My first day at L’ècole Des Beaux Arts in Montreal was quite memorable. Aside from compulsively staring at a very pretty blonde by the name of Josette, I eagerly awaited the arrival of the drawing teacher for my first class.
Eventually he entered, wearing a tweed jacket with a matching wool tie and slowly inhaling a Gitanes cigarette.
He blew out a puff of smoke, stared around the class and then announced, “Pick up your charcoal and draw vertical lines on your paper.”
And that is exactly what we did — for the next two weeks.
A New Way of Seeing
My first inclination was that this was an enormous waste of time, but eventually his intent began to sink in. After drawing these lines for a couple of classes, I started to observe the effects on the eye of putting some closer to others, changing the spaces, making some lighter and some darker.
Closer lines created an illusion of thickness. With a change in density, they began to blink. And by progressively drawing the lines in ascending or descending shades of black, I created movement across the page that I didn’t realize was possible.
My eye was beginning to be trained to see in a whole new way.
Eventually, I discovered that being a painter was not for me. But the training turned out to be very useful in my later careers as a graphic artist and photographer.
Graphic artists combine shapes, text and images in order to make a statement designed to attract and retain the attention of the viewer.
Type surrounded by white space or reversed on a colored background stands out and attracts attention.
Graphic elements such as colored blocks or patterns can direct the viewer’s eye to sections of a page to retain specific information.
Lines dividing text can separate thoughts and allow the viewer time to absorb separate ideas.
Images are used to enhance attention and memory.
Two photographs next to each other can create an illusion that is not apparent when those photographs are viewed individually.
It’s the vertical lines exercise all over again — only a bit more sophisticated.
Stepping Right or Left, Forward or Back
The lesson holds true for photographers as well.
Unlike artists, photographers are mostly limited to working with actual objects — people, props, backgrounds and so forth — instead of static graphic elements.
The relationship of these objects to each other within the frame determines the movement, interest and dynamics of the final image. The colors or shades of these objects and their relation to each other also have an effect on how the image is perceived.
Although a studio photographer may have time to carefully configure each of these elements, most photographers — photojournalists, wedding photographers, street photographers — have to work with relationships that are constantly changing around them.
This means learning how to manipulate these relationships by, say, stepping to the right or left, or forward or backward a few steps when composing an image.
Whenever I shoot a subject, I usually take three or four frames. Each one is slightly different from the others, because I have moved to the side, a few steps forward, or changed the angle of view. When I look at these images later in Adobe Lightroom, it is amazing what a difference these slight alterations can make.
It’s the same kind of difference I saw when I drew those vertical lines closer or further apart, or lighter or darker, or thicker or thinner, so many years ago.