My 2nd Joseph Zbukvic Workshop, pt. 3

How Composition Can Help Guide Technique

For this post, I wanted to share some thoughts on what I see as a link between how Joseph creates his compositions and how he achieves his technique.  As I’ve pointed out in the previous posts, Joseph repeatedly focused (sometimes subtlely, sometimes overtly) on what I call “Compositional Sign Posts”- namely, creating a clear foreground, middleground, and background through bonding smaller shapes together and simplifying details.  That sounds simple conceptually, but it’s actually rather difficult in real life.  However, if you can do it, there’s a wonderful ripple effect that can echo outwards.  Not only can other compositional concerns begin to fall into place (guiding the eye with leading lines, creating depth, prioritizing shapes), but there are technical payoffs as well, as those same shapes can guide your wet-into-wet paint application.


Lake Merritt Demo-

One of the days we went down to Lake Merritt, and under the shade of a tree we looked out over the water and began doing this demo of the little canoe docks there.  The first thing to notice, much like when he did the painting of the dry docks or the yacht club, is how much Joseph zooms in on his subject.  My photo here shows all the stuff between us and the focal point. 

There’s the foliage from the tree, the sidewalk, and the plantings, but the painting zooms in, cropping all of that out and instantly helping create a composition that has a clear stage (the lake), actors (the boats and people on the dock), and setting (the hills and buildings on the far side).

When Joseph went in to paint, those compositional divisions helped guide him as he worked wet-into-wet.  He noted how he didn’t just go around higgledy-piggledy, painting this and then that, first a little of the foreground and then a little of mid.  That path leads to madness!  :)  This happens a lot when we think of each building or tree as its own object.  It becomes hard to control wetness and bond shapes together.  The painting gets "chunky" with lots of little hard edges.  Instead, the goal is to bond objects together and think of the foreground, middleground, and background as something like large shapes in and of themselves, and to paint them as such, cordoning off other parts of the painting until you are done with the part you’re already working on. 

As an example, after the initial broad wash for the Lake Merritt demo had dried (which gave us the sky, the pale value of the buildings, and the water), Joseph went about methodically creating the buildings in the background wet-into-wet, moving from one side of the painting to the other, bit by bit, augmenting things as he went, abstracting details, and linking mini-shapes together with something like the quirky cousin of Mr. Bead… which he slowly nudged sideways.  Many times over the course of the workshop, he would ask “Why can I still work here?” as he continued to adjust hues and values wet-into-wet in a certain shape, to which we all learned to reply in unison “Because it’s still WET!"

Again, the real problem is when you divide your painting into too many small shapes and move about from one shape to another, before the first one is done.  That’s when things begin to dry too much.  In this painting, Joseph didn’t even do any real work on the main subject (the dock and boats) until he had finished the entire background shape that he had already started.

Here's the completed piece again-