tension and flow
Here are a few things I'm learning in my modern dance class with painter/dancer Barb Shafer (which has evolved into a weekly private lesson...other students have dropped out for one reason or another) along with my thoughts on how they might relate to painting.
Barb's classes are based on the ideas of Martha Graham
, pictured here. The graceful moves of this kind of modern dance come about through contraction and release of muscle groups.
In dance, the deliberate contraction of certain muscles creates an energy or pull that brings an unfolding, natural movement in its wake. The contraction is often created in surprising locations, from the perspective of ordinary movement. An example: you are lying on your side, with the lower leg bent at the knee, and the upper one extended straight with foot on the floor. Your lower arm is also extended along the floor (in line with the upper leg) and the upper arm rests straight on your upper thigh. (You're all one straight line except for the bent inner knee.) Now you want to sit up. The obvious move for most people would be to bring the upper arm down and to use that hand to push off from the floor, bringing the other arm in with bent elbow to push the toso upright. So you would be doing these various separate moves, and it might not look very graceful.
But in modern dance, muscle contraction is often used to pull rather than push, and the result is a very flowing movement: in the example I gave, what the dancer would do to come upright is to pull out and down with the muscles of the upper, straight leg, aided by the abdominals, sliding the upper foot out along the floor. This brings the whole torso upright naturally and smoothly, the arms just glide along with no strain, and it all looks very nice (at least when my teacher does it!) At the same time, it isn't just a "pretty picture"--there is obvious strength and resolve manifested with this move, an impressive simplicity, and an element of surprise to the viewer.
Are there parallels to painting in this approach (or am I always just so obsessed with painting that everything has to relate?)? I think there are, really--perhaps more easily seen if you substitute the more visual terms "tension and flow" for Graham's "contraction and release."
It seems to me that a good painter establishes the strongest tension and energy through one main aspect--it may be color, composition, sense of movement, scale or some other element. Take away that central energy and the painting falls apart or becomes something completely different. And if several aspects of a painting compete strongly with each other--pushing/pulling in too many directions at once, the painting tends to look awkward or confused, without clear direction or force.
When the tension eminates from one strong aspect of the painting, there is potential for flow and balance to the work. As in dance, the source of that tension might well be unexpected or not at all obvious, even to the artist. But nevertheless, its "pull" on the other aspects of the painting can guide them into subordinate and supporting positions.
This is a new perspective for me...from my experiences in the dance studio, it makes sense to me at a gut level, though perhaps not fully developed. So--I'm off to the painting studio now to see if I can apply any of this in a real, practical way. Stay tuned!