Sunday, March 2, 2014

Thoughts on Visual Design and Composition

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. `Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?' he asked. `Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'   -- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

If The White Rabbit were discussing painting composition: where to begin?  How to begin?

For the past couple of years, I've been searching for guidelines/rules/suggestions/NYFCN(Name Your Favourite Composition Noun) on how to compose a painting. I found and studied the 7 elements and the 8 principles, centres of interest, Fibonacci, golden ratio/rectangle/spot, the rule of thirds, value studies, and various composition checklists.  I located more than 100 websites with design or visual composition information.  Some very good; others not so good.  I don’t know how many art books I read in addition to the 30 or so books I purchased.  In all these resources, I never found a visual compositional framework until I obtained a copy of Ian Roberts' Mastering Composition, via my local library.

Early in his book, Ian introduces The Foundation of the Painting, and illustrations that contains the five planes of a picture.
  1. The Dynamics of the Picture Plane. Each proportion and scale of every painting-square, vertical or horizontal-has a special dynamic that affects and is affected by every mark or shape you put on it. The edges of your picture plane are the four most important lines in your composition since they, in the most basic sense, define the foundation you are starting with.
  2. Armature. The fundamental lines of direction or flow that connects the man compositional movement to the picture plane.  
  3. Abstract Shapes. The building blocks of the painting. Each shape is interacting with every other shape. This really is where the success or failure of the painting lies.
  4. Subjects. Bottles, mountains, kids on the beaches/
  5. Details. Highlights, wrought-iron street lamps and almost anything else painted with a little pointed brush.
Ian comments on picture plane 1-3: "This is where the real artistic thinking has to occur before you start to paint", and on points 4-5: "This is often where inexperienced painters focus their attention. The result is a lack of artistic clarity and drama in their paintings".

This is where I first started to understand visual composition. These five bullet points present a nearly complete visual design framework.  When I went back and reviewed Whitney, Brandt, Webb, Wade, Couch and others, I could see they were saying much the same thing, but with the clarity nor as concisely as Ian states it. This was a major learning event for me.  I knew I now had a framework for composition that I understood and could apply to my paintings. The proverbial light bulb was lit. Decide the format and size (Plane 1), select and apply an abstract armature (Plane 2), block in the major abstract shapes (Plane 3), refine these shapes into subjects (Plane 4) and add the details (Plane 5). Absolutely Fantastic! Five steps. Big steps no doubt, but a framework I understood and one I could work inside of.

Just as there is a spectrum of techniques and materials to make art, there exists a spectrum of composition methodologies and design tools.  This is one that works for me.  To the next person, this may appear as so much dross.  As they say in the promo ads “Your mileage may very” (YMMV).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mastering Composition

Here is a review I wrote a couple of years ago about one of the better books on visual composition.
Mastering Composition - techniques and principles to dramatically improve your painting, by Ian Roberts.  ISBN No. 978-1-58180-924-4

After a brief introduction, Roberts define: “What Is Composition” with a illustration of five planes of a painting:
  • The format: square, landscape, portrait..., “The Four Most Important Compositional Lines”, the edge of your painting.
  • Armature: the direction or flow of the main movement of the painting
  • Abstract Shapes: the main masses, their relationship to each other, and their interaction.
  • Subjects: Bottles, mountains, people, a river...
  • Details: A street lamp, a pearl earring, a distant figure, trees.

With reference to points 1-3 Ian said: "This is where the real artistic thinking has to occur before you start to paint". Points 4-5: "This is where inexperienced painters focus their attention. The result is a lack of artistic clarity and drama in their paintings".

Chapter One discusses Armatures with a study of the Masters, a discussion of Eight Common Armatures, twelve composition basics, and ends with a demonstration. This chapter also includes a very brief excursion into "The Four Most Important Compositional Lines".

Cropping and Framing are covered in Chapter Two with thoughts on Value Masses, Viewpoints, use of the viewfinder and another demonstration on planning big masses. Chapter Three discusses Color Shapes, the Color Wheel with a discussion of flow in the picture plane in Chapter Four. The accompanying DVD is also introduced.

Chapters Five and Six are the inclusion of almost mandatory padding in a 'Gallery of Greats' and a gallery of the authors paintings.

The DVD provides an animated view of changes in color and value that demonstrates the author ideas on composition. There are two sections. The first section with commentary, illustrates how changes in value or color affect the composition of a picture. The second section is identical without the commentary.

Personal assessment of content: 
  • The good: A great overview of composition. The simplicity of the framework of the 5 picture planes was a major learning point for me 
  • The Bad: Doesn't follow through on the overview as explained in the introduction. It was a perfect table of contents for a book on composition . 
  • The Ugly: Unnecessary padding of the “Gallery of Greats” and single media (oil) view of painting.

