that figure there?

I will admit that I was concerned (at first) that I had a figure there. Once again, I couldn't help myself. That is, I liked and wanted that figure there despite the fact that I could hear the critics in my head saying "my eye keeps being pulled off to the left by this nondescript figure, clearly distant and not the obvious focus of the painting. It is a distraction." So I took it out.

Then I put it back in because the painting seemed to fall apart without it. But then I thought about the eye being pulled and so I took it out again. It was not until I thought about the importance of trusting my instincts - of acknowledging that I wanted that distraction there - that I was able to put it in and leave it in. The distraction was the key that unlocked the meaning of the painting and led to the title, "Sidebar." 

Acknowledge The Distraction: There's Always More To The Story 

Without the nondescript figure to the left, the image on the canvas offered only one melodramatic note - three figures in conference.  With the little figure to the left creating tension - pulling the eye back and forth - the image offers the possibilities of a larger, more complex, narrative. Who is that figure? What is the figure's interest in the action taking place between the three central figures? What is that figure's relationship to the three in robes? And if this were a play, who would the play be about? 

In my imagination the play would be about the figure that I keep having to look at, the figure whose presence I am not allowed to forget, even when there are three robed figures in the hot spot with a big moon-like circle marking their activity. The sweeping symbolic text swirling around all the figures suggests a cosmic narrative that lifts this image to something more allegorical than literal.

If I take anything away from the experience of making this painting it might be to have more courage when it comes to listening to my own voice.  And to look to my own history of creative expression before negating it.  Trust the muse that is leading you to do those things you think you are not supposed to be doing.  


  1. Thank you for sharing your process with us, Jim. I didn't know you would give so much consideration and thought into your composition because I knew your method was very intuitive-based. But hey, don't make assumptions - I'm telling myself :-) Knowing more about your process certainly makes us appreciate your art more. And what a transformation from the beginning stage to the finished piece!

  2. Thanks, Lucy. Actually it is both intuitive and thoughtful - I mean, I think we all have that sense of where we want to put things on the page - we have an intuitive sense that guides us - and that intuitive sense is probably going to coincide with the theory which is just a writing down of some of the dominant ways we see things. So theory can help us to determine why something "feels" wrong - or why it "feels" right. It's sort of like which came first "the chicken or the egg,"