The Art of Visual Listening 11: Texture, Pattern, Movement, and Time

Texture, pattern, movement, and time are the last of the visual elements, but certainly not the least. As with the other elements we’ve discussed, their importance in any given work of art has everything to do with what the artist wants to say.


Roaming Rudia by Ursula von Rydingsvard, 2017, collection of the artist

Texture refers to the surface quality of objects and directly appeals to our sense of touch—the first sense we developed as humans, and so, our most primal sense. Texture can speak to us on levels we don’t even know we have.

Take a look at the sculpture above by Ursula von Rydingsvard. Notice how the work is all about texture. When asked where she got her vision for her art, she said, “Whatever is churning in the deepest part of me, that comes out.”

There are two general categories for texture: actual and implied.

  • Actual texture is what the real surface of an object feels like when you touch it. If you touched either the building shown below or the sculpture above, you would feel the unevenness. Rough textures like these feel raw and unrefined to the touch, so they tend to communicate the same things to the viewer—a visceral earthiness.
Kunst Haus Wien (Hundertwasser Museum), Vienna, Austria 1983-85 by Friedensreich Hundertwasser

Actual texture that’s smooth (whether hard or soft) feels more refined. If you compare Kunst Haus Wien above with Hass Haus below (both in Vienna) you can see how the different textures communicate different interests. One celebrates the raw, uneven qualities of nature (primal and rough), while the other extolls the refining efforts of humans (polished, tamed, and slick).

Haas Haus, Vienna, Austria, 1990 by Hans Hollein
  • Impasto: When it comes to real three-dimensional texture in art, we normally think of architecture and sculpture. But there’s another type of actual texture used in paintings, and it’s called impasto. Impasto refers to paint applied so thickly that it creates its own 3-D surface, revealing the artist’s brushstrokes.  This technique brings the process of creation to the foreground and in so doing, offers a more intimate connection with the artist.

Vincent Van Gogh frequently used impasto. In the detail below from his famous painting, Starry Night, (previously discussed in our post on color) we can see exactly how he applied the paint.  By following the artist’s process in this way, we’re more aware of his involvement in the work, which can make us feel more emotionally connected to him.  This painting says a great deal about the intense energy of the artist.

Impasto, then, can be used to help the artist express something personal and passionate beyond the subject matter itself.

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Implied texture is Illusionistic. Photographs rely on this kind of texture. It you touch the photographic surface, it’s smooth, but the object portrayed in the photo could be craggy and rough like in the work below by Ansel Adams.

Moon over Half Dome by Ansel Adams 1960

Implied textures communicate the same way actual textures do. Some artists are so good at implying textures in paintings; it’s hard to believe they aren’t real. We call that trompe l’oeil (or trick the eye in French). The Irish-American artist, William Harnett, was a master at trompe l’oeil.

William Harnett, After the Hunt, 1883, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco [Public Domain] via Wikimedia commons

Whenever I see his works, they always astound me. No matter how hard, or for how long, or from what angle I look at them, they still appear three-dimensional. Those simulated textures never look like the flat smooth paint they actually are. The feathers remain feathers to my eyes, the wood remains wood, and the brass remains brass.


Pattern exists in art when elements are repeated to create regular arrangements.  The human brain is particularly adept at pattern recognition which makes it a powerful element for engaging the viewer.

Works by Jan Poynter

Pattern is also related to texture. One of the ways we can remember the feel of certain textures is by the distinct patterns they make.

Young Hare by Albrecht Durer, 1502, Albertina, Vienna

Oftentimes, the purpose of pattern in art is decorative—to beautify the surface of an object. The page below from the Book of Durrow (a medieval illuminated manuscript probably created in Ireland or England around 700 AD) is an excellent example of the decorative quality of pattern.

The Book of Durrow Carpet Page [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because pattern is created by repetition, it also helps to unify a piece, to give it a sense of cohesiveness. Similar things appear to belong together, and our eye connects them. (We’ll talk more about repetition and unity in an upcoming post.)

So, pattern can be decorative and unifying. It can appeal to our sense of touch. But it can also help to communicate movement and time. 

