As always, this post contains artistic depictions of nudity. Discuss this with your sense of morality before proceeding.
One of the most important factors when executing a painting is composition: where will I place each element of my piece to make it express what I’m trying to express? How will the shapes and forms of my subject best be supported by my background?
Your composition determines how the viewer will see your painting, and often what response the viewer will have. Where will the viewer’s eye enter the painting? Where will the eye travel through the painting, and where will it leave the painting? Does the composition of the piece support the emotion you want to express? If your composition is weak, the viewer may glance at your work and move along to the next piece: if it’s strong, the viewer may linger a while, examining your painting. And as an artist, isn’t that what you want?
Above and below: Brilliant Pop Surrealist Mark Ryden paints very complex compositions with a multitude of elements. Looking at these two pieces, ask yourself where your eyes enter the painting, and on what subject you first focus. What elements do you notice right away, and which might you notice later, like a little surprise?
Composition is a huge subject: one little blog post is not going to cover everything entailed. But I hope to give you a few good ideas, and a few things to think about when you create art.
Composition is one of those things that comes naturally to some artists, and for others must be studied and labored over. If you take classes, of course, you learn ‘rules’ of composition, but many of these rules are somewhat intuitive. We all have eyes, and we all know what we focus on first and last when we look at a scene; the artist’s job is simply to analyze what the eye does naturally, and translate that into a painting, drawing, photograph, sculpture, etc. Also, strict adherence to the rules of composition might produce some very dull work: make the rules a suggestive guide rather than an unforgiving manifesto.
A note here: In looking back over this post, I realize that I used a lot of photographs, rather than paintings, to demonstrate composition ideas. Maybe I felt that some of my photos were more obvious displays of those composition elements? While I am a painter, I am also a photographer (and a musician). In fact, my pursuit of visual arts actually started with photography, until one day I decided I would be a better photographer if I learned to paint. Silly me… If nothing else, perhaps this post will serve to introduce my readers to some of my photographic work (which you can always see on my DA, along with my paintings: http://kennyfiddler.deviantart.com/ )
In case you missed the disclaimer above, a lot of my photography contains artistic nudity. Let your moral compass be your guide as you proceed.
All photos are mine, and paintings not credited otherwise are mine: please do not use without permission. Thanks. You’re the best. Also work by other painters are used with great respect.
So let’s begin with…
The eyes, and the Rule Of Thirds
If you paint people, one ‘rule’ is that the viewer will notice the eyes right away. We are used to looking at peoples’ eyes when we interact, and this is a natural entry point. You may wish to construct your piece around a focal point of a subject’s eyes and facial features.
In my painting of Three Muses, above, the three figures form a ‘>’ pattern. The perspective helps guide the eye. The viewer enters at Clio’s eyes (the tallest i.e. closest figure on the viewer’s left), and moves down the upper arm of the > shape to the second and third figure, scanning the eyes of the second figure, Calliope, and the keys of the accordion: then back across the lower portion of the > to Calliope’s feet, and finally exits the piece at Clio’s derriere.
In Three Muses I divided the canvas horizontally into thirds (called the ‘rule of thirds’ by some). In this case, each figure takes up a third of the canvas: as I mentioned, the size of each figure, diminishing across the piece with the perspective, allows movement of the eye across the painting.
I use the ‘rule of thirds’ quite a lot in my photography as well. In the photo below of models Kaitlin and Crystal, the viewer enters the photo at Kaitlin’s eyes, in the right-hand third of the photograph, and then moves left across Crystal’s hair and features in the middle third. The forest background takes up the final third of the piece. This ‘negative space’ of the forest should draw the viewer’s eye back to Kaitlin, noticing more details of the facial features (I adore her freckles).
What if the subject’s eyes do not show in a piece? Will the viewer still seek them out?
