The Frustrating Art of Composition (Part 1)

The Frustrating Art of Composition (Part 1)

Friday, January 3, 2014 - 15:02

Composition is a pain in the neck. It is an infuriating yet essential part of the painting process.  Get it right and nobody generally notices, but get it wrong and no matter how brilliant the other aspects of your work are, your painting is done for. 

Composition refers to the way in which the particular components of a painting have been arranged. In relation to my own paintings, this means the way in which I organise the various elements of a landscape, be it hills, houses, clouds or water. 

I am a long way off mastering composition. I frequently do battle with a particular painting - rearranging various elements, reshaping forms - only to reach the painful conclusion that I will never be able to make it work. At the moment, I paint over roughly fifty percent of the paintings I start due to some sort of compositional deficiency. 

What makes composition especially frustrating, at least for me, is that it is rarely the reason why I love a piece of art. When I think about Van Gogh's landscapes, for example, it is the striking, in-your-face colour and thick dashes of paint that I find inspiring. The compositions work, and clearly play an important role, but they are not what makes a Van Gogh a Van Gogh. They act rather as a foundation; as a means of showing off the other aspects of the artist's voice. Of course, this is not always the case, and there are many artists whose compositional choices were a hallmark of their work.  

So, what are some of the general rules about how to successfully compose a painting? First, you need a focus point - some feature that stands out and attracts the viewer's attention, drawing them into the picture. The placement of the focal point is very important, and relates to the way in which you lead the viewer's eye over your picture. Put it bang in the centre and the eye will simply want to rest on it. It will not move across the image, and the minute it does begin to wonder it will be drawn straight back to the centre. Conversely, put it at the edge and you will lead the eye straight off the painting. A general guide is to divide the painting into thirds horizontally and vertically, and to place the focal point around one of the four points where these divisions intersect.  

In my painting above (one of the lucky ones that didn't get painted over!), the focal point at the top of the visible part of the trunk of the largest tree is located roughly at the top left intersection. 

In Part 2 of this blog I will discuss eye movement and other compositional devices in greater detail, as well as artists that pushed the traditional boundaries of composition and who truly mastered this difficult aspect of painting. 

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