Last night, while on jury duty, my fellow juror and I agreed the most common fault seen among entries was in composition. Well drawn, well rendered and well coloured — all came to naught when the composition had significant faults. I’ve often written about what an artist should do. In this letter I’m giving six common pitfalls. Last night we noticed them all.
Weak foreground — The foreground appears as an afterthought. Wishy-washy, unresolved or inconsequential — it fails to set the subject onto a reasonable ground or to lead the eye to what the artist would have us see. Even in abstract or mystical work, a foreground needs to be implied and understood as a vital contributor to the whole.
Homeostatic conditions — Homeostasis means equidistant lineups of trees, rocks, blocks of colour, or other patterns that are too mechanical or regular. It includes trees growing out of the tops of people’s heads. While sometimes seen in nature, homeostasis is a natural human tendency — a subconscious reordering and regularizing within the brain. “Even in front of nature one must compose,” said Edgar Degas.
Amorphous design — The general design lacks conviction. A woolly, lopsided or wandering pattern makes for a weak one. Often, the work has unresolved areas and lacks cohesiveness and unity. “Everything that is placed within the enclosing borders of the picture rectangle relates in some way to everything else that is already there. Some attribute must be shared between all of them.” (Ted Smuskiewicz)
Lack of flow — Rather than circulating the eye from one delight to another, the work blocks, peters out and invites you to look somewhere else. “Composition,” said Robert Henri, “is controlling the eye of the observer.” Effective compositions often contain planned activation (spots like stepping stones that take you around), and serpentinity (curves that beguile and take you in.)
Too much going on — Overly busy works tire the eye, induce boredom and make it difficult to find a centre of interest or focus. Less is often more. “Take something out,” said the American painter and illustrator Harvey Dunn.
Defeated by size — Effective small paintings often work well because they are simple and limited in scope. But when artists make larger paintings they often lose control of the basic idea and what is ironically called “the big picture.” “The larger the area to be painted,” says Alfred Muma, “the harder it is to have a good composition.”
PS: “A well-composed painting is half done.” (Pierre Bonnard)
Esoterica: The path to stellar composition is spotted with potholes. Further, compositional design can be unique to the individual, and intuitive. This approach can be unreliable. Habitual poor composition can have long-term effects on otherwise excellent work. After our engaging juror effort (there were many excellent, compositionally sound paintings), over a straight-up gin Martini (for a change), my friend and I loftily decided to found a “School of Composition” — where only composition would be taught. Like the tattoos on the girl’s back, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The pit of compositional doom
by Carmen Gardner, Haiku, HI, USA
As an art teacher, I see so many falling into the pit of compositional doom and, often, when pointing out what I see as an obvious “obstacle,” I get an argument and must allow the person to move forward in “compositional sin.” Your “School of Composition,” should be well attended if the “bar is open” at, say, 8 a.m. for teachers, and served up some classes on how to avoid those red flag tattoos!
Common artistic sensibilities
by Glenn Mitchell, Comox, BC, Canada
I’m an amateur watercolour painter and a professional home designer but my passion is writing and recording music and I’m struck by how often your excellent advice pertains to the other arts. My wife is a painter and amateur musician and we have excellent conversations on the subject. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, due to common human artistic sensibilities. Perhaps a good way to know one has a basic truth is to see it if applies across the arts.
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Intuition or rationality?
by Jeanette Paul, Longueuil, QC, Canada
While you have given great pointers on what to avoid, what I would really like to know is how other artists’ hearts and/or brains are working when they compose. Does the composition just come to them at once, intuitively, while they are viewing a natural scene, or is it more of a mechanical, rational process of adding in and taking out? Must the entire composition be visualized or thought out before starting to paint? Is it possible to repair significant defaults in composition after the fact? Your school of composition sounds like a plan to me.
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by Gilda Pontbriand, Ottawa, ON, Canada
I had been a representational painter for many years, but at one point in my career I decided to step into abstraction. Without a focal point, I found myself confused about composing my painting. I decided to enter a competition to find out if I was going the right way (composition-wise). The jurors would probably steer me in the right direction, I thought. I was expecting the kind of critique that you mentioned in your letter, clear the boo-boos and work from there to improve my pieces. To my surprise the jurors knew very little about critiquing art. My painting was not accepted in the show and, among the three jurors, the only reason they could come out with was this: “not accepted – pink color looks chalky.” I could not believe my eyes. They were three good painters who decided to become jurors, but probably knew very little about composition; otherwise, they could have mentioned whether it was good or bad. Therefore, a “School of Composition” is definitely not a bad idea. Your letter could have helped me a lot.
