If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Goals of Composition

Composition is one of the hardest subjects to teach and explain. Most people do a poor job of it. Typically, your teacher will give you a nice little list of terms - ideas fundamental to planning composition.

Making the list is simple. It usually looks like this:

line, shape, form, space (positive & negative), size, mass, colour, value (odtien), contrast, rhythm, repetition, balance, emphasis, economy, movement, and unity.

Every teacher makes their own list, and they sometimes change the words around. You get to see an example or two for each item, and they hope you get the idea. And you do, kind of...

But, not so many teachers will tell you how to use these fundamental tools effectively in your art, and even worse, many students get the wrong impression that every artwork should use these tools the same way - that the ultimate goal of all artwork is balance and harmony.

I remember when illustrator Donato Giancola showcased this illustration, on

Archer of the Rose, by Donato Giancola

Between the well-deserved praise, one student asked, and I'm paraphrasing here, "I don't get it. Everyone's complimenting the composition, but I don't see a good composition. There's no order or harmony, all I see is chaos."

It was a great question, and people were quick to inform him -

Not all art has the same goals.
An artist painting a battle does not have the same concerns as someone painting a flower pot, or a sunset, or waves crashing on the beach.
How you plan a composition depends on what you're making.
So, What Are the Goals of Composition?

Good question! There's no simple answer. Every artwork has its own goals, and you have to think about it. But, depending on the subject - landscape, still life, portrait, etc. - there is usually some basic goal that's expected:
In Landscape - Beauty

The goal is to paint a place that's attractive enough,

The Heart of the Andes, by Frederic Church

or dramatic enough,

study, by Bruno Gentile

that people would want to go there. Some artists look for beauty in less than ideal places,

abeel st, by Staats Fasoldt

prince st




under Brooklyn bridge

and some artists care more about romanticizing nature - creating a mood.

Haunted, by Jama Jurabaev
     But, usually, they use composition to:
                                               - create the illusion of depth
                                               - create a sense of atmosphere
                                               - create attractive, elegant shapes
                                               - choose a focal point (or several focal points)
                                               - focus on the play of light and shadow
                                               - focus on weather effects, like rain, mist, fog, snow, reflections, etc.
In Still Life - Interest
The challenge of still life is how to make an ordinary object into something exciting. After all, it's just stuff. Artists have taken a variety of approaches:

- Paint so realistically that the viewer feels one can reach in and take something out.

Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie, by Willem Claeszoon Heda

- Use the same principles borrowed from landscape painting to make the work as beautiful as possible. Focus on the colours, the play of light, the arrangement of elegant shapes, etc.

Still Life with Apples & Oranges, by Paul Cezanne

Still Life with Brass & Glass, by William Merritt Chase

- Fill the painting with meaning through symbols. With hidden meaning, the still life becomes more like a puzzle to solve.

Allegory, by Antonio de Pereda

Rock, Paper, Scissors, by Elaine Kurie

Untitled Still Life, by me - T Arthur Smith

- Use abstraction to warp and distort what you see. Give enough clues so the viewer can decipher it. It's another form of puzzle making.

Still Life with Chair Caning, by Pablo Picasso
In Portraiture - Honesty
Beauty and interest matter in portraiture, obviously. But the most important aspect to portraiture has to be honesty. When you paint a portrait, you're producing a record of who that person really was. It will last for ages, and people will expect and want an honest representation, especially of important historical figures. We want to know what the real Caesar looked like, the real Queen Elizabeth and King Henry VIII, the real Alexander the Great.
In portraiture, honesty is more than just capturing a likeness (looking like the person). The facial expression is key. It should indicate the sitter's temperament, mood, intellect, etc. The background should emphasize the sitter's world, where they live, how they live.

Mrs. Zimmerman, by Rose Frantzen
There are other goals in portraiture. Some artists care more about flattery - making the sitter look as good as possible:

Caroline, by John Michael Carter

Others use portraiture as a way to mock:

Jack Nicholson, by Patri Balanovsky

The Ugly Duchess, by Quentin Matsys
(Never anger an artist)

And then, some artists use a face as a reference point to focus more on mood or expression, which is great. It's less of a portrait than a vision:

