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How the hell do you compose a face?

In an earlier blogpost I talked about Titian’s great skills of composition. Here I want to show that even when he paints a face he is composing, trying like crazy to create a feeling of rightness, of harmony. 
Most people would say a portrait is good if it looks like the person, and the closer it looks like the person, the better it is. Hmm. On the left is a convincingly accurate painting of a little old lady, which I found on the internet. It is copied from a newspaper photo. On the right is a detail of this portrait by Titian. 
Although the first is an accurate depiction, carefully painted, there are a number of reasons why we see the Titian as a more polished performance. One striking reason is Titian’s use of glazes, which gives his portrait luminous depths, while the other has a chalkiness due to the overuse of white – almost a hallmark of the amateur painter. “White in the shadows is the death of a painting” as Rubens once said. But the main reason we feel the Titian to be a “better” painting,  I think,  is because he has composed it.
What does composition mean? With Titian it means dividing his pictures into clear shapes, which then rhyme, echo and flow into each other. He creates clear shapes by two means – by having strong contrasts of light and dark; and by making sure that that demarcation between light and dark, that line, is always smooth and clean – it is never wobbly or uncertain. 
When faced with an ungainly shape, Titian will do whatever he can to make something crystal clear out of it. Look at the right side of the face in this portrait. He has put it into shadow, making the straight line of the nose the dominating outline. It’s a clever idea and it’s something Titian does a lot. He then rhymes this line beautifully with the diagonal hairlines on both sides of the face, as well as the right side of the forehead. The big diagonal of hair along his forehead rhymes with the eyebrow curling off his nose and the line of moustache underneath it. It also seems to flow into the curling semi-circle of his hair at the back of his head on the left. It’s difficult to see in the small image above but the edge of the dark curve under his chin is not beard but the bottom of his curled hair. This curve keeps sliding, unbroken, up along his beardline and the crease of his neck. Have a look at the full portrait again and you will see more of these rhymes and rhythms. It is an education.
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Jan Van Eyck

Flicking through a book I came across the sublime Madonna of Chancellor Rolin by Van Eyck, with that amazing depiction of Rolin, perhaps the earliest entirely convincing painted portrait, and immediately thought paper, rock, scissors. Not the most profound thought I’ve ever had. A little research seemed to suggest that this is the clearest example, amongst famous paintings, of Christ’s “peace” sign in the vicinity of praying hands. So I stuck with it. 
I was happy with this cartoon on two counts. One, you don’t need to know anything about art to get the joke. And two, the punchline isn’t given away by the image – you have to read what the theologian is saying. On those occasions when the image of the artwork is the punchline I always feel the readers’ eyes will naturally gravitate to it before they get through the set-up. Not telegraphing the punchline is the holy grail of joke telling. Simply make the punchline utterly unpredictable and you’ll get guffaws instead of chuckles.
Now we can all get some sleep.
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Eadweard Muybridge

For those unfamiliar with the concept, subliminal advertising is the insertion into a movie of a single frame of some product. A single frame, out of the 24 frames per second a movie needs, is allegedly long enough for the subconscious to pick up, but too short for the viewer to be aware of it. The theory was that the viewer would go out and subconsciously be drawn to buying that product. It was first tried out in the fifties. I think it was quickly banned. Whether it actually works or not is another story. 
In the 1870s Eadweard Muybridge used multiple cameras to capture motion in stop-action photographs. This was ground-breaking stuff. The photographic breakdown of movement was a revelation, and from here it was just a short leap to the invention of film. His photos of rapid movement showed things that could not be picked up by the human eye, most famously his sequence of a horse galloping. Artists had always depicted this movement with the front and back legs extended simultaneously. Muybridge showed that this never happens. Silly artists. Several of them were prosecuted for fraud and received lengthy jail sentences. I think one was executed.
I was tickled with the idea of Muybridge and subliminal advertising but agonised over how to present it. Does he notice the cola bottle? How could he not? How does he react? What does he think/say? There are also lots of other angles; the implications of advertisers seeing the potential immediately and weaseling their products into stop-motion photographs was a funny angle I explored for a bit,. But, of course, if you take separate photographs and develop them yourself, there can be nothing subliminal going on.  It’s very liminal. Very, very liminal. I have heard it said that it is, in fact, extremely liminal. In the end, I think I got the joke down to it’s essence, which is always the aim. It’s weird though – I’ll get the sniff of something funny but it can often take a lot of circling to pinpoint the exact source of the humour. Once it’s done it seems so obvious and inevitable. Occasionally, however, a cartoon of mine is published and I realise I was one step away from a better joke but didn’t quite see it in time. There’s no worse feeling.