Spring and my thoughts turn to Florence, Italy, my favorite city. I’ll cover a few of my treasured memories of Florence in the next few posts.

Let’s start with Santa Croce (Holy Cross).

This is a church and compound dedicated to St. Francis. Some say, St. Francis of Assisi actually started construction on the original church on the site. This iteration was probably started in 1220-ish. By 1252, it was completed. Franciscan Monks still live at Santa Croce. The robes (and I think I recall, the sandals) of St. Francis are on view in an ornate reliquary in the sacristy, a room off the main sanctuary.

The Cimabue Crucifix

Crucifix by Cimabue. Created in 1280 for the altar. Heavily damaged in the flood of 1966. Now in the first room of the Santa Croce Works Museum.

Crucifix by Cimabue. Created in 1280 for the altar. Heavily damaged in the flood of 1966. Now in the first room of the Santa Croce Works Museum. Cimabue, Crocifisso, 1280, tempera su tavola, 390 cm, basilica di Santa Croce, Firenze.

For me, one of the most powerful pieces of art of all time is the Cimabue cross. I believe it was created for the Pazzi Chapel. The Cimabue piece is a knee-buckling crucifix—my expression for art that brings you to your knees. I am not Catholic, yet there is something so somber, so evocative of this piece that it pulls me to my faith.

In a future post, I’ll discuss the Pazzi family in greater detail. They plotted against the Medici and now the word in Italian for “insane” is: Pazzi. Note to self: don’t cross the Medici.

The Cimabue cross suffered tremendous damage in the flood of Florence in 1966. It was out of the church for years. It has had much attention and repair. It is not restored as the damage from the flood is still evident, but it remains immensely powerful. It is a piece that Graham T. Mason and I have always planned to reproduce—perhaps in full size—to hang in some future home of his or mine. This piece was a turning point for me opening my eyes to the beauty and power of the pre-Renaissance, Byzantine style using the iconic stylized, “scripted” qualities to convey a message universally understood by Christians of the era.

After seeing the Cimabue cross, I expanded my study of Italian art. It had been primarily Florentine, from the 1400s forward. Now my interest includes the art back to the early Roman days. I can understand if you don’t “get it.” I didn’t until I stood in front of the Cimabue crucifix.

Notables Entombed at Santa Croce

Some of the most famous people in the world are buried in the sanctuary of this church. Michelangelo, who died in 1564, is buried here in a magnificent tomb. Allegorical figures representing great artistic endeavors—sculpture, painting, and architecture—surround the site. Giorgio Vasari, the historian and fellow artist of the era, created the tomb. Vasari’s life itself is fascinating. A contractor to the Medici’s, it is astonishing his head didn’t roll by the hand of the most powerful family in Italy. But, I digress…

Others buried in the sanctuary include Galileo Galilee, Niccolò Machiavelli, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Gioacchino Rossini. Dante is honored there, although I think his remains are elsewhere. Florence Nightingale, named for the city of Florence, is also honored there.

The Giotto Frescoes in the Bardi Chapel

Brothers attending to the death of St. Francis by Giotto approx. 1325.  These frescoes were whitewashed in 1700s, through an order of the Medici, in an effort to modernize and simplify the interior of the great churches in Florence. The whitewash was removed in 1852 and the art was restored. In the 1960s they were repaired from the restoration in 1852. In 1966 the great flood damaged much of the church. That cleaning work lasted at least 10 years.

Brothers attending to the death of St. Francis by Giotto approx. 1325.
These frescoes were whitewashed in 1700s, through an order of the Medici, in an effort to modernize and simplify the interior of the great churches in Florence. The whitewash was removed in 1852 and the art was restored. In the 1960s they were repaired from the restoration in 1852. In 1966 the great flood damaged much of the church. That cleaning work lasted at least 10 years. Source: Scenes from the Life of Saint Francis, Death and Ascension of St Francis, (detail), c. 1325, fresco, 280 x 450 cm, Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence.

