What’s in a Rectangle?

Painters who depict recognizable imagery do more than just record a scene. They first consider the shape and size of their canvas, or piece of paper or prepared panel. They think about how that shape can be subdivided and how elements of the painting can be arranged across its surface to reinforce the rectangle or challenge it. Then they begin to make decisions about shapes, colors, values, textures and other elements that will eventually add up to being the final work of art. But first there is a rectangle – the primary shape.

"Cityscape 1" an oil painting by Richard Diebenkorn

Consider this painting by California artist Richard Diebenkorn. It is a hybrid work half way between Abstract Expressionism and representational realism.  In the painting Diebenkorn captures a daytime urban street scene. The street is a major element in the composition and recedes straight back from the viewer and then up a hill. In this painting the street forms a nearly perfect vertical that divides the rectangular composition.

Near the top of the composition is a horizon line separating land from sky. In addition to the horizon there is a cross street about two-thirds of the way up the composition and a sidewalk near the bottom. All these lines are parallel to the top and bottom edges of the canvas.

The houses next to the street are arranged to form a rapid staccato-like visual rhythm as they march up and down the left side of the composition. The parklands on the other side of the street are large flat shapes that counterbalance the small busy shapes of the houses.

All the colors of this painting – from top to bottom and from side to side – are similar in their intensity and all the brushwork is uniformly complex. The level of detail is similar across the entire painting. The similar colors and uniform brushwork encourage viewers to look at the whole composition (the entire rectangle) rather than at a select focal point.

The basic composition of this painting reinforces the shape of the stretched canvas on which it is painted (the main linear elements run parallel to the sides and top/bottom edges of the canvas). The colors and brushwork reinforce the flat two-dimensional surface of the canvas (nothing really recedes and nothing really advances). It is a scene totally in synch with the object and surface it is painted on.

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