Movement and Time

Look again at those repeated snake-like shapes and lines in the Book of Durrow above.  Don’t they appear to be squirming all over the page? The movement of your gaze from one similar but slightly different undulating form to another makes them appear to be changing before your eyes and sets up a  sense of continuous movement which also suggests the passage of time.

Now look at the image below. Do you get a feeling of movement and time in this work too?  Why?

Coming and Going by Roger Mendes [courtesy of the artist]

Along with the diagonal lines (as we discussed in an earlier post on line and shape), the pattern created by the repetition of the wooden Pinocchio and the tree gives us a sense of movement. Facing one way and then the other, the repeated figure suggests both movement and the time it takes to run back and forth, exactly what the artist wants us to sense (as the title tells us).  With movement and time implicit in this piece, it’s easy to imagine a whole time-consuming and motion-filled story unfolding before our eyes within this one static image. It’s a fun and effective way to keep us engaged in the work.

In the painting below by the twentieth-century futurist artist, Balla, we also see how the visual elements of movement and time enhance the artist’s message. Notice how well the blurred repetition communicates the energy and pace of the dog, its leash, and its human.

Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash by Giacomo Balla, 1912, Albright- Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

This concludes our discussion of the visual elements and how they can help us understand what an artist is trying to communicate and help us appreciate how well that communication is working.

But, as I’m sure you can imagine, there’s more to it than that. In order for the visual elements to communicate at their best, they must work together, and that’s where the principles of design come in. As with music, a single sound can communicate a powerful sensation for the listener, but one sound is limited. Multiple sounds when brought together skillfully can communicate much more. So, let’s move on to discover how artists can combine the individual visual elements into effective orchestral compositions.

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The Art of Visual Listening 12: The Principles of Design, Part I: Balance and Focal Point

The principles of design are a basic set of rules for organizing works of art.  Artists use these design principles to arrange the visual elements into compositions that have the potential to communicate most effectively.  But, as with many rules, the principles of design are not set in cement. They’re more like general guidelines.

Rules . . . Again?

And while we’re on the topic of rules (again), now is perhaps a good time to address the issue of just how important these “rules” are to artists.  It’s hard to imagine great creative geniuses sitting around and carefully plotting each brush stroke in order to conform to some rules. What usually happens is something much more intuitive.  The rules are internalized, and some artists may not even be consciously aware of their existence.  Artists are more likely to say, “I put red in that spot because that’s what it needed.”  Or they might say, “My paintings have a life of their own.  They tell me what to do next.”  This sounds far removed from the idea of methodically applying a bunch of rules. 

Well it is . . . and it isn’t . . .  Have you ever listened to a good speaker and marveled at her smooth and articulate delivery?  Is the speaker consciously following the rules of public speaking?  Possibly not. But even without conscious awareness, she probably IS following the rules.  That’s what makes the speech so good. 

The same is true for artists.  They don’t need to intentionally apply the rules to use them effectively. As art appreciators, though, paying attention to rules can help us analyze works of art which in turn helps us understand and appreciate what most artists are doing intuitively.

 As the artist, Robert Motherwell once noted about making art, “It’s not that the creative act and the critical act are simultaneous. It’s more like you blurt something out and then analyze it.”

 So, with that said, on with the rules!

A Balancing Act

Along with the communicating potential of the visual elements themselves, the way they’re arranged also impacts the way they communicate. 

BALANCE: There are 3 basic possibilities for balancing a composition. 

  •  Symmetrical balance is very predictable.  If you were to draw a vertical line down the center of a symmetrically balanced artwork, the left and right sides would be identical (or nearly so).  Because of this, there’re few surprises in symmetrical balance.  It’s straightforward, reliable, and formal. The use of this type of balance in the religious painting below helps to underscore a message of unwavering dependability.
Holy Trinity by Masaccio, 1426-28, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy
  • Asymmetrical balance is informal and full of surprises.  The left and right sides of the work are different but still visually balanced.  Asymmetrical balance is more dynamic and spontaneous looking. 

Notice in Degas’s painting below that the body of the single largescale ballerina takes up much of the left half of the painting while the right side is filled with several smaller-scale ballerinas. The asymmetrical balance helps to give a sense of immediacy, and impermanence to the scene.

