The Frustrating Art of Composition (Part 2)

The Frustrating Art of Composition (Part 2)

Monday, February 3, 2014 - 14:20

Composition is key. Last month I talked about why it is so important and began discussing some general compositional principles. This month, I will discuss a few more tactics that can be used to create satisfying compositions, and I will also talk about a few artists who have made original and innovative compositions a feature of their work.

Directing the path of the viewer’s gaze through a scene is a key aspect of composition. It helps to not only create a sense of balance, but also encourages the viewer to soak in the entirety of the painting. Good eye-leading prevents the viewer from both getting bogged down in one particular area, to the detriment of the rest of the picture, and from having their gaze directed straight off the edge of the painting. Different techniques can be employed by cunning artists to achieve this.

A clever use of tone helps direct the passage of the viewer’s eye over a painting. Light tones can help create focal points, whilst dark tones placed towards the edge can encourage the eye to remain within the four corners of a painting and not wander off elsewhere. “The Nude” by American impressionist William Paxton illustrates this nicely. Light flesh tones create the focal point at the small of the back, while the dark tones toward the bottom and right-hand edges create a sort of visual barricade, ensuring that the viewer’s gaze always returns to the figure in the centre.

Paxton’s placement of the various elements in “The Nude” also serves to create a visually pleasing scene. The eye is led in a circular fashion, starting at the lower back, moving up towards the head, along the outstretched arm, and finally returning to the back via the highlight running across the top of the navy blanket.

Tom Roberts’ “A Break Away” is another painting which springs to mind as a masterpiece of eye-leading. In Roberts’ painting, the eye is drawn first to the horseman at the bottom right (which is the painting’s focal point), up the right-hand side to the clouds forming a cross in the sky, left to the dust rising up through the trees, and finally to the right-hand corner, following the sheep as they run towards the horseman.

While all great artists have mastered composition to some extent, some painters have gone further, pushing the limits of traditional compositional principles and making challenging compositions one of the hallmarks of their work. Brett Whiteley, for example, used space to extraordinary effect, combining areas of vast nothingness with intense bursts of activity. In “The Boxing Match”, he shoves the isolated figures hard up against the edges of the painting, and leaves the interior empty, whilst in “Woman in Bath”, all of the activity is located in the lower right hand corner.

The lesser known French impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte, created original compositions through the use of interesting vantage points and angular perspective.

In his famous painting “Paris Street, Rainy Day”, the buildings in the distance are viewed from what appears to be an impossibly low angle when compared to the couple in the foreground, and he brazenly divides the scene in two with a green lamp post. The better known French impressionist, Claude Monet, was also innovative in his own right, and in his Giverny paintings he became one of the first artists to remove the horizon line from landscape paintings.

So, as I have endeavoured to explain, composition is hugely important. For me, I am just trying to get my compositions “right” and avoid having to start again because of some fatal compositional flaw. Maybe one day I will go further and start creating innovative compositions in my own right!

Bruna & Bruna online storytelling