Friday, February 20, 2015

A Composition by Robert Fawcett

Have a look at this picture, and try to self-monitor how you experience it.

The editors of the Famous Artists Course included this illustration by Robert Fawcett (1903-1967) along with an explanatory diagram to demonstrate some design principles. They say: "The scroll is the important point of interest in this picture. Robert Fawcett has skillfully used lines to direct our eye to it. The line formed by the arm of the foreground figure draws our attention almost irresistibly across the upper right of the picture, down to the scroll, and finally to the head of the king. Notice how we are forced to look back and forth from the king's head to the scroll."

I think it's a successful composition, but I don't agree with their analysis of why it works. To me the driving force of the picture's abstract design is the contrast between clutter and emptiness. At first I saw the busy detail surrounding the blank space, and I thought the empty space was a 2D shape left for design reasons.

A split second later, I realized that it was a piece of paper being held up by a soldier in chain mail, and that I was looking at the back of the paper. Once I saw the angry face of the seated figure, and I understood that he was a king, it dawned on me that he was being faced with a challenge by the knight, perhaps showing the Magna Carta to King John.

With the story in mind, my eyes scanned the picture driven by its human premise. I looked at the ecclesiastical figure, whose characterization isn't very well developed. I checked out the face of the soldier, and couldn't get much from him either. My eye then went to the various weapons on display to see if there was a foreshadowing of violent action.

Although I'd need to see an eye-tracking scanpath study to be certain, I'm quite sure my eyes never followed the pathways diagrammed by the FAC's editors, and I never spent much time in parts of the picture that had no story purpose.

My point is that I don't believe it when composition teachers suggest that my eyes are passively moving through a picture, led purely by design considerations. Design does play a role, but if there are faces and a human story, the viewer is operating on a much higher and more active level.

Your experience of the picture may have been totally different from mine, and I'd be interested to hear from you in the comments.
Robert Fawcett: The Illustrator's Illustrator
Famous Artists Course

Previously on GJ: Eyetracking and Composition
Eyetracking and Composition, part 1
Eyetracking and Composition, part 2
Eyetracking and Composition part 3


Steven James Petruccio said...

I went immediately to the Bishop, that angle from lower left brought me right there to the shape in the negative space. I followed that path to the night holding the paper, nicely surrounded by soldier detail shapes framed by his arm and then noticed the king looking at the paper. This is a classic use of the Japanese Notan principle...dark and light abstract shapes in composition. It always works though we seldom use it as a formula to achieve our goal. Most artists instinctively compose with abstract shape. It's one way to discern amateur from professional as well. Nice choice of topic since that's what I'm teaching this week!

ChristopherR. said...

Since the poster space is blank, (quickly seen) my eyes settled more on the faces of the serous and tired King, the glum and somewhat foreboding Bishop, and I got to wondering what their back stories were. And the mystery of the soldiers whose faces/ personalities are concealed...

Drew said...

I seemed to keep darting between the blank space and the king a few times, and then each time I looked back at the blank space I'd look at another area of the picture before centering back at the blank spot again. So I guess I was moving about kinda radially, though in a pretty sporadic matter.

James Gurney said...

Drew, that's interesting. It was a good move on Fawcett's part to invest a blank space with the pivotal meaning, and it's funny how we return to that space even though we know nothing is there.

Christopher, yes, they're like players in a drama, and Fawcett both conceals and reveals.

Steven, Notan is a great principle to be teaching. Your students are lucky to be getting that.

Joe Kulka said...

I go to the bishop,scroll then king.I think that hook of the crosier is a genius design element. I was fascinated enough to take the image into Painter and erase out the top of the bishop's crosier to see where I would look. When I did that I focus almost exclusively on the bishop.

james holland said...

Hi James,you said and I strongly agree:

"My point is that I don't believe it when composition teachers suggest that my eyes are passively moving through a picture, led purely by design considerations."

Teachers and art historians claim to analyse compositions but are often on the wrong track. With me it is just an instinctive mistrust when I see arrows and diagrams imposed on art works.Painting cannot be so simple. There are a 101 other factors which are relevant and possibly cannot be described.
Regarding the knights I couldn't help noticing the white rectangle first of all, then the fact that everyone is looking at the same place. The curved arm of the man on the right is just an extra. I do not see it as something which is leading/forcing me to focus on the central space.

Blake Downing said...

