Keep it moving!

Kay Sluterbeck shows how it is possible to show movement even in a simple line drawing.

     Although still life, landscape, and portraits (which all show things that are NOT moving) will always be popular, artists also paint pictures that show action and movement.  This wasn’t always the case.

     For hundreds of years, nobody really understood how to make things in a painting or drawing look as if they were moving.  Up until the late 19th century, artists showed moving subjects as static shapes — like a frozen image, without any impact or vitality.  From flying birds to running horses, moving objects looked like they had been somehow stopped in motion, like the ancient paintings of bison on a cave wall.

     The Impressionists came up with a new way of looking at the world.  They used unconventional brushwork, novel color schemes, and radically different compositions that let them add the illusion of movement to their artwork.  This shocked Victorian society, but opened up a new world of subject matter.

     The rapid advancement of photography, which happened at about the same time, was a great boon to artists.  For instance, a galloping horse could be captured on film and artists could study the way its legs moved. Now there was no excuse for depicting a running horse like a “floating rocking horse” with its legs stuck out stiffly.   Even the slower film speeds of the time contributed to painting; because the blur of rolling wheels and fast-moving objects could be reproduced in paint or pencil for new effects.  Even sculptors found ways to “capture” motion in their work, using photographs as a reference.

     To show movement in a painting or drawing, there are four fundamental elements:  shape, color, “markmaking” and composition. 

     “Shape” means the entire form of an object.  Some things actually change shape when they move.  For instance, a bird perching on the feeder is an upright shape.  But that same bird changes to a horizontally extended shape when it’s flying.  So the artist should first try to analyze the shape of the object in motion, where it should be placed in the picture area, and how much space it should take up.  Reference photos are extremely helpful as long as the artist uses them only for reference and not as a crutch.

     Color can express movement in several ways.  Different kinds of movement call for different color schemes.  For instance, a variety of cool blues would work well for a calm painting of sailboats moving under a blue sky.  A room full of people dancing wildly to jazz music would call for a different color scheme — perhaps brilliant reds and other hot colors, with strong contrasts of darker colors to emphasize the action and add more drama.  Color can express movement all by itself — blue brushstrokes going diagonally across a page look like rippling water, and if you add a few loose red and gold strokes to this you have fish swimming in that water!

     “Markmaking” includes brushwork and pencil drawing and means the way each individual artist makes marks on the surface with a brush or pencil.  The way you use your brush (or pencil) has a definite effect on the way the finished picture looks and can be used to add to the sense of movement.  A swimmer might be painted with smooth, flowing strokes, while jagged, quick strokes could convey the excitement of a horse race.  Each artist has his or her own personal kind of markmaking, like a signature; if you are an artist, take the time to learn what kind of markmaking “feels” right to you.

     “Composition” is a complex subject, but it includes decisions about what angle, position and perspective will give the greatest impression of action.  An example would be a painting of a horse race.  Should the horses be charging toward the viewer, or should they be seen from the side, or as a 3/4 view coming around a turn?   What is the focal point?  Where should the focal point be on the painting?  What shapes are needed to balance the picture?  What kind of lines will best convey motion?  These are only a few of the questions involved with composition. 

     When doing an action composition, the artist must remember to leave a space for the subject to move into.  Consider a picture of a running horse.  If the horse’s nose is too close to the edge of the painting, the viewer will feel as if the animal is going to either run out of the painting or crash into the frame.  So a swiftly-moving object will need “breathing room” in the direction it is moving, to give the feeling that it will continue to move.  Also, because people in western culture read from left to right, moving objects will often appear to have more movement and speed if the artist makes them face right. 

     Of course, we’ve only scratched the surface of this exciting art technique.  You might enjoy analyzing paintings and pictures that involve movement, to discover how, and how well, the artist handled a “moving target.”

Published by on December 2011. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, HowDoit PB dept, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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