Composition is the relative positioning of shapes and forms within a picture plane. “The composition,” said pioneer abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky, “is the organized sum of the interior functions of every part of the work.”
As a frequent juror, I notice the tendency of my fellow jurors to reject work thought to be poorly composed. Many artists, often photo bound to start with, fail to redesign their reference and take control of compositions. Consequently, in my occasional sorties into workshopping, I sometimes hand out a list of compositional keys. They are not rules — even if they were, they would have to be regularly broken. They are meant to be guidelines. Coincidentally, there are eleven keys on any ordinary keyboard that are useful in understanding them: they are S, O, (), !, L, ?, ^, M, P, H and X.
S is the famous old eye-control lead-in where the river meanders, the path winds, the road disappears.
O is the circular imperative that keeps the viewer’s eyes moving around within the work.
() is the inclusion of eye-returning verticals that parenthesize on the left and right.
! is the long and the short of linear design. Exclamation brings excitement, finality and visual interest.
L is the rectilinear lineup that gives compositional solidity. Objects sit on a secure ground.
? is the eternal question “What could be?” as well as “What is it?” and “What isn’t it?”
^ is for softening near the edges. Equal focus bores the eye. Humans don’t like to be bored.
M is for mystery, paucity and lack of disclosure. A good composition doesn’t need to tell the whole story.
P is for patches. Patches trump lines. Better compositions are often an assembly of patches.
H is for homeostasis. Overly regular, evenly spaced, mechanical interstices need to be scouted out and fixed.
X is fraught with danger. While it’s great to have a central confluence of interest — X marks the spot — it’s also important to watch where any of those four legs might point or turn up. Watch the corners of your picture. Shooting the eye out of one of them can be bad news for you and good news for the painting next door.
Esoterica: The main test of composition is engagement. How does it grab and hold you? The answer gives a key as to how it might grab and hold others. “Get the art of controlling the observer — that is composition,” said the American teacher Robert Henri. Hint: Pay early attention to what happens in the lower third of your painting. Often called “the foreground,” this is generally where the viewer’s eye first enters the picture. This is the place on the picture where composition begins.
Just one thing
by Carol Mayne, Leucadia, CA, USA
One of the simplest, best, and sometimes hardest pieces of advice about composition came to me via George Strickland, (past president of PAPA) — “Say ONE thing.” I would add that deciding to “Feel ONE thing” crystallizes the focus to begin a painting “on purpose.”
Breaking rules the norm
by Fred Hulser, Houston, TX, USA
It seems hard these days to find out what the “rules” are, since breaking them seems to be the overriding rule. Does an artist break them if he doesn’t know them or is he just ignorant? I have needed to go back at least 60 years to find useful books on the rules that are being “broken.” In any case, HILTOXY is a keyboard acronym highlighting compositional guidelines that I was taught, each letter being a possible structural idea, either alone or possibly in combination with other letters. In this case, contrary to your guidelines (and Edgar A. Payne), S was a motif over a different structural idea.
This is an image of a recent plein air painting, an “L” with an “X”, I think. I’d like to see a discussion of chroma as a compositional device since I believe you use it effectively.
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Outmoded and over-used compositions
by Joe Yeno, Litchfield, CT, USA
Juror-assembled shows are ridiculous! Compositional theorems in the 21st century are fraught with outmoded and over-used rules that determine how to keep doing what everyone else has done again and again… for Christ’s sake, be different… take chances… screw around with the journey the eye takes or quit painting and buy a camera. I rarely got in juried shows but, I started selling way ahead of my friends and continue to even now. I think for the most part jurors are people who can’t do art, only look at it!! I value no one’s opinion except the person who buys my art!!
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Best ally — Knowledge
by Ron Ukrainetz, Great Falls, MT, USA
I agree with your comments on composition, and I, too, hand out juror sheets relating to composition and other elements intended to aid in minimizing problems in paintings. One of the best books I have found relating to understanding compositional elements is Edgar Payne’s book, Composition of Outdoor Painting. It not only describes the elements of composition, but why they work, and suggests when to try them and combine them. His basic premise is that the best ally an artist can have is knowledge, and his book also provides that.