The Star by Degas, 1879-81, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Radial balance is composed of diagonals exploding in all directions which makes it dynamic.  This dynamism can be formal like the rose window below on the left or more casually playful, as Matisse demonstrates with his cutout image on the right. 

BALANCE RECAP: So, how an artist chooses to balance a composition contributes to the way it communicates, from static formality to spontaneous unpredictability to dynamic movement.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

FOCAL POINT: Artists usually create focal points in their works to guide the viewer to what’s most important. Artists can draw your attention to the focal point(s) in a variety of ways. 

Contrast: One of those ways is to make an object different from its surroundings.  This can be done by using one or more of the following:

  • Color (like a warm color surrounded by cool colors )
  • Value (an object of light value placed among objects of a darker value for example)
  • Shape or Subject (A square amid circles or a cat within a group of dogs is another way to use contrast for emphasis.)
  • Texture (A rough shape surrounded by smooth ones can make the rough shape stand out.)
  • Size (Something much larger or smaller than everything else draws the eye.)

Placement:  A focal point can also be created through placement. Objects placed in the center of an artwork tend to draw our attention as do isolated objects.

Directional lines: lead the eye to the most important part of the artwork. Directional lines can be seen in rays of light, folds of fabric, gazing eyes, pointing hands, edges of shapes, etc. You’ll notice there are several directional lines leading to St. Matthew in this painting. Even the sword of the foreground figure leads our eye to Matthew.

The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, 1599-1600, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Directional lines can also help to unify a painting, but we’ll address that role later when we talk about unity.

Discovering the focal point of a work of art tells us what the artist is most interested in. It’s a good place to start when searching for meaning in art and when trying to appreciate how effectively an artist has composed the work. 

Along with manipulating balance and creating focal points, artists have other options to consider as they arrange the visual elements. We’ll take a look at these next.

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The Art of Visual Listening 13: The Principles of Design, Part II: Scale, Proportion, Unity, and Variety

The Listening Room by Rene Magritte, 1952, Menil Collection, Houston, Texas

In the previous post, we discussed the design principles of balance and focal point. Now let’s turn our attention to the rest of the principles: scale, proportion, unity, and variety.

SCALE AND PROPORTION – These two principles are usually grouped together because they both refer to size relationships. Artists can use size to attract the viewer’s attention (as we saw in our discussion about focal point in the earlier post), but size can also be used to enhance the meaning of a work.

  • Scale refers to the size relationship of one thing to another. Scale was discussed in Lesson 4 as a way for artists to suggest a realistic sense of space.  But scale can also suggest other things.

    For example, if an artist depicts an elephant as very large right next to a mouse that’s very small, s/he confirms our realistic expectations of their relative sizes. This is a believable scenario. We imagine the relationship between the mouse and the elephant as natural.

But what if the artist shows an elephant as very small next to a giant mouse? In a case like this, scale is used to emphasize the mouse in an unnatural way, to force the viewer to see the mouse and elephant in an unrealistic relationship.  Distortion of scale can suggest a variety of things. Things made larger than normal can be seen as stronger, more powerful, more important, or more threatening.  Things made smaller than normal can be interpreted as weaker, impotent, or insignificant.

Take a look at the image of the giant apple at the top of this post. Notice how the twentieth-century Belgian Surrealist, Magritte, used scale in that painting to jar our ordinary expectations and defy logic (one of the primary goals of the Surrealists).

Or think about the ninety-eight-foot tall sculpture of Christ in Rio de Janeiro. Is there any question about what the scale of this sculpture is meant to communicate?

Christ the Redeemer Designed by sculptor Paul Landowski and built by engineer Heitor da Silva Costa in collaboration with Albert Caquot. Sculptor Gheorghe Leonida created the face. Completed in 1931.
  • Proportion refers to the size relationship of parts to a whole.  We most often think of the human body when we think of proportion.  As with scale, unrealistic proportions draw our attention and can rattle our expectations. We are being told this is not normal.
    Distorted proportions can help to communicate a variety of things. The large heads of aliens in science fiction movies help to suggest an advanced intelligence, and large hands (as in Michelangelo’s sculpture of David) can indicate strength. 

