Category: composition

Passage of Time, a composition

summer-entourageIn the ongoing conversation on composition I thought I would dissect this painting, Summer Entourage, a large oil, 52 x 52 inches.  Summer Entourage is about many things, family, friends, summer days of Augusta, and also about the passage of time. Some lyrical moments of summer can seem both timeless and fleeting, beautiful moments, glimpses of magic slipping by and yet eternal.  In the painting you feel the haze will burn off, there is a freshet of breeze picking up; the weather will change. The family is heading up the path, the beach adventure done? or off to new things? we don’t know.

To tell a story with paint, composition is the most important tool. This painting is a fairly ‘blond’ piece, no dramatic lighting, no strong chiaroscuro effects, so I have removed one compositional ‘punch’ tool of strong contrast.   I wanted to portray one of those hazy, sun-bleached days of high summer on the Maine coast, where the light from the sun is snagged in the air and on the water; all are intense and rippling around us.

summer-compCompositionally, one thing to remember is that geometric shapes are strong, eye grabbers. Making the reddish parasol a nearly complete circle pulls our eye right away…and the strong points of the parasol structure intensify this.  Even though we have a large foreground figure which would normally draw the eye I wanted the action to start at the back and move forward. so we have the solid the round parasol…also note the most saturated color in the painting is the red band on the woman’s white hat right in the middle of the parasol. and her overall reddish block.  When I am creating a painting lots of thoughts roam through my head.  Remember this is a hazy morning so for me the round parasol, just cresting the horizon is like a big rising sun…as we know red sun in morning means change in the weather.  Okay, so my mind wanders all over the place…but it makes for paintings that are not just someone else’s cookie cutter.

So the parasol grabs our eye and starts the motion.

A lone figure can be strong but here we have a group…and groups within this group.  The two left figures are linked visually with the deeper values and the strong verticals of folds of the parasol lady and stripes on the guy’s t-shirt…and red echoing each other.

summer-knotThe two right-hand foreground figures are tied together with the bunched action or knot of the woman’s hand holding a book and wedged between  her braid and the angled pink shirt tail of the woman behind…note the strong red accents.   In my initial sketches I had the braid on the other side of her neck but moved it to help tie the visual knot of these two together.  The intense red of the braid links us back with the left duo.  This is a family, each with her own space and thoughts but happily together as well.

To help pull these two forward I stabbed in with pure black leggings against the white sand path.  The strongest value contrast of the painting.  And form a color block when woven together with the black in the striped leggings behind.  Patterns are strong and pull the eye.  You will also note the echoes in these figures with the stances and gazes of the left hand pair.  Similar tilt and hat to the background figures of each pair. And the guitar guy, my son, and his new wife (with the book) both stride and gaze in the same direction….their arms also mirror images of each other. Is this composition or concept? So you see they are inseparable.

summer-comp2Little things: the guy’s shirt was a problem for a bit. I had it in my head to keep the shirt pale so he would merge with the background…but this was not working…so that is when he went dark and tied in as a visual block with the background woman…that worked much better.  The last thing I added was the stripes to his shirt.  He is very close to the canvas edge….as close as I could get without losing the head of the guitar.  Being this close, combined with his gaze off scene might make him fall out of the canvas.  So the stripes echoing the red robe folds and the strong black/white stripes that are tight on the opposite edge of the canvas hold him in.

The right hand trio are much ‘blonder’ and are tucked in an inverted triangle.. that echoes the inverted triangle of the vertical parasol, the bent elbow the “v of the white over shirt and green shirt decolletage.  I wanted these three to continue the slow walking up the path.  Their clothes are very blond, visually merging with the blond grasses.  You can create motion with strong contrasts but sometimes you can entice motion by letting shapes slip passed each other.

The painting is full of paced verticals, particularly in the left and right figure pairs.  Vertical stripes, arms. braid, beach blanket, shirt tails.  These verticals march across giving a slow steady pace.

The other parasol and central figure, (Jen, my wife, by the way), this figure changed a lot as the painting evolved in the sketch pad.  At first she was walking along lost in her own thoughts, gazing to the right, her parasol tilted to the right as well…note the watercolor study.  But somehow having them all slowly walking made the painting more static.  Yes, more static, and interestingly made them lose their own thoughts, they were just cogs in a moving pattern, not what i wanted.  I wanted thinking, moving individuals but all part of the adventurous band, my family.  Then in one scribble on the drawing pad, I stopped this figure and turned her to look at us.  Suddenly the painting had a lot more motion and was much more dynamic.  You have to keep pushing a composition until you squeeze everything out of it.

Once I had stopped her it all came together.  I brought her parasol almost, not quite, but almost to vertical.  Full vertical would have locked her in place.  I put in the accent of the pure horizontal island so we could see the parasol’s tiny slant.  The tiny cant gives her pause in her stroll but she will continue on in just another moment.  Then the rest fell into place…merging her skirt with the grasses. Putting her elbow bent and strong against the greens.  Her head rounded to echo the round parasol, her body facing right, but the breeze swept hair trailing left to help accent that breath of pause in her walk.

summer-comp-trianglesNow one thing to keep in mind, faces are very important in compositions.  Very strong…they draw our eye instantly.  So I kept Jen’s face softly undefined for two reasons:  so that our eyes might not land on her face first…I wanted  motion to begin with the round parasol.  Also, I wanted Jen glancing up at us but I wanted to leave her with her own space, her own privacy…she has noticed us, the viewer, but we can’t see enough to intrude on her.

Composition is all about color, shape, value, placement, pattern, motion line…but that is only part.  We cannot escape our heads, our thoughts.

To build the sense of time passing the thought of the internal clockworks lurked in my head, gears and levers slowing, inexorably ticking along.  The big round parasol a central gear, the guitar and vertical parasol, levers ticking back and forth around it.

