Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lazy Edges

Nicolas Poussin was a great artist, but he suffered from lazy edges.

‘Lazy edges’ is a compositional fault where all the elements in a composition stop short of the edge of the picture. Everything fits into a neat little box in the middle of the design.

Nothing crosses into the outer margins of the picture. The action seems to take place on a theatrical stage or in a shop window. It’s fine if you want a painting to look artificial, but a problem if you want it to look natural.

Artists since the invention of photography have tended to load the edges. Take any photo of real life, follow along its edges, and there’s plenty happening. The photograph above is by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

A good composition should have some important elements near the margin. One of the masterpieces of loaded edges is Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s A Reading from Homer.

1. The reader’s left hand is at the extreme edge. Above the hand is a crucial inscription.

2. The prone figure lies along the bottom edge.

3. The standing figure is tucked into the upper left corner. Part of his face is cropped.

4. You can’t see it in this reproduction, but the very top edge of the painting shows the horizon only about an inch below the edge of the frame in the original painting. Unfortunately all the online versions of this image are compromised by slight cropping.

In a good composition, the slightest cropping destroys the meaning of the picture.

Other artists who use loaded edges effectively: Rembrandt, Edgar Degas, Carl Larsson, Norman Rockwell (1940s and 50s), Edwin Austin Abbey, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, and Howard Pyle.


Mr Atrocity said...

The photographer and teacher Stephen Shore defines what he terms "Active" and "Passive" framing. An active framing is one where the the structure of the composition begins with the frame and works inward, like this, whereas with passive framing the image begins within the image and works its way out of the frame like this.

I've always found this quite a potent compositional aide when taking photographs but I'm not sure how useful it is in painting - the results of painting a "passive framing" can look very contrived, as in the Poussin you show.

Patrick Dizon said...

Back in art school, cropping a figure's arms, legs, etc. always seemed like a bad decision. What are your thoughts on that?

Thanks. :)

Anonymous said...

But composition is an element with wich you create James, you have to use it to serve your own goals. Poussin was the most intellectual painter of his time and his paintings reflect the fact that he absolutely didn't want to be realistic but wanted every element to make sense in a philosophical way. His goal was more a semiological and all the semilogical elements of the picture have to be clearly "read". "Artificial" is a term that also fits to the rules of "good composition" you then enonciate.

James Gurney said...

Thomas, I've presented this as a "rule," but of course it is really an opinion, and a matter of taste. Rules are made to be broken! But I believe that compositions with loaded edges can work well with symbolic, intellectual, or idealistic paintings as well as they do with realistic ones. But loaded edges are antithetical to vignetting.

Pat, I know what you mean about figure studies. There's nothing wrong with zooming in on a part of a model (after all, it's just a study!), but the figure probably shouldn't be cropped because it was laid in wrong.

Andrew said...

Pat, I think that's a whole different beast compared to this. Usually instructors chide you for cropping a figure because at that age you're just being lazy or afraid of doing parts of the figure you're not comfortable with.

Besides, there's really no bad decisions, there's just bad reasoning for a decision. In some cases certain cropping can work, in others, not so much.

Erik Bongers said...

Love Stephen Shore's pictures!

But about the subject.
I love both extremes.

1. Lazy edges.
I think it is 'lovely artificial'. I see it as part of styling your picture, just as you would 'envelope' or blur shadows or as you would simplify shapes to a more abstract form. The whirlpool like effect of the second painting is a good example. Rubens also uses loads of 'artificial' S-lines in his composition. And what about Mucha's hair-spaghetti?

2. I love photographic crops and cuts. Faces that are half cut. An arm that sticks out at one end of the composition. I even love to add to a drawing the 'not dones' of photograhy: e.g. no telephone behind a portrait or it seems to raise from his/her head. I also love the sometimes forced compositions of photographs where a head is e.g. cut off at bottom corner of the composition, in order to fit in that plane flying overhead at the top of the picture.

Well, Drew's last paragraph sums it up perfectly for me.

Erik Bongers said...

Oops, I meant 'telephone POST' above.

Unknown said...


Who came up with the" Lazy Edges" signifier? It communicates that the artist did not consciously compose his painting.

At first, when I saw the post, I thought this article was going to be about " Painter's Holidays" where the edges are glossed over and not given any consideration and therefore being " lazy".

I am not so sure about the camera having an impact on loaded edges.Titian, Bruegel,Tintoretto ,as examples ,cut off faces and used edges of the frame with explosive power way before the camera.

I think your post is more in line with a condition of " Taste" .Millet centralized many of his paintings and I dare not say thay are all the weaker.

Usually, I agree with you Jim, but I am not too sure on this post.

Unknown said...

Once again, you prove yourself as a writing guru, sir. See:

Which I suppose mostly proves how transitive the principles of creative arts can be.

Thank you.

Tim Dose said...

I think it's a little unfair to say Poussin "suffered" from "lazy" edges, and that it's a "compositional fault". It's only a compositional fault if your intention is impressionistic composition, by which I mean a "snapshot" of a moment. I studied for many years with a teacher who taught classical composition, and we were taught that all figures needed a certain amount of breathing room on all sides of the composition, and that this space should be "balanced". Cropping figures was always discouraged. Poussin was actually given as an example of a master of classical composition.

