I apologize for the confusion I caused by illustrating Tuesday’s letter with the compositional genius of the woodcuts of Walter J. Phillips. Of course, artists of all stripes make compositional boo-boos. Walter J. Phillips just isn’t one of them, and I made the assumption that this was obvious. I’m reminded of the words of Jenny Haddleton, my grade 7 ceramics teacher: “You are standing on the top of a hill, strapped into a pair of skis. Don’t hit a tree.” Here again is my Dad’s list of boo-boos, with a few ideas on how to address them, illustrated with the compositional mastery of Edgar Degas:
Weak foreground – “The foreground appears as an afterthought,” wrote my Dad. “Even in abstract or mystical work, a foreground needs to be implied and understood as a vital contributor to the whole.” In plein-air work, study the foreground as a design device and refine its elements, looking for opportunities to create depth and to lead the eye into the painting and towards your center of interest: moss covered rocks, stepping stones, waves, a road, shadows, driftwood, lowland scrub. In abstraction, where the foreground is the dilettante’s bottom of the painting, the foreground should instead anchor and can provide an exciting entry or highlight to a visual poem. It must not block, stop or eject the viewer’s eyes but rather lead them in a confident journey around the picture plane.
Homeostatic conditions — “Even in front of nature one must compose,” said Edgar Degas. Look for places in your work where you’ve inadvertently lined things up and instead, inject variety and randomness into the pattern. Alter the size of objects, or try staggering or spacing them in threes or fives. Create a depth of field. Spread the sitter’s fingers unevenly. Slightly unresolved patterns are more mysterious and alluring than perfectly resolved ones – they make a tension that echoes the human experience. Add a gradation. Paint your flowers wilting. Like when arranging them, beauty exists in the irregularity and unevenness of what is already in a state of transformation.
Amorphous design — “The general design lacks conviction.” “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) Pay attention to this connectedness, and beware of “potato-itus.” Look around for individual potatoes lurking within the one, big potato that is an amorphous painting. Potatoes appear around neglected edges, in clouds, in rocks, in abstract forms and blobs. Now that I’ve brought them to your attention, you should see them clearly. De-potato by sharpening edges and shaping forms with better, more seductive angles, a light source, contrast, and by defining what’s behind or in front of things.
Lack of flow — “Composition,” said Robert Henri, “is controlling the eye of the observer.” Stand back and let your eye travel. Take note of where you enter the work, if you’re circulating around it and if you get stopped. The eye wants to travel but stay contained within the picture, resting in places of delicious brushwork, colour surprise or a beguiling curve or point. “Try to paint one neat area,” my Dad suggested to me. In abstraction, eye control is what turns a flat plane, repetitive motif or chaos of gestures into a work of magic.
Too much going on — “Take something out,” said the American painter and illustrator Harvey Dunn. You are making poetry, not a technical manual. Pay attention to the arrangement of things. Possibly, take out a lot. Curated spaces bring intention, focus and specialness to sitelines, objects, subjects and meaning. The eye also needs a place to rest in order to appreciate what is presented and to prevent clutter blindness. Look around your painting and choose a center of interest. Ask how other elements serve this center – waves washing towards it, a seagull interwoven into the rhythm of the sea, echoing curves, a tree gesturing with prevailing wind, a quiet sky. Show the eye the way. “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Defeated by size — “The larger the area to be painted,” says Alfred Muma, “the harder it is to have a good composition.” Make studies to get an understanding of your composition on a smaller scale before enlarging it. Slap-dashing until things “feel right” is the amateur’s credo – instead, take the time to plan and compose. Study the compositions of the masters, including Phillips, Cassatt, Kandinsky. “I play better tennis,” wrote Robert Frost, “because the court is there.”
PS: “No design is possible until the materials with which you design are completely understood.” (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe)
Esoterica: At the risk of buzz-killing those tempted to skip this step, being a creative person asks that we also bear a responsibility to acquire a basic understanding of what we’re doing. This then opens a door to making competent work. As a carrot, I will dangle that a skillful composition breaks through the noise of a million other paintings and beguiles the viewer with a mysterious attraction, clear communication of message and a visual pleasure. Someone may even get their wallet out. More important than this, no one benefits from a world clogged with bad design. In art, ignorance is not a virtue – even outsider art and “primitive” art value masterfully harnessing the principles of design, both by way of intuitive talent and a time-honoured system of apprenticeship. Only after we’ve put in a few thousand hours to get an understanding of what we’re doing, can “breaking the rules” become a skill-filled arrow in the quiver of not only personal expression but the advancement of our artforms.
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“To learn is to broaden, to experience more, to snatch new aspects of life for yourself. To refuse to learn or to be relieved at not having to learn is to commit a form of suicide; in the long run, a more meaningful type of suicide than the mere ending of physical life… Knowledge is not only power; it is happiness, and being taught is the intellectual analog of being loved.” (Isaac Asimov)
August 22-25, 2022
Join Ellie Harold for “Expressive Painting: Making Your Marks.” With a focus on intuitive mark-making, this workshop is designed to facilitate a fuller expression of your deepest and most essential artist Self. Content, process and lightly structured exercises give you permission to create the art that wants to be made by you in the safe space of Ellie’s studio and the fresh air and cool light of northern Michigan near Sleeping Bear Dunes. You’ll return home with a specific art “care plan” to assure support for “Making Your Marks” in the world. Details and registration at www.EllieHarold.com.
Fac Si Facis