‘And after drawing comes composition. A well-composed painting is half done’
Imagine a lovely drawing of a house with a path meandering up to it, trees either side in careful balance, a classic landscape scene that just ‘works’.
Where is this masterpiece? The Tate? The National?
No, stuck to your fridge door, created by a 4-year-old.
As a young child, visual harmony and composition comes naturally.
Children seem to start out with a near perfect sense of composition if you have small children or are lucky enough to have any of your old drawings you created as a child I’m sure you’ll find the same to be true.
Younger children see the edges of the paper as a whole frame to fill, and they often fill them with a great sense of balance.
When you start to grow up, you know – really old like 9 or 10, that’s where the drawing problems start. The focus shifts and is aimed away from composition to the pursuit of something far more important, where the accolades are huge and respect even greater, the quest for the ultimate prize …… realism.
A reframing of priorities
The importance that was once placed on the edges of the page, the ‘wholeness’ of the piece are disregarded in favor of singular objects, and the representation of these objects as accurately and as detailed as you can possibly make them.
The prize is no longer for composition, a 10-year-old doesn’t care, the focus is on accuracy and realism especially ‘hard things to draw’ like hands or faces. But the ultimate goal, the real award winner is this….If you can draw a crumpled can of Coke realistically you are king of the art room.
The simplest way to start
Once you have diverted from the path of composition in childhood it is hard to get it back, and you will have a natural tendency to place objects in the centre of a piece, this is due to the strong symbol systems formed in childhood.
Lowry embraced this simplistic quality resulting in his paintings looking childlike.
It is not only through the handling of the paint, but the composition of his painting where everything is biased towards the center. If you want to make the jump towards a more sophisticated composition there are a few things to consider.
Choosing a format, square or rectangle
A format is just another word for shape, and this comes down to personal preference. From squares, rectangle, panoramic. The easiest shape to create a balanced composition is a rectangle, just like an A4 piece of paper.
The rectangular format: this is an absolute classic and extremely flexible format. When a rectangle is displayed with its shorter side across the top it is known as ‘portrait format’ and with its longer side across the top ‘landscape format’.
The square format: This can work extremely well or very badly. You very rarely see a square old master painting. This is because it is harder to balance a painting that has lots of elements within, for example, a collection of figures in a landscape within a square format. It can look awkward very easily. However, using a square format for a more contemporary subject, an abstract or a minimalist seascape, can be very effective.
3 is the magic number
- A composition is about variety just “don’t make any two things the same”
- The “Rule of Thirds” can be key to creating balance in landscape painting
- Make sure the shapes, spaces, and gaps between objects are all different.
1. The nature of something’s ingredients or constituents; the way in which a whole or mixture is made up.
2. The action of putting things together; formation or construction.
Composition can be confusing and hard to pin down, you don’t really notice good composition in a painting it is just there, which is why it is one of my 7 principles of painting . The dictionary definition above doesn’t necessarily help us. ‘the action of putting things together‘ well, this is true but the actions of putting things together so they ‘work’ is harder to explain.
If colour mixing is about relationships, the warm to the cool, the bright to the muted then composition is about variety- busy to calm, large and small.
Don’t make any two things the same. If you’ve got a row of fence posts going into the distance – check the gaps, they should all be different.
If you have a simple still life with a jug and some fruit – check the heights, they should all be different, check the width, they should all be different.
This seems very straightforward, and it is. It is just a simple way of analyzing your initial set up. Is this method true for all paintings? No, but the more you look, the more you will notice this to be true.
The rule of thirds
What is the Rule of Thirds?
The rule of thirds is very commonplace in photography. It instantly helps to add tension, balance and interest to your photograph but applies equally to the composition in painting. When creating a landscape composition this is what you do:
1. Divide your page horizontally into 3.
2. Decide whether to have your horizon on the top third or the bottom third (the bottom third is always easier to balance, it helps to make the sky look vast and imposing).
3. Split the vertical into thirds.
4. Align areas of focus at the intersection between the lines.
5. Marvel at your genius
You can see in the Chardin painting above how there are numerous examples of aligning objects within the rule of thirds, the top of the jug aligns with top horizontal line and sits butted up to the vertical line, even the top of the funny little pot on the far left side sits on the bottom horizontal line, to name a few.
Pro tip: If you have a Mac, iphoto does all the work for you. It can change the size and the rule of third lines are already on the screen for you. Align, resize, repeat.
How your digital camera can help your composition
Your digital camera probably has a viewfinder function built in, often called grid. It again overlays the rule of thirds over your image, just align important compositional elements along these lines or their intersections and voila… instant painting.
A word of warning
Rule of thirds can work very well within a rectangle, however, for landscapes squares can be harder to create a balanced painting even when sticking to the ‘rules’.
A Brief History
The rule of thirds was first written down by John Thomas Smith in 1797. In his book Remarks on Rural Scenery:
“Rule of thirds”, (if I may be allowed so to call it)…, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two : Again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives.”
If you put the principle of ‘no two spaces the same’ with the ‘rule of thirds’ you can create pleasing compositions very easily. If we analyze the quote below by Sir Joshua Reynolds we can see how both these points are touched upon.
“Two distinct, equal lights, should never appear in the same picture : One should be principal, and the rest sub-ordinate, both in dimension and degree : Unequal parts and gradations lead the attention easily from part to part, while parts of equal appearance hold it awkwardly suspended”
Sir Joshua Reynolds
This last comment is the key, nobody wants a painting ‘awkwardly suspended’. He also comments on the importance of contrast when creating a harmony to your work:
“And to give the utmost force and solidity to your work, some part of the picture should be as light, and some as dark as possible : These two extremes are then to be harmonized and reconciled to each other.”
Sir Joshua Reynolds
The golden mean
Classical paintings had a very scientific and structured approach, with lots of confusing things like root rectangles and golden means. They are often more mathematical and planned out than you would ever imagine….whooahh there, we are moving into complicated classical territory which deserves a proper explanation, which I will address in a future post.
The key point to remember with composition is about variety – just as Reynolds says ‘Unequal parts and gradations lead the attention easily from part to part’ so add variety in your pieces and start with a rectangle canvas.
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The rule of thirds in landscape painting