For many of us, returning to art after a long period away can be daunting. Our appreciation of art outstrips our ability. Our work falls short of our expectations, and most of the time we don’t know why.
Does that sound familiar to you?
It might be that your art education was sorely lacking, neglecting real drawing and painting skills.
It might be that you were steered away from art at a young age, and, having raised a family and/or pursued a career in something else, you find yourself still needing to scratch that itch.
Whatever the reason, returning to art later in life leaves you with a large skill gap to make up.
My experience of closing that gap has been frustrating. At first, I thought it was drawing accuracy I needed to learn. When I acquired that skill and it wasn’t enough, I thought it must be my values. When that wasn’t enough, I thought I needed to understand colour more. It still wasn’t enough to create beautiful work, though.
What skill was missing?
In fact, we need all those skills. But the most important skill, the one that helps you to create beauty more than any other, was the last one I thought of. It was an afterthought, in fact, if I thought of it at all. I think that’s how most people think about it. Perhaps you do, too.
What skill was missing? Picture design. Composition.
Picture design is perhaps one of the most difficult skills to teach yourself. There’s plenty of vague, not particularly useful information about it online. Thankfully, I found an extremely useful source of information on picture design some time ago, and have been working with it ever since.
Over the next three blog posts I’m going to describe, in detail, the three most useful of the exercises I’ve evolved to help me develop my skill with picture design.
I really hope they’ll help you. I guarantee you this: If you spend some time working with these exercises, your compositions will improve. How much will depend on how much effort you’re prepared to expend, of course. But I think you’ll find it enjoyable.
Balancing Positive and Negative Space
In this first exercise, I’m going to show you, step by step, how to develop your sensitivity to balance of positive and negative space.
Why is negative space so important?
It’s important because balance is the absolute bedrock of good design. Balance is harmony, and harmony is beauty.
What gives this vermeer it’s ineffable feeling of balance and repose?
What gives this traditional Chinese bamboo painting by Xu Beihong it’s calm beauty?
Gorgeous, no? When was the last time you saw space used so beautifully?
And what makes this mural by British Illustrator Frank Brangwyn so beautiful?
You’re probably ahead of me by now. As well as their other wonderful qualities, each of these pieces has a beautiful balance of positive and negative space.
What was that about geometry?
People often talk about compositional rules, about the rule of thirds, the golden section. The web is knee-deep in examples of geometrical overlays showing you how the masters designed space in their pictures, some of which seem more like wishful thinking than genuine research.
Regardless, having Jacqueline du Pré’s cello won’t help you play like her. All the compositional ‘rules’, all the geometric frameworks in the world will not help your composition unless you can apply them with skill and with a finely developed sensitivity to spacing – at which point the geometry is unnecessary anyway.
How to develop a feeling for spacing
The answer to developing a fine feeling for spacing and design requires work, it requires practice – just like anything else in drawing and painting.
So here’s the bad news. You can’t short-cut your way to beautiful design by copying the “composition secrets” of the masters. Please feel free to try, though. I think you’ll find the same as I did. As alluring as the idea is that you can use a template to create beauty, the reality is quite different.
(Don’t worry, it’s not all bad news. I’ve got some really, really good news for you later in this post.)
So how can you do it?
We are what we repeatedly do
If you want to develop a skill, the most effective approach – in fact, the only effective approach – is to practice it repeatedly. That’s as true of picture design as it is of any other skill.
That’s because each time you practice, the little connections between the neurons in your brain that you use for design, for your sensitivity to balance, become stronger. The pathways become wider and better surfaced. Obstructions are removed. Whole areas of your brain become optimised for carrying out that particular skill.
That’s the real secret of skill development. Ask the brain scientists. In many ways it’s quite simple. And we kind of knew it all along, didn’t we? It’s not easy, though, and it’s not immediate. It requires some effort on your part – effort which I’m pretty sure you’re more than up to.
So here’s a simple, practical way to develop your sensitivity to balance of positive and negative space.
First, take a drawing you’ve done from life (prefered) or perhaps from reference (easier!) Plant drawings are great for this exercise.
Now reduce it to a line only drawing, something like this:
Play with that one if you like. Here’s PDF of it you can download and print off.
Better yet, you can produce drawings specifically for this exercise, again, ideally from life.
Now make yourself a few cropping tools. The easiest way to do this is to get hold of some craft card – about 250gsm is good – and cut out a variety of different-shaped little windows.
Now take your line drawing, place one of your cropping tools over it, and start moving it about over the surface of the drawing.
You’ll soon start to see compositions that you would never have imagined without these simple little tools. Do this stage slowly, think about each composition, be sensitive to any particular arrangement that stands out to you.
So here’s some good news: The magic is already happening. You’re already stretching the parts of your brain that you use to make aesthetic decisions about harmony and balance.
Now decide on a crop that looks good to you. Lay a sheet of tracing paper over your cropping tool, and trace only what you can see through the little window. Include the bounding square, circle or rectangle.
You should end up with something like this:
Now for the interesting part. You’re going to make a negative space drawing of your new composition. Here’s how:
You’ll notice for that demo, I used a slightly different cropping tool made from two pieces of card. That’s a very useful way to do it too, since you can vary the size and proportions of the format very easily. I also went straight in with a negative space tracing. You can do either that, or a full line tracing as in the picture above, and then a negative space tracing of that – whatever feels most comfortable to you.
Once you’ve completed step 5, you should end up with something like this:
Tracing your drawing like this allows you to see it as pure design, as a collection of shapes. It takes away some of the mental associations you have with the specific objects you’ve drawn – which your left oriented, labeling brain loves so much – and encourages you to look at your drawing with the part of your brain that handles spatial awareness. Balance. Beauty.
Here’s another drawing and a crop I’ve taken from it. The crop isn’t strictly a negative space drawing, but allowing the positive shapes to cut the edges like this has a similar effect, it emphasises the design.
Once you have a negative space tracing done, you can start to think about how you could improve it. Try making another tracing of your tracing, varying a few parts. Play with it a little, indulge your creativity. This is a safe place to play, it’s not a finished piece you’re creating. It’s an exercise; make the most of the freedom it gives you to experiment.
And don’t stop there. Now do another run through the exercise, cropping a different part of your drawing. Even a simple drawing can supply an almost endless number of possible compositions.
If you feel you’ve exhausted your source material, go and make some more drawings, and take crops of those.
You get the picture. The more you do this, the more you’ll find your sensitivity to spacing and proportion developing. This sensitivity will eventually become a part of you. It will come out in everything you do, in all your drawings, paintings – even your handwriting or your simplest doodle. That’s the beauty of developing skills.
So here’s the good news I was talking about earlier: You can do this kind of skill development at any age.
Even well into old age, we can continue to create and strengthen neural pathways associated with specific skills. The pernicious idea that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks has been comprehensively trounced by research into brain plasticity.
That’s pretty excellent news for all of us, particularly those of us returning to art later in life.
And the really good news is that there is no upper limit to how far you can stretch and develop this skill. The only limitation is your own appetite for learning.
The world’s foremost cellist, Pablo Casals, is 83. He was asked one day why he continued to practice four and five hours a day. Casals answered,
Because I think I am making progress.
I hope this was useful to you.
In the next two posts, I’ll describe exercises that follow on from this one, adding two more stages to the exercise, which will help you develop composition skills in two more very specific and effective areas.
Best wishes, and thanks for reading,
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