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Composition: Understanding it - Using it!

Author: Larry Seiler

When looking at a picture, there exists an unconscious action in the viewer's mind to divide the space in half; to want the visual object's to find balance much the same way equal weight on the end of a teeter totter balances.

The more common method is to place objects of equal mass or weight on each side of the balancing mid-point. This was the practice of the medieval era, and the balance is referred to as "formal" balance or "symmetrical."

While there is absolute certainty that symmetrical balance works, it is considered the obvious solution and in the art world- boring! Asymmetrical balance, also called "informal" balance, looks for unique relationships that appear at first glance as though it ought not to work, yet does. Such creates much appeal and interest, and calls attention to the viewer's eyes. For example, to the left, we have a larger mass closer to the mid-point, with a much smaller positive element far away from center. This is similar to an adult sitting closer to the center of a beam in order to teeter-totter with a child.

Here we see on the left a mass of cool color obviously out of balance as visual weight. The color orange is the opposite of blue on the color wheel, or blue's complementary color. Note how being an obvious difference to the larger mass or a "minority" of sorts, if-you-will, the color orange demands attention. It does not require much to do so, and in demanding that your eye be led to the upper corner away from the much heavier bluish mass, it creates an odd sense of balance. An asymmetrical balance.

Now we will talk about how objects placed carefully and with intent can lead the viewer's eye throughout the picture. Many artists refer to this as "eye path."

I've placed a larger object known as a postive space or shape, or a positive element. Being larger, and with my intent for it to remain the largest of the elements I will place, it is fairly guaranteed that the viewer's eye will enter the picture plane here.

Next, I will add two more objects, one smaller than the next, until there is a subordinate order taking place.

The eyes will follow along an intentional path created by the carefully placed elements.

Now I have created a composition in cool hues, with the larger mass inviting the eyes into the picture plane beginning in the lower left corner (see left image). The eye continues along the path back down toward the lower right corner. Again, note in the right image how placing a small amount of warm color higher and close to the right edge draws enough attention to balance out the complicated shapes.

In constructing a painting, the younger artist is often driven by the desire to prove what his capabilities are by putting in every detail and endless objects, whereas the mature artist uses discretion. It must be understood that the viewer's eye is by nature lazy and anything that is too complicated, confusing, or simply demanding effort to figure it all out is likely not to find the viewer making the effort.

Above, I have placed more and more positive elements in each successive picture. In the first picture, we can fairly easily tell what it is the artist would wish us to look at. In the second, we can see a natural flow or path for the eye to follow. Now, let us assume the third picture is the artist busily adding more elements. Note how it begins to become harder to determine the point of interest, and becomes more confusing. Still, not a problem yet, but we are not finished!

Here we see much more has been added as positive elements. "Positive" in the sense that these are the objects the artist would draw our attention to. I want to explain another phenomena now that happens. Look back at the first couple pictures having less objects.

Note how little the white background draws attention to itself, but in this last picture note how so many positive elements added makes noticing the background white shapes easier to see.

The background shapes are known as the "negative" space, and is that area the artist would not intend to draw attention to. So long as the positive elements are much less in total space in the picture plane, the negative space will act as a resting area or "neutral" zone which demands nothing of the eyes, and makes it easier for the eyes to follow along in scrutinizing the positive elements. As the area of positive elements increases, it becomes harder to follow along, and the strange phenomena that occurs is a flipping. The negative space in essence becomes the positive elements or those spaces/shapes that the eye will be drawn to notice, and the positive elements become like the negative space as having less interest for the eyes. For this reason, some artists believe you should never go beyond a 40%-60% ratio of positive elements to negative.

Here, I took the same last picture and flipped it upside-down, and turned it into a greyscale to make it easier to see how the negative spaces as shapes are almost easier to look at than the darker values.

Now I want to show you an exercise for analysis and observation that I teach my painting students. We will be using a commissioned portrait I did here, though I usually bring a gazillion art magazines and plop them in front of the students to choose images from.
This allows us to see more clearly how the artist composed elements, both positive and negative. It helps us put a finger on why one painting seems to work, while another does not.

An artist may wish to cause a feeling of tension, and purposefully put elements out of pictoral balance.

Does this piece seem to work? Do you find the eye naturally following shapes, diagonals, and working itself back into the picture plane, or does the eye easily
leave the image?

Now, I'd like us to take a look at a bit more of a complicated composition that I have done which at first observation appears to ignore the dangers of having too many positive elements. If we count the elements as objects, then yes, there is a great deal happening. However, if we break them down into values alone, or even similarity in color, we have simplified that which is complex into an easier to view composition. Squint your eyes, and see that there exists basically about 3 values of light and dark.

If you have problem squinting, let me convert this image into a greyscale image, so that the values are easier to judge.

Do a scribble drawing as I demonstrated, and judge the positive and negative elements compositionally. Is there a good sense of the eye finding ease moving throughout the picture? Do the shapes invite the eye to flow up..over, then down, across, etc.? As complicated as the piece appears to be does it feel difficult to make sense of the work?

The sky reflection was very important to keep the piece from monotony, and to tie the painting together. Note that the same cool color and value have been used to place highlights on the cattail grasses, spots on the water, flowers along the lower shore's edge.

Well, that's it. I hope you'll chew over the information I've put together for you here in this lesson, and begin to look for a sense of design in other's works as well as begin to expect it in your own. See how other's succeed, and imitate that. Know when other's fail, so you do not have to repeat their mistakes!

© Larry Seiler
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