Tuesday, October 7, 2014

ImagineFX Article on Composition

The new issue of ImagineFX magazine, coming to newsstands soon, has an article that I wrote about composition. 
It begins by resisting the usual approaches to composition, which typically lay out systems of geometric grids, or talk about controlling the eye, or present a series of design prohibitions. 

In fact, I begin by mythbusting the theories of the golden mean that are often taught in composition classes. 

But wait! If you take away those elegant systems, what's left? I struggled a bit with this because, like my hero Howard Pyle, I'm suspicious of rules on this subject, and I believe composition is best taught on a case-by-case, picture-by-picture basis. 

In the end, I decided to approach the topic from a completely different direction. I thought the best place to start is by identifying the core emotion or idea of the piece. Then I offer some basic aesthetic tools to help get that idea across to the viewer. My topics include:

• You've got to feel something first.
• Do lots of thumbnails.
• Choose the supreme moment.
• Think about the viewpoint and eye level.
• Simplify extraneous details.
• Downplay the secondary areas. 
• Push extremes.
• Eliminate the inessential.
• Add photorealistic focus to the focal point.
• Make the color suit the emotion.
• Create contrasts.
• In a sequential work, vary the compositions.


Roger O'Reilly said...

Haven't read your article yet James, but in gneral I'd have to agree. Despite decades of looking at articles and tutorials pointing to how compositions were supposedly based on triangles, ovals and the golden mean among others, I've never in my professional career actually consciously organised a composition. It's always organic and as I proceed any doubts/criticisms I have of the work are organically formulated too. I have always felt that much of the teaching of compositional structures is "after the fact" reconstruction based purely on the preferences of the author rather that the artist he's analysing.

Tom Hart said...

James, that list of topics alone is a fantastic mini-course in composition.

Roger O'Reilly, I couldn't agree more with your idea that a lot of compositional theories are "after the fact" "reconstruction". Great way to put that.

Tom Hart said...
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Warren Beattie said...

Very timely! I've recently decided that I need to get a proper grasp on composition, so I'm eager to get a look at this.

Otherwise, I've been reading Loomis' Creative Illustration, and his enthusiasm for his 'informal subdivision' method. Far be it from me to question Andrew Loomis of all people, but I can barely figure out how some of his examples relate to more than a few lines on his random grids, let alone how the entire subject might arise from them. So I've been meaning to ask *someone*: is it a tried and tested method used by other artists, or - in the vein of this blog post and Roger and Tom's comments - more of a personal gimmick?

James Gurney said...

It's fair to say that a lot of great compositions in the 19th and 20th century have been created with the deliberate use of informal subdivision and golden mean principles. By setting up a grid, an artist can sometimes generate ideas for forms or alignments. The challenge with imaginative realism is filling the blank spaces, any any system can help with that. Where I have difficulty is when an analysis is given to past work without any clear evidence that the artist really used that system. I also have difficulty with assertions that golden ratios are baked into the human form or that our perceptual system is somehow wired to favor it. So, it can be great as a tool and a stimulus, but not so useful as an analytical rubric.

Dan said...

If some picture or form is widely regarded as beautiful or grand in design (e.g., the Parthenon), isn't it reasonable to ask what its proportions in fact appear to be? I mean whether intentional or not.

Take, for example, the idea that there are certain proportional patterns that are inherently pleasing to the eye. Even if ancient architects didn't consciously employ them, those architects were still trying to achieve something beautiful. And if they succeeded, and if the resulting proportions are demonstrably very close to the golden ratio in various ways, it doesn't seem completely intellectually honest to brush that off as a coincidence, or to debunk it on grounds that the measurements are only accurate to 1%, or based on the widths of lines in the diagrams. These diagrams still demonstrate that the proportions in question, as perceived from a distance, are in fact quite close to the golden ratio, whether the designer intended this mathematically or not.

For my part, I generally agree with the idea that mathematical systems of composition are silly. Even if we suppose it to be true that the golden rectangle were the most beautiful rectangle, does it really make any sense to ask the question, "what rectangle most pleases my eye," then come to an answer, then use the result to make pictures? Wouldn't it be more straightforward to just learn to make pictures that please the eye? There's surely much more to that than merely employing certain ratios and patterns. Your approach to composition (though I haven't read your article, just your summary here) seems solid to me.

But learning about the golden ratio, about where it shows up in nature and in compositions that are widely accepted as excellent, seems like it can only be a benefit. Whatever Leonardo's mathematical approach may have been, he must have also had "an eye" for beauty, right? The worldview in Renaissance Italy seems to have been very different from the logical positivism that dominates our culture. In the world of the Renaissance masters, scientific and artistic means of pursuing truth, understanding, and excellence were considered harmonious equals, both of them essential, and both subordinate to philosophy and religion.

James Gurney said...

Dan, yes, I think it's a worthwhile exercise to analyze the formal attributes of a work of art that pleases your eye—or moves your heart. However, it may or may not follow that the elements that succeed for one work of art will necessarily apply to another. Some art genres have thrived within strict formal restrictions, such as haiku or sonnets in poetry, or sonata form in music, but you'll have to let me know if you find any equivalent in pictorial composition.

Dan said...

Hi James,

Thanks for answering. I appreciate your take on this.

As far as I have been able to learn, from my artistic journey so far, which has admittedly been brief, academic training in visual art historically (pre-20th-Century) involved drilling on particular things with the goal not of using them methodically, but rather of internalizing them so that the artist would gain intangible qualities like enlightened taste and fine artistic sensitivity.

Consider an analogy with natural language. Students may study grammar, but not because they are expected to compose every sentence consciously, strictly according to the rules. It's studied because grammar can be internalized and lead in the end to an overall more sophisticated means of expression in the student.

This kind of thing is found in pre-20th-Century art education in, for example, the Bargue plates for drawing instruction. Students learned to draw first by copying, but it was very important that what they copied should be instilling in them a natural sense of beauty.

After I wrote my previous post, I found a scholarly article in which the author said that in the Renaissance, visual art was not considered as among the Liberal Arts. So I have to eat my words to some extent, but my general point remains valid, I think.

The point I was trying to make was that we tend to think of the material world as understood by science as the ultimate foundation of everything. (This is Logical Positivism.) Because of that, we're apt to look at a mathematical concept like the golden ratio in scientific terms, and to have a mental picture of our forbears using formulas to compose their pictures. But in prior centuries this was not the predominant worldview in the western world. They would have thought of the golden mean more in terms of something like evidence of the mathematical design evident in Creation, and its perfect balance of order versus variety, mathematical precision versus infinite variations on every theme.

And so the education of a painter, which was substantially about appreciating the beauty of nature in a higher way, may have included observations about the golden mean and its relationship to beauty, which perhaps were not meant to prescribe strict formulas for composition, but rather were meant to be internalized as part of the overall sensibility and taste that the student was acquiring.

If so, maybe debunking the golden mean myth is really attacking a straw man.


Julieartist said...

fantastic , just what I've been waiting for!