My latest weekend workshop here in my studio was titled simply 'Composition'. When we think about 'one word' definitions for the word and what it really means for the painter, we generally come up with things like 'structure', 'design', 'placement', 'organization'. When I asked my students what words came to their mind, these were their answers.
When I looked up the actual definition of the word, the dictionary tells us that for an artist, the word 'composition' means, the act of combining parts or elements to form a whole. This lead me to looking up the word 'act', which said simply, the process of doing. Then I looked up the word 'process' and found this definition. A systematic series of actions directed to some end. And the word 'system' stated that it was an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole.
It gets pretty interesting playing this word game.
So here's my point. A good composition for an artist requires somewhat of a systematic approach to the planning of it. And here's another point. Generally when you mention the word 'systematic' to a painter, their face scrunches up and they want to run away from the very thought of the idea! They think that using any type of 'system' will surely squelch their creative self. I'm more in line to believe that using this approach actually opens up the mind to being more creative and affords the painter with an opportunity to see things in new ways and to be inventive and clever. The 'process of doing' can be fun!
In my workshop, we looked at dozens of well composed landscape paintings by artists like Emile Gruppe, Aldro Hibbard, Paul Strisik, Carl Peters, Anthony Thieme, John Folinsbee, Harry Leith Ross, Edgar Payne and more. What becomes apparent when you look at the work by these painters, is that while they were alive and working, every one of them put an effort into making compositions that were strong. They didn't just make an okay plan, they used their brain and they made an exceptional one!
Herein lies a question that we as painters have to ask ourselves... ...Am I really planning my compositions or just kind of winging it??? and... Did I answer that question honestly or not !!!
These painters made use of the 'Steelyard' idea. They made use of the 'L', the 'S' and the 'C'. They made 'Circular' compositions, they made 'Radial' compositions, they used 'Pattern' and 'Repeating Shapes', the '3 Spot', and 'Alternating Bands'. They composed within a 'Triangle', they thought about the 'Tunnel', the 'Group Mass', the 'Cross' and more. In their paintings, they looked at the subject and arranged elements with one of these compositional ideas as a main plan and also made use of other ideas within that main idea to make a more complex one.
The participants in this workshop have also been attending my wife Pam's Monday morning painting class. They have been working on painting from the still life. This afforded me the opportunity to gear the workshop towards both still-life and landscape composition. For Saturday morning, along with looking at strong compositions and talking about them, I took 3 found objects and composed and drew the elements into different types of compositional ideas so that they could see the process firsthand. When I say 'found' objects, I really mean just that. I got the idea of having them first see the compositional ideas thought-out with still life objects, at the start of the workshop when I realized they were all in the Monday morning class. I went into the kitchen and grabbed three items of different shapes and sizes. In this case, it was a bunch of bananas, a coffee cup and a bottle of ibuprofen!
Here is what I did.
This next image shows my thought process of trying to make a strong composition from the photo. If I was on site I would put these ideas down in a sketch book and work from the best one. Outside, I will usually make 4 to 6 small rectangles in a sketch book and write down different compositional names under each rectangle and see if I can make the subject fit into each particular format. Doing this opens up the mind to many possibilities and keeps me from getting stale or making the same type of composition over and over again.
I decided on painting the diagonal composition for my 30 minute demo on Sunday morning. When I was first doing the thumbnail sketches above, it was difficult trying to fit this subject into a steelyard composition but it worked out well and would have made a good composition for a painting. The Radial design would have worked too. The diagonal won out in the end. I really liked the simple movement of it.
In my next post, I will show examples of the different painters we looked at for our slideshow.