So, both scale and proportion can be manipulated to guide the viewer to understanding the artist’s message and to make that message clearer.  These two principles can be used to present harmonious, familiar worlds, bizarre worlds, or to communicate significance (and insignificance as well.)

UNITY AND VARIETY – Unity and variety are the cornerstones of the principles of design. A unified work of art holds the viewer’s attention by keeping the eyes locked within the composition. But as the viewer engages with the artwork, there must be enough variety to keep the mind interested.  

UNITY can be created in a work of art through:

  • Repetition:  The eye connects like things.  Repeated visual elements (color, line, shape, value, texture) give a work of art a feeling of continuity.  But if elements are repeated too much, they can go beyond continuity to monotony.
This version of The Scream, created in 1895, is one of four made by Edvard Munch and the only one outside Norway.
It sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $119.9 million in 2012.
  • Proximity: The eye also connects items placed near each other, taking them in as a unit. They are seen as belonging together and thus enhance the overall compositional unity of a work. Like repetition, proximity is almost always present in a design. Most of the time, shapes are not just near each other, they overlap each other.  Overlapping was discussed in Lesson 4 as a space-creating device, but it is also a unifying device.  
Seed for the Planting Must Not Be Ground by Kathe Kollwitz, 1941
  • Directional Forces: Besides leading the viewer’s eye to the focal point, directional lines (or forces) can guide one’s gaze throughout an artwork, unifying the piece and keeping the observer visually engaged in the art.

In Chardin’s still life below, notice how your eye is constantly being guided throughout and held within the painting. The crack in the table at the lower left shoots the eye to the plate of fruit which in turn directs one’s gaze to undulate around those luscious plums to the bottle. The eye moves up and down the bottle’s shape to the glass where its rim or its cast shadow guides one’s gaze to the bread lying flat and then behind and up to the bread pointing back to the bottle. Here the visual journey begins again but now in the opposite direction. The viewer’s eye is never allowed to wander beyond the humble subject of the painting which forces an awareness that would not normally take place when viewing such common objects—an awareness revealing the beauty of their simplicity.

Still Life with Plums by Chardin, 1730, The Frick Collection, New York

VARIETY is what keeps boredom from happening. For example, if a wavy, curvilinear line is repeated throughout a composition (as in the case with The Scream shown above), it becomes more interesting if sometimes it defines a body and other times a sunset, a lake, or shrubbery; if it runs horizontally here and vertically there; or if it’s red in certain places and yellow or blue in others. 

In the rare cases where an artist uses too little variety, the message is clearly about monotony, sameness, or with Andy Warhol, acknowledgment of our mass-produced, consumer culture. In reference to his Campbell’s Soup Can paintings he said, “I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day for 20 years.”

And although these works by Warhol were made to look mass-produced, every painting is slightly different. Do you see his nod to variety?

Campbell Soup Cans by Andy Warhol, 1962, MOMA, NY

But what if the artist uses too much variety?  Well, as you might imagine, the message is chaos. In both cases, the rules are broken, but they are broken on purpose to enhance the message.

Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky, 1913 The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

According to Kandinsky, the artist who created the above painting, a work could only legitimately be considered art if it was an unadulterated expression of the artist’s psyche—of his/her authentic thoughts and feelings. Composition VII seems to live up to his theory since it was painted in 1913, the crisis-filled year before the outbreak of WWI.

So, as we see, an artist’s manipulation of unity and variety can also give insights into what a work is saying.

Let’s pull all these principles of design together now and see how they help convey Goya’s message in the painting below.

The Third of May, 1808 by Goya, 1814, The Prado Museum, Madrid

We’ll take the principles of design one by one and examine what they can tell us. You might even want to write down your thoughts before reading mine. Here are some things to consider.

