Whether you like Veronese’s pictures or not, there’s no arguing with the fact that he designed beautiful compositions.
I think you can feel that compositional beauty, even if you’re not aware of how it’s been created. I think you feel beauty in your soul. You resonate with it.
And in a sense, it doesn’t matter if you know why a particular picture design is beautiful – unless, of course, you want to tap into some of that beauty yourself and breathe it into your own drawings and paintings.
Because actually, one of the compositional devices that Veronese used, the one I’m going to show you today, isn’t very obvious at all. You could spend a long time looking at one of his pictures and not see it, or be only dimly aware of it.
Despite that, it’s one of the compositional devices most responsible for creating that subtle beauty that pervades his work. It affects you even if you don’t know it’s there.
You can do this too
Even better, it’s a technique you can use yourself to make your own pictures more beautiful. It’s not particularly difficult to do. You can learn how to do it just by tracing your drawings and playing about with them – having fun, if you like, with your drawings.
But don’t underestimate the power of this simple technique to create beauty. That power comes from a deep place in our psyches. It comes from the same place as the shaman’s drum, beating time across the centuries. It’s the first building block of all music. It’s been with us since we first started to decorate the utensils we used in daily life, thousands of years ago. And you can use it to make your pictures sing today.
More specifically, it’s the creation of rhythm through repetition. More specific still, it’s the creation of rhythm through the use of repeat shapes.
In the visual arts, another word for it is pattern.
You can look at a picture for hours and not notice it consciously. But it will be there, an undertone that affects you without you knowing why, creating a feeling of completeness and unity. Of beauty.
Repeat shapes and hidden patterns
Here’s my favourite example of this, “Happy Union” by Veronese. Painted around 1575, I think this is a masterpiece of compositional design.
It’s a big painting. Until very recently, it was hung in the National Gallery in London. I’ve spent many hours sitting looking at it, trying to figure out what it was about the design that contributed to it’s beauty.
There are many compositional devices going on in this painting, but let’s focus for a minute on how Veronese has used repeat shapes to set up informal patterns, visual rhythms across the surface of the picture.
First, here’s the painting. Can you spot any of the repeat shapes?
In this next picture, I’ve masked out most of the picture to highlight a couple of areas. Notice how close the shape of the baby’s upper body is to the shape of the dog’s neck. That’s not a coincidence.
In the next picture, notice also how closely their left legs mirror each other.
Look at the right arms of the two principal figures here, see how closely they mirror each other. They’re not exact. Veronese hasn’t rubbed his design techniques in our faces. But the similarity is enough for us to feel the echo.
The back of the male figure’s head exacty mirrors the line of the baby’s back and the dog’s neck that we looked at first:
And see how closely the shape of the large masonry globe is reflected by the line of the male figure’s cloak.
Notice also how all these shapes I’ve highlighted follow the same general direction, a counterpoint to the main compositional gesture, flowing from the top left to the bottom right. There are more of these repeat shapes, if you look for long enough. I’ve just highlighted the ones that are most obvious to me.
How to design like Veronese
As effective as this is, this isn’t particularly hard to do. All it takes to do it well is a little practice.
Now I’m going to show you a simple but very effective way to develop your own skill with this compositional device. You tell me if you think the changes I’m about to make to this simple little drawing result in a more beautiful design or not.
Here’s my starting point, a simple line drawing of some plums on a branch, that I’ve taken a crop of. You may remember this drawing from last week’s post on designing with positive and negative space.
Here’s where I’d got to with it last week, making a negative space tracing of the drawing. This is a really good idea since it helps you to see the drawing more as an abstract collection of shapes, as design:
In this next version, I’ve taken a tracing of the negative space drawing above, and made some changes to emphasise repeat shapes.
In this final drawing, I’ve traced it again, returning it to being a full line drawing, so I can compare it with the original.
I haven’t made huge changes.
- I’ve changed the position of the central plum so that it mirrors the one immediately to its left:
- I’ve taken out a leaf at the bottom right corner to clarify the shape of the plum down there, and changed the plum itself in that bottom right corner so that it mirrors the two plums to its left. There’s a strong sense of repeat pattern created by the plums now, a rhythm going down the picture from the top left to the bottom right.
- I’ve changed the stems of the plums and the leaf slightly so that they echo each other, creating another informal pattern.
Here’s the final version again, with the changes highlighted:
So not really much has changed, and none of it was difficult to do.
What do you think, is the revised version a better design?
Here’s that drawing for download if you want to play with it:
Feel free. If you do, email me what you do with it, I’d love to see.
Is that all there is to it?
Yes and no.
That’s all you need to start using repeat shapes in your own designs, and the effect is very powerful on its own.
But of course, this isn’t the only compositional device that Veronese used. He had an unfailing sense of asymmetrical balance, enough to rival the most beautiful Chinese and Japanese artists, in my view, much like Raphael (another superb picture designer who used this device).
He was also a master of what I call “making connections”, which I’ve also heard described as “implied lines” – linking up sections of a drawing by lining them up, creating larger abstract shapes within the design, independently of the objects. Raphael was a master of that too.
More on that in the next post. In the meantime, have another look at “Happy Union” and see if you can trace any lines right through and across the figures and objects.
Secrets of the masters?
Certainly not! I hate that “Secrets of the Masters” nonsense! It’s not a secret, this. There’s nothing mystical or esoteric about it. It’s completely available to you to play with, have fun with, and use to develop your own compositional skills.
You can incorporate the beauty of repeat shapes into any kind of work: portraits, still life, landscape (especially landscape) and of course, abstract painting too. Why not take a drawing of your own that you particularly like, trace it as a line drawing as I have above, take a crop of it as described in the last post, and redraw it, trying to include some elements of repeat shape.
An excellent – and extremely enjoyable – way to develop your feeling for repeat pattern is just to take a simple theme and develop your own repeat patterns, independent of picture making. Here’s a couple of examples of my own practice with this:
Try it. The most you have to lose is a little time – and that time spent enjoyably, too.
What you have to gain is a simple technique that can make your compositions sing, that can make them resonate with a force whose power is burned into the deepest reaches of our psyches, and of our aesthetic sensibilities.
I think that’s worth a few hours of your time, don’t you?
Best wishes, and thanks for reading,