What Makes Good Composition?
Can composition be learned? And if so, how? Over the next few posts I'm going to try and answer those questions. It seems to me that a good place to start might be to try to reach some conclusions on what makes a good composition, to try to divine some basic principles of composition that can be learned and practiced.
For a long time now, the subject of composition has harried at the edges of my thoughts about learning to draw and paint like a dog worrying at a bone. I've known for a while that it was something I was going to have to devote some attention to at some point. Thus far my overriding concerns have been largely technical and to do with translating visual perceptions convincingly in two dimensions: eye training, judging shape, translating value, that kind of thing. My approach to composition has been confused and incomplete, a picking up of bits from here and there and a largely random application of said bits without any guiding principles.
Perhaps that's not so surprising, and not uncommon either. In the comments on the last post on three portraits, Rosemary asked me if I tried to develop compositional and design skills along with accuracy, or if in fact I didn't try to develop my compositional skills at all. In reality, the answer is probably the latter, despite some haphazard and disorganised compositional experiments.
I've reached a point now where I feel the need to start devoting more time to developing my compositional skill. Over the next few posts, I'm going to try to come to some conclusions about what makes good composition, and to try to find an approach to learning how to make better compositions. When I'm concentrating on trying to develop a particular skill, I find that the most difficult thing is to find a place to start and a way to build momentum in the beginning. After that, things can evolve under their own steam and will more than likely take care of themselves, with some ongoing assessment and adjustment.
Let's work together on this
One of the great things about writing for this site is that it gives me a space in which to think out loud, to explore ideas and perhaps most importantly, to get feedback from other people, to share ideas and approaches.
I know I'm not the only one who struggles with knowing where to start in order to learn about composition. So I'd really like this to be a collaborative effort, because in that way the ideas that we explore together can be the most useful both to ourselves and to other readers who happen by, which is really what this site is about. I'm interested in hearing input from anyone and everyone on this. Of course I'm quite happy to just hold forth on my own, I've certainly done enough of that here over the last few years! But if you do feel you might have something to contribute, please don't be shy. I want this to be a place where visitors can feel able to join the conversation without judgement. All contributions are valid, especially on such a difficult subject.
I'm going to start today by trying to gather together some of the disparate thoughts I have about composition by showing some examples of what I think are good compositions. Please feel free to reference your own in the comments, and I'll try to find examples of them and post them here, or in the next post. Email them to me if you don't want to post a comment. The artist's name and the title should be enough. Please feel free also to add any thoughts you might have about composition in general, either in the comments or by email.
Of course the examples I'm posting below are entirely personal ones. I've tried to think a little about what makes them work, and what might be common to them all.
Veronese: Happy Union
Whenever I think about composition, this is the first painting that pops into my head.
It's called 'Happy Union' and is by Paulo Veronese, a 16th century Venetian painter and one of my personal favourites, largely for his sense of design. I've spent many hours sitting in front of this painting in the National Gallery in London, following the rhythms of its repeating shapes and trying to divine what it is about this painting that makes it such a successful composition.
It's one of a set of four, and is meant to be seen opposite another painting of similar proportions, but I think it stands on it's own and is the most beautiful of the four for me.
Something about the design of the whole, that great sweep down from the top left to the bottom right, and the interlocking and echoing shapes that cascade down through the main movement creates a sense of gentle harmony, entirely in keeping with the subject of the picture. Veronese's figures are famous for being wan and expressionless, and that's certainly true in this picture. Nonetheless, something about the design of this picture strikes a chord in me, something indefinable maybe, on the edge of normal awareness. Is that part of what makes a good composition? That it evokes a feeling in us whether we know why or not?
Although it's a fascinating game to trace all the repetitions and flowing of contours through and across the shapes, it's not necessary to do that to be affected by the beauty of the design. I think that just as we can be moved by music without understanding the theory of harmony, we can be affected by beautiful design without understanding why.
I'm sure the colour has something to do with it too. The grey sky in this painting and its companion pieces was painted with smalt, a pigment that fades over time. Originally the sky would have been much more blue. Despite that though, there's still a harmony and a balance to the colours. No one hue dominates, and they all appear to be of a similar intensity. I'm not saying that's principle of good design necessarily, but it seems to work well here.
Chinese Brush Painting
Traditional Chinese brush painting also springs immediately to mind for me when I'm thinking about composition. This example is quite a recent one, 'Plum, Bamboo and Rock' by Xu Beihong, an artist more famous for his stunning horse drawings.
This is art from a very different culture of course, with a different tradition and philosophy, but still with a beauty of design perhaps not entirely unrelated to the Veronese. If a large part of the beauty of two dimensional design lies in the subdivision of space, then there's little to match this kind of painting for me. It has an organic beauty, not based on any kind of geometrical foundation but with a natural sense of space and balance that can be felt without any detailed understanding of the tradition it springs from.
