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.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Principles of Composition - Emphasis and Movement

Emphasis is about deciding what is most important in your artwork, that you want all viewers to see and appreciate. Every artwork needs one or more areas of emphasis, called focal points. These are specific places in an artwork that pull your eye towards them - because they're more exciting, more meaningful. Almost every artwork has a focal point somewhere, and most have several points. In realistic art, a face is almost always a focal point. Hands are common points as well. We look for faces and hands to figure out what characters are doing, thinking, and feeling. Here's an example posted by illustrator James Gurney. On the left, we have one of his story illustrations. On the right you can see a heat map, which shows you where people tend to look the longest. This was developed with the help of a special program - James had several people look at the painting, and a computer studied their eyes to see where they looked the longest. The red and orange spots are the focal points.

You can see his post here.

But, abstract pictures have focal points too, using the little tricks I've listed below:

Composition, by Albert Gleizes

Without focal points, there's nothing to look at - the picture feels empty.

Empty Landscape, by Denitsa Kochovska

Artists emphasize focal points by designing the rest of the composition to lead our eyes to these them - an effect referred to as movement. You can see how it works in another view of James Gurney's artwork - the digital lines represent how one person looked at his painting:

I once heard an art teacher confuse movement with motion lines, that cartoonists often use:

A bouncing baseball, by Paul Coker

It's not the same thing. So, more principles:

1. The center of the picture is also the natural center of interest. It's where people typically expect to find something important.

Circle, by Alyssa Monks

2. Square, rectangular, & circular frames all lead our attention to the center of the picture. That's about 99% of all frames, but there are shaped canvases that can draw our attention elsewhere (see my lesson on choosing canvas shapes).

by Charles Hinman

3. Smaller circles and squares inside a picture can focus attention to what's inside them, like a frame-within-a-frame. Think of halos.

Virgin & Child, Master of Klosterneuberg, circa 1335

Alphonse Mucha often used halos to frame his subjects:

The Zodiac, by Alphonse Mucha

Note, a person's head is already round, so you can get a halo effect just with the right lighting - particularly back lighting:

Far-Off Moonlight, by Susan Lyon

It doesn't have to be obvious, either. You can break up a halo and it still works, or simply put white around a focal point - something James Gurney calls "flagging". The higher contrast creates higher interest in that one shape, or person:

Visiting the Ration Board, by Normal Rockwell

Here's another example:

The Hussite King Jiří z Podĕbrad, by Alphonse Mucha

4. Most artists don't want people getting stuck in the center, so they put the focal point outside of it. That way people feel free to look around the picture, at all the details.

Gasp, by Alyssa Monks

Notice how your eye follows the little lines of water that play along the glass pane. You don't look at them nearly as much when the whole composition is square, with the face in the center:

5. as shapes get smaller, higher up, and lighter, they seem to be farther away. Shapes that are lower, bigger, and brighter seem closer to us. When objects are closer to us, they seem more important.

Self Portrtait, by Parmigianino

6. When one shape overlaps another, the one in front is usually more important:

Wyll,(wisdom), by Heather Horton

Note how the woman's face and clothing are warm red colours. Most artists will tell you that red is the strongest, most striking colour and is best for the foreground if you want to shock people. It works, but it's not your only option. Painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds once suggested that blue should never be used in the foreground. When his rival, Thomas Gainsborough, heard that, he went out and painted this:

The Blue Boy, by Thomas Gainsborough

Here's an interesting exception to the rule on overlapping. Here, we have a subject - a person - who's been overlapped by the staircase:

Back Stairs, by Heather Horton

The stairs may dominate your field of view, but the woman still dominates your interest - because she's a person, and people are always more important. This shows how context overrides little visual tricks. But, it doesn't negate the huge stairs, they work together to create a specific feeling. The main character of this story appears to be walking away, soon to be out of sight, and there's nothing you can do about it. This is a story about leaving, parting. The large empty staircase is about to be all you have left.

If both shapes are a similar colour, they join into a single visual unit. Note how the man in black melds into the black interior behind him. It's a bit like his head and hands are floating in a black void:

George Hill, by Heather Horton

Overlapping is important in realism because it looks more natural, especially in groups of figures:

Atelier Julian, by Marie Bashkirtseff

7. Beware tangents when shapes just touch each other. It can be hard to see which is in front of which, so it looks awkward.

An airport sketch, by James Gurney, with tangents circled in red.
Is that gasoline truck in front of or behind the wing of the plane?

8. A simple way to make a focal point is to create an area of high contrast in your work. It can be a contrast in detail, realism, colour, value, etc. People notice differences immediately.

This painting emphasizes the swimmer as a focal point by contrasting colour, value, and the size of brushstrokes. Note, all these contrasting effects are cumulative - they all work together:

De Profundis, by Heather Horton

9. Another way to make a clear focal point is to remove unnecessary details and elements. Artist Howard Pyle said, "They will never shoot you for what you leave out of a picture." In this next example, there's a lot going on, but only the face is painted with precision. Everything else is loosely indicated - with just enough detail to describe what it is, but no more, because it's the face that matters most:

Maria, by Susan Lyon

10. Another technique is what James Gurney calls "spokewheeling" like the spokes in a wheel that all point to the center.

A wagon wheel, by James Gurney

In a picture, you can do the same thing with lines radiating out from a focal point. Remember what I said about some lines being invisible but still important? These two examples are by James Gurney:

Note, the effect doesn't always look like a wheel - it's not supposed to. The point of this is to force your eyes toward a focal point, not to hide an actual wheel shape. Think of it as a bunch of hidden little fingers all pointing where you're supposed to look Here's another example:

The Duel After the Masquerade, by Jean-Leon Gerome

Here's a portrait that uses a parasol as both a halo and a spoke wheel to lead yours eyes into her face:

Woman with a Japanese Parasol, by Anna Bilinska-Bohdanowicz

11. When you draw people, a great way to lead people's eyes is with the direction of each person's head. Viewers naturally look at faces first, and whatever your figures are looking at, we want to look at too. So, the turn and tilt of a head is very important. See how the man standing on the right looks down at the seated figure? It leads you to look at him too. This picture also uses spoke-wheel lines. Can you see any?

Who Hired You? by Dean Cornwell

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