What is Arabesque in Painting?

This summer I took a sculpture making workshop with my former teacher and father, Eddy Roos, in Uithuizen at the Museum Eddy Roos. It was strange to have wax in my hands again. It felt so soft. It is a beautiful material to make a sculpture with. In the five-day workshop we made a start with a 70 cm tall sculpture of a live model. It was strange to hear Eddy repeating the things he wanted me to learn 30 years ago.

Painting and sculpting of course have their differences, but both work with dancers, movement and compositional harmony. Hence, there are also a lot of similarities.

First he talked about the armature, which is the iron and wood construction under the wax. This is similar to the first lines on a drawing that are guiding the final composition. The directions of the lines are the basic form. He calls this the arabesque of the sculpture.

Armature and Arabesque

The teacher of Eddy, Gregoire, wrote in the book “Staturen from Gregoire” that an Arabesque is the mathematic underground of the artwork. This arabesque has three simple values;

  • The expression of the curve (development)
  • The expression of the proportion (rhythm)
  • The expression of harmony (balance)

Shiva’s Sculpture in the Rijksmuseum is more arabesque then Rodin’s Burgers of Calais

I try to apply the armature and three concepts from Gregoire in my paintings too, which is not easy because it is not a step-by-step process but a more random process if you are painting.


The starting lines of a painting or drawing is the armature of a painting, the raw essence of the image. They are mainly abstract lines, circles, squares and other basic forms and the Golden Mean and imprimatura (colour of my canvas, in this case ochre) of my painting.


Apply the Golden Mean

By applying the Golden Mean I found out that the head needs to move down and that the left elbow of my model needs to move too, just As the right hand needs to move a little higher, etc. I play with the mathematic system, which is not a rule that I ‘have to’ use, but which I play with and try to implement.

The expression of the curve (development)

The curve is the move and contra move, not the central line.

I played with the lines and made the lines of the bedsheet more abstract so that my model looks more organic. The lines of the bed sheet and the right lower part of the leg of the model are moving in the same direction but opposite to the body, which makes the body heavier and more organic.

The expression of the proportion (rhythm)

The proportions of the dancer are combined with the values of dark and light, soft and hard, as well as how the direction of the light source falls on the painting. I bring the light more to the right side of the painting and I darken the left side so that the focus is moving more to the right side of the painting

The expression of the proportion is also the rhythm from the back leg extending the back to the head, which is just turned a little more inwards.

The triangles of the front leg is major from the triangle from the front arm, and that is the major from the minor of the behind leg.

The expression of harmony (balance)

The harmony is the balance between the empty space and the full space (in this case the body). It is also the relationship between the straight and curved lines. Then there is also the colour balance.

I worked on harmony through making one site from the painting much lighter and the other site darker. This way the empty space becomes bigger while my dancer is still prominent in the painting. Furthermore, I also reduced the colours of the bed sheets.

One other way to increase harmony is but not ‘telling’ everything. If you tell everything, make everything explicit, the viewer has no possibility to create empathy and dream with your painting.

In his lessons, and the video, Eddy also talks about the architecture of a sculpture. A sculpture has to work in space. If you stand far away, you want to see a combination with the surroundings, in this case the lines in the garden from Castle Verhildersum, in the village of Leens, The Netherlands. A painting can also do the same. Think of Titian, The Virgin Pesaro Assumption of Mary: when you arrive in the church you see the painting from 200 meters away and it is still a strong symbol. The painting survived the distance, the space it is in.

Titian: The Virgin Pesaro Assumption of Mary 1516-  1518

Why is this important? Because art is more than just lines on a page. It is about stimulating creative thought. Judging based on knowledge and comparison develops a more well-founded opinion than just based on feelings. Feelings and emotions are still valid, of course, but to go deeper you need to train the eyes, train to look, before the brain fully understands. As a visual artist, I am curious why we find a Rembrandt beautiful? Why do I think copying a photograph is not art, but a handicraft? Why did it take Despiau years to make his portraits? Why does some art survives over time, while others doesn’t? Why have we lost interest in the 18th century painters and modern painters as Baselitz and Lupperts? Though I will never find clear answers, asking these questions and searching for answers are the reason I love art.