Posts Tagged ‘composition’

On the Road to Discovery: Abstraction to eliminate distraction

Monday, May 1st, 2017

I find that it’s all too easy to get so caught up in the literality of a subject that the key elements of the abstract compositional design are overlooked.  One way I hoped to overcome that tendency – and train myself to do so habitually – was to focus solely on the abstract design, if necessary sacrificing detail and other minor elements for the sake of emphasizing the overall compositional design.

I decided to look at line, value, saturation changes, interplay among hues, and contrasts of all these elements to see if they alone, without extraneous detail, could capture my concept of the subject.  Could these elements alone express my primary impression?  I felt it was a question worth investigating.

A Japanese-style iris garden provided a promising subject to play with.  The angularity of the man-made element of a boardwalk across a garden pond contrasted in an interesting way with the curving sweep of the pond’s edge and the natural, rounded forms of the interspersed plantings.  I also took advantage of the boardwalk as an opportunity to introduce (and exaggerate) greater hue and temperature contrasts beyond those minor temperature biases found simply in variations of the dominant hue.

"Watergarden Boardwalk" (#170308wh)

“Watergarden Boardwalk” (#170308wh)

The original 8”x10” composition incorporated far too much detail outside of the focal area.  Although the extraneous shapes and lines helped to balance the overall composition, they were superfluous and distracting in terms of the concept.

"Watergarden Boardwalk" (#170308wv)

“Watergarden Boardwalk” (#170308wv)

Cropping the composition down to 7”x5” (and changing the orientation from horizontal to vertical) eliminated most of the unnecessary information.  The encircling lines of the shoreline and the white boardwalk enfolding the plantings were sacrificed.  But the crop now emphasized the boardwalk’s angularity in contrast to the rounded shapes, thus enhancing my original concept.

Re-composition from a Photo

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Photographs are a great help as reference material when you can’t take time to paint a scene on location. But even a good photograph doesn’t necessarily translate directly into a great painting. The composition of his photo, which I shot last year during a brief stop at a winery in the Provence region of France, was improved with a few simple tweeks. I’ll show you here how I handled it.


Some of the manifold problems I recognized in this photograph related to the fence, which formed a blocky, double horizontal line directly through the vertical center of the image. This created a barrier that effectively blocked a viewer from entering the upper half of the composition. Although there was actually an opening in the fence, it was virtually hidden behind the grape vat. I considered removing the fence entirely but decided that it could be used to better advantage.

Besides these problems, I wanted to feature the grape vat, but its dark bulk attracted less attention than the sunlit building in the distance. The vertical utility poles added nothing of value to the scene; nor did the bare branches of the olive tree on the left. And the vat positioned directly on the road edge created an unfortunate tangential point of contact with the grass verge.

120803 The Grape Vat

I began by changing the angle of the fence and then relocated the gate opening to permit visual entry into the field beyond. Lowering the top rail permitted me to extend the vat high enough to create a visual bridge from the grassy verge in the foreground to the field beyond the fence. The unnecessary utility poles were easy to omit.

The row of olive trees on the left formed a visual arrow, leading the eye toward the building, which, despite its isolation and contrasting color, was not my intended focal point. Rather than changing the shape, I incorporated it to help carry the viewer’s eye through the painting: I lowered the value of the field behind the upper left corner of the vat to carry the viewer’s eye from the vat into the olive row, pointing to the building, where the multiple roof lines draw the eye down to the yellowish pathway, which returns us to the gate, the fence and road, and ultimately back to the vat.

I reduced the intensity of the building’s colors to de-emphasize it, and increased both the value contrast and saturation of the vat and its rusted strapping to create a strong focal area in the foreground. Simply repositioning the vat farther down onto the grass verge eliminated the tangent problem.

So … What’s the Point?

Monday, October 1st, 2012

Sometimes I am moved by a feeling of awe or peace and want to depict the scene that created that sensation. A sense of peace can come from a landscape that is pleasant but unfortunately unexceptional, with little or nothing to suggest a focal point. What’s a painter to do? For one thing, an artist is not just a painter but a creator. An artist creates with aesthetics in mind.

