What Makes Good Composition?

rackham_goose2Can 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

Veronese (1528 - 1588): 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 its 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

Xu Beihong (1895-1953): Plum, Bamboo and Rock

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.

Xu Beihong: Portrait of Gandhi

Both traditions are also evident in this beautiful Himalayan landscape by the same artist:

Xu Beihong: Himalayan Landscape

Rembrandt’s Ink Drawings

Rembrandt ink landscape

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.


Arthur Rackham: Goose Girl

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.

Dean Cornwell vignette

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 postpart 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.

Vermeer: Woman With a Balance

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 thatI’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.

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  1. 1

    Nick Stone says

    Thanks for a great jump-off Paul. I too hope people will contribute to this fascinating and essential subject because I need to LEARN. I am struggling with landscape because although many subjects present themselves as emminently paintable, they seldom compose themselves properly! Photographs don\’t help because they seem to \”lock in\” poor composition which is difficult to escape from. Great photos always have that essential element of two dimensional design as well and it seems to me that good photographers must not only be patient, but exceptionally good at distilling the composition out from all the other visual clutter. Perhaps this is why plein air sketching worked so well for Constable and Turner. I would put Edward Seago forward as a wonderful proponent of this distillation. I am looking forward to lots more on this.

  2. 2

    Jesus Estevez says

    hi,Paul, you can find a lot of material about composition in the book by Andrew Loomis ,Creative ilustration. good luck

  3. 3

    Paul says

    >because I need to LEARN.
    Lol! Me too Pete.

    I think I know what you mean about something being lost in the translation from visual experience to two dimensional picture. I wonder if that’s partly because we’re translating three dimensions into two.

    I know I’ve put together still life set ups that I thought looked great in real life, but didn’t work so well when painted. This brings me back to the thought that picture making is something very different than copying the perceptual impression. What do you think?

    I like the comment about photography. I’m sure you’re right.

    I’ve heard of Seago but can’t remember seeing any of his work – I’ll look it up. Are there any you think are particularly good examples?

    Hi Jesus, thanks for the comment. Yes, Creative Illustration is one of the two books I’ll be posting about soon. It does have some great information in there I think, but also some that I think is less than helpful. I’ll be going into some of that in the next post I’ve got planned. Probably the next post, anyway.

  4. 4

    Jon says

    Hi Paul, interesting post (as ever) – Stapleton Kearns has had some interesting things to say about comp. (and Seago) on his blog and Bruce Macevoy examines golden ratio and etc. ‘formats’ on his Handprint site (not his blog) – in fact, there’s a problem in that ther’s so much info. available – I like your posts because they’re so analytical of the deep causes/reasons – looking forward to your appraisal of Loomis! Jon

  5. 5

    Paul says

    Hi Jon,

    Thanks very much for mention of Stapleton Kearns blog. It looks fascinating and I’ve added it to my (already groaning) feed reader.

    After a bit of hunting around, I’ve found some interesting posts there regarding composition, of the geometrical superimposition flavour. Now, I’m not completely convinced by this approach to learning or teaching composition because I’m not sure that specific examples of particular geometrical overlays get us any closer to being able to use them in our own work. And it can end up rather like the ‘rule of three’ I think – you can find it everywhere if you look hard enough.

    However, I certainly don’t mean to diminish what is obviously a very interesting blog by a highly skilled painter.

  6. 6

    Paul says

    Actually, I really think I should elaborate a little on what I’ve said there:

    Among the posts I’ve found that demonstrate the ‘geometrical overlay’ approach are this one on
    diagonal composition. Certainly I see the opposition of diagonals there, which put me immediately in mind of
    Triumph of Zephyr & Flora by Giambattista Tiepolo. Tiepolo used opposing diagonals a lot in his compositions, to great effect I think.

    Also this post on
    building a square within a rectangle is interesting I think.

    But then when I get to this one on
    circular composition, I start to wonder. Could just as easily impose the square idea and the opposing diagonals on that painting. It may well be that the painting has elements of all three of those approaches to design.