I’ve been reading the book Pop Painting, by painter/illustrator Camilla d’Errico, which is an excellent guide to creating Pop Surrealist paintings. D’Errico plays with the notion of the eyes in many of her works: in many of her paintings the characters have huge, anime inspired eyes, as in this one:
But consider the painting by d’Errico below, in which the eyes of the girl do not show:
Where do your eyes first fall? On the owl’s eyes? Or on the place where you know the girl’s eyes to be? I always default to the girl’s mouth and nose first, then to the owl’s eyes.
How about in the photograph below, of the model’s feet while she stood beneath a crab apple tree?
The viewer’s eye falls on the yellow nail of the big toe in the right-hand third, then moves through the apples (the middle third) and the foliage (left-hand third), then hopefully back to the model’s feet.
A subject can take up the length of a piece, and yet still be divided into thirds. In my photograph of model Bear with her dog Penny, below, the viewer’s eye enters in the left-hand third, at Bear’s eyes, then travels right along the torso to Bear’s feet (central third) and to Penny, whose doggie snout leads the viewer into the right-hand third taken by the negative value of the window.the composition can be seen as a sideways V, like this:>.
The same can be said of my photo of model Dolly, below. Though Dolly and her ‘pets’ take up the length of the photo, the viewer’s eye enters at Dolly’s eyes in the right-hand third, travels across the cluttered area of the plushie toys and Dolly’s torso (middle third), and lands at Dolly’s feet in the left-hand third. This composition might be said to be a ‘U’ shape, in which the viewer’s eye traces the letter U from it’s right-hand arm down and up to its left-hand arm (from Dolly’s face down to the plushies and up to her raised foot). Because we are so used to seeing letters of our alphabet every day, the human eye will recognize and follow the shapes of letters like U, Z or C, and recognize them forwards or backwards, though it will do so unconsciously. Many artists refer to letter shapes in discussing composition.
Let’s talk Negative Space
In considering composition and the space taken up by each element of a piece, let’s talk about negative space and positive space. Positive space is any area of a painting that is taken up by an element, such as the figure, an object, etc. Size, shape, placement and color might make the object more or less focal in the overall piece. Negative space is any area of the painting that is ‘inactive,’ not taken up by any element. In other words a negative space contains little or no information. Yet the negative space is still an important element of the overall painting or photograph.
Remember the photo of Bear and Penny above? The window and wall in the right-hand third of the photo are seen as negative space.
Above, in my depiction of a Selkie (a faerie creature who is a woman on land, and a seal in the water), the purple sky is negative space: it takes up a large area of the painting, yet contains very little information.
In my photograph of model Taylor, below, the white wall and wood floor of the studio is a negative space that takes up much of the photo. In both cases, above and below, the negative space supports the subject and causes to eye to focus on the major elements of the piece (I hope). For instance, the upside-down ‘V’ formed by the corner where the floor meets the walls draws the viewer’s eye to the model, her shoes, and the guitar. (Remember what I said about the shapes of alphabetical letters?). The model and her props form an oval at the center of a series of Vs which intersect behind the model.
Every artist works differently, of course. Your piece may contain vast amounts of negative space, or none at all. And the same artist may create pieces using both techniques.
Here are two of my photographs that are opposites in use of negative and positive space. In Two Girls, above, I left absolutely no negative space: the two figures fill the frame almost completely, and the composition forms a backwards C shape from the left-hand model’s face and hair, to the right-hand model’s down turned eyes, to the flowers and the model’s breast, back to the arm of the left hand model. The result of this completely positive space is a feeling of intimacy, which further supports the embrace in which we see the two models.Though the models are not looking at each other, or at the viewer, the feeling of intimacy is emphasized as they both gaze in the same direction, implying a deep bond between them.
Below, in my photo of Bear, I used tons of negative space (the foliage and the sky), placing the model in the right-hand third of the frame. The curve of Bear’s shoulders leads the viewer from frame bottom, up along her arm to her eyes and facial features. The negative space supports the composition, and because the model is looking to her right (the viewer’s left), makes the viewer believe there is some mysterious object just outside the frame. This is a backwards C composition (from frame bottom, arm and shoulders, to face, to the points of the crown, to negative space, and out of the frame on the viewer’s left, following Bear’s gaze).
