I have had this draft of a master study saved for a long time now, and tonight I decided I would finally get around to writing it out. I have wanted to do a series of Master Studies for a long time, so I decided to start with an artist that I think is under-appreciated. Because it’s the first, it’s probably going to be the longest, so… buckle in.
Before I get too deep, I should say, this isn’t necessarily about Earle’s watercolors, as much as it’s about his composition.
My brother Tim was the first to introduce me to Eyvind Earle, and the more I study him, the more I am in awe of his ability to create a composition. Most people probably think of him as a Disney artist, they think of Sleeping Beauty – and that’s not a bad thing. But if you are like me, and that’s all you know about Eyvind Earle – well, hold on to your butts.
In terms of composition. I usually gravitate toward very traditional landscapes – horizon on the third, some kind of S-curve, contra-jour lighting if I can… and all my landscapes end up feeling very samey as a result. So, I looked into some compositions by Eyvind Earle, who’s work I admire so much. His stuff is much more illustrative and imaginative than I tend to be, but his compositions are always entrancing – and sometimes incredibly simple.
I hope I’m not violating any copyrights by posting these, but here are some of his paintings that inspired me, and a brief explanation of what about the composition I appreciate so much.
I don’t know the title of this piece, but – I don’t have words for how amazing this is. This painting is representational, but almost purely composition. Color/tone, almost non-existent. Look at what a dynamic captivating image he creates with almost nothing but value and line.
The first thing that strikes me is his command of edge, and relative scale. The perspective isn’t as important, because all of the shapes are organic. So while the composition definitely still follows the rules of perspective, it isn’t enslaved by planes and vanishing points. Instead, Earle relies on relative scale of the rocks, and the thickness of the lines to relay the information that a strict perspective would communicate. Notice the diagonal rocks in the front, they are covered in tiny thin lines, and the shadows are large swaths of lost edges. As you move up, and deeper into the composition, the lines quickly cut away to nearly non existent in favor of just soft-edges clouds of value. There are lines there, for sure, but nothing like the level of detail in the foreground.
This seems like a no-brainier. Of course, more detail in the foreground, less in the background. Duh. But it’s the way Earle manages to balance these two. He doesn’t just throw edges away entirely when he gets to the background, he maintains some hint of the edges in the foreground, and as a result, the dozen or so fine lines in the distance read like a trillion cracks and crags because of the amount of detail in the foreground. He takes the time in the foreground to give us the rules of this world, and then relies on us to apply those rules to the objects in the distance. In the areas where the light is strongest, all information is obliterated – there’s nothing but white. However, rather than feeling like a white hole in the image, my brain fills the space with all the information that’s been washed out by the blinding sun. I could go on and on with this image, but then I would never get to the rest.
Here we have a composition that I would never try, because I would be afraid of how it breaks all the rules. The subject is so close that it doesn’t even fit in the view port. It’s backlit so strongly that it’s almost entirely black. It’s DEAD SMACK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PAINTING. I get the feeling that the perspective is technically off… if I had painted this I would be worried that it looked like the tree was growing horizontally out of the side of a cliff. But the image doesn’t read that way. It feels spot on.
First – I want to talk about the subject being right in the middle. The biggest concern with this is cutting the composition into two paintings. But Earle knows the risk, and he mitigates it by simplifying the background, and relying on a repeating almost pattern of trees so our mind connects both halves of the image.
The other thing that interests me is how simple his color palette is. The whole image could be painted with blue, yellow, and maybe black. In spite of feeling boring, it feels appropriate. The eye and mind need a place to rest. And Earle does that so well here. He gives us a break with the huge swath of black. And offsets that with such intricate detail in the branches and sides of the tree. And where the details are so intricate in the branches, the background is as simple as it can be.
The last thing I notice is the lines. Notice how the lines on the left angle down – all of them. Then the lines on the right wrap diagonally around the trunk. This tells us two things about the tree. The vertical lines reinforce how tall and strong it is, and the diagonal describe its graceful gesture.
Ok – let’s talk composition. This painting is a study in contrasts.
Look at the direction of the lines in the path (all vertical) and how they contrast with the lines in the snow (all horizontal). The difference between the two make the path feel like an abrupt disruption of the snow.
Also notice how the perfectly smooth surface of the snow is interrupted by the ragged balls of snow at the edge of the path.
And the whole image is absent of color, white snow, blue shadows, blue sky, and black trees. Then, there’s a bright red barn.
Again, such a simple image. Two colors, one shape repeated over and over. While there’s very little cognitive load dedicated to interpreting shapes, the image is as far from boring as I can imagine. That interest is generated by relying on the graceful curves, contrasted by the sharply angled shadows. And, the perspective is so interesting because we are looking almost straight down in the foreground, and parallel with the horizon at the background. This change in perspective doesn’t make the image feel incorrect, rather it makes me feel even more within the image. If I were standing at that hill, I would look straight down, and straight out at the horizon.
Earle made many images like this, and each one is entrancing. Seriously, spend some time googling… this guy was a genius. Pure and simple.
Again – contrast. Stark white snow vs. dark grey shadows. The sky is as black as death at the top, and pale blue at the horizon. The tree is straight up out of the ground, and the branches are straight down. The tree is so tall it doesn’t begin to fit in the canvas, and yet the branches are touching the ground. The shadows are vertical on the tree, and horizontal on the ground.
Oh my … this image is so simple, and yet so incredibly emotive. Looking at this elicits an actual physical reaction in my gut. That rock in the foreground looks so lonely, so separate from the few rocks near the horizon. I’m amazed at Earle’s ability to tell a story — here I am, feeling something, about a ROCK, an IMAGINARY rock — decades after Earle painted it. And consider that he manages to elicits that strong emotion with almost no color at all. If there is an image that portrays the power of composition, this is it.
I am getting tired, and as much as I would like to keep going and talking about how much I love these, I’ll just post some more of my favorites from Eyvind Earle.
Many of these are screen caps from a video montage of his paintings – sorry for the awful quality.