One of the most well-known aspects of Santa Croce is the Bardi Chapel. Glorious expressive frescoes in the chapel are by Giotto di Bondone. This is the artist generally known as Giotto. Unusual for the era, Giotto instilled much emotion in the figures in his work, particularly through the eyes. The eyes of his subjects seem to carry the weight of the drama and storyline in the scene. In the fresco by Giotto of the death and ascension of St. Francis, his fellow friars are distraught and bent over with grief at the suffering of Francis. The scene is compelling and alive with angst

The one-dimensional aspects of the work (the faux patterning on the wall) are realistic, accurate representations of marble or painted plaster on a wall. Three-dimensional aspects still present a challenge at this point in the advancement of Western art, circa 1325. Perspective and conveying a sense of “mass” have not been conquered yet. For example, in addition to the problems with everything seeming to be in the foreground, there are no shadows yet under any people, objects, or buildings. People appear pasted one on top of another. There is a realistic suggestion of color changes as fabric folds around their bodies, but there is neither roundness nor space suggested between the people.

Pondering Halos. Do they move like plates on a plane or hats on a head?

Another notable observation is in the halo of St. Francis. It is a fascination to me to follow the development of the depiction of halos through the history of art. In this era, we see the articulated gold halo with a geometric pattern (radiating lines) sitting it seems on the plane of the painting. If the subject were to move his head, the halo would remain in the same position and the head would move through the halo.

It is sort of like that “invisible plane” at the end zone of a football field, or the plane of the surface of water–no matter your body position as you crash through the “plane,” the plane stays in the same place. Halos painted later began to be fixed on the head and moved as the head moved.

Coronation of the Virgin Mary, Maso di Banc, Bardi di Vernia Chapel.  Note the halo and the Moorish influence in the decorative elements. The missing pieces represent some of the damage from the flood of 1966.

Fresco of the coronation of the Virgin Mary, Maso di Banc, Bardi di Vernia Chapel.
Note the halos. In the lower right edge, the head is turned and the halo maintains its “plane.” Also note the Moorish influence in the decorative elements. The missing pieces represent some of the damage from the flood of 1966.

Yet, presumably we rarely see halos, so I’m not sure if the greater sophistication in painting halos truly represents how halos work. The sophistication reflected the greater realistic representation of the human form and how elements attached to the form, like, let’s say a hat, will move with a head. Hats don’t stay in a fixed plane. They stay attached to the head.

(FYI — let me insert here that whether you believe halos exist or not, there still needs to be a way to depict them in art. To tell the stories, we need a way to convey the image of a unicorn, or the super powers of a hero, or the change that happens to a werewolf.)

The sophistication reflected the greater realistic representation of the human form and how elements attached to the form, like, let’s say a hat, will move with a head. Hats don’t stay in a fixed plane.

But I am quite curious if a halo is like a hat or has a completely different spiritual complexity.  I would think it may have a unique underlying principle to guide its movement and maybe it “breathes” or is more like a sphere (a balloon) encompassing a head. Or radiates in the way a street light shines with soft edges in a foggy night.

These types of decisions, such as how to convey the concept of a halo, are choices artists make. The leading contender of the day is followed and emulated. Thus the creation of “icons” to signify an underlying concept.  We accept a ripping green shirt as Marvel Comic’s Incredible Hulk. In the same way, watching the changing iterations of halos is a way to understand what the culture is awarding at that time in terms of style and interpretation of a spiritual concept.

Byzantine and Moorish Influences

View of the Bardi di Vernio Chapel, or the Chapel of St. Silvester,  at Santa Croce.  The frescoes were created by Maso di Banco, 1340.

View of the Bardi di Vernio Chapel, or the Chapel of St. Silvester, at Santa Croce.
The frescoes were created by Maso di Banco, 1340.

Other patterns in the frescoes in various other chapels at Santa Croce, illustrate the Byzantine and Moorish influence of African-based patterning (geometric circles and repeating small patterns). These seem to carry a more traditional style, not appearing as the breakthrough new style Giotto was incorporating at this time into his own work. Perhaps they are included to bridge the visual gap from the traditional to the new. Perhaps it was an easy way to separate the elements in the stories. Or probably it was simply how frescoes and similar murals were “supposed” to be painted.

The Piazza at Santa Croce

Jousting in the piazza in front of Santa Croce, in the 1800s.

Jousting in the piazza in front of Santa Croce, in the 1800s.

The large piazza in front of Santa Croce is also well known. Historically it was the scene of many jousting matches.

