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).

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