The colour is very reserved here, but again very balanced. The colours of the leaves and rock are only slightly higher in chroma than the background, just enough to make them stand out. This painting relies much more on value than colour for its design I think, and on the use of negative space.
Xu Beihong is a particularly interesting artist because he painted through the cultural revolution in China and eventually developed a synthesis of western and eastern art, incorporating a level of optical realism from the western tradition and an understanding of western perspective.
One of the defining characteristics of our time I think is the availability of information. As learning artists we have instant access to the visual history of the traditions of all the world's great cultures. It puts us in a unique position, and is bound to result in a cross-fertilisation and perhaps what might be seen as a dilution of regional and even national characteristics. But I think it's something to be celebrated and embraced.
It can result in the creation of new forms - the influence of Japanese prints on the impressionists and post impressionists comes to mind - and also can perhaps give us an opportunity to look for what's common between cultures, and across eras, about design. The mixing of cultures and influences need not result in annihilation of any of them, as I think Xu Beihong's later work shows. As Gandhi said, "I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any."
Meeting of East and West
Even in Xu Beihong's less traditional work his sense of design is still present, and his tradition too is still evident in this economical and expressive portrait of Gandhi. Although the head is rendered with a more western approach, the two dimensional design, the off-centre placing of the figure, the brief contours that describe the body and the use of negative space are very much from the eastern tradition. The spidery, wavering lines seem aptly to reflect old age and frailty.
Rembrandt's Ink Drawings
The more I look at art from different cultures and periods, the more I think that a sense of design, pattern and harmony must surely be shared by all people no matter which culture or time they come from.
This landscape by drawing Rembrandt shares many of the characteristics of Chinese brush painting I think. The tools are different, the culture is different, and the illusionary depth of field is very different from Chinese painting. But it has the same sure-footed brevity, the same organic sense of design, the same balanced division of the two dimensional surface and a similar use of negative space.
I think some of the most beautiful and compelling compositions have been created by illustrators. Here's an example by Arthur Rackham, a British illustrator you can read a little more about at Charley Parker's short blog post about Rackham.
This is a great example of strength of line and beautifully balanced subdivision of space I think. I see the influence of eastern art in a lot of Rackham's designs, but I have no idea if he was directly and consciously influenced by it.
This is also a good example of what I believe illustrators call a vignette, which leads me nicely onto the next example, from Dean Cornwell.
Whilst I don't find much of Cornwell's work, or this example above, beautiful in a traditional sense of the word, by which I mean that I don't find them expressive and that they don't move me emotionally, his compositions are beautifully and extremely skilfully arranged I think. His sense of design and the subdivision of the two dimensional plane of the paper is wonderfully handled. Armand Cabrera has a nice post with more of Cornwell's vignettes on his Art and Influence blog, and see also this post, part two and part three, all on vignettes from James Gurney. Is it me or are illustrators' vignettes deeply indebted to eastern art for their concept?
Vermeer: Woman Holding a Balance
For my last example I'm posting a painting by Vermeer. I don't see how I could write a post on this subject and not mention his beautifully balanced, calm compositions. I could have chosen just about any of them, but this one seems a particularly apt one to finish with, given the subject. The sense of peace and calm in Vermeer's paintings must come partly from the repetition of those straight verticals and horizontals as much as from the quiet and subtle treatment of the light. But viewed from a point of view of subdivision of the two dimensional space they're beautifully balanced too I think, in the way that positive and negative space is handled.
I'm going to leave this post here for now, due to time constraints as much as anything else. It's perhaps a pointer to how difficult I find it to approach the subject of composition that I've already rewritten this post several times over the last couple of weeks. If I don't post it now I probably never will.
But lets just see this as a starting point and see where we end up. I'm planning to post next about some of the approaches I've taken to composition before and why they haven't worked. Also I'll be talking a little about writing on learning composition I've come across and why I think it's unhelpful to us learning painters, or at least incomplete.
After that I'll be moving on to a couple of resources I've found, books, that I think might be useful and I'll be proposing a possible direction for practice and development. But those posts can easily be moved further down the line. I'm quite happy for this series of posts to be guided by your input and to evolve naturally and organically, like a traditional Chinese painting.
So what does make a good composition?
Well, I'm quite aware that I haven't definitively answered the question I posed in the title of this post. Perhaps there is no definitive answer. But surely the balanced subdivision of two dimensional space must be one of the primary factors of a good pictorial design, more important perhaps than the balance of values or the colour.
Please feel free to add your thoughts below, whatever they are, along with any examples that you might particularly like or think are relevant. If you have specific examples, post the name of the artist and the title and I'll find examples of them if I can and post them.
Posted 12th December 2010