  • Balance: What kind is being used—symmetrical, asymmetrical, or radial? What does the balance help to communicate? Do you think this is the most effective type of balance for this painting? Why?
  • Focal point: What’s the main focal point, and how is it established (contrast, placement, directional lines)? The main focal point is the primary key to deciphering the purpose of an artwork, and it can be created in many ways. How do Goya’s choices for establishing the focal point add to the meaning of the work? Are there other focal points? How are they established? What do they tell us?
  • Proportion/Scale: Has the artist manipulated scale or proportion in this work? If so, what does that do to further the painting’s message?
  • Unity/Variety: Are the visual elements in this painting unified? How? What is the variety within the unity?

Although each of us will bring our own insights and interpretations to these questions, it’s the analytical process more than the answers that matters. By analyzing Goya’s design choices we have a chance to imagine ourselves in his shoes, and in so doing can better appreciate the genius behind the masterpiece.

Let me tell you how I see it.

Balance: What kind is being used? What does the balance communicate? Do I think this is the most effective type of balance for this painting?

  • Asymmetrical. I’m guessing we all probably agree on this. The left side of the painting is quite a bit different from the right, especially in terms of lighting (light vs dark), background imagery (landscape vs cityscape), and the organization and poses of the figures (scattered vs regimented).

    This type of balance communicates surprise which helps us interpret the scene. This is not a standard execution or a formal event. This is hasty, maybe even unofficial since it is in a field outside the city.

Focal point: What is the main focal point, and how is it established (contrast, placement, directional lines)? The main focal point holds the primary key to deciphering the purpose of this painting, and it can be created in many ways. How do Goya’s choices for establishing the focal point add to the meaning of the work? Are there other focal points? How are they established? What do they tell us?

  • The main focal point is the man wearing the plain white shirt. Goya has made him the focal point by contrast. He’s brighter and lighter than everything around him (value). His pose with both arms outstretched establishes a large, distinctive shape within the painting. So the primary subject here is a brilliantly lit unarmed person in a noncombative pose.

    He is also made the focal point by the repeated directional lines of the muskets pointed at him. These lines lead our eyes back to the faceless executioners as well—creating a secondary focal point that elaborates on the subject of the painting—an unarmed person in a noncombative pose about to be shot by a military firing squad.

    I would say the third focal point is the man sprawled on the ground with his arms outstretched. He repeats the pose of the man in white, foretelling his fate. This figure also lies in a pool of blood, the only red/orange in the painting.

    The ways Goya chose to indicate his primary focal point are also important. He is the only one dressed in a white shirt (white is often a symbol of innocence). He glows from the light of the lantern unlike anyone else in the painting. Glowing light can be associated with righteousness, godliness. His stance with outstretched arms can be seen as a crucifixion-like pose. All of these choices tell us what Goya thinks of this execution. These peasants are martyrs.

Proportion/Scale: Has the artist manipulated scale or proportion in this work? If so, what does that do to further the painting’s message?

  • You might have noticed that the man in white appears to be quite large even though he’s on his knees. If he were to stand up, he’d be taller than everyone else. By adjusting the scale of this one figure, Goya makes him “larger than life,” giving him a significance greater than the specific events that befall him.

Unity/Variety: Are the visual elements in this painting unified? How? What is the variety within the unity?

  • The work is tightly unified. The repeated dark colors move the eye throughout the painting but they are especially concentrated on the right where we see the multiple soldiers clustered together in almost identical stances with multiple rifles held at the same level. The repetition and the proximity of these elements unify the right side of the painting into a dark block, an impersonal killing machine. The left side of the work is also unified by repetition and proximity. The repeated figures huddle together in shared fear and pain. But their poses are not identical. These are individuals, not automatons. These two starkly opposed groups are then unified by directional forces. If your eye lands on the main focal point (as the artist intended), it can then follow the man’s arms up to the curve of the hill which can lead the eye to the right where it connects with both the architecture and the soldiers whose guns direct you back to the main focal point for the cycle to begin again. There are other pathways the eye can follow through this painting as well, but each one brings you back around to the focal point and never lets your gaze stray beyond the edges of the scene.
  • As for variety, we’ve got the poses of the soldiers vs the poses of the peasants, the natural landscape vs the man-made architecture, the dark somber colors vs the brilliant white, yellow, and red.