    But my question is this: How useful is it to us to see those overlays? How much does it give us that we can really take away and use? I think it’s very similar to overlays of the golden section. Knowing that Renaissance masters used the golden section, and seeing some examples of it, doesn’t make us any better at composing pictures. At least, that’s my view, please feel free to disagree me. I want something of more practical use, something that helps me actually develop my sense of design. I hope to try and elaborate on this and make it more clear in the next post.

  7. 7

    Paul says

    For reference, the page Jon mentions on the handprint site about formats, the golden section and composition is here.

    It looks fascinating, and he makes some really good points from a quick look. Unfortunately I don’t have time to read it properly tonight but will try to before I post again on this.

  8. 8

    Jon says

    Thanks for fleshing out my post, Paul. I too am sceptical – but prefer to be aware of these issues – should the corners of the painting be empty or not? Are the weights of masses balanced? etc. James Gurney has written about eye-tracking experiments on his blog – and scientific results would seem to show that the viewers eye does not move throught the paintings on these so-called compositional paths. I guess that, indeed, the first thing about composition is to be awate of it. Another issue is how much will the artist “edit” reality when painting from life. Cheers, Jon

  9. 9

    Paul says

    No problem Jon, this was exactly what I was hoping for, to be made aware of some resources I hadn’t come across before. Now other readers will be aware of them too, so thanks on their behalf :)

    Very interesting what you say about the eye tracking experiments. I’ve long been sceptical of that too. When I look at paintings my eyes dart all over the place. I’m just not convinced that you can force a viewer’s eye to go in a particular direction. I must locate that Gurney post.

    The issue of editing is a very interesting one too. In a still life, you can set up things perfectly to achieve the composition you want, then paint it (although I’ve personally found it’s not quite as simple as that…) Not so with landscape, however. I think this goes to the heart of what composition – composing – is. Not copying, or even translating (the word I usually use for it) but arranging, making a picture out of the raw visual material we have to work with.

    I’m sure that’s a skill we can develop.

  10. 10

    Helen says

    Hello Paul, wonderful post, as usual. I hope I can follow it to the finish. I just got back from New York where my nephew, Casey Baugh, had his first one man show at the Wendt Gallery. It was great! He sold all but the 6′ one. I was able to go to the Metropolitan Art Museum to see quite a few Old Masters for the first time. It was a dream come true for me.None of them were what I expected. Thank you for this new post,as I am now really anxious to paint again. I’m having another surgery tomorrow for the cancer, but I’m doing well and hope to start back after this. Thank you, again, and I hope to see more of you soon…..Helen

  11. 11

    Peter Yesis says

    Hey Paul- Sounds like the dialog is off to a great start. I think you are on to something that all of us who just want to make our paintings better feel in our gut but don’t understand yet.
    You have discovered a gap between the art theory of composition that is described and diagrammed in so many books, blogs, websites, etc.and the I paint what appeals to me theory.
    My analytical mind loves these diagram overlasys, my creative mind falls asleep.
    You asked me, what I learn from these geometrical overlays and how can I apply it in my day to day work as a painter?
    Here is the simple answer, they give me a structure, a tool in the toolbox, something to think about and compare while I plot my design. They make me aware of how much thought these Master artists must have put into their work.
    And, because in general, I don’t follow rules very well. I tend to design with my gut or intuition.
    Some of these work others get recycled.

  12. 12

    margaret sloan says

    Hi Paul,
    This has been a great post, and comment section too.

    Composition and design seems to be the hardest thing to learn. I sometimes wonder if it can be learned, or if it’s an innate skill.

    I once read Aurthur Wesley Dow’s book Composition, and worked some of the exercises. What I took away from that book was the realization that I needed to practice and experiment with composition, just like I practice and experiment with drawing and painting.

  13. 13

    Jon says

    Well… … I dunno, something else that comes into my mind is: there should be a focal point – and the value contrasts should be stong(est) there and the edges hard(est).