Currently the Florentines hold other games and activities in the piazza, including a celebration of flags each year. During the day, many eat lunch, stroll around, sketch, have a coffee or snap selfies.

I lived near Santa Croce when in Florence and found it had a powerful draw for me. I visited on many, many occasions.

The same piazza in front of Santa Croce years earlier, before the facade of the church was updated starting in 1857.  Emilio Burci, View of the Piazza Santa Croce, mid-19th century, copper engraving, 9.9 x 16.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Firenza.

The same piazza in front of Santa Croce years earlier, before the facade of the church was updated starting in 1857.
Source: Emilio Burci, mid-19th century, copper engraving, 9.9 x 16.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Firenza.

There is so much more to this church and lively community in Florence. My choices highlighted here represent a small collection of the objects I am most drawn to. That’s why I visited it over and over, and I always return whenever in Florence.

Do you have favorite memories or images of Santa Croce to share?


For more reading on Italian art, see my post on the Fibonacci series of numbers and Vitruvian Man, Fibonacci intersecting nature and art.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in 1964 when he published his often-referenced book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (Read a PDF of the chapter here: mcluhan.mediummessage )

His point is relevant today. Whether we are tweeting, posting selfies, or searching for the closest Starbucks, technology itself has changed the culture. It has changed how we communicate, what we talk about, our attention span, and, weirdly, it has spurred a fascination with cat videos.

The impact on the culture from the emergence of a new medium can be related to the emergence of studio portraits or vignettes on post cards after the Civil War and through the first part of the 20th C. These served the same purpose as early selfies to share a slice of your life with the people in your life.

A post card with an image of two adults seeing their reflection as they kneel by the edge of a pond. From the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society

From the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

The delight of getting a new radiator and being done with the constant hauling of wood or coal to fireplaces. The couple is sharing their happiness in a post card.

The delight of getting a new radiator and being done with the constant hauling of wood or coal to fireplaces. The couple is sharing their happiness in a post card. From the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

Another manifestation from the art world of early selfies, were the tiny miniatures painted as a forget-me-not for travelers who were leaving home, hearth, and loved ones behind.

Tiny miniature portraits frequently painted in watercolor or gouache to be cherished by the recipient. they are encapsulated in a gold watch frame.

Tiny miniature portraits frequently painted in watercolor or gouache to be cherished by the recipient. They are encapsulated in a gold watch frame. Photo by Jeff Dykes for the Lynn Museum & Historical Society. From the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

One of the most remarkable examples of “the medium is the message” is the flow motion video of Dubai, by Rob Whitworth. In the video he flies us through time and space in an almost unimaginable and magical journey into the culture as represented by its human-made spaces, the natural wonders of the desert, and its 21st C citizens with their toys.

 

High sky view of fluffy clouds, brilliontly colors fog around buildings at dusk in Dubai.

Still from the video, Dubai Flow Motion by Rob Whitworth. Click link in the text above to see the Vimeo Video.

More credits for the video, “Dubai Flow Motion” and links to Whitworth’s work are below.

The technique itself is as jaw dropping in some ways as the images. The novelty of this technique is probably as it was originally with photography, miniatures, Polaroids, smart phones, and so on. The first exposure to the new technology is breathtaking and can be life-changing.

Do you remember the first experience with technology that blew you away?

And, with our voracious appetite for the new, we will devour this technique and undoubtedly search out a fresh more exotic medium for our messages tomorrow. But today, it is astonishing.

At every step our culture itself is being impacted by the media, as well as the message. Three-year-old toddlers now touch many surfaces assuming, until proven otherwise, that many surfaces may be a touch screen and by touching it, the child anticipates entertainment.

Is this the quintessential example of the medium is the message?

Curious and rather jaw dropping itself, isn’t it?

To read more about another type of “selfie” read my two-part blog post on Silhouettes: “A Cut of Silhouette History” and “When Shape is the Thing.”


Dubai Flow Motion by Rob Whitworth:

Sound Design: Slava Pogorelsky
Email: kultenyeuk@walla.com
Facebook: facebook.com/Kultenyeuk

Rob Whitworth
Website: robwhitworth.co.uk/
Facebook: facebook.com/RobWhitworthPhotography
Instagram: instagram.com/robwhitworthphotography


(Second and final part of the “silhouette” post)

A recent article in the Harvard Magazine, November-December 2014, “Shadow Art,” presents the history of the silhouette art form.