120506 Still Morning

So I create a focal point. Is the scene a vaguely defined hill against a clear sky, with a lake in the foreground? Try to imagine the picture, “Still Morning” (#120506), above, without the moored boat. Bor-ing!

However, I can create a more interesting sky, with clouds reflected on the surface of the water. Or I can create ripples in the water to suggest a bit of movement. Or I can add some element, such as an animal or a boat, that will draw the eye. The idea is to create a break in the monotony, to provide a purpose and a point of interest for the viewer to seek out and think about.

If I can’t find a focal point already in the scene, it’s time to create one to build the rest of the composition around.

… But what if there’s too much in a scene to choose from? What then? Check back next time when I address the problem of overabundance.

Just my style, Part 3

Friday, October 1st, 2010

In Part 2 we considered the role that mastery of mechanics (or skills) and the medium itself play in style.

Cayman Clusters

This time we will look at how style reflects the artist’s personal aesthetic—sense of balance, composition, structure, and use of space and color to visually interpret the subject for a viewer.  This, too, becomes an element of her style.  Yes, it can change over time as she learns and develops as an artist, and as she faces challenging personal situations that alter her outlook, either temporarily or long-term.  Even changing health conditions can cause a style to evolve, as materials may be used differently or techniques adjusted to accommodate an artist’s physical limitations.

So it’s easy to see that “style” depends on a wide variety of factors.  Although I can learn from other artists by observing and attempting to reproduce the effects they have successfully achieved, I can never develop my unique style by imitating someone else’s style.

To successfully find my own style, I need to approach a project with integrity, trusting that my natural inclinations in how to express my feelings and understandings of the subject are as valid and acceptable as any other artist’s could be.  It may not yet be as evolved, as mature as someone else’s, but it is just as valid a “style.”  By fighting my natural inclinations regarding my approach to the subject, or by mimicking a different artist’s “look,” I risk compromising my own style. Unless I remain faithful to my own style, I can produce, at best, only inferior imitations of someone else’s work; and I forfeit the style that would be unique to me.

Next week I’ll post an example of what happened one time when I second-guessed myself, disregarding my original approach, and encountered problems as a result.

Composition contrivance

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Rudyard Kipling wrote, “I am the cat who walks by himself and all places are alike to me.”  A cat also has definite opinions about who he knows and doesn’t want to get to know, how much sun he’ll tolerate in his eyes, and whether he’ll just plain “wanna” or not.  Multiply that cat by two, and it’s a considerable challenge to shoot a paintable composition in a single photograph.

Boots & Bandit

For this commission, the two cats, Boots and Bandit, could not be persuaded to sit together in the sunlit chair that had been placed for the purpose.  Bandit, who had never met me before, didn’t trust strangers, so sat, haughty and uncooperative, glaring at me … when he deigned to sit at all.  Boots took off on his own to lie down between two other chairs, in the shade.  Not that I could blame him.

When being held/posed/manhandled in the blinding sunlight, both cats kept their eyes closed.  Yet their owner requested that I show the characteristic eye color of each of them.  I knew it would be hopeless if we continued the photo shoot in the sun, so we changed tactics and allowed the cats to run around in the open shade of the enclosed lanai.  I tried to position myself in one location from which I could capture their antics, wherever they moved.  And I took shot after shot after shot.  (What a cost savings digital photography is over film in such circumstances!)

Eventually I managed to get a good photograph of each of the cats individually.  Selecting the best photos of each cat, I repositioned them in relation to each other, through digital magic, to create my primary reference.

Aside from ensuring that their relative sizes were appropriate, my main concern in matching up the animals’ photos was that they should be lit from the same direction.  Fortunately, I had two good photos that were lit from the right, though Boots was largely in semi-shade and Bandit was sidelit by brilliant sunlight.  Degree of light can be altered in the painting process, but the contouring that directional light and resulting shadow creates on a subject is considerably harder to adjust.

I chose a few back-up photos of each cat to use as supplemental reference material, not only for color, lighting adjustments, and variations on pose, but also for that important and telling detail, their eyes.

This is when I really appreciate Adobe for having created that powerful photo-manipulation program called Photoshop.  It took me a while to learn; I still use cheat-sheets and refer to how-to books, but the program allows me to set up and adjust compositions on my computer screen that were unobtainable in life.