    All the documentation on composition, after discussing eye paths (don’t lead viewer’s eye out of ainting, etc.), division of space, and balance (of various kinds) seems to start to list things like rhythmn, repetition, etc. I must say what’s really stayed in my mind is Stapleton Kearns saying that design(that’s what he prefers to call composition) must be INSTALLED into a painting (from life then). To be honest, I’ve got far more basic problems than this with my stuff :) :( Jon

  14. 14

    Ted Seth Jacobs says

    I’v eoccasioanlly beena sked to write a book on composition, so this will just be a few thoughts.I think the most important consideration is to know from the start what is the subject of the picture.Taht is to saythe main focus.That can be created by placement,contrast in either value or color, distinctness of shape, and especiallyh by not creating equal ”visual weight” between two focal points. that causes the eye to zigzag back and forth bertween them, and will freeze all the movement oin the painting. Since my style is based on the harmonisation of various scales, or gradients,itr is necessary that compositionallyh there need be a scale of focal interest.However, I prwefer this to not be overly emphasised.It is also easy to unconsciously create spaces taht attract the e to where you don’t wish it. This can happen bvy waht I call”framing.” That is by centering an element between two masses, drawing the eye into a realtively less important middle space.Another device is to start a movement that carries the eyes into n one part of the picture toward a point in naother part. this creats an illusion of movement at the ”terminus” In the Veronese, for example, there is an arm in the lower right leading into the central woman, which sends here moving toward the upper figure. I hope these ideas will be useful! Ted

  15. 15

    Paul says

    Hi Helen,

    Good to hear that some people out there are still buying art in the current economic climate. It’s good to hear that you’re getting back to painting, too. Best of luck with your surgery, I hope it goes ok.

    Hi Peter,

    “My analytical mind loves these diagram overlays, my creative mind falls asleep.”
    Hehe, yes I think I know what you mean. What’s always struck me is that the part that’s missing is the part that tells you how to go about applying what you see in geometrical overlays when you’re at the easel. That part isn’t clear to me.

    “they give me a structure, a tool in the toolbox, something to think about and compare while I plot my design.”
    A very valid point. In the next post in this series, or at least very soon, I hope to cover a painting I did a while back in some detail, where I tried to apply the golden section to a composition. That part worked out pretty well, but the painting still fell down compositionally in lots of other areas. But as a part of a whole, I do see how keeping them in mind, being aware of them as Jon says, could help.

    “They make me aware of how much thought these Master artists must have put into their work.”
    Well, yes and no. In specific examples where the correlation is so obvious a geometrical structure has been used, then yes, absolutely. But often I’m less than convinced.Some of them are so esoteric and the correlations so weak that it looks very much like someone imposing their own ideas on the painting, rather than successfully deducing what the artist actually did. There’s a great example of that on the Handprint page linked above, a geometrical overlay on Vermeers painting of the artist at work. It’s just silly! But of course that doesn’t mean they all are, that’s a very valid point you make there too.

    “I tend to design with my gut or intuition.”
    now I think perhaps we’re getting to the nub of it. I’m wondering how that gut and intuition – perhaps we can call it ‘sense of design’ can be developed.

  16. 16

    Paul says

    Hi Margaret,

    “I sometimes wonder if it can be learned, or if it’s an innate skill.”
    I wonder that too. But then I also wonder if there is such a thing as an innate skill? I don’t believe that anyone is born with a good sense of design. So it must be a learned skill. What I want to understand more is how it can be learned most effectively.

    “Aurthur Wesley Dow’s book Composition”
    Well now you’ve completely stolen my thunder, because that’s one of the books I’m going to be talking about soon, and also one of the main ones that I’m using to develop some compositional exercises from :) I’ve been reading it voraciously over the last few days, it’s fascinating. A pdf copy can be downloaded here.

    “I needed to practice and experiment with composition, just like I practice and experiment with drawing and painting.”
    I agree, that’s my impression too. And perhaps this is partly how we can develop the gut, intuitive sense of design that might be called an innate skill if the amount of practice that goes into developing it isn’t seen.

  17. 17

    Paul says

    Hi Jon,

    “there should be a focal point”
    Have you and Ted been comparing notes? (see comment below yours…)
    I think you’re right. If I forget that point as we go along, please be kind of enough to remind me of it.

    “design…must be INSTALLED into a painting (from life then).”
    I’m not sure I get what you’re saying here. do you mean that the design must already be there in nature? I’m not sure what you mean by “from life then”?