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, by John White Alexander

Spanish Dancer at the Moulin Rouge, by Giovanni Boldini

Pot Pourri, by Herbert Draper

Falling Leaves, by Ivan Goryushkin-Sorokopudov

Heather, by Adrian Gottlieb

Miss Helen Sowerby, by James Guthrie

Fiery Light, by Ignat Ignatov

illustration by Michael Johnson

Baby, by Gustav Klimt

Sketch, by Luke Kopycinski

I would say this kind of work has less to do with portraiture, and more to do with illustrating a feeling.
In Figurative Illustration - The Story
Beauty, interest, and honesty all matter. But, when you add several people into a painting who are all acting out a story, a new challenge emerges - readability. The viewer wants to know what is going on, so the artist has to make it clear, while still worrying about beauty, realism, and the mood of the story and setting, etc. It's a challenge, similar to planning a scene in a film, which is why most films start as storyboard drawings:

storyboard for Forest Gump, by Chris Bonura

In illustration, artists worry about:
                                          - the poses, how figures are standing, their body language.
                                          - expressing movement and action
                                          - facial expressions
                                          - camera angle. Where is the viewer in this scene? How can the viewers be
                                            made to feel like they're in the scene?
                                          - colour and emotion, do the colours fit the scene?
                                          - the bigger picture. What's happening in this scene, and what's going to

It's a juggling act, and I think it's worth exploring what happens when a work fails. The best example I can think of comes from Marvel Comics artist, Rob Liefeld.

Liefeld is a self-taught artist who caught the attention of Marvel editors at a young age, while attending a comics convention in California. Although they were not artists themselves, they were impressed with his original characters and extreme drawing style, so they hired him, at age 19.

Liefeld distorts reality, exaggerating sizes and proportions

Rob developed his style by tracing and copying comics throughout his childhood. He soon learned the basics of musculature, and how to make his characters shine with glossy, metallic costumes. Unfortunately, he never learned light and shadow - just look at the work above. Where is the light source?

Now, take another look:

Here's another example, a room full of shiny superheroes:

Impressive? Well, let's ask some questions. How many people are there? Is it easy to tell? Or, do the shiny clothes create a kind of glare that disorients you? Plus, there are three different frames in this layout, and the outlines of these frames are too thin, so they meld together - especially since the colours are the same.

And, what are these people doing? The standing figures are all posing like models. It's a bit like a family photo op, but with some members caught unprepared. The ones in the background are drawn with almost as much detail as the ones in front, and have the same, even lighting. So, who's most important? I suppose they all are.

And, where are these people? They're sitting in some kind of space ship or moon base, but a lot of the environment is covered by text bubbles, that could've been placed on the floor. Yes, it's part of a comic book, so readers would know, but isn't the job of an artist to show people, instead of relying on text?

Here's another example of poor planning:

These superheroes are fighting in mid-air. The hero has the villain by the leg. So, why does he look like he's sitting down in an invisible chair? And how can the villain's wing be behind the hero's head? Isn't he above the hero? Wouldn't he have to be? This is an example where, visually, it makes no sense, and will bother any viewer who stops to think about it.
Liefeld also suffers from weak knowledge of anatomy (famous for hiding feet) leading to several embarrassing artworks (arguably all of them, but it's a question of taste). It makes me feel he really traced the wrong artists as a child. Here's Spiderman fighting his nemesis, the Juggernaut:

Notice anything funny about Spiderman?

Liefeld drew Spiderman without any thumbs. His hands are on
backwards,  and notice the strange little ghost of a finger poking out on the left.

That's the kind of mistake that happens when you don't use a model as reference. Instead, Rob continued copying poses from other comics artists, plagiarizing them in his own comics.

This combination of success at a young age with poor artistic skills led to a huge backlash, making him one of the most controversial people in comics. The biggest tragedy is his refusal over time to learn from his mistakes and improve.

I tell this to stress two points. First, art is hard, and failure is normal. Even the best artists fail on a regular basis. It's part of the process. Second, beware the praise of non-artists. It's easy to impress them, so don't let it go to your head!
In Abstract Art - All of the Above
First of all, there are levels of abstraction. All art is abstract to a degree, simplifying nature, no matter how detailed or accurate the work. When artwork skips reality all together, we call it non-representational.

Red & Orange, by Mark Rothko

When working non-representationally, you have all the same concerns as before - beauty, balance, harmony, mood, honesty, readability. But, in a way, you and your audience are working blind, with nothing recognizable to hold on to and make sense of things. So, abstract art always presents a bit of mystery and puzzlement. The challenge is in forming enough of a picture to excite the viewer, so that they want to think about it.

Combat - Light & Shade, by August Herbin

Aria de Bach, by Georges Braque

Tree of Life, by Gustav Klimt

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