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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.