    “I’ve got far more basic problems than this with my stuff”
    Well, Arthur Wesley Dow is of the opinion that composition, as a fundamental part of the art of picture making, should be learned along side everything else, in fact, he thinks it should be learned before learning to render objects in the real world convincingly. I’m not saying he’s right necessarily, but it’s an interesting view and I think goes against the prevailing one in contemporary realist schools. One learns to render first, then think about composition later. What would happen if you learned to design well first I wonder?

  18. 18

    Paul says

    Hi Ted,

    Well, there’s a lot to digest there in a few lines. Can I just add my vote to those that have asked you to write a book on composition? I’d love to see these ideas fleshed out further.

    Those are interesting points about creating a focal point by different means. I take “distinctness of shape” to mean contrast of shape, like perhaps a rounded shape surrounded by largely angular ones, for example. That’s a really interesting idea I plan to experiment with in my exercises. Also value and colour, but since I’ll be starting with only line, they will come later.

    “a scale of focal interest”
    That’s also a really interesting idea. Ordinarily I guess my thoughts on focal points, when I’ve thought about it at all, have been concentrated on creating a single area that stands out and keeping the rest sublimated. Creating a scale of interest is a much more fine grained way of thinking about it I think. Again, a fascinating idea.

    “Another device is to start a movement that carries the eyes into one part of the picture toward a point in another part”
    This I’m not so sure about. A lot of writing on composition talks about leading the eye, and Jon mentioned an eye tracking test done by James Gurney in the comments above. I’ve tracked down the posts, and they make fascinating reading. Now, one or two tests could never be called conclusive, but the results are extremely interesting – and not what you’d expect either. The first post with the background is here. In the second, James discovers that in a couple of test subjects, what he’d meant to be the focal points of interest didn’t get much attention at all.

    But it gets really interesting in the third post. Here’s a couple of the more interesting points from his conclusions:

    “Curving lines or other devices may be “felt” in some way peripherally, but the eye doesn’t move along them.”

    “If an attention-getting element such as a face is placed in the scene, it will gather attention wherever you place it.”

    “Two people don’t scan the same picture along the same route.”

    “abstract design gets trumped by human stories.” i.e. people naturally seek out meaningful elements wherever they’re placed, faces in particular. the psychological effect of elements can draw the eye more than the abstract ones. There are a couple of points where people’s eyes are drawn by contrast differences though.

    “this creates an illusion of movement at the ‘terminus'”
    This is something different than the above comments on leading the eye I think. I doubt we’ll be lucky enough to have Ted come back again, but I’d love to understand more about what that means.

  19. 19

    Paul says

    Also, Ted made a couple more really interesting comments by email:

    “Most often I construct the placement of things on the canvas over a grid based on the relation of height to width of the rectangle.I use a lot of fractally echoing shapes and underlying parabolic curves which are oriented in three dimensions, with arcs pointing up and others down, intersecting. This mimics the disposition of pathways on all organic forms.”

    I’m going to let that stand as it is because I’m just not qualified to comment on it. I think there’s a lifetimes worth of pictorial experience there and before I know it I’m thinking about Mandelbrot sets and the unifying nature of all things. I’d love to hear interpretations from others on what that might mean to them though.

    I just want to say a really big thank you to everyone who’s contributed so far. Rarely has my brain travelled so far so fast, and felt so engaged. Personally, I really have the feeling of a new chapter beginning in my learning about and appreciation of visual art.

  20. 20

    david says

    In answer to the question can composition be taught, Ruskin in The Elements of Drawing says “It is impossible to give rules which will enable you to compose. You might much more easily receive rules which will enable you to be witty…if it were possible to compose pictures by rule Titian and Veronese would be ordinary men” On the other hand he does give a number of “laws” of compostion which elucidate the idea that a picture is a balnce between unity and variety. I think this basic fact has to be appplied to all the elements of a picture but the most important are the three elemnts of colour, hue;value and chroma. I always attempt to ensure unity by having a dominant and variety by having subordinates but the trick lies in making sure that what is surbordinate in one category is dominant in another. For example if my dominant hues are a range of reds my relief hues might be blue/green but of the same value or chroma (or both)as the reds. Like all rules it doesnt guarentee good results but it can give you pointers as to where you have gone wrong. Its easy to say but surprisingly difficult to carry out, for me anyway. Hope this adds something to the very interesting discussion.

