A Powerful Way To Improve Your Compositions You (Probably) Haven't Tried
What do planets, fractals and migrating birds all have in common?
They all follow patterns.
We know they do because we notice patterns in the world around us. In fact, our predilection for finding patterns seems so strong that we find them even where none exist.
What does that have to do with composition?
Well, the principle of composition I'll be talking about in this post relies on pattern for its effectiveness.
Introducing pattern to compositions makes them more compelling. We feel its presence even when we're not consciously aware that it's there.
I've been practising with pattern in order to improve my compositions, and I think it's working.
I think it can improve your compositions too.
Forget composition by the rules
After you read this post I hope you will have an understanding of a way to improve your compositions which you may not have considered before, at least not quite in this way.
But let's get one thing straight. It's not a 'rule' that you can just read up on. You'll need to put some effort and some practice time in to see results.
If you've done any reading about composition, I'm sure you'll have come across what are commonly called the rules of composition. The rule of thirds is the most popular. The golden mean is a close second. A brief search on the web will turn up many more.
I'm afraid I've got some bad news about those rules: if you haven't developed your compositional and design skills with some regular practice, just knowing about those rules won't make your pictures any better than they already are.
What I'm going to talk about today will help you make better pictures.
I really believe that if you apply this idea along with Arthur Wesley Dow's other compositional principles, and put in some practice time with them, your compositions will improve.
Who's Arthur Wesley Dow? Friends will know I've been writing about him and his practical book on composition for a while now. But if you haven't heard of him before, please bear with me and I'll explain more fully in a moment.
What you can do - right now - to start improving your compositions
Take the idea that I'm going to describe in this post and practise with it. It's as simple as that.
I have a simple exercise for you at the end of this post, designed to help you start applying it yourself. It won't take too long to try it out, and it should be enjoyable. You might be intrigued enough to work with it a little longer. And if you do, you'll start to make stronger, better balanced, more interesting compositions than you did before.
Really, I'm not kidding.
And there's no maths involved either, and no rules. You just need to put some practice in.
Pattern in Composition
The compositional idea I'm talking about is Subordination. It comes from chapter three of Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow. (The link is to a free download of a PDF of the book.)
If you're serious about improving your composition and design skills and like a practical approach, then in my opinion this book is for you.
It does take a little getting used to before its real value becomes obvious. I don't mind telling you I struggled with it myself at first and very nearly gave up on it.
But having worked with it enough now to understand where Dow is coming from, I think he has a tremendous amount to teach us about not just composition and design, but how to approach our practice in a more effective way.
This series of posts on composition is my attempt to share some of that with you.
I've already talked about opposition and transition, the compositional principles that Dow opens chapter three with, in a previous post. I've also written a more general overview of Dow's book and its approach to teaching composition.
Today I'm taking just one of Dow's principles, Subordination, and devoting the whole of this post to it. I'm doing that because I think my practice with it has improved my compositions more than anything else.
Subordination? What's That All About Then?
Good question, I'm glad you asked.
Subordination is an odd term to use about composition. I can't remember ever hearing it used anywhere else. What does the good Mr. Dow mean?
Let's start with his own words:
"To form a complete group the parts are attached or related to a single dominating element which determines the character of the whole."
Okay. But that doesn't give us much of practical use, does it? He goes on to say:
"[Subordination] governs the distribution of masses in Dark-and-Light composition, and of hues in colour schemes.
It appears in poetry in the subordination of all parts to the main idea of the subject. It is used constructively in musical composition."
Well that feels a bit more like something we can grab hold of. It's a central theme or idea running throughout the whole, to which everything else, all other elements in the composition, are subordinated.
Dow's first example of this is a tree, the branches being thematically related to and joined to the central trunk. The veins on the leaves bear a similar relation to each other as the branches to the trunk.
So subordination is formed by a collection of design elements, thematically related, with one being the dominant, primary focus of the design.
This is best explained with pictures. Here are Dow's examples from his book.
