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.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Principles of Composition - Gravity

Much of what you're about to read comes from the book PictureThis - Basic Principles of Composition, by Molly Bang. I strongly recommend you read it, as the illustrations explain her ideas far better than I can here. I've also added many tips and tricks described by James Gurney on his blog. And finally, I need to thank the many great artists at whom I often quote:

     As stated earlier, the elements of composition are like tools. Principles of composition are simply good ways to use these tools. The simplest way to explain it is that each principle relates to your own personal experience - what you already know about the world. So, principles of composition can be listed under these categories:

Psychology of Shapes
Psychology of Order
Psychology of Colour
Emphasis & Movement

     For each of these concepts there are many principles which can be used as tricks to better your composition - to make your designs more effective. But, I have to emphasize, the key to composition isn't in the tricks. To quote artist Chris Bennett:

"There has not been, as yet, a book written that promotes understanding of what is unique about and peculiar to the vocabulary and grammar of painting. The formulas and 'tips' contained in these volumes are generally providing codes for replicating ways of building images. It's a situation rather like someone learning the guitar by memorising chord shapes in sequence to play their favourite songs without having any idea about the grammar of harmony. It sounds like they know their instrument, but only if they are asked to play their party pieces.

      So, for example, in a book about landscape composition, all we are getting is a couple of generalised pointers about how to make one's efforts 'balance' by superimposing a vague template crudely sifted from some successful pictures of the past. 'Knowledge' used in this fashion is in fact a prison. Understanding the engine behind these codes is what enables you to speak as an artist. Unfortunately, I know of no book that addresses this comprehensively. You have to find it by asking yourself some tough questions about what on earth it is you are doing, what it is for and why you are not trying to do it in any other, more expedient, way."

     In other words, you should learn these principles, and all the tricks, but don't just copy them. Little visual tricks won't make your artwork great, merely more effective. It's the same in literature. People still read Shakespeare for the stories, not to appreciate the fine grammar. With art, it gets a little confusing with masters being praised for all the little tricks they knew. But, every professional artist will tell you,

the main idea of the work is the key to its success.

James Gurney says you have to feel something first - there has to be some emotion tied to the idea, if it's going to work. Kev Ferrera says:

"...unity of expression is the key to composition. Unity of expression is what marries technique, style, detail, composition, drama, character, content, and subtext under one banner of thought. And the key to unity of expression is the controlling idea... the governing theme that predicates or determines the technique, style, detail, composition, drama, character, content and subtext. The question is then, what do good controlling ideas look like? And how do I come up with them? This the million dollar question..."
So, having said all that, here are some principles to think about:


All the elements of composition are governed what we know about gravity.

1. The upper half of a picture represents the sky, and is a place of freedom. Anything placed up high becomes special. It's flying. So, it grabs our attention.

Departure-Arrival, by Rachel Constantine

Beginnings, by Julie Dillon

2. The lower half of a picture represents the ground, and is sadder, even if things are more stable. Lines and shapes feel immobile, stuck, and vulnerable. People on the ground can be attacked. People up on castle walls are safe.

28th Regiment at Quatre Bras, by Lady Butler

If you're at the bottom of a war scene, you're probably dead.

3. Horizontal lines & shapes are stable and calm, because they're lying down. They're at rest.

Solace, by Candice Bohannon

This is true regardless if a work is realistic or abstract:

4. People typically read a picture as having a horizon line, even when you don't draw it - when it's hidden behind things, whether indoors or out. We see it because of perspective. This painting, by Francois Baranger, has a horizon line:

You can find it by first finding the vanishing point:

And then, you know the horizon line sits on this point:

5. When a work is non-representational, with no indication of a horizon:

Yellow Curve, by Ellsworth Kelly

 viewers will use the real world horizon to ground themselves:

This line could be anywhere on the artwork. It depends on how high or low it's hung on the wall - and also how tall you are. But, you'll always feel there being a horizon line somewhere in a picture because of your sense of balance (equilibrioception), coming from your inner ear.

6. When you slant your horizon line, you create tension, unease, and confusion.

Hydro Ship, by John Berkey

Your viewers know they have two feet planted on the ground, yet, to understand the picture, they must imagine themselves not firmly standing on the ground. One might be flying in a helicopter, or lying on the ground,

All Played Out, by Mark Goodson

or holding onto the side of a cliff:

Cliff Jump by Khan Muftic

These are all artworks that place the viewer into the scene, participating in the action - at least a little. This trick is commonly used in films, where it's called a Dutch angle - actually a corruption of the word 'Deutsch', because this trick comes from Germany, from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari:

Film Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

7. Vertical lines & shapes are strong and impressive - they're standing up.

Relative Innocence, by Rose Frantzen

8. A horizontal line placed on top of vertical lines looks majestic - both strong and stable, like a Greek temple.

A replica of the Parthenon, in Nashville, TN

9. Square & Rectangular frames also suggest strength - the horizontal lines above and below, and the vertical lines of the sides. This is true regardless if the frame is ornate:

At the Gate of the Temple, by John William Godward

or simple:

Every frame is a temple.

10. Diagonal lines and shapes suggest motion,

Nike Man, by Mateja Petkovic


Fisher Girl of Picardy, by Elizabeth Nourse

and falling.

Mighty Avengers Cover, by Marko Djurdjevic

11. Two diagonal lines leaning together can form a stable triangle, but only if they're equal.

The Road West, by Dorothea Lange

They also point up to the heavens, making the top half more special.

12. But, if one of these diagonal lines is greater than the other, it becomes unstable, with one side dominating.

Triangle by Martin Stavars

13. Shapes placed on diagonals seem to float in space,

The Breeze, by Mary Fairchild Low

unless attached to a baseline.

14. Circles (and circular frames) also seem to float in space,

Cosmic Traveler, by Julie Dillon

unless attached to a baseline, in which case they seem to want to roll.

15. All these principles work together, in the context of the picture. Their effects are cumulative - the effects of all principles are cumulative, they work together...

16. ...But they're all still subservient to the context.

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