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Importance of Composition

Composition is the selective arrangement of elements in a painting. That is commonly broken up into elements of compositional painting — how to lead the eye in to a painting, and retain interest in the subject matter. Students make preparatory sketches, shading in the main masses as they appear in the prevailing light conditions. They experiment until they find an arrangement that seems novel, balanced and pleasing.

RaphaelFine. But composition in fact entails more than just arranging the bowls of fruit, drapery, etc. that make up the still life. It means deploying all the painterly elements, getting them to work together.

And work towards some end, for some purpose. All hangs on what the painter intends. Devotional painters of the High Renaissance, for example, generally arranged the figures of Madonna, child and patrons in a pyramid, a composition that evoked a reassuring sense of solidity and repose. In contrast, Degas's figures often look to be walking out of the picture altogether, the intention being to capture the animation of the everyday Paris scene.

Elements of Composition

Leaving intention aside for the moment, what are the elements of composition in a painting? A brief listing might be:

Space: several forms, including:

illusionist: created with linear perspective, aerial perspective (distant objects lose contrast and detail), size (far away objects are smaller), overlap (near objects obscure those further away).

two dimensional: objects are deformed into and modeled on the flat surface of the canvas: Cezanne and much modernist painting.

flat patterning: objects are shown as decorative theater flats, without linear perspective: Persian miniatures and some medieval western painting.

oriental: a palpable sense of emptiness, with objects as it were coalescing out of this emptiness: traditional Chinese landscapes.

self-created: act of painting creates its own sense of space, which is localized and not predetermined: some modern art.

primitive: objects are randomly distributed, with no immediately obvious controlling feature: primitive, naive and children's art.

ter Bruggen

Shape: Areas closed off by line, or differences of tone, texture and color. Shapes have an abstract quality, and are often regarded as positive (enclosing recognizable objects in the painting) or negative (areas left between or around recognizable objects). Shapes interact, and independently evoke sensations of repose, agitation, purposeful energy, direction, etc.

Line: Lines enclose forms, and mark either edges where two planes intersect, or the bounding contour of an object seen against a distant background. More than shapes, lines have an authority of their own, creating movement, integration and texture.

Tone or value is the degree of light or dark in an element. Unless the work is a drawing, or employs only grays, tone also enters into the qualities of a color, along with hue and purity. Tone may create mood (e.g. dark tones for threat or mystery), drama (wide tonal range) or emphasis (highlighting the object of interest).

Texture is the visual patterning, and may be abstract (the fluidity of glazes or watercolor) or informative (a silk dress looks very different from one in satin). In the absence of other features, texture may help to create pleasing diversity, to focus interest, and/or impose a necessary unity on the work.

Hue is the color itself, the specific wavelength. Colors create complex physiological and psychological effects in the viewer, and hues are therefore a primary means of obtaining or enhancing the emotional impact of a work.

Color Purity refers to the vibrancy and intensity of a hue, its freedom from admixtures of other hues. Pure colors are colors of a single wavelength, and have the dazzling clarity of stained glass windows — i.e. quite unreal, to be used with the greatest caution. But the infinite gradations possible, combined with tone and hue, makes color purity an expressive device in the hands of a sensitive and experienced painter.

Deploying: Aims of Composition

KalfHow are these elements of compositional painting to be deployed? To create the effect desired, of course, but how does the painter go about that? Again it depends — on what's being aimed at, experience, how adventurous the painter wishes to be. But one thing is clear: there is no infallible recipe. Few of the elements can be used in isolation, and the painter is continually pushing one element and then modifying it in the light of unexpected effects in others. Painting is a dialogue, between what the painter hopes for, and what the work is currently displaying. That obvious point needs to be remembered in the following summary of compositional aims. These are not comprehensive, or exclusive, and will only make sense after extended study of actual paintings and/or through practical experience of painting.

Unity: Elements should be integrated so that the picture has an overall unity, with nothing left isolated or out of account.

Proportion: The golden section (0.62 to 1) is still useful, but by proportion is generally meant a pleasing relationship in proportions of one element to another.

Balance is closely related to proportion, but is usually applied to shapes and masses, which can be symmetrical, asymmetrical, or indeed anything that still somehow seems to be in balance.

Harmony: A peaceful coexistence of elements, if that is wanted, or at least a sense that the elements aid some coherent intention of the artist.

Variety: Differences in tone, color, shapes, etc. create visual interest, and this variety strengthens a painting if not pushed too far.

Contrast: Juxtaposing wide differences in elements create emphasis, essential if the painting is to have focus or make a statement.

Movement: The viewer's eye is drawn round the painting by the individual life and vitality of the elements.

Repetition: Properties that are repeated, usually with slight modifications, or in different elements, give emphasis and unity to a work.

Rhythm is repetition of elements, but at some constant interval — more difficult to achieve than repetition, but more powerful.

Practical Hints

DavidA few suggestions:

1. Research possibilities by studying recognized masterworks, and making your own exploratory sketches.

2. Establish the full range at the outset — in tone, color, contrasts, etc. — either on the canvas itself, in sketches, or at least on the palette.

3. Once started, work the painting as a whole.

4. Go from the general to the particular, laying in the broad shapes and tones before attending to details.

5. Stop at convenient intervals and take stock of achievements and possibilities. View in a mirror and upside down to spot mistakes.

6. Make exploratory studies throughout the painting process.

7. Be sensible, but don't shy away from unexpected difficulties: overcoming them will push your work in new directions.

8. Take photos when really stuck, and analyze the images with a computer graphics program, rearranging elements to explore radical changes.

9. Try always to finish a painting, however bad: you will learn more from mistakes than those golden periods when everything goes well.

Further Reading

Composition is fundamental, and these references add flesh to the above notes:

1. Basic Landscape Composition by L. Diane Johnson. Simple introduction to the elements of composition, with helpful diagrams.

2.'Composition of Outdoor Painting' by Edgar Alwin Payne. DeRus Fine Art Books. 1995. Classic 1941 text by noted Arizona Neo-Impressionist. Now with added plates and addenda by Evelyne Payne Hatcher.

3. 'Composition and Design Elements, Principles, and Visual Effects' by Marvin Bartel. Goshen Art College. 2010.

4. 9 Steps to Creating Better Compositions by 'Dan'. Empty Easel. Simple suggestions.


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4a. 'Madonna of the Meadows' by Raphael. 1505. Kunsthistorisches Museum. Vienna. A simple pyramidal composition.

4b'. Calling of Saint Matthew' by Hendrick ter Bruggen. 1621. Centraal Museum. Utrecht. Ter Bruggen uses tertiary colors and repetition of pointing hands to suggest the perplexity in the saint's mind.

4c. 'Still Life with the Drinking Horn of St. Sebastian's Archer's Guild 'by Willem Kalf. c. 1653. National Gallery. London. A rich composition based on a triadic color scheme. The muted colors in the foreground rug repeat the reds and blues of the objects on the table.

4d. 'Oath of the Horatii' by Jacques-Louis David. 1784. Musée du Louvre. Paris. The superb painting that David could achieve when not trying for the grandiose. Triadic tertiary color scheme and great rhythmic variety.