In each of these examples, the various elements of the design are grouped around a dominant, uniting element. The grouping can be geometric or not. The example of the rooftops at the bottom left is the most useful and the most easily translated into our own work I think.
Some Real World Examples
If this is as useful an idea as I think it is, then we ought to be able to find some examples of it without looking too far.
First, an example from Dow himself, the dominant tree in the foreground being echoed by the remaining trees behind:
My next example is a Monet, with what I think is a gorgeous composition. The main prominent stick thing (what are they called?) being echoed by the others behind it, and subtle subordination in the domes too. The central colour theme is the contrast of the blue and pink, the main relationship to which all other colours are subordinated:
Martin Mooney, he pretty much specialises in subordination:
I found this next lovely example on the ARC site some time ago, but don't have the artist's name. If anyone knows, please let me know in the comments. Subordination of the various ovals to the main focus of the pecan pie.
Daniel Keys next, a typically beautiful and balanced composition. You can learn a lot about composition by studying his paintings. I think he's a master of balancing related but varying forms. Although smaller than the squash, I would argue that the cup in the left foreground is the dominant element (and yes, I know - it's a third of the way up the picture! I'm not saying the rule of thirds is useless, just that it won't help you make better pictures if you don't develop your sense of design too).
My final example is a print by Frank Brangwyn, the British illustrator. His compositions are always superb and this is no exception. Look how carefully and beautifully balanced the trees are, around the main foreground tree. To me this composition has the almost perfect beauty of a Bach canon.
But look at that main tree. It divides the picture quite neatly, right down the middle. He's broken the rule of thirds! He's committed one of the biggest sins in composition, equal subdivision of the space! But nontheless he's produced, in my opinion, a really beautiful picture.
And that, to me, is the whole point. Through much practice, Brangwyn has developed his feeling for balance and design to a point where he can make this work.
It's not a case of learning the 'rules' of composition so that you can break them. People are so fond of parroting this. It annoys me because, quite apart from being lazy thinking, it doesn't give us anything practical that we can take away and use. It's useless. And if you ask me, it's not true either.
What sets all of these compositions apart is that the artists have put in the hard yards to develop their sense of design. They've practiced. A lot.
Now I'm not saying that these artists were consciously thinking about subordination when they made these designs. Obviously they weren't. But at an unconscious level, they undoubtedly were aware of the strong pictorial effect of repeated but varying shapes, with one dominant central focus.
But that's where this is different from the usual rules you hear about. You could, of course, just stop reading here, with a vague idea of subordination to add to other vague ideas about composition, like the rule of thirds, and hope it somehow just crops up when you're painting.
For Dow, and for me too, that's just the jumping off point. What comes next is developing skill with it through regular, focused practice.
Invention alone is not enough
Dow himself is careful to point out that just flinging a bunch of elements together at random won't create art:
"A work of fine art created upon the principle of Subordination has all its parts related by delicate adjustments and balance of proportions, tone and colour. A change in one member changes the whole."
The difference between a skilled piece of design based on Subordination and a less successful one is how well the parts relate, how harmonious they are.
So if we want to use Subordination in our pictures, we need to develop our skill with it, through practice. But how?
How to Practise Subordination
The way I went about developing this skill was to take a single element - a clementine in this case, but it could have been anything - and to build compositions around it. This is one of the exercises that Dow recommends in the book.
I started with a few basic drawings, in brush and ink like this:
Then made a couple of studies in oil (more familiar ground for me) to get to know the subject better:
Then I started producing compositions, in line only, with brush and ink. Since I'm not using any value or colour, these designs have to depend on the harmonious division of space for their effect - and subordination of course.
To begin with, the quality of my line was pretty awful as you can see. But it improved slowly.
I tried different formats, and different ways of using the clementine shape to subdivide the space.
Gradually the compositions increased in complexity. I began to notice a change in the designs. They started to look more complete, more balanced. Eventually I found a format that I wanted to concentrate on, tall and thin:
The next stage was then to produce variations on subdividing this format, trying always to have a single, dominant element, supported by the subdominant ones.