I looked at the blank space in the middle created by the paper, and then at all the faces. Then, curiously enough, I found myself focusing on the pattern created by the vertical forms of the swords and the staff, and I really enjoy that aspect of the composition for some reason.

Payton Wood said...

I went to the scroll first...then the knight holding it (largest figure), after that I think faces to smaller details. The scroll attracted my eye because of its high contrast of light value against dark....its a large flat light value too which really makes it stand out. Also its very geometric shape compared to the organic shapes around it drew me in. I wonder how the white of the surrounding background also relates to the white scroll.
Another aspect of the scroll is that it sort of looks like a missing puzzle it had been erased out....this attached to my attention.

Steve Shamburger said...

Like Drew, I found my eye returning over and over to the blank space of the scroll. I'd look at the face of the king, then to the scroll, then to the Knight's head, his sword, then to the scroll again. Like the spokes of a wheel, my eye radiated to the details around the irresistible BLANK WHITE SHAPE!

Sesco said...

I believe that if design were logical, our computers could be used to construct our art, like we use computers to diagnose the symptoms of our diseases, or the way our legal system can be computerized to run a case except for when a judge needs to interpret a law; however, since 'art' appears to have problems being defined, and artists appear to be subjective interpretists, I believe good design is a by-product, not a primal force or prerequisite, of creation. We FIND good design, and we can copy that principle, but just as we can never codify every potential event in our code of law, we need judges to interpret when a new 'design' comes along, we need doctors who can interpret when new 'designs' of symptoms come along, and we need artists who continually create new designs instead of critics who recognize patterns in paintings. It's like seeing order in the movements of stock prices in the stock market. For whatever reason, we humans have an impulse to see order in chaotic events. We cannot stand that an otherwise perfectly 'normal' person can commit a particular atrocity; we MUST find the anomaly because it threatens our construct of reality. From my perspective, you could take any large sample of paintings and find design principles in each of them. You might find more than one design principle in a single painting. Eventually you would find that some design principles contradict other ones. I view design principles as over-thinking, a net over the head of imagination.

Lisa said...

First thing I noticed was the piece of paper. Then, my eyes travelled along the soldier's arm, then to the king, immediately noticing the quill, then the sword. The clerical figure I barely noticed, instead searching for any indication of story: Did the king write something? Does he have to sign it? Or stab it?
Next thing I thought about, considering the empty faces looking at the king: Is it something about wage agreements? The king's poetry attempts? (this is my brain trying to make sense of the scene without any prior knowledge)
– Seems like historical and other knowledge as well as other personal factors affect how one experiences a picture such as this one..?
Makes me question the following: Did I notice the quill this early because I myself like to write/another personal reason or because it is an object protruding from the rest of the image? And if the latter, why have I only barely noticed the guy with the staff thing (I'm sorry, the name escapes me)?

On a sidenote, most of what I know about art fundamentals come from your blog posts such as this one (well, and your books). First time I dared comment, so I use it to say thanks for all that knowledge!

James Gurney said...

Lisa, thanks for commending. So that's a quill in the king's hand. Of course! Now I see it that way. Funny, I had seen it as a short sword all along. I guess it misread to me.

Thanks, everybody for verbalizing your reactions so well.

Sesco, if I understand what you're saying, yes, good compositions are made by a mixture of instinct and inspiration that can't be simulated by a computer. Someone like Fawcett has a lot of design principles in his toolkit, but this is really a creative solution. If you google-image "King John Magna Carta" you'll see a lot of other illustrations through history that are far less original in their design conception.

Paul Phillips said...

The composition feels like a bowl shape that's tipped to the left, with my attention settling on the bowl's contents: the King's very serious expression and empty scroll. The dark cape and partial leg of the standing knight, the surrounding background knights in the light tones staring at the darker tones of the King and finally the already rounded shape of the illustration's bottom enforced this impression for me. The peaked shape of the Bishop seems to connect the King and scroll as well as possibly hint at it's contents?

Drew said...

Something else I noticed when I look back at this a few hours later - I think I may have been drawn to the page and the king initially because while the page is a big blank area in the middle of a rather busy scene, the king also has a REALLY detailed silhouette compared to the swoops and curves of the bishop and knight helmets.

On second viewing I'm still finding myself looking between the paper and king the most, but I'm also finding myself darting my eyes along the silhouette up to the king's face for a moment before going back to the paper.

Abrian Curington said...