This work is a masterpiece precisely because of the brilliant way Goya designed it. The subject matter alone is startling, but the composition—the effective arrangement of the visual elements—move it beyond being a documentation of a horrific event to an outcry against the universal horrors and injustices of war.

Click here for more information about Goya’s painting and the historic event he depicts.

At this point, we’ve completed what we set out to do in this blog series, and I hope you have found it worthwhile. But before you go, you might want to check out my final post “The Whole Ball of Wax” in which I pull together all the various elements we’ve discussed in this series and apply them to an artwork in my collection with the goal of analyzing the piece for better understanding and appreciation. Sound interesting? Click on!

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The Art of Visual Listening 14: The Whole Ball of Wax

A Leap by Roger Mendes (permission granted by the artist)

This is a favorite painting of mine.  It’s large (41” x 48”), and it hangs in my library. I have always found it both soothing and mysterious.  But, why? What is it about this painting that gives me those feelings?

To find out, I’m going to apply the topics from this blog series to this painting and see where that takes me. If you feel like it, you can do the same thing and see where the process takes you. 

Below is a worksheet I made to facilitate this kind of step-by-step investigation. Each topic is linked back to its related blog post should you wish to review the information again. Feel free to use this now to analyze the painting above or later to evaluate other works.

Painting Analysis Worksheet

Subject Matter: Put yourself in “seeing” mode by identifying what’s in the painting. Name the actual objects and give them a description (e.g., a vast snow-covered field, a kangaroo hopping, etc.). If there is no recognizable subject matter, just describe what you see (big colorful blobs of thick paint or black scribbles over red squares, for example).

Form: Determine if the painting is representational, abstract, or nonrepresentational. Use this information as a way to approach the work. For example, you can look for a possible storyline in representational art, but in nonrepresentational art, look for how it makes you think or feel instead.

Visual Elements

  • Line: What are the dominant line directions in the painting (vertical, horizontal, diagonal, jagged diagonal, curvilinear, vertical and horizontal together)?

    What about the line character? Are the lines mostly smooth and thick, thin and scratchy?

    And, based on the information in this blog, what do these lines communicate (movement, dignity, peacefulness, strength, nervousness)?

  • Shape: Name the dominant shape(s) you see in the painting (organic, geometric, or both). What does this tell us? Is this work communicating on a more emotional and instinctual level or on a more intellectual, analytical level?

  • Depth: What are the space-creating devices used in the painting (atmospheric perspective, linear perspective, size, overlapping, placement, color)? What does their use or lack of use reveal (believable realism, a sense of vastness, strangeness, claustrophobia)?

    Is there a horizon line you can see or figure out in the work? If so, where is the viewer in relationship to the horizon (up high, down low, straight on), and how does that manipulate the way we relate to the work? Does it put us in a position of remote observation (high up looking down), direct personal involvement (eye level), fly-on-the-wall voyeurism (down low looking up)?
  • Value: What value plays are at work here (chiaroscuro, tenebrism, minimal value contrasts, strong value contrasts)? What do they tell us? Do the value manipulations communicate subtlety or drama, three dimensions or flatness, unity or disharmony?

  • Color: List the most important colors and major color combinations you see in the painting (warm, cool, warm/cool combo, symbolic, complementary, analogous, monochromatic, polychromatic). Again, what can we glean from the color choices? Do they communicate drama or subtlety? Are they projecting harmony or strife? Do they pop toward your eye? Do they recede from your eye? Are they calming, exciting, or unifying?

  • Texture, Pattern, Movement, and Time: Does the painting use impasto or implied texture? Are there important patterns in the work? Are the patterns unifying? Do they suggest movement or the passage of time?

Principles of Design

  • Focal Point(s): What’s the main focal point in the work? Are there any secondary focal points? How has the artist created them (contrasting size, color, value, shape, texture, subject; placement; directional lines)?

  • Balance: What kind of balance is used (symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial), and what does that communicate (formality, predictability, spontaneity, surprise)?

  • Scale: Does the artist use scale to communicate? If so, what does it indicate? (importance, insignificance, irrationality, everyday reality)?

