Composition is a slippery subject often avoided since it’s so hard to pin down. This blog offers some insight on training your brain to learn this essential element of most visual art forms.
Composition can arguably be the most important aspect of a painting or drawing, as well as the most ambiguous and least understood…. Why? composition is relative to the creator AND the viewer. Wait, what??? Let me explain…
(Note: I interchange composition and design a lot, but they share the same meaning.)
Just like certain kinds of art, music, books, cars, food, etc. we all have our own preference on what we like. Many times there is no explanation for why you like what you like, you just do! The same can be said for a painting, you don’t know why it’s good, it just is! There are general reasons for why large groups of people like something, or what makes a thing appealing and it can generally be explained. In relation to painting, there are general compositional theories that are time tested to work, but they are not rules, and people break them all the time and make amazing paintings in the process. Again, everyone has their own taste. A design that I like, Bob and Jim might not, even if the composition happens to be good. This doesn’t mean that all composition is therefore good because not everyone needs to like it, there are definitely bad compositions. This is why composition is so ambiguous to people. Of all the art principles, it is the one with the loosest guidelines.
There are plenty of compositional rules and theories you can find, but the most important thing to remember is keep it SIMPLE. Simple designs (compositions) make a bigger statement; Say more with less. Simple compositions which are painted well will catch your eye from across the room, they instantly demand your attention. Compositional design and values have a shared commonality; If you have a good basic structure, you can add as much detail on top and it will still have the same impact. Lets look at some examples:
I took the original image (top left) and made it into grey scale (top right), two value (bottom left), and simplified shape/desaturated color (bottom right)
Lets look at a painting by Daniel Keys, known for his intricate and beautiful floral still life paintings. At first glance this painting is extremely complex, and even though it is, the underlying structure is simple. The two value image shows the underlying design. You can see how the value pattern looks like a Z- shape that is tilted, with a large value mass in the center. The complexity was then added on top of the basic design, while maintaining the value structure. The desaturated version lets you see the color harmonies a little more clearly.
Keep in mind that just because we are analyzing the basic structure of the painting in this way, doesn’t meant it was purposely created this way. What I mean is, the artist didn’t necessarily say, “I want to use a Z-shape composition made out of flowers.” More likely, he had a basic idea of what he wanted to paint and arranged it until it was a pleasing composition. You must train yourself to intuitively recognize and create good composition.
Composition is relative to the creator AND the viewer.
Here’s another example by Matt Smith, by far one of the best landscape painters alive today. Landscape paintings are great for studying composition/design. Nature rarely provides us with all the elements for a perfect painting, so the artist must curate shapes, values, and colors from their collective knowledge.
Instead of two values in the bottom left I used 3, showing the values of the foreground, background, and sky. Notice how most of the foreground is the same value as the background mountains, it’s the difference in color and temperature that set those mountains in the distance. Matt keeps his large shapes simple while giving them character.
The value structure is simple, strong, and accurate. He keeps temperature differences in the shadows vs the lights controlled to recreate the effect of light.
The most important thing to remember is keep it SIMPLE.
One more from Glenn Dean, I leave you to dissect it yourself!
Hopefully this post will get your gears turning on thinking about composition more. A well designed painting adequately painted is usually more interesting than a painting adequately designed and painted well.
That being said, never stop pushing yourself to become better at your art, and don’t worry about the composition when your practicing. You can do specific exercises to work on composition, and the better you get at painting the less you need to think about the basics and can focus on your composition.
That’s all for now, happy Arting!
This article is by regular contributing writer, Zac Elletson. Zac was born and raised in Montana, his approach to painting is grounded in the principles of the late 19th century representational masters, while also being influenced by contemporary artists, techniques, and subjects. Standing on a firm ground of time tested techniques has enabled Zac to create proficient work while continuing to evolve and grow as an artist. Zac currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona enjoying what the diverse landscape has to offer.
+ Learn more …You can view Zac Elletson’s original post from Fine Art Views here