master studies

Master study: Akira Kurosawa's use of composition in 'Seven Samurai' by ciro correia

Recent conversations with a friend reminded me of how much influence cinema and 'art house' films have had over me. Our conversation turned to Akira Kurosawa and his amazing work. I have a copy of Akira Kurosawa's 'Dreams' (1990), and other than that I've bumped into 'Ran' (1985) a few times over the last six years. My exposure to Kurosawa's work has been limited, there is so much more in his work that I want to explore. It's one of those things, with the tumultuous roar of information that assaults us everyday at times our list gets stacked so deep that we come back to something that interests us much later than when we originally found it. Speaking to Tony I realised there was a gap here I had intended to fill some years back, so with these conversations fresh on my mind I stumbled about Chichester early the next day and got hold of a copy of 'Seven Samurai' (1954). Kurosawa's work has influenced Western film makers for decades and this is one of the films that has carried most of his influence into the hearts and minds of other creators - but why? What makes this black and white, three hour long film so powerful that people today still consider it to be one of the best films ever made? You'll find other opinions  scattered across the internet, in books, lecture notes and so on - I'm sure if you've found this post you probably have been reading about Kurosawa and know much more than I do. I humbly submit my own voice to the clammer, putting forward what I've learnt from my own sketches and studies of stills lifted out from the film.

The most striking thing I've noticed working on my Kurosawa studies is the masterful composition he has crafted into his shots and work. Akira Kurosawa studied to be an artist (I assume a painter - perhaps the graphic arts... but I don't know for certain) but he was considered not to have had enough personal vision so he continued into film instead, but It's quite obvious that his studies and knowledge of the visual arts are being employed if you consider the continuous use of art and design principles used within 'Seven Samurai'. From a compositional point of view Kurosawa has given special attention to each scene, almost each shot - action sequences look like carefully composed illustrations or paintings, nothing is left to chance - everything as been given serious thought.  The key though seems to be that composition has been thought about over time using motion and the result, on the one hand, leaves us looking at each frame as if they have been perfectly composed as a single shot,  and on the other creates a richness and depth as each composed frame bombards onto our retina at 25 frames per second. 

It's the remarkable achievement of a creative mind way ahead of its time, the use of shape and form in composing (black and white aids us to see in values and shapes - I imagine it gives us a clearer view of Kurosawa's viewpoint). Then there's the use of unexpected and dynamic POVs - these are things modern film makers struggle to achieve. 

Speed-paint study breaking down major shapes - two more passes would bring this sketch up to the same level of realism as the still, but replicating is not the point. Learning from the master is.

All the stills I examined had fantastic compositions, there's a very deliberate arrangement in the whole film - Kurosawa is controlling our perceptions and leading us through the epic.

In the study above there's a beautiful balance between negative and positive spaces, the point of view (POV) is low - looking up at the determined faces of the samurai placing them in a heroic stance above us. The negative space is the open sky, expansive and open giving us a sense of an unwritten story and placing the characters further on a level above us - as if they're gods.

There's a strong arrangement of shapes: The samurai on the right is in the foreground, the eldest of the group. Mifune stands in the mid-ground perfectly placed in the rule of thirds, so is the eldest samurai - his left is in line with another vertical third line. The others are in the background forming a half circle around Mifune. There's a zigzag composition starting with the face of the samurai in the foreground to Mifune's face in the mid-ground and then to the samurai's face standing next to the older one, from there one tends to follow the circle around through the various other faces ending with the samurai to the left of Mifune.

My eye flows in from the top mid/left to the strong vertical shape of the eldest samurai, up to his face, the hilt of his sword and his eyes point me towards Mifune (the background figures support this movement). The intensity on Mifune's face tells me something important lies ahead of them, something I can't yet see. My eye follows his arm to his sword to the top of the frame back to the samurai in the foreground. In this way my attention is kept within the composition in a circular pattern, picking up further details each time I complete a circuit until the director chooses to release me on to the next scene.

Notice that Mifune has been singled out as different, He and the eldest samurai occupy the two most important spaces on the picture plane but the older samurai supports Mifune's uniqueness. To emphasise Mifune's unique position Akira Kurosawa has composed the shot with Mifune holding his sword over his shoulder whilst the other samurai have their swords where they should be- at their sides. This mechanism supports several important purposes - one being that Mifune isn't actually a samurai while the others are.