Named after Etienne de Silhouette, “a penny-pinching minister of finances under Louis XV, whose tenure was brief because parsimony rarely has a big following… The phrase à la Silhouette came to mean doing things on the cheap.”

The “cheap” concept evolved to become conflated with the economical and growing art form of commissioning portraits cut as silhouettes in lieu of sitting for painted portraits. It became a popular “craze” from the last quarter of the 18th C to the middle of the 19th C. As photography gained popularity—which was another “new” intriguing art form—silhouette work started losing its popularity.

An exhibit “Silhouettes: from Craft to Art,” was mounted during the summer of 2014 at the Houghton Library on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, MA. The exhibit is reviewed in a blog post linked here, which includes beautiful images from the late 1700s which are held in the collection of the Library.

An example of traditional silhouette technique in which the artist basically traces the outline of the face. The vignette was printed in the second volume of Johann Caspar Lavater’s treatise on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe published in Leipzig between 1775 and 1778. From the collection of the Harvard university's Houghton Library.

An example of traditional silhouette technique in which the artist basically traces the outline of the face. The vignette was printed in the second volume of Johann Caspar Lavater’s treatise on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe published in Leipzig between 1775 and 1778. From the collection of the Harvard University’s Houghton Library.

Here is the description from the Houghton Library blog post:

A draftsman sat behind a movable standing frame which held a sheet of glass and that leaned against the shoulder of the sitter. The draftsman drew the outline of the sitter’s profile on a piece of translucent, oiled paper placed on the frame. A stick of wood or iron attached to the middle of the frame supported the sheet of glass and could be moved by the draftsman.

A recent exhibit Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880 – 1910 during 2014 at the Columbus Museum of Art exhibited several examples of a variation of a form of silhouettes as “shadow theater art” designed for the cabaret, Le Chat Noir in Paris.

Image of piece of cut-out that would be mounted to a stick for use in the shadow theater performed at Le Chat Noir, Paris. From the collection du Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia Collection du Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

Image of piece of cut-out that would be mounted to a stick for use in the shadow theater performed at Le Chat Noir, Paris. From the collection du Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia.

The individual pieces conveyed silhouette-style scenes attached to a stick that would be raised above a screen (as in a puppet theater style) and narrated to convey the story via a “Shadow play.” Henri Rivière was the designer of the shadow theater scenes displayed in the exhibit.

I was profoundly moved at how the silhouettes in the shadow theater pieces dramatically presented a battle as a single cutout “scene.” It was almost a “hair-stand-on-end” moment to imagine the earthy aroma in the tavern, the boisterous crowd, talking and jostling, and then the passion of the French peasants, laborers, and countrymen captivated by the animated storytelling of the narrator. So much is left unsaid and left to the imagination in a shadow play –I presume in a curious way, like sitting on the edge of a seat listening to a radio program.

The shadow theater images in the exhibit (as shown in the image here) are another example of how powerful various art forms can be. Somehow the contrast of the black and white and the detail strangely conveys more emotion and the impending movement than many full-color paintings of the same scene might connote, or even a poorly executed movie with actual moving images of the scene.

For more information on silhouette art and on contemporary artists, see my previous blog post at artinthecenter.wordpress.com

Note: as discussed in the previous post, for Joy Yarbrough and the silhouettes she creates, she cuts them freehand while holding the paper and scissors in the air and looking at her subject. She does not use a traditional set-up as shown in this post.

I’m not going to get us bogged down in a discussion of negative and positive space or whether the artist is a “mark maker” or a “shape maker”—because among artists that can call for more than one bottle of wine to resolve.

But there are times when the shape is the vision. These artists are drawn to the silhouette. They are compelled to capture that edge and what is confined within it or excluded from it, at exactly a moment in time.

Cut out shapes

Cutting paper is something most of us have done from a very young age. I remember fondly the strings of cut-out people holding hands or the “snowflakes” cut from paper in elementary school.

The French artist Henri Matisse (1869–1954) started the “cut-outs” part of his career later in life when his health prevented him from traditional painting. As someone driven to produce (which is a curse or gift of most great artists, I think), he sought an art form that suited his then-physical aptitudes and abilities. He took scissors to paper and created imaginative, colorful cutouts.

