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When it comes to the discussion of the analysis of visual art, many people agree that the work can be approached by analyzing the arrangement of visual elements like lines, shapes, lights, colors and space, while others believe it is important to know how each work is made. But majority of us will agree that the a successful work of visual need to meet the principle of design, which is the quality of balance. But overall, all these discussions refer to the information artists intend to store by using paintings as containers. William Pether’s An Hermit: The Philosopher (Hermit Studying Anatomy) and Johannes Vermeer’ Woman Holding a Balance are two examples of how artists efficiently store and convey their information.
An Hermit: The Philosopher (Hermit Studying Anatomy) was painted in 1770 by an English painter William Pether. The work is currently displayed in Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts in Stanford. In this work, the painter presents a scene of two young men happen to see a recluse contemplating a skeleton in a cave. The time when this work was created is the time when many philosophers rejected the idea that rational science could reveal all the working of the body and mind. The isolated recluse and surprised two young man shows the public misunderstanding a dedicated philosopher would face while exploring for the way to the truth. Johannes Vermeer’ Woman Holding a Balance was painted in 1664. In this painting, a 17th century woman is holding a balance in a room with a painting on the wall and table with jewelry on it.
From the ancient time of humans, painting has been a major way human use to present the appearance of things in the nature. Through out the development of paintings, humans invented dozens of media to support this presence. As time goes by, humans develop a skill of using versatile medium of painting which is called oil. Both An Hermit: The Philosopher and Woman Holding a Balance are painted by oil. Different from prior medias like encaustic, fresco and tempura, oil gives painters a chance to create a continues tons and hues. With this advantage, painters were eventually able to apply lights and shades in their paintings and make the objects in the paintings more realistic. That is why we see elements in An Hermit: The Philosopher and Woman Holding a Balance are so realistic. To an extend, they are just like photos.
Whatever medias painters use, the main purpose for artists is still efficiently arranging major elements in every painting. As a fundamental element of nature, lines divide things and create boundaries. When we look at both An Hermit: The Philosopher and Woman Holding a Balance, we can also see how artists draw their lines. Both artists use implied lines in their paintings. Different from outline and contour lines, which have continues mark, implied lines make connections with no visual suggest. In An Hermit: The Philosopher, the painter composes three separate area of piece- the recluse, the two young people and the sky. And in Woman Holding a Balance, the artist divide the painting to three areas as well. Those three areas are the woman, the table and the painting on the wall. As viewers, we can easily figure out that our eye contact with the painting is directed by each piece of the painting. The line of sight is what generate those implied lines we see by leading to a sense of enclosure and connection.
Other than implied lines, shape and space also play an important role in the construction of painting since the efficiency of arranging them is highly related to the quality of presentation. During painting, artists uses visual illusions to create a sense of depth and make three dimension objects on a two dimension plain. In An Hermit: The Philosopher, viewer can see the tow young people appear smaller than the recluse in the cave and realize that they are the people sneaking in. This illusion is based on our recognition of that objects close to us appear larger than objects far away. In Woman Holding a Balance, the table and the wall converge at a single vanish point beyond the painting. The technique used here is called one-pint learner perspective. By using this technique, the artist makes viewers who see Woman Holding a Balance will feel the illusion of a real space.
Artists also use lights function a stage spotlight in the paintings. In An Hermit: The Philosopher, it is obvious that the artist uses contrast between light and dark to dominate the foreground elements in the painting. The two young people and the recluse are illuminated in strong spotlights; their physical features and the folds of clothing are also modeled. The artist here use the technique of tenebrism to emphasize his topic- the confusing public which is represented by two young people and the dedicated philosopher which is represented by the recluse. In Woman Holding a Balance, the artist also uses tenebrism to highlight the woman and the painting hanging on the wall. But in this case, the artist use the nature light comes from outside window as the spotlight. In both paintings, artists apply contrast between light and dark to clarify objects they wan to emphasize. By painting everything else under a shade, viewers’ attention is drawn to these emphasis which is called focal points.
The efficiency of arrangement of lines, space and lights is meant to meet the principle of design. The principle of designs are usually discussed in terms of the qualities of balance. Although balance refers to the even distribution of weight in a composition, artists normally deal with visual weight instead of actual weight. In An Hermit: The Philosopher, the central axis of the composition runs through the cave edge between two young people and the recluse. One contemplating recluse weights as the same as two young people since a dedicated philosopher, which is what the recluse represents, is more valuable than a single normal person for society. This utilization of visual balance is similar to Woman Holding a Balance. In Woman Holding a Balance, the painting is balanced by the jewelry on the woman’s right which represents the weight of wealth and the painting of Last Judgement which represents the weight of souls. As the two paintings show, visual balance is not regulated by any “rules”, artists normally apply their psychological feelings to reach the sense of balance.
As a way of conveying message, painting has gone beyond the simply representing of the appearance of natural world. An Hermit: The Philosopher and Woman Holding a Balance both display certain culture context in their specific time period. Artists use those culture context to convey their own sense of their world’s meaning. Just like An Hermit: The Philosopher tell viewers the road to pursue the universal truth can be lonely and struggling and Woman Holding a Balance tells viewers the artist’s expectation for how to live, analyzing the works of art will never stop on the technical level. It requires every viewer digging out the deep information under the surface of those flats. This is what motivate artists continuing create wonderful works to make this world more colorful and lovely.
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