  21. 21

    nick stone says

    Ted mentioned fractal echoes, what a wonderful idea. I have long been fascinated by Chaos theory and Complexity yet I have never even thought about it in terms of painting. For anyone who may be puzzled, think Butterfly Effect. The way in which nature organises complex structures out of seemingly random beginnings, like cell structure and chemical reaction, has so many parallels to painting and especially design. I start with the enormously complex view my eye gives me and have to organise all this into a coherent, two dimensional view. But how?
    In complex situations like fluid flow where liquid swirls, breaks up and recombines, you can find at the edges something called Strange Attractors. These are areas where the complicated rules governing movement such as speed, volume and friction begin to organise themselves into predictable patterns. This happens on its own. The mathematical equations which can be used to model this behaviour are actually very simple, it is the way in which they interact which defines subsequent behaviour because they carry an element which allows all events to feedback into subsequent events. So one colour is altered by the next colour placed beside it and they in turn are altered by subsequent tones, hue and chroma. A straight line is influenced by a curve, a vertical by a horizontal and so on. In this search to understand composition, are we looking for strange attractors, a state where all the complicated interractions of colour, line, shape and volume suddenly organise themselves into order?
    I apologise if this sounds off the wall to some, it was that phrase, fractally echoing shapes, which sent my brain into overdrive.

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    david says

    If I may take the liberty of a second bite at the cherry, I have always had my doubts about the idea of the eye being led through a picture. Foe one things it doesn’t correspond with my own (conscious) experience, and secondly it seems to me that pictures should be designed expressly to be comprehended as a whole. If not surely the whole idea of harmony balancing tones and hues for example falls to the ground, we design our pictures holistically not part by part. Secondly if the eye is to be led it must start somewhere and surely the place where it starts must by defintion be the centre of interest so where would you want to lead it to?
    I am also wary of drawing lines all over a picture like you Paul I cant help thinking if you draw enough you are bound to connect some points of interset. I have seen it done very effectively with works by Piero della Francesca, his Baptism for example but in his case the neat circles and triangles are not there to help him create a pretty picture but because for the neo-platonists of 15th century Italy they had profound philosophical connotations, the triangle representing the Trinity to give the most obvious example.It would be ridiculous to copy such patterns without understanding the philosophy which underlay them.

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    Jon says

    Something else occurred to me (watching a presentation on Rembrandt!) – the importance of studies (people seem to talk about thumbnails more now). Rembrandt did so many!

    I agree with you, Paul, that composition/design is fundamental – second after concept? – what?, why? – then how?

    PS When I said “from life” above, I meant that desing would only have to be ‘installed’ if you couldn’t arrange your subject – as you can e;g. for a figure or still life

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    Paul says

    I agree Jon, studies are very important. And probably often overlooked, that’s a really good point. I have found sometimes though that I can do a bunch of them and still produce a stinker! Evidence of said stinker to be posted soon…

    I think that’s happened to me because, even though I did a bunch of studies I didn’t have a well enough developed sense of design to really know what I was doing them for and to get the best out of them.

    I’m coming more round to thinking that developing a natural sense of design is of the most importance, since it then feeds into everything else we’ve talked about. What I’m trying to say I guess is that my thumbnail studies often didn’t help me much because my sense of design wasn’t (isn’t) developed enough to do useful ones, if that makes sense.

    I think I get what you mean now about ‘installed.’ You can’t physically go and move the trees to make them balance better, but you can rearrange them in your picture – thus installing the design. Have I got you right?

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    Paul says

    Hi Nick,

    I’ve don’t know anything about chaos theory but I’ve read a bit about complexity theory and strange attractors. Fascinating stuff.

    “are we looking for strange attractors, a state where all the complicated interractions of colour, line, shape and volume suddenly organise themselves into order?”
    That’s an interesting thought, but don’t we have to organise them ourselves? I’d love to think that my paint dabs would just do it for me, how cool would that be? But they don’t, so maybe we’re the strange attractors that bring it all together into a cohesive whole. I’m not sure I’ve ever been accused of being overly attractive but strange…well maybe once or twice :)

    Seriously though, I’ve been reading up on the fundamental principles of design’ over the least few days. Arthur Wesley Dow thinks that one of them is ‘subordination.’ By this he means the repetition of shapes in different sizes and proportions, combined to make an arrangement. Echoes might be another way to put it. Fractals might be another. If this is a basic principle of good design, did we see it in nature first? Or do we intuit it there perhaps?