The themes were built on ones he was familiar with in other media (nudes, patterns, faces, natural or organic shapes, etc.) But the interpretations were vastly different because the cut outs initially caught the eye through the silhouette—the shape—of the piece of paper. His work is huge and diminutive. Some pieces interpreted into massive tapestries and into the embellishments for churches or giant walls of enormous dancing shapes.

An excellent blog post, “Matisse’s Cut-outs as Environments” discusses a major exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs which had been at the Tate and is now at the Museum of Modern Art through February, 8, 2015. CBS “Sunday Morning” recently aired a story on the exhibit.

Charles Kessler, a former art historian and critic and the blog post author, says, “Until fairly recently, this late work of Matisse’s… was wrongly belittled as the frivolous art of an old man. I’ve long believed, however, that Matisse’s innovations are similar to, and at least as radical as, what the Abstract Expressionists were doing at the time; and that Matisse’s cut-outs should be considered among the greatest work of the twentieth century. They certainly are among the most joyful art ever made.”

I agree. They are unique, experimental brilliant, joyful, and appear spontaneous. To clarify—the cutting of them appears spontaneous. When you see pieces in person, the speed at which things were cut is apparent through the rough edges, the clunky curves or uneven “zigzags.”

Large piece of contemporary art with stylized images of flowers and a line drawing of a face.

From the National Gallery, Matisse’s “Large composition with Masks.” Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia. No alterations to the image. https://www.flickr.com/photos/shifted/4662154402/in/photostream/

Yet, as the master he was, there was great precision and mulling over the exact way the pieces should be mounted or amassed to create the effect he was striving for in the ultimate composition. On some of the pieces, there are often many if not hundreds of pinholes indicating a repositioning of the piece as a part of embodying Matisse’s vision.

A collage of cut-out shapes in various colors and pasted on a white background.

A Matisse Cut-out. Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia. No alteration to the image. https://www.flickr.com/photos/minneapolisinstituteofarts/ -

In the blog post, Kessler continues, “Matisse described his new medium in a 1952 interview with André Verdet (Pretiges de Matisse): ‘… drawing with scissors on sheets of paper colored in advance, one movement linking line with color, contour with surface.’ Cut-outs are simultaneously drawing and painting.”

For most of us to really “see” the silhouette, the outside shape, is challenging. Things are always moving. The color of the world is distracting to “reading” the edge. We cannot separate the foreground from middle ground and background. So I am constantly astonished by the exacting and stunning work of a good friend of mine, Joy Yarbrough, who among other things, is a silhouette artist.

She describes how she sees her vision to work on a silhouette of a person, “I block out details and see the basic outline of the person’s profile…much like a person’s shadow. When I am cutting a silhouette of someone, I am trying to capture a bit of their personality, like how a shy child holds its head, or a proud lady.”

“My paper art is chiaroscuro …a study of light and dark contrasts. Technically my ‘drawing’ with scissors is creating a ‘contour’ drawing by cutting freehand a shape with scissors of black paper, and mounting it on white. Whether cutting a portrait of paper or cutting a delicate feather, the outline shape is the beginning of the silhouette.”

Black silhouette of large bird's nest atop telephone wires.

Cut-out silhouette (c) Joy Yarbrough, http://www.joyceayarbrough.com

And, just so we are all clear here…. she doesn’t draw anything, and doesn’t use a traditional set-up we may have in mind of a strong light to cast a shadow. She “freehands” cuts by holding the paper and the scissors in the air while looking at her subject. She cuts the silhouette with very sharp surgical “iris” scissors and archival black silhouette paper.

Standing violin player in silhouette (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Standing violin player in silhouette (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Even with wiggly children, she cuts freehand. And, she has cut “en plein air,” which means outside in the atmosphere, the wind, mist, blazing sun, and deep shadow. With a smile she says, “I’ve cut en plein air unless the wind is really strong, and even in the rain (under a tent) but that isn’t ideal either!”

Cut-out of a feather (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Cut-out of a feather (c) Joy Yarbrough.

