Anatomy of a curve
January 15, 2013
In magic tricks, the curve has its beguiling ways. If a magician needs to distract someone's eyes for a second or two, say with a coin, he need only move the coin in an arc. For some reason this curving action temporarily confuses the viewer and permits the magician to perform an illusion.
On the other hand, if the magician moves the coin in a straight line, the viewer's eyes spring back like an elastic band to the origin of the move, thus exposing the ploy.
In visual art, the curve helps manage the movements of viewers' eyes by keeping them within the picture. As well as making a work of art more voluptuous and appealing, the curve is the most effective device for leading the eye to centres of interest.
The most useful and creative curve is what is known as the "slow-fast-slow." I've drawn this type of curve, as well as other examples such as entasis and entrelac, with explanations, at the top of the current clickback. Fact is, there's more to curves than meets the eye. Artists need to understand the species and subspecies of curves and the potential uses of each.
All curves, in all art, begin with the human body. In a popular example, a distant range of hills may simulate a woman lying on her side. This sort of ploy engages the viewer's subconscious (particularly but not necessarily a man's) and adds a mysterious syntagma. A syntagma (from a Greek word meaning "arrangement") is a juxtaposition of forms that relate to but are different from one another. An abstract painting with anatomical syntagmas enjoys the close examination of connoisseurs. They may not know what it's all about, but they know what they like.
Another use of the curve is in the description of forms when seen obliquely--the way a roundish pond or an ocean curves toward you to lay down flat. Their apogees, for example, are often slightly and briefly straight. Further, curves that diminish into the distance are an effective way to convey perspective. Also, intermittent stations along a curve cause activation and "stutter." When interworked with flats, zips, gradations and patterns, curves have the potential to transform a painter into a magician.
PS: "The line that describes the beautiful is elliptical. It has simplicity and constant change. It cannot be described by a compass, and it changes direction at every one of its points." (Rudolf Arnheim)
Esoterica: "The serpentine line, or the line of grace," said William Hogarth, "by its waving and winding its different ways, leads the eye in a pleasing manner along the continuity of its variety." Time-honoured to the point of cliché, the "s" curve slyly moves the viewer back into the picture. Motifs lost and found along the curve temporarily disarm, intrigue, and invite viewer participation. In what might otherwise be dull art, the curve is key to mystery and enigma. Throw them a curve.