In his introduction, Ian Roberts nails composition with his 5 visual planes. I just wish he would have used this introduction as an outline for the remainder of the book. Some of the assumptions and comments regarding non-oil media are incorrect. Composition subjects are mostly limited to landscapes and still life. Finally, I would also suggest that the Elements and Principles of Design, which is not mentioned in this book, needs to be added.

The DVD, in my opinion, did not contribute significant additional material.

Personal prejudice: I not particularly endeared to the authors painting style and that distracts from my own learning experience. YMMV

Suitability for beginners, intermediate or advanced: Intermediate onward

Score on a scale 1-5 (1=poor 5=excellent): Best book I've found so far on composition, but limitations and omissions as noted suggest a score of 3-4

That was my initial assessment of Ian’s book.  In a separate discussion on Wet Canvas art forum I opined: “Ian Roberts' ‘Mastering Composition’ is the only book I've found that provided a framework for visual composition. Before the first chapter he defines ‘What is Composition’. After reading these two pages I knew I now had a framework for composition that I understood and could apply to my paintings. The proverbial light bulb was lit. Decide the format and size, apply an armature, block in the abstract shapes, refine these into subjects and add the details. Great! Five steps. Big steps no doubt, but a framework I understood.

Before Ian’s book, I had read and re-read numerous articles on the 7 elements and the 8 principles of design, but lacked a framework, a gestalt, an integration of the elements and principles.  Individually each made sense, but how did I apply them to creating a painting?  Ian pulled it all together for me.  All was good in paradise except the more I painted and the more I studied composition and design, the more I realized that I needed more than the 5 picture planes.

What about a colour plan, and had I considered the mood I wanted to express?  Indeed, what was about the scene before me that stirred me to paint it in the first place?  I needed another picture plane before the 5 that Ian described.  A zero plane.  The emotional plane.  Before I did the first preliminary thumbnail sketch, I needed to note down something about the emotions I felt about the painting I was going to create.  I also needed to consider the value range.  Should I use a high tone with a broad range or would it be better suited to a muted low tone value plan.  I also needed to give attention to what I’m going to leave out of the scene.

Not all of these items can be resolved immediately but a brief note to myself is a good starting point for any painting and it might contain a title once finished.  On the other end of a painting, once the details have been added, the mat and frame are needed to complete any painting: Picture Plane 6, for a total of 7 picture planes and we still need to consider the process of getting started.  No one ever said that design and composition was either simple or easy.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Castle Butte, Montana

Each month many of the forums at post a monthly 'challenge'. One of the members posts one or more photographs and the challenge is to produce a painting in you own personal style and media. Some of the challenges are media specific as in the Watercolor Studio forum. Others are open to all mediums with their challenges directed towards a particular subject such as Southwest and Western Art forum.

I usually try to visit the Southwest and Western Art forum on a regular basis and I was attracted to the June challenge posting. Unfortunately my muse didn't speak to me until it was July! Here is my humble efforts to paint Castle Butte, Montana.

Castle Butte, Montana 11x15 inches, Watercolour and Acrylic Ink or Saunders-Waterford 200# CP

Saturday, April 14, 2012

An Abstract Sleeping Giant

It the beginning of the month and many of the WetCanvas forums will be posting a 'challenge' to be painted. I first checked the watercolour forum. No. I'm not going to paint a flower, or a least not right away. Maybe later. Next I check the Southwest and Western Art forum. 10 scenic pictures of the Helena area of Montana but nothing that reaches out and says to me: “Paint me!”. Maybe I'll have better luck on some of the other forums.

A couple of days later and I still haven't found inspiration in any of the April challenges. Instead, I'm working on another of my Tuscan cityscape series. I review S&WA again. Maybe there is a picture in the rocks, the last photograph and then again maybe there isn't.

Eventually I check the photographs in the April challenge on the Southwest and Western Art forum for a third time. This time I carefully read the accompanying text and google 'the sleeping giant' Montana. I spend a hour or so dreaming about the second photograph in this post. I like the hard diagonal ramp for left to right in this photograph. Then there are the strong contrasts of the mid-ground hill and the dark trees that give rise to some interesting abstract shapes. Finally there is the sleeping giant itself in the distance. OK. Foreground, mid-ground and a background plus the sky. All the elements I need for a landscape painting. I'll just stir into the mix in a little Frank Lloyd Wright a'la Talissin West from Milton Sticker's Design through Abstraction and see what develops.

The starting point:
Using this reference photograph, I made a full size (15x22) pencil sketch of the scene.

I taped this sketch down to my painting table and placed a second layer of tracing paper over it. My painting table is white, or mostly white so the sketch shows through without much problem. I used a small straight edge and a soft lead pencil to re-trace the sketch while removing most of the curves. I also added or emphasised some of the background mountains and sharpened their peaks.
In the final overlay, I further emphasised some additional lines, added some sky lines and the abstracted clouds, and the foreground abstract shape. This image was transferred to the watercolour paper by blacking the back of the sheet with a soft lead pencil and tracing the major lines with a blunt lead. This provided a light image that I could use to lay down the sky lines, profile of the mountains and the foreground lines in India Ink and black acrylic paint. Additional lines were added directly on the watercolour sheet with pens and acrylic paint pens.
Once the ink and acrylic was dry, watercolour was added in a series of washes to complete the image.