Papercutters around the world

Joy describes meeting other artists who use paper as an artistic medium, “Belonging to the Guild of American Papercutters, I have met artists from many countries. Americans are most familiar with German or Swiss Scherenschnitte, but many cultures do some form of paper cutting: Polish Wycinanki, Japanese Kiri-e, Spanish Papel Picado, Danish Papirsklip (the link is a YouTube video with a song in Danish about papercutting!), Chinese Jianzhi and the Jewish paper cuttings of Mishrahs and ketubot.

“Visiting China and Poland, I tried their techniques and tools firsthand, using scissors from China which can cut many layers of tissue thin paper, and cutting with sheep shears in Poland!”

Another contemporary American artist who uses silhouette is Kara Walker. Her graphic images boldly present her comment on social injustices.” (The link is from a 2007 exhibit at the Walker, Minneapolis, one of my favorite art centers.)

In her YouTube video, “Silhouettes and Pastels” Yarbrough demonstrates her technique and presents examples of her exquisite silhouettes. On her website, Joy Yarbrough Fine Art, she features a portfolio of her work. Her art has been exhibited throughout the US, including the Pittsburgh Center for Contemporary Craft, PA; St Louis Artist Guild, MO; Highfield Hall & Garden in Falmouth, MA; and the GAP National Museum in Somerset, PA; Worldwide, she has had her work exhibited in Germany and China and it is held in private collections all over the world.

(See LeftBankArtBlog.blogspot.com for more art posts. Also, read the intro to the exhibit on the respective museum landing pages for more about the exhibit. To contact Ms. Yarbrough about a commission, contact her via her website: joyceayarbrough.com)

I am dividing this blog on Silhouettes into two parts. The second will follow in a few days.

On the Theme of Art in Nature and the City

Driving through some of the more challenged parts of my community I observed the grass thriving in some of the blocks where abandoned homes had been taken down. How nice the grass looked as opposed to the decrepit burned out buildings! But then I wondered how much the city spends on mowing grass on these lots and how the grass we plant can be high maintenance.

Close-up photo of bright magenta-colored flower head of clover.

Close-up shot of the flower of red clover in Northern Ireland. © Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Copyrighted but licensed for use.

I wondered, why doesn’t the city consider alternative cover vegetation that doesn’t take as much TLC? One that may offer a secondary benefit as well. Such as sweet clover.

Photo of field of white clover with bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds.

Field of clover near Upwey, Dorset, Great Britain. © Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

Bees love it. It doesn’t grow too high. It is hardy and adaptable. And, who knows, you may find a lucky four-leaf clover amongst the vegetation. (Or plant the variety that is four-leafed.)

Or the city could try a field of sunflowers?

A field of yellow sunflowers on a sunny day.

Sunflower Field, Ann Arbor Township, MI.
By Dwight Burdette (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/83/Sunflower_Field_Ann_Arbor_Township_Michigan.JPG

I’d use a dwarf variety so they are not as susceptible to wind and don’t create a visual impediment to traffic. Sunflowers are very comfortable in dry conditions as well as pretty crummy soil (think of Kansas—no offense, Kansas. Just sayin’).

A sun flower created as a piece of art out of strips of wool.

An example of a sunflower that was created by an artist in Minnesota as a hooked rug creation. For more on rug hooking, see my post on this blog.

Sunflowers are great for birds—or people—who feast on the seeds. And, there is no denying that a field of sunflowers is glorious.

Or a lovely ground cover like thyme or oregano.

Small garden pot of a young oregano plant.

A small pot of oregano grown from seed. It is easy to start and spreads on its own if hardy. “Megan” Flickr photo. “Wild zaatar oregano.” https://www.flickr.com/photos/tofuttibreak/4627017920/ © Copyright Megan, but licensed for non-commercial use with attribution.

Super-easy to plant, these both spread on their own and serve the same purpose as grass to eliminate a dirt plot in the city. Even if you don’t harvest the herb, it provides a great scent if you walk through it or pluck it.

A little variety in the cover crop on vacant lots would get us away from the high maintenance of grass and theoretically be an edible alternative, too. Plus the beautiful artistry in the diversity of plant life, the delicious exotic fragrances from herbs, or the stunning complexity (and mathematical precision) of flowers such as sunflowers, are in themselves significant reasons to consider more diversity to the plantings in the city lots. I’m not suggesting it’s as easy as suggesting an idea and an idea can be implemented. There are a million reasons to continue the status quo.  But, i was just wondering about “what ifs…” when I saw the vacant lots now filled with grass.