“To be original one needs to learn the ideas of other painters in order to be different from them.” (Edgar A. Payne)
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by Gail Sauter, Kittery, ME, USA
There is one artist in particular who always stands out in my mind for the strength in compositions. He is Gustave Caillebotte. Here is an example of one of his paintings that I especially love. This is such a simple and straightforward presentation of life — you can almost smell the varnish remover and the sweat of these guys working! Although this painting looks like it could be found in a gallery today, it was actually done in 1875. Caillebotte was a member of the French Impressionists. In fact, he funded some of their exhibitions and his purchasing of their work kept many of them afloat financially in the early days.
What I so love about his work is his daring compositions. This painting is a good example of his subtle mastery. The figure on the right directs his gaze (and therefore ours) to the center figure which is linked to the farthest left figure by a pile of shavings on the floor. Above him there is an amazing vertical stripe of turquoise blue and the bright window full of sunshine streaming into the room which leads us down to the strips of scraped floor, or we move on across to the blue wall which leads to some rubble and further on to the wine bottle – but eventually, no matter where you look, you end up with the figures again — and around and around we go.
Note the upcoming Exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum: Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea.
by Tony van Hasselt, East Boothbay, ME, USA
Good stuff as usual, Robert. Thanks! You may not be familiar with the visual building blocks of painting I designed some years back. Since artists are visually oriented, I wanted to stay away from verbiage and design a set of easy-to-understand symbols which can instantly remind a painter what to do and think about during the creative process. These symbols are not “rules” but guidelines based on the experience of those painters who have gone before us and of course, apply to any medium and most styles. They are fully explained in The Watercolor Fix-it Book as well as on my DVD by the same name. A studio poster with a short synopsis of each symbol is also available and they are introduced on my website. After teaching this system for about 15 years now, I find the more one gets into using these symbols and understanding their full meaning, the more helpful they become. They also form a great checklist in finding just what is wrong with a painting.
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by Catherine Orfald, Brooke Valley, ON, Canada
This list is great! Well worth posting in the studio as a reminder. There are so many characters, though, I think it would benefit from a mnemonic to help us remember. The best I could come up with in a few minutes is “Soil times morph?” S O ! L x M () ^ P H ? I moved some of your characters around and used the circumflex as a caret to indicate the missing letter “r”. This gives an overall picture of grounding, change and questioning… all aspects of creativity, I think.
Choreography in painting
by Alan Feltus, Assisi, Italy
What governs the positioning and the relationships of parts has to feel right to me as I work. When they don’t seem to be in a relationship that means anything, I keep moving or changing them. I see this as choreography. It is always about how things within a painting relate to the edges of the painting and to one another.
I have always been very interested in paintings in which the compositional order seems to be as important, as visible you could say, as is the imagery of the painting. That is the case in Medieval and early Renaissance painting more than in the high Renaissance. It is true in Cubist painting. And, of course, it is the case in abstract painting in general.
The painters you quoted from, Kandinsky, Bonnard, and Degas are very good painters to teach us about composition. Degas was always a master of composing and one who often broke conventional rules of what was thought to be good composing. Balthus, of course, was a great master of composition. Balthus taught himself to paint by making copies of Piero della Francesca and Masacchio frescoes. The best painters made copies of other painters’ works as a means of learning. There is no better way of becoming a better painter than looking at great paintings.
Guidelines, not rules
by Shanti Marie, Lake Wylie, SC, USA
I often teach aspiring artists how to approach an abstract and I’ve always stressed the importance of basic compositional rules. I agree with you that an artist can’t throw out good composition or design for emotion or message. I also mention to all students that they are guidelines only… not hard rules. A good Artist can resolve compositional problem areas and throw out these guidelines when the painting calls for it. If it works, its works, don’t lose yourself in rules or in your love for the piece.
I guess I bring this up only because the new-to-art individual may think abstract paintings are basically painted with a stick and a rag and there isn’t anything to it and of course anyone can do it. The fact is… non representational work needs structure (the same guide lines as realistic paintings). You have come up with a great way for folks to understand the important “keys,” and as usual make it seem simple.
