Composition can make the difference between a technically skilled piece of work and a beautiful one.
Design and composition is what allows us to take our visual impressions and make them into art.
Composition is where you create, where your personality comes through the most clearly in your work.
Good Composition is Rare
So you’d think that more time would be devoted to it. But in my experience, it’s not at all common to see good composition in contemporary work.
It took me a while to realise how important composition really is. When I did, I started practising it with a vengeance, and that process is still continuing. It wasn’t until I started to develop my own feeling for design and composition that I started to see it in the work of the European masters and traditional eastern artists. It wasn’t until I started to see it there that I began to notice how rare good picture design really is these days.
You see, I think that good composition used to be much more common than it is now. I think it was integral to the way the old masters worked. It’s something of a catch 22, because you can’t really appreciate good design until you’ve developed some facility with it yourself. And if you can’t really see it, you won’t really understand it’s importance. You’ll just be aware that some work affects you more than other work, that some pictures seem “right”, have that ineffable something that you can’t quite put your finger on.
It’s my assertion that, quite often, that ineffable something is composition. Picture design.
So I’d like to encourage you to put some time in to developing your sensitivity to design, because I think the invested effort will pay off hugely for you, not just in the work you produce, but in how much you enjoy making it and how deeply you appreciate art in general.
For the last couple of years, I’ve done little other than experiment with ways to develop this sense. This post is a report from the front lines, as it were, of the three most useful ways I’ve found that you can both develop your compositional skills and deepen your appreciation of picture design at the same time.
Composition is a skill, like any other. No more mysterious than accurate drawing or good values or colour accuracy. And that means it can be taught, and it can be developed through practice, just the same as any other skill.
But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s get onto what these three ways I’m talking about actually are:
The three uncommon ways
Balance of positive and negative space
Almost everything you do can be improved by some judicious cropping, by adjusting the balance of positive and negative space. But the appreciation and feeling for a balanced design takes time to develop. This isn’t something you can just read up on and apply. It’s not rote learning. It has to be earned through focused practice.
Here’s a few examples:
The best example I can give you of this is the work of Arthur Wesley Dow – not surprisingly perhaps, the inspiration and guiding light that has helped me develop my own sensitivity to design over the last few years.
Dow himself was influenced by the art of the east, and you can see (feel?) this ineffable quality of asymmetrical balance in traditional Chinese and Japanese art.
If I were to pick a European old master who embodies this skill, I think it would have to be Vermeer.
This is no more nor less than a form of pattern. Although we might not be consciously aware of repeat patterns in pictures, we feel them. They set up rhythms which echo across the surface of a picture. This kind of informal pattern gives a picture unity, and from unity comes beauty.
The example that always comes to mind for me is Veronese’s Happy Union. Look how the shapes are repeated through this picture, how the figures and the action of the scene is fitted into an interplay of rhythms and shapes – especially in the bottom right-hand corner.
I’ve saved this one till last because I think that, in many ways, it’s the most powerful. I think it’s also the most misunderstood.
Classicists will send me to painter hell for saying this, but all those geometric overlays you see stressing the golden section are barking up the wrong tree if you ask me. I think the golden section works as a compositional device, not because there’s a mysterious beauty in the mathematical perfection of the golden section itself, but because lining things up in a picture works really, really well, no matter what the proportions of your picture or design.
I’m going to have to go with Veronese again for an example of this. This is “The Family of Darius before Alexander” and is in the National Gallery in London, it’s a huge painting. Have a look at it and trace through the lines. Once you start to look, they’re everywhere.
This piece by Alphonse Mucha is also a very good example. Follow the line down from the back of the head, through the folds of the cloth and into the arm. Where that line intersects the edge of the picture, another diagonal comes down from left to right through the leg. Actually, almost any picture my Mucha will have good examples of connection.
Tiepolo is also good to look at. He often works with opposing diagonals (interestingly, so does a lot of traditional eastern art) that flow through forms and across the surface of his pictures, setting up a dynamic interplay of flowing drapery and figures.
Often, anatomy will be sacrificed for the sake of the design. Look at the right leg of Zephyr, the male figure on the right. It looks like it’s not even attached to the body it’s so out of place. But it follows a strong line up from the back of the figure of the putto at the bottom left and connects the elements of the picture into a coherent design, flowing parallel to a line from Flora’s leg, up through Zephyr’s left arm. It’s anatomically wrong, but it’s beautiful.
So Why Isn’t Our Picture Design Better?
These things may be uncommon now, but to the masters of the past they were second nature. They were second nature because they’d practiced the skills so much that they would naturally come out in their work. They wouldn’t wonder whether or not to include them, they would simply be part of the working process.
Why aren’t they more a part of ours?
Perhaps because picture design is the least obvious of the skills of the masters. you’re much more likely to hear a someone exclaim “Wow, that looks real” than “What a beautiful design”. I think that too many artists now who value traditional drawing and painting rely on realism for their effect too, and don’t see that the main ingredient is missing.
That doesn’t have to happen to you.
If there’s one thing I hope you can take away from this post, it’s not to be satisfied with what you end up with by chance. Take your pictures and intentionally make them into designs, into something more than they are.
Not only will your pictures improve, but you’ll see all the art you’ve ever seen in a new light too. That has to be worth a bit of effort with some tracing paper and a pen.
Speaking of which, next week I’ll post an exercise that will give you a step by step approach to help you practise these skills, if you want to, so that you can develop them yourself.
Thanks for reading,
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