This is a watercolor painting I created

A snow-covered bird's nest tucked into the branch of a tree, with brightly colored ribbons woven into the nest.

A snow-covered bird’s nest with brightly colored ribbons woven into the nest. (C) Jane M. Mason, 2014.

a few years ago depicting a bird’s nest intertwined with holiday ribbons.

Oh my….the experiences I have had trying to get birds to make nests using the beautiful ribbons and strands of gorgeous wool, satin, and silk that I have intentionally selected for them. I thoughtfully draped these tantalizing textile appetizers on shrubs, in trees, across porch banisters, and near bird feeders in my yard.

I discovered that no bird ever had taken any of my elegant or brilliantly dyed strands of fabric. (As much as I could scientifically ascertain with in my yard…) Over the months I watched the strands get rained on, snowed on, and bleached from the sun. Unstarched and abandoned, they sadly sank farther into the core of the shrubs or blew off branches into the flotsam of spring rains.

Having some bird families who perennially made nests at a convenient eye-height in my yard I would studiously examine what they had chosen for their nests instead of my offerings. I found plastic six-pack straps, muddy paper, twine, sticks, mud, leaves, chunks of Styrofoam, and other “trash” in the nests…. it was mind-boggling to contemplate why these common, discarded remnants of modern life were preferable to intentional products of a weavers or textile artists.

In the final analysis, I had to accept it: whether considering functional art, or art for arts’ sake, it
really is in the eye of the beholder, eh?

So this “Winter Nest” watercolor painting with the brightly colored holiday ribbons is a wishful figment of my imagination.

Phones have the capability to take great photos. But, that doesn’t mean every photo snapped is great. As an artist, art teacher, and former professional photographer, I have gathered these questions to ask yourself before heading out on your next photo shoot for some great landscape shots:

1) What are you trying to communicate? Where do you want the viewer to focus? What’s the main point? That main point in your photograph is your FOCAL POINT. Sometimes it is a small specific area in a photo; sometimes it is the whole scene—such as a sunset. In the sunset photo, we all understand what the point is: awesome sky. In the bird picking up the fish on the beach, you can center the focal point, but generally it’s more appealing to scoot it a bit to one side or the other. In art, our sense of composition typically prefers an arrangement that is not “perfectly balanced.” Just as no human face is exactly the same on each side, we are comfortable with variations in symmetry and balance.

Brilliant yellow sunset, tree top horizon, dramtic clouds in sky

Timing and patience is essential to capturing scenes such as this.

Horizontal photo. Pelican grasping fish in large beak, FLorida beach with wet sand, shorebirds surround pelican

A pelican grabbing a fish on a beach in Florida. You want your viewer to be thinking about what the bird is grabbing.

Horizontal photo. Fall foliage, Holden Arboretum, Ohio. Orange, red, golden trees. Tall fountain sraying water in pond.

The focal point is the fountain at the Holden Arboretum, Fall 2014. The randomness of the background allows the fountain to be centered in the image. Note the circle of foliage creates almost a frame around the fountain, directing the viewer’s eye where you want it to be.

Horizontal photo. Two dogs chasing each other, running on beach, gray-colored sand, surf, and cloud-filled sky near Gloucestor, MA.

Dogs playing on a beach bring joy to any dog lover. Note these dogs also help suggest scale to the enormous gray vista near Gloucester, MA.

2) How do you want to say it? This is your POINT OF VIEW. People tend to shoot photos straight on at their own eye level. New technologies such as “Gopro” cameras on dogs, drones, skateboarders, etc., have helped the world see that an unusual point of view can be especially engaging. Don’t be afraid to tilt the camera. Lift above your head and shoot down. Lie on the floor and shoot toward the heavens.

Vertical photograph. Fall foliage, orange, yellow leaves, tree canopy, Cleveland Metroparks. 2014.

Looking up Into the tree canopy at Cleveland Metroparks. October 2014.

Feels warm and sunny just looking up into the palms.

Feels warm and sunny just looking up into the palms.