Entertain the viewer’s eye
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
As a workshop teacher, I note that many of neophyte students do not have a clue about composition. Looking at paintings in galleries where I exhibit, I note many paintings that show similar naivete. I think the problem runs deeper than composition. Once at a gallery opening, I was asked about one of my paintings. As I was telling this woman about my design strategy, she was surprised with the idea that I consciously planned to entertain my viewer’s eye in my paintings. I showed her the various compositional schemes in a group of paintings. It was all a revelation to her. I tell students that they are like the director of a movie, like the great Alfred Hitchcock. He made drawings that laid out each scene and each image was carefully considered for visual impact. I believe many artists aren’t considering the viewer. The painting process becomes a total ego immersion for the artist. Historically this is a very silly notion as artists have always worked for other people. Composition is not rocket science. As your excellent synopsis shows, with a bit of thought there are many options available to us to create a well composed painting. A strong composition grabs attention in a gallery where many paintings are randomly configured. Painting should be pleasing and exciting to the eye.
An eye for composition
by Cindy Haynes
I have read your letters for a couple of years now and finally need to brag about my son’s painting. Greg is a realism painter. There are many out there. But what his buyers almost always say is that they love his composition. Greg majored in photography. I wonder if some just have an eye for composition? He spends hours setting up his pictures and thanks to digital photography takes dozens of pictures. To some, his paintings may look too rigid. And it may be easier in that he is not working with Mother Nature who can be beautifully difficult. But I am aware of how hard he works to get lighting, shapes, colors, reflections and textures to his satisfaction. Perhaps composition is just in the elbow grease.
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Composition for beginners
by Janet Vanderhoof, Morgan Hill, CA, USA
It is funny that only yesterday I wrote this for a group on a Ning site that I am offering my services to. The topic was composition. I realized that so many of the beginning artists didn’t realize how important composition is. In fact, why not just start here always, when beginning a class.
“In search for the perfect beginning,” quoted by Robert Henri, painter and teacher. Have you ever painted a painting and no matter how much detail or paint you put on it, it was destined for the trash. In the same respect, have you ever done a painting that was flowing so freely that you completed it in a no time? How important is the beginning of the painting? It is very, very, very, important. Did I say very? Yes if you don’t have good bones to the painting a good foundation to the painting in the very beginning, no matter what frills you add it will not work. Have you ever seen a small painting from afar and it carried; I mean the shapes, the patterns the values visible. So many times we believe that if we add more it will be a better painting, “First the dog then the fleas.” Less is definitely more.
So many of us don’t know the rules of a good composition. Now I don’t like rules, they are meant to be broken, but you must learn them first and then you may have permission to break them. I remember I once heard that prior to being 10 years old, we easily did great compositions, because we were using the right side of the brain. But, when our brain matures and the left-brain gets involved, we sensor, we forget what was innately part of our being. So, I guess we are back to learning some basic rules.
Now composition can be done with line, color, shape and value. An entire painting can be off, but you could balance it in the corner by a dominant splash of red. Or you can have a wonderful composition and the values are all off, so if you squint your eyes it looks like one shape. Take a black and white photo of your painting and you will see the values. All of the above aspects are very important to give you the dynamic and fabulous painting you desire.
Let me give you another example, Have you ever done a still life fruit and a vase of flowers? Is every object spread out? Or did you try overlapping some and maybe even going off the page with others, using the full canvas or paper.
Composition is one of my favorites and I want to take the next week studying the elements of a good composition. Make it your own and push it. But first let us learn the basics. This is the foundation of a great painting. If you have any paintings that you want critiqued in regard to composition please post them. It will give us an opportunity to see it in action.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Joanne Weiss who wrote, “I’m sorry that I sound critical, but your letter about ‘compositional keys’ sounds like one of my more useless art professor’s attempts to give a heady lecture. Your keys get too tied up in obtuse verbal salads. You make it too complicated. And what does the keyboard have to do with your marking or highlighting each idea? The end comments that you quote in your post script make more sense.”
And also Sonia Gadra of Frederick, MD, USA, who wrote, “The information on composition is very helpful. It would be even better if you could apply it to an illustration with the letter over-imposed on a picture so one can see how it applies to the painting. How does it apply to portraits?”
And also Ingunn Kemble of West Vancouver, BC, Canada, who wrote, “AND the really innovative, intriguing and outstanding works frequently break all the “rules” so don’t be afraid to just follow the impulse.”
And also Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA, who wrote, “It’s all just colored mud on a board. Good composition is really just the experience of surprise, combined with the recognition of inevitability. That and be aware of your center and your edge and the way you travel back and forth.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Compositional keys…