Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Form Principle

Howard Pile said it took two years of study for the art student to understand the Form Principle. I thought I had grasped it immediately the first time I was exposed to it--wrong! I have painted 40 years and I am still discovering it. "Form Principle" refers to the separation of light and shadow that ocurrs when light falls on an object in nature. We observe light, shadow, half tone, core, reflected light and so on, and then we record those observations in paint. We combine this notion with the concept of Light Planes, and now we have some way of analyzing what we are looking at when an apple sits in front of us in a still life or the model is perched under a light on the stand. When we think about color it is the Form Principle that is in the background of our painting processes. What is the color/value we discern with the eye as we notice a beautiful core running down the shadow side of the face or down a jug--or across a group of grapes or flowers? I ask students--" you see that reflected light on the jaw that is bouncing up from the model's dress below? Can you see the planes that exist on the light side of the face that seem so washed out by strong light? On and on......! As if all of this were not confusing enough--I add my notion of Large Mass Painting that I have dug up from my own research into the techniques of past masters. I carry forward Serge Bongart's dictum, "...paint the forest before the trees, and the dog before the flees." Those new to the oil painting process--that would be anybody who has painted less that 10 years full time--want to paint eye balls, ears, noses, smiles, ear rings, buttons, zippers--anything except the big shapes of light and shadow that are created when light hits the subject. Before painting an eyeball, it helps to see the light planes that make up the eye socket into which the eyeball will be placed. Sargent used the phrase "the classification of values" instead of Form Principle, but its the exact same thing. Sargent sought out the big masses first, then the large planes that define shape, then the smaller planes--all of this while keeping light and shadow areas separate and being aware of color. It is the precise control of color/values that we see in Sargent, Sorolla and their buddies. They observed all of the elements of the Form Principle, but tweeked them as they would. John Asaro is a modern example of one who paints cores, highlights, reflected lights etc. with any color that seems right to him at the moment. But you have to see them first before you can tweek them. Over time one develops the ability to classify the values according to intensity and color--Ray Kinstler combines these elements into one phrase color/value--I think this is helpful. Dan Mccaw used to exhort his students to "compare, compare, compare" to get them to discern color/value. If you want to sound intelligent when asked to critique a painting, you can say--"Well....the values and color are slightly out...", and you will be correct almost every time. You will then be asked by the local art league if you are available to teach oil painting to the ladies group on Saturday morning. You will jump at this because your paintings are not selling and you are broke. But if your own color/values were right, and your ideas we good, then you could avoid the misery and just paint in your studio and sell your own stuff for the money--instead of teaching to others what you really don't understand yourself. What then is going on in the representational oil painting workshop culture? Not much--plenty of fun trips abroad, plenty of recipes, plenty of advise on marketing, plenty of parties, plenty of blow in, blow off, and blow out on the part of the teachers. How do I know about this?--you figger it out. Anyway, enough old man noises. Talk to ya later--Don Hatfield


  1. I couldn't agree more. It is easy for us to grasp theories like the form principle intellectually, but it takes years to actually work it out in life and paint (as I am painfully figuring out).

  2. Brother: Thanks for reading this blurb and throwing something back my way--Hatfield

  3. But we both know that teaching is a way for the teacher to learn and the socializing ain't always so bad sometimes meet such interesting people.....LOL With affection K