3) How will you help the viewer enter the scene? Two good techniques are SCALE and a PATHWAY. Scale can be indicated by including something human-made, such as a fence, or the drinking glasses in Siena, Italy. Or, an actual path into the photo allows the viewer to mentally step into the photo and walk the path. Your landscape reached out and grabs a viewer if he feels he can walk right into the scene.

Horizontal photo. Serene forst scene with dramatic tall trees and small bench. Cleveland Metropark.

The wooden bench tucked at the bottom of the tree in this summer scene at a Cleveland Metropark invites a visitor to pause and absorb the serenity.

Square photo. Bright summer day. Tuscan scene looking into hills outside Florence, Italy. Olive trees. Vineyards.

A bistro table in Siena, Italy, in view of the vineyards and olive orchards. The solitude and casualness of the scene is tempting for the viewer to jump in and sit at the table enjoying an espresso with some biscotti.

Horizontal photo. Bog and forest vegetation surrounds wooden boardwalk with a person in the distance walking on the path. Late afternoon sun creates deep shadows.

The boardwalk on the Wahkeena Nature Preserve, Fairfield County, OH. The boardwalk beckons the viewer to enter the scene.

4) What will make the image pop? A POP OF COLOR will catch the eye, and generally as the viewer continues to examine the photo, the pop of color pulls her eye back to the intense splash of color. It generates eye flow which tends to force the viewer to linger on the image. This is human nature. Our brain is trained to identify things which stand out against their backgrounds. A red male cardinal rustling in a tree. The movement of a deer in front of forest shrubbery.

Horizontal photo. Ancient metal gates partially open to bright pasture that leads to deep forest.

The beautiful teal color of the fence is an appealing counterpoint to the natural bright greens, whites, and dark shades of the vistas beyond. The colors are so striking in their juxtapositioning that it is difficult to pull ones eyes away. Plus the partial opening of the gate is an inviting pull to enter the forest outside the gate.

Horizontal photo. Old masonry wall forground. Glass vessels set on ledge. Vase with bright red poppies. Urns of summer flowers. Background two cypress trees and long view of Tuscan countryside with vineyards, olive orchards, ancient buildings.

A vase of a few brightly colored poppies create a striking pop of color against the dark Cypress trees. The drinking glasses and copper vessel give a sense of scale and a touch of impromptu casualness.

Vertical photo. Tight shot in shade of hillside. Lush vegetation such as hostas, landscape grasses. Unusual green colors.

The unexpected silver-green color of the grasses on this bank at the Holden Arboretum, Cleveland, OH not only create a visual interest, but the “weeping” effect of the foliage creates eye movement that flows diagonally through the image. The tree trunk crossing to the left creates a “cross current” to allow the eye to flow to the left and start entering the photo again. Even the scattering of the fall leaves across the bottom of the image presents a musicality to the image that continues to delight a viewer.

5) When should you use special FXs? I tend to prefer more natural images although many times for fun, to create or amplify an emotion, or simply to experiment, you may elect to add an effect. In the photo with the yellow finch, the bird had flown across my yard and landed on the external side of my window screen. I had time to grab my phone before it zipped away. But the screen was distracting. Using a standard filter on my Android, I created a vignette with a theme, and it minimized the distraction caused by the screen. On the winter landscape photo, the image was primarily two colors (blue and black) and seemed a bit flat. By using another standard filter on an Android, I created an emotional context for the image that seems to emphasize the stark, solitary frigidness of the scene.

Horizontal photo. View from inside of room to small yellow finch songbird attached to exterior of a window screen. Airmail dotted band applied to top of photo.

The generic filter on the Android created a post card or “air mail” effect on the little finch that landed on my window screen. the effect minimized the distraction of the screen between the viewer and the bird.

Horizontal photo. Exterior edges appear torn or roughed up. Intensity of color amplified through filter. Winter snow leading into forest scene. Intense blue, black and blue-gray snow.

The filter from the Android created an emotional tone to the winter photo.

Some of the images in this post, such as the one with the glasses on the ledge in Siena, have incorporated the answers to several of the questions. This strengthens them.

All these photos (except for the two included under “FXs”) are straight from a camera. None of the scenes was composed. Each one was shot in situ—exactly as it appeared. This isn’t required when you shoot your photographs. You are the artist and you can compose scenes and you can manipulate photos. But if you start with a strong image, life is easier. And, your photos will look like you know how to think like a photographer.

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