  • Proportion: Does the artist manipulate proportion to tell us something (strength, intelligence, strangeness, idealism, normalcy)?
  • Unity: What’s creating unity in the work? (repetition, proximity, directional forces)? How much unity does the piece have, and what does that communicate (harmony, monotony, chaos)?
  • Variety: What’s creating variety? How much variety does the piece have, and what does that say (harmony, monotony, chaos)?

Concluding Interpretation: Based on your analysis of the subject, visual elements, and design principles, what is this painting trying to communicate overall? And don’t forget to bring in your own unique knowledge, insights, and imagination to the interpretation.

My Analysis of A Leap by Roger Mendes

Subject Matter: A lone kangaroo leaps through a vast, snowy, desolate landscape as the sun sets or rises behind snow-capped mountains.

Form: Representational. The artist wants the viewer to perceive this painting as realistic and its story as believable, at least at first.

Visual Elements

  • Line: Lots of curvilinear lines are seen in this work: the outline of the kangaroo’s body, the ledge upon which the kangaroo hops, the meandering streams, the transition from the vast plain to the mountains, the rounded mountain tops, and the clouds. There are no vertical or horizontal lines anywhere. This is not presented from the perspective of logic and the intellect. It is geared more toward the instincts and emotions.

    There are some important diagonal lines as well, suggesting a sense of movement and instability. They are seen in the kangaroo’s pose, the slant of the ledge, and the stream closest to the viewer. It’s also possible to see the stream as a jagged diagonal, projecting a hint of danger or greater instability onto the scene.

    The line character is consistently light, thin, and mostly smooth, contributing to an overall feeling of natural gentleness.  

  • Shape: The shapes are all organic and speak to our primal instincts and emotions. This work is about all things natural. There is no sign of anything manmade.

  • Depth: There’s a wonderful sense of depth in this painting as most of the space-creating devices (except linear and atmospheric perspective) are used.  We perceive the kangaroo as closest to us because of its large size, its placement low on the picture plane, its warm color advancing toward our eye, and how it overlaps the landscape.

    The placement of the mountains higher up on the picture plane makes them appear farther away, and their diminishing size from the left of the painting to the right makes them look like they’re receding into the distance.

     Although we can’t see a horizon line, our eye level seems to be in the middle of the vast space. We can confirm our viewing position as slightly higher than the kangaroo because we can see the top of the animal’s back, neck, and head. Our middle ground eye level is also verified because we look down at the stream flowing lowest on the picture plane and up to the mountainsides placed high up in the image. We look directly out at the distant plain.

     This vantage point offers an up-close-and-personal connection with the animal and an all-encompassing view of her environment, which was designed to appear as an extension of our space.
  • Value: Chiaroscuro makes the kangaroo look softly rounded while minimal value contrast seen within the mountains, snowy land, and cloudy sky; adds a subtle unifying quality.

    But there is also strong value contrast most strikingly seen between the mountains and the sky, the mountains and the snowy plain, and between the plain and the two streams. These sharp contrasts add punch to the scene and keep the painting from being too subtle and quiet. The one stream, especially, appears as a violent gash in the otherwise tranquil landscape.

  • Color: The colors are primarily cool, which enhances the calm, soothing quality of the painting. The monochromatic blue-grey of the snow throughout the vast plain has a subtle unifying effect on the work.

    The orange-brown kangaroo, the red line running along the mountains, and the yellow in the sky are the only warm colors. Since warm colors advance toward the eye, they pop and add energy to the scene. The dark blue/purple mountains are complementary in color to the yellow sky, and the two side-by-side intensify each other. The contrast between the kangaroo’s warm-colored fur and the surrounding cool-colored snow makes the animal dramatically stand out. So, although the predominant mood of the work is calm and soothing, there is also an element of drama and intensity.
  • Texture, Pattern, Movement, and Time: The most prominent implied texture in the painting is the kangaroo’s fur which looks invitingly soft, stimulating our primal sense of touch. Pattern does not seem to play a significant role in this work, and the only thing suggesting movement and the passage of time is the diagonal position of the kangaroo, appearing to be on its way out of the picture.