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Thoughts on composition
by James Kissel, Canton MI, USA
There seems to be a dearth of good information on pictorial composition. There are no end of Web references that explain the 7 or so elements and 8 or so principles of visual design, but try to find one good website /book /video /dvd /workshop on composition and/or any visual composition process. At best I’ve found a number of good compositional check lists although most are of a negative inflection such as your ‘Six compositional boo-boos.’ Nothing wrong there. I agree with everything you said in this post. I just wish for a lesson on composition in the positive vain. e.g. “Here is how to apply the ‘L’ armature to an urban landscape.”
Along those lines, I have come to realize that there isn’t ‘a composition process’ though there may be schools of thought on how to compose a picture in a particular style. I’ve found a compositional framework that I find useful and that I can work within. Ian Robert explained the 5 picture planes in his book Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting.
1. Format: square, landscape, portrait… The Four Most Important Compositional Lines are the edge of your painting and size.
2. Armature: the direction or flow of the main movement of the painting.
3. Abstract Shapes: the main masses, their relationship to each other, and their interaction.
4. Subjects: Bottles, mountains, people, a river…
5. Details: A street lamp, a pearl earring, a distant figure, trees.
Therein is the outline, chapter by chapter, for a good composition book — Unfortunately, the one Ian didn’t write. I’ve tried to explore the deciding factors for choosing a particular size and format with a few like-minded painters, but the idea of having some rules/ guidelines to a process for picking a particular size-format seemed to be beyond the comprehension of my small discussion group. Perhaps you might like to take up this particular subject.
In closing, I would like to add another chapter to the above list. I call it the 0. Chapter: In the beginning… It would try to illuminate the thought process of picking a particular subject to paint. Painting what I feel as opposed to painting what I see. Before the sketch. Before the thumbnail. Before even unpacking the easel if one is painting en plein air.
(RG note) Thanks, James. To that I’d add the classic Composition of Outdoor Painting
by Edgar Payne.
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Finding the anchor
by Elizabeth Bertoldi, Toronto, ON, Canada
As a mainly abstract painter, I often struggle with composition, as there is no anchor to the reality of images such as landscapes or portraits. I find myself turning the painting around as I paint, striving to make sure the overall design “works,” i.e. has balance, unity, harmony, from every point of view, landscape and portrait orientations. However, some of my paintings have been critiqued by juries as “lacking focus” or “lacking composition ?” Should I use the “golden mean” of 1/3 – 2/3, and find a focal point at the intersections of the grid? Often that seems forced to me as I get into the “flow” of a painting. What advice would you have about the challenges of composition in abstract / non-figurative paintings?
(RG note) Thanks, Elizabeth. Even though you are making an abstract, it’s best, as you say, to start with “an anchor.” I find this to be often a motif such as a bird, a car, or whatever, and then “abstract it,” as the saying goes. The end result may look nothing like what you originally had in mind, but that’s okay. The other way of starting is with nothing much and “finding the anchor,” akin to stream of consciousness writing. This system is also viable and a lot of fun.
Turn of phrase
by Lisa Schulte, Traverse City, MI, USA
My ten year old neighbor was visiting a couple days ago. The kids had a snow day from school; it seems winter has finally come in time for spring! I had written out a quote from a past letter which I had on a sticky note on a cabinet. “The noon balloon to Rangoon.” He was quite taken with the concept and we made up a few of our own.
Midnight mover to Vancouver
Morning motor to North Dakota
Evening elephant to Ethiopia
(RG note) Thanks, Lisa — and your ten year old friend. I’ve always liked “Hypothermic catatonia in Patagonia.”
Nature’s art critique
by Tom Relth, Casablanca, Morocco
My studio is on the third floor. Yesterday, I took some finished works out onto the balcony. I brought them all back but got distracted and forgot about one of them.
About two hours later I remembered and opened the door to the baloney to go out… the wind blew into the studio and slammed the entrance-to-the-studio door closed with a big BANG! I went back in to see it and found that I was locked inside. That was when I noticed that I needed to use the bathroom. Note here that there is no other access back into the house from the balcony. I checked all other doors and windows. They were locked up tight.
I banged on the studio door to get help… no one came.
I phoned the house-helper: no answer… and phoned Leslie… no one answered.
(Oh right… Leslie went to the store) Oh great.
After ten minutes of bathroom panic, I looked back over the balcony and noted that while I was banging around Leslie had come back, so called her again. She came up and let me out (no comment). I went to use the facilities.
Returning to the studio, I took the complete door handle and all of the hardware off the entrance-to-the-studio door. There is still a door there, but it won’t do that again. I went out, got the remaining painting and brought it in and set it on the floor in the hallway just outside of the studio door, out of the way but facing out so I might look at it later. And later I did. There was an accent stroke pretty much right in the middle but just off center enough to look very deliberate and adding a new kind of asymmetrical balance. I did not remember painting that. I approached. It was a kind of grey-black oval, very textured almost encaustic. I guess nature was making a critique of my work. I considered leaving it, but in the end scraped it off.
I went back into the studio, encouraged.
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watercolour painting 14 x 21 inches
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