Here is another example of negative space by one of my favorite painters, Glen Barr. In this piece, the sky and water form a vast negative space, while the figure sits in the right-hand third of the painting. Notice that while the model has huge eyes, they are not engaging the viewer. The circles in the water emphasize the figure. The figure disengaged from the viewer, and the negative space, together evoke a sense of isolation:
For me, negative space is a fun, profoundly enjoyable element to play with in paintings and photos (though it can be used to express all kinds of emotion, not just ‘fun:’ as you saw, it’s especially great for alienation). When planning a piece, I advise you to sketch your subject with very little negative space, and then sketch it with tons of negative space, and determine which sketch conveys the feeling you want the viewer to come away with.
Vertical or Horizontal?
Conventional wisdom says that we paint horizontally, moving from left to right or right to left across a horizon. As humans we tend to function horizontally: we walk or drive in a horizontal line across the ground. Our vision has evolved over 200,000 years or so to scan the horizon for prey or danger. People seldom look up or down when they walk, but usually straight ahead (which is why in movies enemies often hide above or below).
But you can plan a piece vertically, in which the eye moves up and down rather than horizontally across. In fact I do this all the time in my painting.
I’ve mentioned before that some time ago, I noticed that my local art supply store keeps a stock of 12×36 canvases, and that I determined that these would suit my series of mythic Goddesses. In working with this format, I’ve had to compose the movement of my paintings to flow up and down, rather than left and right.
Here is a piece by artist Mark Ryden in this type of long rectangle format that moves horizontally:
Now here is my painting of the Goddess Blodeuwedd in the same format, but vertical:
The viewer enters at Blodeuwedd’s eyes, moves down the piece with the flow of her hair to the flowers she holds, and back around the piece with her hair to the flowers placed around her head (in her myth, Blodeuwedd was formed out of nine flowers, all shown in this piece).
Here is another example:
In Juksakka, the viewer enters at at the Akka’s eyes, follows her hair down to the breasts and to the arrow, which leads to the Sami sacred symbols at her side: the curve of her legs and pubis lead the eye back up the painting. The composition is a backward S shape.
In the photo of Taylor below, I literally framed the model using a vertical format mirror frame. While the viewer enters at Taylor’s eyes and the band-leader hat, the frame brings the viewer’s focus to the tattoo on the model’s torso. Note the negative space surrounding the model and the frame: the expanse of white keeps the eye on the colors of the model and the props.
Moving the eye across the piece
There are many ways to move the viewer’s eye across a piece. One way is to have an element (like Juksakka’s arrow) that flows across the composition, allowing the eye to move with it. In the photo of Taylor above, the mirror frame does just that. Here are two more examples:
In the photograph of Bear above, the hoola-hoop forms a shape that leads the viewer’s eye through the photo. Note that this photo is another example of vertical composition, as the eye moves above and below, rather than left-to-right or right-to-left.
In the photo of model Bette Machette below, the model’s long arms lead the viewer up to the face. The viewer then follows her torso back down the piece. The model’s shape forms an inverted V with the oval of her head at the top.
In this photo of model Melrose, the model’s legs draw the eye across the piece and up to the face. the model’s arm leads the viewer back to the starting point of her feet. The composition is a backwards C.
Color as an element of composition
Aside from all of the uses of color: as a mood setter, as a representation of the look or texture of a subject, as contrasting or harmonizing dark and light values; color can be used as a composition element. In her book Pop Painting, Camilla d’Errico talks about juxtaposing pastels against bright colors to achieve negative space and positive space. We’ve seen painters use black or solid white backgrounds against areas of color.
In this photograph of the Mardi Gras Indian celebration in New Orleans, the bright colors of the Indians’ suits stand out profoundly against the drab Central City backdrop. The street and the bystanders become negative space while the dancers fill the right- and left-hand thirds of the image and become a primary and secondary subject.