Principles of Design

  • Focal Point(s): The primary focal point is the kangaroo because of its large size, its unique shape, its warm coloring, and because it’s the only thing in the image that isn’t landscape. The painting is all about this animal.

    I’d say the secondary focal point is the mountain range. The streams lead our eyes to it. The range is also very large, spanning the entire width of the painting. The strong value contrast between the mountains and the sky and their complementary colors also make the mountains stand out. This underscores the important role nature plays in this painting.

  • Balance: The balance is asymmetrical. The kangaroo isn’t centered exactly in the middle of the image, and the mountains are much larger on the left side than on the right. The streams on each side of the kangaroo are also quite different. This lends an unpredictable quality to the scene.

  • Scale: The large scale of the kangaroo makes it appear close to us and accentuates its importance in the scene.

  • Proportion: Proportions seem normal to me, confirming we are meant to perceive this scene as realistic and believable.
  • Unity: The color blue is repeated throughout the painting, as are the curvilinear lines. Both these visual elements help move the eye around the work from “like thing” to “like thing.” Proximity is at play here too. The kangaroo overlaps the landscape surrounding her. That landscape butts against the mountains, and the mountains touch the sky, making everything appear connected. Directional forces also unify the work. Our gaze is led through the painting by following the kangaroo’s tail up to the mountains, the mountain ridge down to the stream, the stream over to the other diagonal stream, that stream to the ledge, and the ledge back to the kangaroo. Everything in this painting seems linked to everything else.

  • Variety: There are several variations of blue in this work, and the curvilinear lines differ by what they define—the mountains, the kangaroo, the streams. And, of course, the kangaroo itself offers the greatest variety in the scene. But, I would say there’s a stronger sense of unity than variety. This scene of nature appears very holistic to me, everything seems intimately interconnected.

Concluding Interpretation: This asymmetrical, representational scene with its curvilinear lines, organic shapes, and its focus on a large-scale kangaroo with soft fur you can almost touch, offers an unpredictable, primal, instinctual, and emotional story about an animal alone in the wild.

The predominance of smooth curvilinear lines, organic shapes, and cool colors gives this painting a soothing effect. The deep empty space viewed at eye level pulls us in and offers up solitude and silence, increasing the painting’s meditative effect.  

But the complementary warm and cool color combinations, strong value contrasts, and the jagged diagonal line of the stream all suggest something else—an energy contradicting the calm—a tension. 

There are also mysterious qualities to the piece.

  • The sun is setting (rising?) behind the mountains and behind the kangaroo, which should make the animal appear more silhouetted (like the mountain range).  But the kangaroo seems to be lit from some other inexplicable source, which reveals her in great detail and fully three-dimensional. This unnatural manipulation of light represents a curious departure from reality that serves to magically heighten the animal’s significance.
  • Kangaroos are social animals. They live in groups of ten or more and are not found in snowy areas. So, although the scene looks realistic, what we know about kangaroos makes us question this painted reality. Why is the kangaroo alone? Is she running away from her natural habitat? Has she been threatened? Or has her environment changed so drastically that it now snows where it never did before, making it uninhabitable for kangaroos? Might she be the only one left in this cold, desolate world? Whatever the case, she is not where she belongs, and she’s trying to escape.
  • But the biggest mystery in the painting is the shadow of the kangaroo which takes on the shape of a crouching woman. Why? The artist took great pains to present us with a believable scene of nature, then he sabotaged it. What does that mean? It certainly jars us from reality. While the other subversive tweaks to nature hint that all is not what it seems, the shadow cinches it. Perhaps the whole purpose for these peculiarities is to simply shake up our conscious minds, force us out of our everyday complacency. Or is there more to it than that?

    Does the shadow represent encroaching humanity that the kangaroo is trying to elude but can’t? Is it an invitation to project our own primal selves into the animal’s predicament? Or is it something else entirely?  What do you think? How do you interpret this painting?

Thank you for joining me in this series on The Art of Visual Listening. I hope it has helped you to “see” art more fully and to “listen” to what it has to say more intently.  And I hope you’ll be inspired to use what you’ve discovered in this series as an aid to appreciating, understanding, and evaluating works of art in the future.  

Happy Listening!

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