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    Paul says

    Hi David, nice to see you weighing in on this. You may have as many bites of the cherry as you wish as far as I’m concerned – especially if you post such thought provoking comments.

    That’s a really good point about the hidden mathematical formulas in Renaissance paintings being very much of their time. I often wonder the same about allegory. It seems to me that to be effective it requires an audience who share the allegorical language of the painter, or nothing is communicated.

    That Piero della Francesca example is excellent. There can be no doubt that he used those geometrical figures for the composition when you see it drawn out. In fact, you can see it pretty clearly even without the overlay.

    Here’s a link to the
    Baptism of Christ with a geometrical overlay. There’s really no arguing with that. But again, you make a great point there David that he was using that geometry for philosophical reasons, not for purely aesthetic ones.

  27. 27

    Anna says

    A comment on the eyetracking experiments, if I may. I have not been able to read it all, so apologies if I am repeating a point already made.

    I would guess that in the case of chaotic paintings that lack compositional virtue, viewers’ gaze may follow a different path. Part of the virtue of composition is surely that it allows the eye to find and rest on the elements that tell the story, as the distractions of the disturbance from a lack of proper order are minimised.

    In other words, the eyetracking experiments may be less informative about composition per se than they appear.

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    Paul says

    Hi Anna, thanks for the comment.

    One of the main points I took from the eye tracking experiments, especially Jim Gurney’s, is that no matter where we try to direct the viewer’s gaze, they will look primarily at the parts they find most psychologically interesting. The traditional ‘focus pulling’ techniques, edges, contrast etc, are of secondary importance.

    In Jim’s third post, he pointed out one area that peoples eye’s often wandered to, a patch of lichen on the trunk of a tree. This wasn’t an integral element of the story of the painting. It seemed that people’s eyes were drawn there by a sharp contrast change that made it stand out. So that would illustrate your point quite well I think – he didn’t particularly want people to focus on that part of the picture, it wasn’t important to the story, so perhaps with hindsight he could have reduced the contrast there so as not to draw the eye. Is that the kind of thing you mean?

    I may well be misunderstanding you here, but wouldn’t that tend to reinforce the value of the eye tracking experiments rather than negate it? In that case, what we can learn from them about focus areas in a picture is that we should be careful to make the composition harmonize with the main aspects of the story (in a narrative painting,) or the most important elements in a landscape or a still life, say.

    The most important point to take from the experiments I think is that ‘eye paths’ a they are traditionally understood are something of a myth – we can’t reliable control the path a viewer’s gaze takes through a painting.

    It would be really interesting to take examples of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ compositions of the same subject and do a lot of repeated experiments that we could draw statistical conclusions from. Unfortunately there’s been very little done in this area so far, most eye tracking experiments are done on web pages.

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    Katherine Tyrrell says

    I’m very interested to see where you go with your investigations. I developed a project about composition a while back on my blog – and tried to tease out what were the important things to know about and to think about. I then ended up doing a project about Japanese Art as a follow-up!

    I bookmarked all my posts about composition and the links I found useful in a website at the end of it. Feel free to raid it for information about composition and design – see Composition and Design – Resources for Artists

    I’ll be highlighting your posts on my blog and adding them into the website.

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    Paul says

    Thanks Katherine, that’s certainly an impressive list of resources.

    The main thrust of what I’m trying to do is to find a practical approach to developing a sense of design. I’m currently evolving a series of exercises designed to that. Of course there’ll be a lot of trial and error along the way, but I’m basing it primarily on Dow’s book. I’ve been working with it for a couple of weeks now, and the initial results look very promising. I’ll be posting about it soon, but there’s a couple of unrelated posts I need to get out of the way first.

    >”tried to tease out what were the important things to know about and to think about”
    Do you have a post that covers the conclusions you came to? Feel free to link to it if so.

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