Faber-Castell Pitt India Ink pens Black and Sepia, Decocolor Acrylic Black paint pen, and Daniel Smith watercolours on 200# Suanders-Waterford CP. 15x22

 I hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Westminster Sunrise

I just love the Thames and Westminster is one of my favourite places. Maybe it a bit of obsessive compulsive feeling for this area, but I do keep returning to it in my paintings. It's usually full of tourists during the summer months. So much to see. So much to do. The south bank, London Eye, the Tate, the Houses of Parliament, Whitehall, Trafalgar Sq., the National, the Mall and Buckingham Palace and many more places to go, to see, to paint.

Earlier this spring, I decided to paint a skyline of Westminster bridge and the Houses of Parliament but with a twist. I had a photo of a watercolour of Venice painted in a style similar to Charles Reed. My thoughts were to use that painting style on the upper buildings and blend this into the darkness of the river. Here is that early spring attempt.

The buildings turned out OK but overall it was a bit of a failure. The Thames and Westminster Bridge disappeared into the blue gunk at the bottom of the painting. After some thought, I knew what I wanted and I knew that I needed to do a couple of value studies.

The first study (top-left) was a simple three value study. This solid, non-gradated study isn't going in the direction I wanted. The second study (top-right) with a gradation from right to left and somewhat from top to bottom exactly the image I wanted to paint. The third (bottom-left) done with a sky wash failed again. The last study in colour also is moving in the direction I wanted to go.

So I've done the studies and I know where I want to take the painting. Just a quick light sketch and I'm can start to sling paint. Right? Wrong! The original painting and the four studies stayed pined to the wall for 3 three months before I decided to take them down and have another go at this subject. I think it's an improvement over the original. I also think there is still room for improvement. Maybe I will revisit it in a couple of months and maybe I'll be happy with the results and maybe fish will learn to fly.  Enjoy

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Abstracting a landscape

A few days ago, Kate Withers started a new thread on the Composition and Design forum of WetCanvas: 'breaking the rule of centering' (sic). She explained that she likes a centred composition and doesn't defer to the many art books and teachers that tell you not to centre your centre of interest. Kate included her recently complete painting 'Queen of Spades Range'.

I was hooked at first sight. I just knew that I had to paint my vision of this scene. My compulsion was a slight overdose of Frank Lloyd Wright via a student of his: Milton Stricker and his online book on "Design through Abstraction – The Wright Source to Art and Architecture". If you are struggling as I am with trying to see and paint the abstract shapes of nature, I recommend reading this excellent publication. It's not all about art and abstraction, but the images alone make it a worth while investment of the time needed to traverse this document.

Google (Queen of Spades Range) turned out to be no help at all. Not a single photograph of this area which surprised me so I had to work from Kate's painting. I cropped the image she had posted and then stretched it back to a square composition. From this image I drew a light pencil sketch on 200# Saunders-Waterford CP watercolour paper. Using a ruler I straightened the curves with darker lines, some of which I extended beyond that lines of the original sketch. I then used some recently acquired Decocolor Acrylic paint markers to trace over the straight lines. I used red for the mountain and black for the lower slopes.

I turned the painting so that the sky was tilted downward. First a wash of water with just a hint of Raw Senna, followed immediately by another wash with a bit more Raw Senna and finally while still very wet, a third rich wash of Raw Senna. I then removed the tilt and encouraged the paint to granulate by shaking it slightly. It was then allowed to dry completely. The mountains got a similar treatment using Ultramarine Blue with some darker blues dropped in after the main washes. The foreground received a wash of Raw Senna with some darker yellows added to give contrast. I hope you like it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Northville Art House: 6th Annual Member Exhibition

Art House, Northville, Michigan

If you happen to be in the Detroit area between February 3 and 18, 2012, and have a spare hour, drop in on the Art House in Northville and see the 6th annual members show. I was amazed at the quality of the work considering that it is a non-juried show. Most of the works are for sale and judging by the number of sales during the hour or so I was there on opening night, I would expect that a large percentage of he paintings on display will be sold.

Art House
215 W Cady St. (just north of 7-mile and Sheldon)
Northville Michigan
Gallery Hours 1-5 pm Wednesday-Saturday

If you miss this excellent mini-show, there is a sale, 'Art from the Attic' on the evening of Friday, February 24, and during the day on the Saturday and Sunday. I expect some keen prices. Joan gave me the heads up that an Alexander Calder lithograph is being offered in this show-sale. Not too shabby for a small town art gallery.