Notes on the formal elements of my process that I demonstrated this last week are below. It could be expanded, to be sure. But these checkpoints are things you might question when you are struggling with a piece. While I’m painting they are considered automatically and quickly. I don’t think about them. I react first then assess later—very important in keeping the immediacy and the authenticity in the process.
They are not hard and fast rules. The very act of creating suggests that rules are broken or made anew. And as I’ve always said in our class, the only rule is that there are no rules. For almost every one of these guidelines you will find an artist who did the opposite and created a masterpiece. Use as needed. We will practice one or two of them in class this week. Have unfinished work or “underpaintings” at hand of which you are willing to abandon control.
Choose a subject that is visually interesting to provide the building blocks of good structure. A light source from one direction giving a strong sense of highlight and shadow is one thing that can make for interest. A variety of values amassed on one side balanced by strong a single, strong contrasted shape on the other also makes for a dynamic composition. But don’t forget to fall a little bit in love. Be aware of what caused you to consider the subject in the first place and choose knowing it might be a long-term relationship.
Scale of subject and the substrate can make its own statement. Consider a simple form like a teacup (or a pair of pliers, something I’ve done) painted to be the only subject on a 4 ft by 5 ft canvas. That makes one kind of statement. Then imagine that same subject reduced in size within a large field, either empty, or filled with pattern, or texture, or other shapes and objects surrounding it. Same palette, same values, same subject–very different statement. What about a petite substrate? It all says something. By enlarging or reducing the size of objects within a piece you communicate a level of importance about them.
Be deliberate about how your image fits into your format. Be conscious. Don’t choose a horizontal format for a vertical composition unless you’re doing it intentionally. You might enjoy the challenge be re-formatting on the fly, but don’t get stuck wondering why it isn’t working when you haven’t even noticed that your subject is long and tall and your paper is short and wide. LOOK at you image. Crop it with a view finder or your fingers or tape and understand how it fills up and relates to the four sides of your substrate. If you are working on paper you can crop later too. I like to challenge myself by trying to make a painting work in the parameters I have in front of me, keeping it more about the process than the product. But cropping is legit. A local artist (now diseased) Barbara Bartholomew, used to unroll a large swath of canvas on the floor, paint the whole thing, then crop the most dynamic compositions from the whole and stretch and frame them. She was very successful.
The way shapes are placed on a 2-dimensional surface lends levels of importance, meaning, and balance to a work of art. A subject cropped by the edges of the paper or canvas will usually add more visual interest than placing the whole subject within the frame, as will making a single object fill the entire space. (Think O’Keefe) However, “objects that barely touch each other, or barely brush the borders of your artwork causes instability”. (Paraphrased from Dan Duhrkoop, a west coast artist and art writer.)
5. A Good Composition leads the Viewers eye around the page
Lead the viewer’s eyes around the page, to the center and to the outlying areas. And remember-Western eyes read from left to right. Avoid divisions of halves and quarters. My natural aesthetic tends to divide the page in quarters, it’s something that I’m always reminding myself to avoid. I’ve made it work, but it makes composing more difficult than it needs to be.
6. Positive and negative space
Equal parts of positive and negative space is thought to add stability and harmony to a composition, but can also add to boredom. If you’re struggling, see if balancing positive and negative will help, or not. Or perhaps allow every shape you deem positive to come forward or recede dependent on value and temperature? That’s an abstract approach.
Contrast is your friend. Without it a work of art is liable to be less interesting. (Paraphrased from Dan Duhrkoop.) There are exceptions (think Morandi for example). Contrast draws the eye. If you want the viewer’s eye to move around the composition make sure that an area of contrast is not unintentionally drawing the eye back to one spot. Utilize it to create rhythm, direction, focal point and a dynamic foreground.
Color is seductive and causes emotional reaction in people with its very existence. But to make it speak in a composition can be tricky—too much dilutes impact. Unbalanced intense colors create unintentional eddies that are hard for the eye to escape. Then, of course there is the ongoing avoidance of “mud puddles”. But one of its most seductive attributes for me is playing with temperature. An unexpected cool or warm in a passage can create delicious tension and endless interest.
If your composition is blah—eliminate and repaint. If there is a passage that is unclear or a tangle of lines and shapes that don’t enhance, or if there is “a slab of mud”, just get rid of it. Paint out everything you don’t like. Reassess, repaint.