I love so many things about Akira Kurosawa's skills and work - love the graininess and strong shapes within 'Seven Samurai'. I can't help but think that it must have influenced generations of artists who work in pen and ink and halftone patterns to emulate the graininess and grit of air and atmosphere between forms. There's an art book on my shelf by Inoue Takehiko which feels similar to the images in 'Seven Samurai'.

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Master study, - Seymour Joseph Guy (American, 1824–1910) - At the opera 1887 by ciro correia

Process of the study, painted under 3 hours.

I really like Guy's use of light and how he models his forms. He used a limited palette for this painting, there's a presence in the painting that I think is remarkable. He captured the moment so well, you can sense her excitement or surprise as she enjoys the show. Once again the object of a master study is not to replicate or complete the image but to learn from the artist about what they understood about the principles of art and design. He uses the subject's hands to perfectly balance the visual tension between the portrait's head and the hands - really textbook precision if you study the theory behind portraits (Composing pictures by Donald Graham is an excellent resource for these principles and is one of my favourite books on my shelf, though in my opinion the level of the book is aimed at intermediate to advanced artists since he deals with some very meaty and advanced viewpoints on the subject). I think the use of dramatic light is the thing I got most out of doing this study.  I do studies to keep my eye in and keep my illustrative skills sharp.

master study of 'At the opera 1887'

You can see a digital copy of the original I used as reference here.

Master study, John Singer Sargent's 'El Jaleo' by ciro correia

Welcome to my new blog - 'Sketched'. I should probably have said this in my last post since that was the first blog entry on my new system, but hey this still works. I don't know why I resisted updating my website and streamlining all my net dealings before. I suspect that it had to do with the time needed to consistently update a website - somehow I've managed it without any loss to my other vital areas. So welcome to and 'Sketched'. I'm hoping to post updates on my illustration, design and art. I'll be posting concerning building skills, design principles and other educational matters to do with illustration and design. I'm also hoping to get some posts from contributors, other artists and designers and their ideas. I won't always be posting my best and polished work here so don't judge me by the images I choose to post, this blog is very much about the processes of building skills or shaping concepts. It's also about sharing my work, love and interests.

This month's master study is 'El Jaleo' by John Singer Sargent. Sargent's work is hugely influential to many artists, illustrators and designers - myself included. My aim in doing a master study is almost never to finish the piece. I'm not trying to reproduce the work but by painting the piece I enter into what I can only describe as a dialogue with the work and the artist's techniques. It's weird, I know but I find that I enter into a meditative space where I learn from the artist's work.

El Jaleo is a dramatic painting, Sargent captures the mood and atmosphere in the scene by his use of light, palette and tension created by his brush strokes and how he has posed the subjects. The room feels like a stage, the floor and space gives us this impression. The light is dramatic to heighten the scene. Movement is captured by the tension Sargent creates - the light comes from below and at an angle, the shadows cast against the wall are as much a subject as the dancer and those sitting against the walls either playing instruments or clapping in adoration. 

Speed paint master study: Most of the picture has been roughed in, I go in afterwards and paint over the basic shapes to refine the image. The only area where I chose to work in some detail is the dancer's head and her right arm. Sargent's brush strokes are very loose and yet he manage's to capture incredible detail and nuance.

Learning from painting El Jaleo: Dramatic light, using contrastive and dramatic values to highlight and create tension. The palette is uncomplicated - browns, reds, orange, black and white. The greys are largely warm. Brush strokes are loose and I think worked over each other with fluid movements - finding larger shapes and breaking down these into smaller visual elements. Detail is kept to key areas to heighten the drama.

The main area of my study - the dancer's head and right arm - zoomed in. You can find a photo of the original painting here:

Note: This painting was used as a basis by Paul-Emile Becat, a French Graphic artist known for his erotic illustrations, for an illustration for 'La Femme et Le Pantin'  a novel by Pierre Louys  (1898) (please note, Paul-Emile Becat's work is not meant for those with weak constitutions and will more than likely offend many). 'La Femme et Le Pantin' (The woman and the puppet) was made into a silent film in 1920. Marlene Dietrich's 'The Devil is a Woman' (1935) was based on 'La Femme et Le Pantin'. Other films based on the novel are 'That Obscure Object of Desire' and 'The Female'. I find it interesting that in 'That Obscure Object of Desire' the female lead's character is a Flamenco dancer from Seville. It comes all back to this painting somehow or at least Becat's version of it. Becat's illustration