All Squared Up
Updated: Mar 6
'Among the Dunes, Studland Nature Reserve'
It would be fair to say that over recent years my favoured format for painting has been 'landscape' - a 1:1.4 ratio, give or take - which is hardly remarkable for a landscape painter. A natural extension of that has led to my penchant for panoramic paintings, a format that I find helpful, especially for capturing coastal vistas. It affords a broader view and allows the eye to sweep across the scene in similar fashion to how we observe on location. There has been an occasional dalliance with the portrait format and once in a while a square frame will find its way onto the easel.
The greatest challenge for a landscape painter, or photographer for that matter, is visual editing. It is an exercise in restriction and reduction; the restriction of sight lines and fields of view and a consequent reduction of scope in the landscape experience and its impact. In the sketchbook or the studio, not only is the scope reduced in terms of visual breadth, but limits are also placed on the amount of detail and information that is available, compared to what the landscape offers us while we are there: a generous and often unlimited choice of perspectives, details and contexts. When making a painting, the inevitable imposition of a frame, irrespective of the format, removes much of the context and confronts the artist with a decision making process: what is it about the landscape that I am trying to communicate; what physical elements in the landscape help me to convey that; where should I direct the viewer's attention; what is the most compelling perspective; what should I include and exclude? The landscape painter's skill is revealed in the clarity of those decisions and the precision with which they communicate a sense of the place at a moment in time. The panoramic and landscape formats continue to serve me well and provide a proven structure for the compositions that help me to describe my experience of the places that I enjoy to paint, but they are not the sine qua non of landscape painting. There are other ways of seeing.
Having taken some time during the winter to revisit familiar places, sketches and photographs, it has become clear that different formats might provide me with opportunities to explore fresh perspectives, communicate new stories and reconsider earlier memories. In particular, I am excited by the flexibility that the square format provides; with no side longer than the other it acts as a constraint on the portrayal of views and vistas, encouraging the eye to focus into the frame on landscape particulars rather than across the scene in general. For those that have followed previous blog posts and YouTube videos, you will be aware that my work is an expression of how I feel about the landscape and how it engages me when I spend time with it. Unlike many landscape painters, I am drawn to the finer details, not just the spacious views and larger shapes. The deeply rutted bark of a Scots Pine captures my attention as readily as a sweeping coastal panorama, viewed from a windswept cliff-top vantage point.
Creating an ongoing series of square-format paintings of my favourite landscapes in Purbeck, Dorset has challenged me to explore new compositions and ideas and given me a platform to present the landscape with its details at the forefront. 'Among the Dunes...' is a good example of this. The grey overhead atmospheric at Studland Nature Reserve allows the subtle colour variations to express themselves without the bleaching effect of harsh, directional sunlight or the dark cloak of cast shadows, making for an interesting, delicate subject perfectly suited to the watercolour medium. The vast majority of my paintings of Studland - and there have been plenty - have celebrated the location and its salient features (Handfast Point, Old Harry Rocks, Knoll, Middle and South Beaches,) whereas this painting is a presentation of the flora: cushions of heather, punctuated by marram grass, rising and falling across the gentle undulations of the sand dunes, a topography not unlike that of a lazy teenager's badly-made bed. The inclusion of the distant headland and Old Harry Rocks provides some context and enables us to place this as a painting of Studland Bay, but it really is no more than a geographical foot note. The painting asks us to consider the beautiful, complex simplicity of grass, sand and heathland scrub, rather than the ubiquitous, headline-grabbing views. The square format works well here, helping me to arrange the painting's components in layers (foreground, middle-distance, background) to amplify the message I have chosen to communicate.
'Winter Morning, South Beach, Studland'
Traditionally, the rules of composition in landscape painting propose the following doctrines, among others: centres of interest and focal points should be placed in accordance with the Golden Ratio/Rule of Thirds/Fibonacci Spiral; horizon lines should not run through the centre of a painting. Let's not delve too deeply into the philosophical branch of aesthetics, suffice to say that there is some solid reasoning behind these principles. In 'Winter Morning....' above, the more orthodox observations of composition have been discarded and therefore it might not be unreasonable to assume that the painting doesn't work on an aesthetic level. The strong diagonal of the raised knoll on which the beach huts sit, running from the bottom corner into the middle of the painting, would not be advisable in a traditional landscape format, drawing the eye into the centre of the painting. Nor would the horizon running across the middle of the paper. However, the square format presents greater flexibility for this subject - instead of the eye sweeping across the painting from side to side as it does with landscape and panoramic formats, it simply settles on the image as a whole. Knowing that, I am happy to play around with the rules, and the combination of a central horizon line and the strong diagonal enables me to carve up the scene into balanced areas: the detail-free sky in the top-left with another quiet passage of sand and grass in the bottom-right. The supporting diagonals of the shoreline, the beach huts and the tops of the trees take your eye to the end of the beach, not to the focal point of the upturned boat, its red hull glinting in the early morning sunlight. Orthodoxy suggests that the boat should be somewhere by the fence, near the last beach hut. This isn't necessary in the square format and indeed if I were to place it at the convergence point of the sight lines, it would give the painting as a whole a strange sense of looking through a pair of square binoculars, zooming into the middle to the exclusion of the rest of the painting. A focal point, detached from where our eyes naturally lead, works well here to create a nice, syncopated composition, something that would not be as effective without the restraint of a square boundary.
'Views From the Beer Garden at Scott Arms'
'Churchyard Views, Corfe Castle'
The two paintings above that feature Corfe Castle use the restriction of the square frame to their advantage. Both present their subjects with a tighter, more intimate perspective than is usually available with the traditional, more spacious formats. Through the foreground plants and over the cottage roof tops at the end of the garden, we look across Corfe Common to the castle ruins and beyond to Poole Harbour in the distance - landscape layers, distinct, compressed, competitive, yet all observed in one glance as the square frame centres our focus. The same idea is in play with 'Churchyard Views...' where an early morning stroll through the quiet churchyard presents us with an aperture between the cottages and gateposts to the village and castle. The continual interchange between sunlight and shade in every layer of the composition provides a sense of rhythm that helps to provide some unity to what is a busy scene. Ultimately, with our focus fixed by the square format we are able to continue breaking compositional rules - is the castle the centre of interest, or is it the red door of the baker's shop? Does it matter? Whatever it is, why are details such as the spots of lichen growing on the grave stones included? Surely that will just confuse the eye and drag our attention away from the focal point. I'll say it just once more - within the square, our eye tends not to roam and stays fixed, permitting a significant degree of compositional flexibility, scope for detail and rule-breaking fun. Contemporary composition or aesthetic anarchy? You decide.
Most importantly, be there and be square!