01 Consumed by composition By Casey Baugh
12 T he landâ€™s hidden poetry By Douglas Fryer
22 imagination/creativity By Dan McCaw
28 L ight & Form & Dust By Julio Reyes
36 S pain: two cities two feelings By Susan Lyon with Scott Burdick
50 No Rules By Daniel Keys
55 T he problem with the real in realism By Carolyn Anderson
59 S triving for truth & beauty in art By Daniel Sprick
63 M y journey to collecting By Libby Whipple
68 t he ten american painters By Ryan Mellody & Niki Parsons
So what is Composition? The term composition literally means “putting together.” It is defined by the placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a work of art or a photograph, as distinct from the subject of a work. I often like to think of composition as the force behind the scenes that’s always working to draw us in. It’s the gentle voice that whispers to us to step closer to the surface and allow our minds to take in the beauty. In a room packed with paintings, the one that often first catches our eye is the one with the best composition. Yet unlike other elements, such as content, drawing, values, edges, color and texture, composition is the most abstract in principle and is therefore perhaps the most difficult to define.
Some paintings rely on composition as the end in itself and seem to throw content out the window. We often see this done in the abstract painting movement, in which abstract shapes of color are arranged in such a way to cause tension or balance in a viewer’s emotion without using any representational objects. I like to think of composition instead as an element that can be carefully applied to uplift and even amplify the content in a painting, almost like the volume knob on a sound system. The figure or object can be made to seem more interesting or even be given a sense of being, depending on its placement; that is, on the composition of the piece. Although composition is difficult to define, I have still always felt the need to better understand it; to break it down into simple concepts so that I can make better use of it in my
Ana, 14" x 20"
own work. I have read many books on the theories of good composition. I’ve sifted through the chaos of compositional rules and guidelines, and have come to the conclusion that beyond the simple act of breaking composition into its various parts, trying to discover any overall guiding principle is pointless. It’s like trying to learn the formula for just how much salt is needed in a good meal. Each meal is different and consists of a variety of food, just as each painting is different and includes a variety of elements. But more importantly, each of us is unique and enjoys our own quantity of spice. Therefore the best rule of composition is: Your Own Rule! Being your own rule doesn’t mean that rules don’t matter. We can’t just throw out the window all thought of standard composition. On the contrary, it means that we must be very sensitive and aware of our own tastes so that we can more efficiently and effectively portray those tastes in our work. It also doesn’t mean that we should ignore the ways others use composition in their work. Instead we should be vacuums, absorbing as much information around us as possible, but carefully filtering out what does not excite us. And in the end, what’s left is the culmination of what we respond to individually. This distilled essence of who we are will saturate our work and fill it with originality.
No More Common Dress, 24" x 16"
Okay, so let’s break it down. Apart from realizing that there are no general rules, I have found that it helps me to think of composition as two major ideas: value pattern and implied line. (insert two images) Value pattern refers to overall light and dark masses in a piece. Implied line refers to obvious or subtle angles. Although both ideas work together to form composition, it is helpful to separate them to understand and manage these elements when setting up. In filmmaking we see an analogy in the importance of thoughtfully and completely setting up both video and audio, to ensure they work together to make a great film.
Value pattern Implied line
Nonchalant, 20" x 16"
Nonchalant, 20" x 16" Using the ideas of value pattern and implied line we can now explore a few paintings and break down the relevant compositional elements.
autumn step-by-step When planning my own painting the first thing I like to nail down is the content. Content is what the painting is about. This could be a feeling, a mood or even a story. The foundation for content is the idea behind the objects being painting. A person walking in the city at night, for example, sets the mood for content because there could be a general story behind that particular scene. Having understood the foundational idea behind a painting, I next turn my attention to the composition. Not only does composition provide a subtle visual lure for the piece, but it also can be used to amplify the overall content. For example, where I place a subject on the canvas can have an emotional effect on the viewer. A figure with less lead room creates a bit of tension. A figure with space creates a â€˘
â€˘ sense of calm. Similarly, cropping in on the subject or focal point creates a more mysterious feel than a wide crop. We see this in the movie industry when the actor is tightly cropped to create a feeling of tension or fear. I also like to tamper with the scene by finding the light and dark families. I then find interesting ways to connect the light and dark families, whether they are connected in the three-dimensional space or not. In this painting I have chosen to connect the light value of the bench with the light values of the jacket. This creates a single light family that travels through the upper and lower dark value masses. This can be easily seen when squinting at the painting or in the value pattern image.
The other aspect of composition that I must decide on is implied line. I like to think of this as the balance of the lines in the subject. Lines may be easily discernible, or I may only notice the feeling of a line in something like the tilt of a head or the overall lean of the subject. My goal is usually to create a balance in the collection of lines. One of my own rules is to rarely use perfect horizontal or vertical lines, because it simply feels too comfortable. Our minds long for images that are perfectly horizontal and vertical, so when we introduce an angle we upset the feeling and create an interesting tension.
At the same time, a single implied angle leaning in one direction or another may cause the feeling that the painting is falling one direction or another—a situation that is rarely desirable. The answer is to counter that angle with another angle leaning in the opposite direction. This concept can also be applied when many angles appear in a scene. I’m always careful to balance the total of the angles leaning in a one direction with a similar number of angles leaning in the opposite direction. Notice in the painting the figure’s right leg and the way it is leaning out towards the lower edge of the piece. If her leg were tucked in like her left then I might have too many forward-facing
angles and the painting as a whole would feel as if it were falling over to the right Of course the goal for me is never overall perfect symmetry, but a general balance is nice. I like to think of it as the standard plot of a film or book. There is usually drama sandwiched between periods of calm. The story takes many turns, but after viewing the plot as a whole we come away with an overall feeling—either a sense of resolve or a lingering tension. It’s the same with composition. Only after I have worked out value pattern and implied line am I ready to start putting down real strokes.
Here are a few more examples of my preliminary value patterns and implied lines for the finished paintings.
(Final) Autumn, 30" x 20" Again, it’s important to keep in mind during setup that there is no “right” or “wrong” way. It’s only wrong if it feels wrong to you. Learn to trust your gut—your artist’s instincts. And since we must trust our instincts, we had better be sure our instincts are sharp. I’ve discovered a few ways to help sharpen my own compositional taste. For example, a while ago I started keeping a scrapbook of what I consider to be the best of the best in composition. This can be easy to do—just sort through your art books, magazines and all things visual for images that are
powerful, at least in part because of amazing composition. Add images of anything that catches your eye, and you’ll soon have a book full of resources you can turn to for inspiration or ideas. To make this exercise effective, I recommend looking through your scrapbook at least daily. Daily review gives you a chance to add new images you may have found, and leaf through earlier images you found helpful. With the exercise, the key is to learn from what you like; to analyze the compositions and find the common denominator in what you like in the compositions of others.
Ana, 14" x 20"
With my own book I was astonished after several months to see a distinct similarity in all the images I collected. There was a pattern in the compositions that I began using in my own work. The images I collected resonated with who I am as an artist. At the same time, I found I was removing images that had at first appealed to me, but no longer did. By the end of those first few months, I had removed around half of my original images. I continued to add new pieces of inspiration even as I removed images I now found boring, and I discovered in the process that my taste in composition was becoming more refinedâ€”I was
now only allowing the very best into the book. Of course I still reference this same book today in my work, and after having it for almost 15 years there is now only a handful of originals that still remain out of the hundreds I originally chose. However you end up breaking it down, composition is, I think, one of the most important and exciting elements we can use in a painting and is worth spending a lifetime to perfect and enjoy. â€˘