In classical composition, figures are grouped in ways very similar to what you might see in Greek sculpture or reliefs. It's much more concerned about the relationships of the masses of the figures as a group than of portraying a given moment. It's also very concerned with emulating the "spirit" of the poses in Greek sculpture, as well as creating areas of smooth form contrasting with busy form (skin versus cloth being the most obvious example, or the sky versus the trees in the first Poussin image).

I would say the first Poussin image is successful from a classical standpoint- I might even go so far as to say it's a masterpiece of Classical composition. The second Poussin image is a bit of a jumbled mess, but could be saved from a classical standpoint by giving more room on the sides for the mass of figures to "breathe". Of course, this would mean even lazier edges from an impressionistic standpoint!

Personally, I like both classical and impressionistic composition, and there are successes and failures on both ends of the spectrum. Certainly, though, classical compositions look fairly odd today when our visual standard is the photograph- back in the day the visual standard was Greek art (for the upper classes at least), so Poussin's compositions would probably look fairly natural to someone from the 15th century. So it's fair to say that not penetrating edges might make your composition look archaic, but not that it's bad composition.

Unknown said...

Interesting. From what I've seen, when photography first came out some artists made their photographs like paintings (Julia Margaret Cameron for instance). Now that it's become an established mundane part of life, artists try to make their paintings like photographs.

So are we trying to create something that's not there, record something that is there, or create something that's not there but make it look like it's there? It really is a matter of personal choice and taste. Me, I don't even notice stuff like that.

marctaro said...

I wonder also if these artists were taking into account the re-cropping that was done to paintings at the time - people cutting them down to match formal arrangements on their walls.

Larry said...

Of coarse Rockwell made a nice living painting Saturday Evening Post vignettes, but I always admired his full bleed compositions. He certainly wasn't lazy at the edges.

Anonymous said...

Love your blog. Have never disagreed with any of your teachings until today. In my opinion, this isn't even close to a rule - it is purely an opinion. Composition is perhaps the most subjective element in art, so opinions can vary greatly. I see far more art that I would say suffers from bad composition where important elements are too close to the edge, creating a very unbalanced painting, than examples of lazy edges being any sort of compositional problem.

Nonetheless, I will study this compositional technique, as I have always valued your teachings.

CopySix said...

'Et in Arcadia ego' !
I've not really perceived this fault in my favourite Poussin work - - hope you did not ruin it for me.

Joel Stieber said...

Hello James, Very nice blog!
I'm excited you brought up Lazy Edges! I took a class with a very established illustrator named Barron Strorey, and he would always tell me to do things that other teachers told me not to do. Like tangents, cropping, and something he called EDGE EVENTS.
Edge events were little tangents that happened on the edge of the picture frame. You see this a lot in photography as you mentioned. A bay area painter named Richard Diebenkorn did this in abstraction and representational
Barron always stressed don't paint it unless you believe in what you are painting

Helen N. Hill said...

My sense is that historically, it wasn't until the influence of Japanese prints in the 1800s that painters really pushed the edges of the canvas. Regardless, I love this concept and it is a good reminder to me to continue to push against the borders that surround me, the canvas and the world at large.

tim b said...

One thing I think can't be left out of the Poussin part of this discussion is that you're presenting the images unframed: in Poussin's day, those edges had to be clear to keep from interfering with the giant, golden elaborate frames that went around them.

Seen in a museum setting, with something like an original frame, those lazy edges turn into something more like breathing room.

Parka said...

Learned something useful today. Great.

Tom said...

I can't believe there is so much chatter about the "lazy edges" subject. Never heard that phrase before, and it really doesn't make sense to me, but what does make sense is that there is no one way to compose a picture. Each artist has their preference, and it's not whether you keep the figures in the central portion of the picture or crop them of the edges that determine whether a picture is good or not as good. It's whether the artist communicates his message effectively or not. Norman Rockwell, J. C. Liyendeker and other illustrators did centrally developed compositions in the early years, and bleed compositions after the 1930's. Big deal, they were great painters and communicators, so it didn't matter which approach they took.

There are some rules that really shouldn't be broken, but I never heard of the rule that you should paint figures clear out to the edges of your composition... or as we referred to it in art school as the "snap shot" or informal approach. Degas shook up the art world with his unusual cropping of the figure and his odd compositions, but he could pull it off.

When painting a portrait, would it be more effective to crop off an ear and part of the cheek, or run the hands off the bottom of the page? I doubt that it would fly with most traditional portrait commissions, even if the avant-garde crowd might love it.

So, why has this become an issue in the year 2009. There are so many other really important missing links to much of today's art, such as home grown "good taste", "elegance" and "sophistication".. and not just in art! Instead, there's an avalanche of gritty, dark, mysterious, disturbing, over rendered, hard edged paintings, or on the other side of the spectrum.. overly sappy, sentimental, perfume filled, nauseatingly trite paintings.

Of course there are excellent painters with excellent taste today, but I don't think they are the majority of the public focus.. especially with young people, which is a shame.

Tom Watson

trefoglio said...

In general, I like ´active edges´ of Alma-Tadema more than ´lazy edges´ of Poussin...both in the context of Academic painting.