In this photo of model and tattoo artist Kai, the model’s wildly colorful hair, jewelry and tattoos stand out against the plain white background. While the white of the wall is bright, it becomes negative space against the colors of the subject.The elements of color lead the eye up and down the piece in an inverted U.
This contrast of color against white is also seen in the photo of Lindsay below. The white wall is the negative against which her face pops. If she were shot against a more colorful backing, or a busier scene, her face might not make the impact on the viewer that it does here. Note the swirl of her hair in the classic 40s era ‘Victory Roll’ leads the viewer from her eyes to the hair, and back down to the eyes.
In Dancer, the swirl of muted background colors draw the eye to the stationary dancer. While the dancer is indeed standing still, the colorful swirls imply motion, which is the dancer’s forte. (Gosh, I love doing high brow intellectual analysis of my own stuff).
Anyway, I used the same idea of stillness and motion in Cellist, below. Also note that the cello and the arm with the bow form a triangle that lead the viewer to the musician’s face and fingers.
More complex composition
I tend to like simpler compositions: when I paint or photograph, I like isolating the subject against a negative space background. But many artists enjoy complexity. Remember the Mark Ryden pieces we looked at up at the top of this post?
Handling a complex composition takes skill: placing various elements in the right places so that they support the main subject takes thought and planning.
Here is one of the most famous paintings with a complex composition:
In case you don’t know, this is Manet’s La Musique Aux Tuileries (Music At The Tuileries Gardens). The piece is a melange of shapes and forms: some of the figures are hardly defined. The child in white, a girl we assume, seems to have a beard. But the two women in the foreground stand out as the primary focus, partly because of their much lighter clothing against the black suits of the background figures. They also dominate the left-hand third of the piece, drawing our eye across the confusion of the audience figures to that portion of the painting. The eye, when faced with chaos, seeks definition: that’s one reason this piece works.
In this photo of Mardi Gras Indians, there are a lot of competing elements. Through the harmony of the green feathers there is complex bead work and varying shapes. Again, the eye is drawn to the far right and the face of the Indian Queen: the secondary forms of the bead work begin to attract our focus after that. Once the brain of the viewer is given the assurance that these are human figures, and that the primary figure is recognizable as a woman, the eye can begin to take in the many secondary elements of the piece. Again, perspective and size help differentiate the figures as more and less focal.
I hope I’ve given you some good ideas to consider when tackling composition in your art. When you look at any piece of art, try to analyze the composition: put a letter shape to it if you can. Ask yourself why you do or don’t respond to the shapes and patterns of the composition. As you create your own art, challenge yourself: combine composition elements, pull in elements you’ve never used, and rethink elements you have used.
Think of how negative and positive space is used in other media, like music and cinema. For instance, musical styles like Metal or Hip-Hop are intensely positive space oriented: the listener is given consistent rhythmic and tonal information throughout the song, without pause: ambient music and some forms of Folk and Jam Rock have long negative spaces, with periods of low intensity, where perhaps only one instrument plays and all others sit out. In Bluegrass there are long measures of strumming with no voice or soloing instrument: this comes from the days of radio, when the band shared a single mic, and the soloist would have to move back from the mic while the singer positioned him/herself near it. This can be seen as a negative space against the positive space of vocals or soloing instruments.
Likewise in movies and TV shows, there is a negative-positive flow. In action movies there will be scenes of intense action (positive oriented) followed by very quiet scenes of dialogue or stillness (negative oriented). Think of the scenes in Star Wars IV when Luke looks out quietly at the Tatooine duel sunset while the sedate Force Theme plays. Scenes like this, the negative space of the film, allow the viewer moments to ‘recharge’ for the action to follow.
I mentioned a book I’m reading, Pop Painting by Camilla d’Errico. It’s a very good book, and I recommend it.
As always, thanks for looking. You can find me on Twitter at @killthehero3 and at firstname.lastname@example.org, and of course on deviantart.com (link above somewhere). Please ‘like’ and comment.