Do people see this kind of composition idea? Perhaps not, on the surface, but symbols are strong in our heads and I think we do see things in the back of our minds.  And if not, I like building these thoughts in for my own pleasure.

There is more I could discuss but we both probably need to get back to painting.

This seems a lot packed into one beach painting…but I live and breath these things.  Ideas bubble up and get included, intertwined, evolved.

A Country Composition

Last night I was talking with an artist friend about composition. This is one aspect of painting craft that will ever be a creative challenge and a joy.

Take for example, a recent illustration, the narrative directs the composition and this is as it should be. Then the composition directs the rest…lighting, values, anatomy, perspective, all can come into play, but directed by the composition and story.

So here I have a story of a man chasing a would be Don Juan from a liaison with his wife. She is at the top of the stairs, shocked and grasping to stop her angered husband. He barrels down the stairs and the sneaky suitor has fallen through the railing in his attempt to escape. So there is the narrative.

This narrative needs to show rushing, chaotic movement. That movement needs to start somewhere so it starts with the upstairs and the wife. Contrast is important, so to make the rush happen, it helps to have a contrasting stable space. This is provided by the right hand rectangles, locked in the corners and the stable triangular base around the woman. Her lower body is anchored in several triangles, which are in turn grounded on the one solid strong, almost horizontal of the landing. (The calm right hand side, of this two page spread, is also a quiet background for the intended float of title and first paragraph of text for the magazine story, A Country Weekend Affair.)


The motion starts with her reaching arm and drives down and around to the falling man’s outreached arm.


Okay, so that is the general movement and the various objects, limbs, shadows, slippers and railing help this movement.

The staccato pattern of the balusters and stair treads help this movement as well. One thing to note is how I cheated the stair rise height. The stairs from the husband’s supporting foot and above are compressed. Those below his supporting left foot are much bigger. This would be some poorly drawn stair perspective.  This was intentional. Those large stair drops below help his forward leg get pulled down the stairwell. And the compressed stairs above that left foot, help push up on his supporting leg. I think it works as planned. But in any case, I like to experiment.

There is another layer as well and that is the repeat of shapes that reinforces the curved spilling movement down the stairs.


Or another way of looking at it would be as progressive directional lines.


This is the overall picture motion. However, the three figures also have their individual thrusts. The woman, as we have already seen, is locked in some relatively stable, flat-based triangles, her only movement her initiating arm thrust.

The two men are anything but stable with their inverted triangles. Two downward thrusting triangles, divided by an upward thrust.


Then a lot of the rest is just repeating what we have started. There are repeated fan shapes throughout as more staccato movement with spindles, legs, arms. The painting had lots of arms and legs and spindles so why not make them work together in progressive spills. I think it was Balanchine who said that when creating new moves for a ballet, you should create no more than three new movement types and then repeat them in many different ways throughout.


Did I plan all this? Most of it. Once you organize the main events and shapes, and decide on a motif, a lot of the little stuff falls easily into place. If you have to put in a slipper, why not plan it in a good spot? If an arm has to reach, make it work as an arm, yes, but also make it fit the composition and the action…a shadow on the wall or streak of light…realism be damned, I need my story to work.

One final thing I built in was targets for the falling man’s reach. He is grabbing toward that unexplained block of light to his right hand and toward the light on the table toward his left. Both are completely out of reach, and I hope this helps with the feeling of the fall. Poor guy, I was really out to do him damage.


Did I succeed? Who knows? No time to sit and ponder. It was fun in the creation…now on to the next.


Recently, I had a student question the idea that artists really build paintings upon complex substructures, assuming that artists are actually just painting the inspiration, conferring with the muse until it looks good. Well, um, that would be a truly dumb way to design a complex picture. While this may work fine for the simple composition in the average plein air painting or model session study, it is no way to build a complex serious studio piece. Also this makes the assumption that building the substructure is not a creative muse chatting part of the piece. On the contrary, there is plenty of musing on composition and perhaps even sipping of red wine in classic artist style…well, here is what I did for a recent piece:

When I work on a complex painting, composition is one of the key tools used to tell the story…and to keep multiple objects in order while implying movement.  Real life is chaos.  As painters we need to organize a complex scene with one or several sub-structures to keep the action, movement from flying apart.

This painting, Sacred Datura, is one where I spent some time designing the structure, weaving together several organizing sub-structures to create the composition.  The story needs to define this structure.  I wanted the girl to be dancing in her own quiet world, within the larger world of the gathering.  First of all, she is mildly isolated because the two figure groups face away from her, giving her a private space.

Another basic structure is the ‘eye’ shape focusing attention on the girl’s head.  She is slightly off center in this shape giving her movement…centering her would have made her static.  The almost parallel arms, (hers raised and the background woman’s) are also important for pushing her into quiet movement.  That spot pushes and pulls her…because it is a parallel it pulls her to the other woman while her turn and twist pull away.

Speaking of parallels, a good way to organize multiple forms in a painting and avoid chaos is making things parallel…but not in an obvious way.  Quietly organizing while letting the design breath.

The painting is also held together with a  normal zigzag composition going from key elements.

The movement of the painting is based on concentric curves.  I love curves…even while organizing they imply movement.

Finally, another pair of substructures in the two key areas is based on the figure eight flow.

Other things add to the movement:     The merging of forms in the shadowing on her thighs lets them slip sideways.  Crisply defined forms here would have anchored her hips, rather than allowing movement.  Also the pale skirt pulls toward the like colored datura, while the dense pattern of the leaves in front of her is jittery and wants to expand visually and pushes her right, while her head and foot pull left.

Playing with composition is  one of the most enjoyable, and important, portions of making a painting.