Painting in the Ruins - Hubert Robert Analysis

Going to do something a little different today, we're going to be looking at a classical oil painter instead of a modern digital one.  In many ways, it is probably even more important to study these guys than the modern leaders of our field.  Hubert Robert is famous for painting the ruins of Italy, which ties very closely to my personal IP project at the moment, so I thought I'd take a closer look.

Hubert Robert - A Hermit Praying in the Ruins of a Roman Temple

Hubert Robert - A Hermit Praying in the Ruins of a Roman Temple

Man, I *love* the storytelling in this piece.  We have a very low-key image, dark, but with enough light to convey information, story and details of the location.  The subject is pretty clearly the hermit in white, but Robert has given us secondary and tertiary reads from the 3 girls in the doorway, the one up on the ledge, and the personal effects in the left corner.  Compositionally, the image is cut by the pillar on the left, but the basin and jug in that corner keep it from feeling extraneous to the story.  There is a VERY strong one point perspective, and interestingly, there is no payoff at the vanishing point, which would be common in most paintings.

2 values

2 values

The B&W pass confirms our subject pretty clearly, while also showing the girls in the doorway and a sense of where the lighting is coming from.  He has obviously made a clear design choice for the key of the painting, and the dark far outweighs the light.

3 values

3 values

The third value establishes the mid-ground and the importance of the architecture in the painting.  It also brings into focus the secondary reading of the flowers and the painting in the lower right corner.

4 values

4 values

Almost no difference between the 3 and 4 value reads.  There is not a lot of contrast within the bands of this image.

The Monk

The Monk

This entire painting is pretty loose, and the subject is no exception.  Things are more hinted at than tightly rendered.  His shadows are painted with the contour instead of across them, and are almost all simply single strokes of paint.  In contrast, the highlights across the back of the form are painted as cross-contour strokes.  I love how just his nose pokes out of the robe, and it is much brighter than it "should" be based on the lighting.

The other elements around the monk are equally or even more loose.  I think we can safely say that while he is the "subject" of the painting, Robert wanted our eyes to take in the whole thing, so he didn't over detail this part to keep us focused on it.

Hey Ladies!

Hey Ladies!

Interestingly, although they lack the contrast of the monk, the secondary-read characters are more detailed.  I would say that they are more important to the story of the painting, and Robert may also be relying on the fact that a pretty girl tends to capture people's attention!  

Either way, they too are given the same shadow and highlight treatment as the monk.

The midground

The midground

Although he's placed another figure with a story element here, the primary focus in my opinion is the architecture.  This is Robert's chance to show the ruins he loved.  Check out the details and method of abstraction on those columns!  Look how he is introducing variations in colour and value to sell the "ruined" aspect of the temple.

The left foreground stuff

The left foreground stuff

Again, very low contrast but fairly tight detail.  He's once more telling us that this secondary information is fun to discover, and putting it on the left side of the column makes it feel like a secret to be found.  The stick curves back up to the far left column, which leads back to the roof and the crossbars that take us back into the painting.

The roof/background

The roof/background

Finally, the background of the image.  Observe how he lessens detail and contrast as things recede.  The birds and the green leaves exist to give a sense of scale and depth, and a final fourth read of interest.  Everything is very abstract at this point in the painting.

 

Learnings:

  • Design your light and dark with a definitely point of view.  Don't keep them balanced, make one "stronger" in the image than the other.
  • You can vary contrast, detail and placement to keep secondary and tertiary elements interesting.  Not every painting has to have all of these things decrease uniformly, it is possible to have a high contrast, looser subject and more detailed, less contrasty secondary reads.
  • If you divide your canvas, make sure you have some sort of payoff in all sections.

 

All these things apply to all forms of painting, digital or traditional.  I hope you've enjoyed going through this one with me, please share if you did :)

 

Thanks again!