I've lost count of the number of variations of this I've done now. Here's a few pages from my sketch pad, some examples of pretty typical practice sessions:
This is where the real practice happened. When I've worked with composition before, as I often have prior to producing a finished painting, I've always missed this stage out. I've produced multiple ideas, each one different, but never gone through the much lengthier process of refining a compositional idea.
That was a mistake for two reasons:
- I stopped too soon. Because I never worked on the compositional idea to refine it, it was always still in the idea stage. I'd often be disappointed by the composition of the resulting painting without being sure why.
- I never stretched my design muscle. This is the most important point, and is what differentiates Dow's approach to composition. It's based on repeat practice, always refining and attempting to produce the best possible version of a compositional idea.
That approach fits perfectly with the main characteristics of effective practice:
- Repetition. Reworking the same design multiple times strengthens the mental muscles used in design. Perhaps multiple different designs would too, but there's something about the repeated striving to refine and improve the same basic design that really stretches you.
- Focused and deliberate. By concentrating only on the subdivision of space with line, I'm stretching my design sense only in this area. Later, I'll move on to value and colour too. But sticking with this one area for now means that I can see progress from one week to the next. That's very encouraging and inspires me to continue.
That's how I believe skill is more effectively developed, by taking something in isolation and stretching it further than we've stretched it before. Just as physical exercise produces change in our bodies, this kind of practice produces physical change in our brains.
When that happens, we've learned something.
Over the past few months of working on these designs, I've seen my sense of design harmony develop and strengthen. I've also learned what I think is an incredibly powerful design concept which I'll be building into my work in future wherever I can.
A Practical Exercise
At the beginning of this post I said I was going to have an exercise for you. So here's your mission, should you choose to accept it.
Take a piece you've done before that you weren't entirely happy with. (For me that's easy - pretty much everything I've done meets that criteria!)
Make it something that has at least some element of repeated or related shapes in it, so that you can use the principle of subordination to make a stronger design than the one you have.
Now reduce it to a line drawing.
What you now have is a basic design that you can start to rework. I'd recommend starting by tracing the drawing without the edges included. Then lay another piece of tracing paper over the top, and draw a new bounding rectangle of the picture on this. You can move the top sheet around over the bottom one, and try out multiple formats for your original design. Play with it, see what works.
That might seem like a simple place to start. But what you're doing is reducing your picture down to its design fundamental, the subdivision of space, and experimenting with improving it through trying different ways to frame it.
The next stage is to start to re-draw it, trying out different layouts and combinations of the basic elements.
If you hit on an arrangement you like, one that you think is stronger than the original line drawing, don't stop there.
Concentrate on this new design and re-work it multiple times, looking always to improve the harmony and beauty of the design.
Commit to working on it every day, if you can, for the next two weeks. The regularity is important. It reinforces the changes in your brain that are responsible for your developing skill with design.
If you do this, you'll start to build and strengthen the mental maps in your brain that handle design. Do it often enough, regularly enough, and your compositions will start to improve - without having to memorise a long list of those pesky composition 'rules'.
Let's test this
I'm going to put my money (or at least my practice time) where my mouth is and do this exercise too, and post the results here in a couple of weeks.
The picture I'm starting with is this one:
I've never been very happy with it. I never thought I made enough of the rhythmic pattern of the buds on the freesias. And they're perfect for some practice with subordination.
If you fancy having a go at this, let me know in the comments or drop me an email. I'll give you as much support as I can through this little project.
I'm committing to practising with the design I've chosen every day for the next two weeks, and will report back when I'm done. Look for the next post on this towards the end of April.
I've just finished my first practice session with the exercise, and have completed the first few stages. I've reduced the painting to a line drawing, and started trying out different ways to frame the subject.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise and has already got my creative juices running. I think I've already come up with a better balance to the picture, a nicer way to crop the subject, and I've barely started.
Here's a quick shot of my drawing board tonight at the end of the first session. I hope this is enough to give you at least some idea of how I'm approaching the exercise.
Posted: April 10th 2012