My eyes got caught in a loop starting at the scroll, following the shadow along the soldier's arm, the cape and back up to the scroll (which I dwelt on). I wasn't led to any other information in the cursory glance.

Trying again, the loop extended out to the king's dark cloak, but the faces were lost in the general mid-tone detail.

Really interesting since there is an obvious attention to composition that benefits the storytelling.

Abrian Curington said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

This illustration pushed me off balance. The first thing I noticed was the crozier, but it looks more like a question mark to me.

Is the blank space in the middle a mirror? No, the curved edges show it's paper. Is the king holding a dagger? No, it's a quill.

Is the king looking at the paper? Or is he looking with distrust at the soldier holding it?

What are the thoughts of the dour cleric in the background? How will the church react to the signing of this document?

Is this surrender or a great accord?

Pause while I google King John Magna Carta. And from wikipedia about King John I see that the thoughts evoked are probably quite valid. This is a much more evocative and thought provoking image than any of the others found on-line. Thanks for the art lesson and the history lesson.

19mrscott69 said...

That 'blank' negative space of the paper was a distraction to me. I thought it was a mistake. The mid-tones that surround it do a terrible job of suggesting a negative shape IMO.

The ability to do an eye scan is a quite recent invention so from the point of history it would seem perfectly logical why an artist made such design decisions, even if those decisions proved to ultimately be false through science.

BTW, what about landscape scenes that don't involve humans, animals etc., does science kill the sacred cow on those works also?

larin said...

I first noticed the king's face and the look of distrust and irritation. Then my eye moved to the paper, and finally to the knight holding it and the dark pattern on his cape.

Faces and expressions frequently catch my eye first, but it was a fight between that and the large white value in the middle. I wonder if that would change if the paper had been shaded lightly--say maybe 10-15% grey? I didn't spend much time looking at the other people. I also thought the king was holding some kind of dagger, although it didn't quite look right--the light value against blank space and small size didn't really catch my eye. I think my eye is directed by the value contrasts.

Tobias Allen Wolf said...

I'm totally with you on being drawn to the empty space like a magnet.

It's funny how space thirst reveals itself via traffic in the L.A. area as well. Whenever there is heavy traffic and a wide empty space opens up people rush in to fill the empty space like mad. Or when people are driving through a crowded parking lot and they dart quickly towards empty spaces. It's almost the same kind of principal.

I always marvel at old newsreel footage of the Interstate Highway system just after it was built. There's like no cars! So I wonder how these cultural experiences have shaped our brains and reactions to emptiness in crowded surroundings. Especially those of us that have had the unfortunate experience of spending any length of our lives in traffic. Without these experiences maybe it's possible that your reactions to compositional arrangement is somewhat different.

John Barrows said...

My eye was drawn away from the white page being held and called to where the strongest dark and light contrasts are. Then I too was drawn back to the page even though it's not interesting enough to look at to hold my visual attention.

Marvin Mattelson said...

It's a bad composition by a typically great artist. The Famous Artists School try to justify a boring and counterproductive design, one had i seen in a publication I would have passed by without a second glance.

To me design is the most important aspect of picture making. If it doesn't draw you in you may never get to the "good parts".

Karen Thumm said...

My first reaction to the drawing was the same as yours. I don't see the knight as being anything other than a scroll holder as we see so little of him and his face.

My eye is most drawn to the king. He is rendered with the darkest darks and lightest lights and heaviest lines. Therefore he stands out the most.

Gregory Lee said...

I noticed the King's eyes -- what's he looking at? Then I identified the scroll. Then I looked at the Bishop's eyes, and was puzzled at how he fit in -- standing behind the King, but looking uncommitted. Whose side is he on?

Elena Jardiniz said...

My grandfather, a placard artist, actually bought the Famous Artist School course and completed part of it before he got sick and died. I remember seeing this illustration and it seemed so very mannered - a very messy way to get a point across.

While the composition does whirl the viewer's attention around that big white block in the middle, and it does tell a story it does not so much engage the viewer as shove the viewer back and show off how clever the illustrator is to make the viewer fight to see the subject. That awkward position of the knight's arm sticks an elbow in the viewer's face even as several characters are peering out under the armpit, the blank parchment pushes the viewer away. In effect it's using negative psychology to get the viewer's attention, and while it's a clever ploy it's also annoying.

It may be deliberate, and it is effective, but that artist will have to work much harder to get my interest, attention, and frankly, my money if I encounter him again.