Skip to main content

Composition is Not a Formula or Rule



Pierre Subleyras - Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee - WGA21959
Pierre Subleyras, Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee, 1737



In this post I'd like to tackle a subject that I have been thinking of for a long time. As a photographer for nearly 30 years I devoured many books on how to take better photos and wasted numerous rolls of film trying to develop an innate sense of framing and "finding the shot" before I take it. And it works. Photography is great experience in honing your eye for what to include and exclude in the frame, and even what to enhance or focus on. But when it came to applying what I learned toward my art, I realized I still had much to learn. Indeed.


One of the most misunderstood yet fundamentally important elements of art is composition. Incredible, but true. Many believe it's their signature or choice of color palette, or their artist statement that will garner more sales and gallery representation, not giving much of a second thought to the very element that literally holds their painting together visually or believing they just "know" how to put their paintings together. Or worse, we listen to instructors and websites that offer simplistic, pat solutions such as the "rule of thirds" or the "Golden Mean" as gospel truth that will solve all problems in a painting so you can get on with the business of signing your name and making some money. Yet if I were to ask you to name five artists whose use of composition was brilliant, could you name them and why?


Before we get started on artists, I'd like to take a closer look at the so-called "rules" of composition and see exactly what kind of merit they have in helping us with our art. First, is the most famous (infamous) "rule of thirds":



The theory: place your most important elements on the four dots





In this photo I took outside the Louvre, you can see how the statue's shoulder and upper thigh lines up with two of the dots, while the two dots on the left provide space that leads the eye to the statue. The figure has a grace and solidity that the dots of the grid reinforce well. Overall, it works.





Here is the Golden Mean:








Here in this photo I took in London, I reversed the image to better illustrate how the golden mean can neatly fit into an image such as this, where architecture and sculpture are included in the composition. Assymetry and linear balance help to create a visually dynamic composition.


So can this be helpful in art? The problem lies in using "cookie cutter" methods to conceive your art. Although these methods have been used for centuries, they are visual guidelines more so than actual compositional methods. Now lets take the painting at the beginning of this post by Subleyras:

Pierre Subleyras - Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee - WGA21959



Without even trying we can already see that both the rule of thirds and golden mean are completely irrelevant here. This is a horizontal composition with multiple figures. The bottoms of the columns against the wall add visual balance to the prominent lateral arrangement. It is apparent here that the figures themselves are the composition. And they are arranged by direction, body language, position, placement and color. All serving to tell a narrative.


Below are some examples of how Subleyras uses the various elements of composition:




triangular grouping



visual rhythm



linear direction to indicate key figure



color contrast (warm/cool) of dynamic and key figures to stand out



motif, or visual repetition of figures


alternating figure direction and placement



contrast of group arrangement



Let's take a different example, one less complex:


The Flute Player, Ernest Meissonier


Meissonier uses a dominant vertical composition in the height of the player and echoes this in the sheet stand and the vertical lines of the window and corner. The horizontal lines all seem to point toward him. What Meissonier creates here in this corner of a room, is space and perspective. Note the contrast of light from the window with the dark corner behind him. Even the window lines themselves on the left side of the composition, contrast with the sheet stand occupying the right side of the painting, providing a visual balance to the whole.



And here let's look at psychology as a compositional element:



Evening, Jules Breton

I love this painting. Breton isolates this young woman by placing her in the foreground instead of off in the corner, and instead places her gatherers off in both one-point and atmospheric perspective to the left. The hazy sky above reflects her confusion and state of mind. What exactly could be on her mind is not clear, but we feel her isolation nonetheless. A good painting asks questions, creates a mystery, and makes us feel something we all understand.


Composition is more complex than we often realize. There is no shortcut to narrative and arrangement. Everything in your painting needs a purpose, and must be expressed within a visual language. As shown here, when it is well-conceived and executed, there is no limit to what you can achieve.

Popular posts from this blog

More Old Master Drawings

There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body.
Robert Henri








Charles Louis Müller, A Standing Female Nude Leaning Against an Arch, ca.1864

Once again I decided to talk about some Old Master drawings and delve into the thinking behind how these drawings may have been created and the knowledge of the artist. In the above drawing by Müller, done in sanguine with white chalk highlights, the figure is drawn from a low view-point, with her body twisting toward her left side while resting on one knee. Note how Müller alternates the bent right leg with the bent left arm to create dynamic contrast. The right arm is also foreshortened and partially in shadow. Expressing power and femininity, this is a study that is Renaissance in spirit, even Mannerist, revealing the female nude as sculptural yet always graceful.







Anton Raphael Mengs, Seated male nude viewed from the back, 1755

One of several Academic nude studies by Mengs, this …

Bouguereau

Nymphs and Satyr, 1873


If there is one artist today that hardly needs an introduction, it would be William-Adolphe Bouguereau, supreme giant of 19th century Academic art. Born on November 30, 1825 in La Rochelle on the southwest of France, his talent would define the era he lived in only to fall into obscurity for decades after his death in 1905 until as recent as the early 1980's, shockingly. Today he has the distinction of being lionized by the Art Renewal Center as one of the greatest artists of all time while at the other end of the spectrum vilified by modernists as artificially perfect and sentimental. In fact it is quite rare to see such polarization over an artist of a calibre like Bouguereau, whose bravura is difficult to equal yet at the same time thematically his work admittedly tends toward women and children, a subject matter that sold well and he had endless patience for. Over the vast array of his oeuvre, some 820 paintings, I have tried to find some of his very b…

Pompeo Batoni

Apollo and two Muses, 1719

Giant of the Rococo and early Neoclassicism, Pompeo Batoni was born on January 25, 1708 in Lucca, Italy. Immensely popular in his time, his name sadly is not commonly recognized today because like many Old Masters, his work is not defined by one or two singular masterpieces but by an oeuvre that is overall, incredible. Batoni is something of an anomaly in that he had the midas touch in every genre he worked in, whether portraiture, mythological, and biblical. He trained under a few painters, notably Sebastiano Conca yet he quickly fused his own style together by reinterpreting Classicism with his own vigor for dynamic posing, color and anatomy that he felt was lacking in many artists of the Rococo. His reputation as a portraitist in Rome was highly successful, particularly for many British patrons of the Grand Tour who had heard of Batoni by word of mouth and sought his genius.

In Apollo and two Muses above Batoni seems to conjure mythology and Classicism w…