The Artist's Road Guide to Composition (Excerpt)

The Artist's Road 
Guide to Composition

(This excerpt of the in-depth article is provided to you, the readers of Artist Daily, as part of the  Artist Daily freemium, The Color Wheel and Beyond. To read the entire article (located in our Members Only content) won't you consider joining us as a Member. Click here to see all the Members' benefits.)

Painting of artist Paul HelleuPaul Helleu and his Wife                          John Singer Sargent

No matter how good one gets at painting, if the composition or design of your picture is dull or flawed, no amount of fancy brushwork will save it. That’s why it is essential to understand what makes a good composition. 

The Power of Intention:
Visualizing What You Want to See in Your Painting

    The job of the artist is to select what is most interesting to him or her and then present that in a form that precisely communicates their intentions. Often, this selection and then re-presenting of the world involves an intentional heightening or exaggeration of some visual elements by the artist, and simultaneous minimization or elimination of other elements to communicate the desired idea about the subject. While it is very important to have a working knowledge of the various compositional tools at our disposal, the most important skill the artist needs to have is to be able to pre-visualize the composition which best expresses his or her intentions before brush ever touches paint.

The Legacy of Cezanne

   Paul Cezanne understood the importance of pursuing his unique vision of the world in his art while simultaneously working to develop an entirely new way of painting reality. His painting, The Basket of Apples is an excellent example of his sophisticated sense of composition and his revolutionary use of color, shape, masses and texture. Balance in composition was very important to him and he labored over his still life arrangements until he got them just the way he wanted. Today, it is difficult for us to imagine just how radical his work looked to Parisians of the 1890s. We have already been prejudiced to accept his paintings as extraordinary works of art. However, his pioneering efforts kick-started the development of modern painting and started a movement which has influenced generations of painters right up to the present moment. Let's examine the compositional anatomy of his painting, The Basket of Apples, and see what can be learned.

Establishing a Focal Point

   It is always important to have a focal point in our paintings. The focal point serves two purposes. First, it is the expression of your unique view of the world. Second, it tells people what the painting is about. People want to participate in the painting, so let them know what you are thinking and why you bothered to make this painting. “Composition,” said Robert Henri, “is controlling the eye of the observer.” 

   The main elements of a painting must not have equal emphasis, color, value or detail - something must dominate in order to provide a focus for the viewer. All other elements must support that leading actor by either leading the eye directly toward it, or by contrasting with it, or by setting the stage for it. Eliminate any elements which do not add something important to your composition. Simplicity is often the wisest path to expressing a good idea clearly and forcefully. What is the focal point in Cezanne's painting?

Cezanne painting with grid
The Basket of Apples                                                       Paul Cezanne

The Rule of Thirds

   The rule of thirds is a “rule of thumb” or guideline which applies to the process of composing visual images. The origin of this concept goes back to 1783 and Sir Joshua Reynolds’s discussion about the (in his mind) proper relative proportions of light and dark in a painting. This concept was then expanded upon by John Thomas Smith in 1797 in his book, Remarks on Rural Scenery, in which he quantified these proportions and named them “The Rule of Thirds.”

Fisherman Rowing Boat
Illustration of Homer's Use of The Rule of Thirds in The Fog Warning

  Smith’s guideline recommends that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. It has been said that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject would. The main reason for observing the rule of thirds is to discourage placement of the subject at the center, or prevent a horizon from appearing to divide the picture in half, but that is a rather basic use of the technique. The real benefit from using the guideline is that it gives the eye a more interesting and natural place in which to look first for the focal point of the painting. 

Cezanne painting with missing bottle
Without the bottle, does your eye move in the same way?

   To see more information on composition including examples of:  creating a path for the eye, using masses and shapes, repetition and rhythm, asymmetry and symmetry and linear perspective, please join us as a Member of The Artist's Road.

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