Saturday, May 14, 2011

Stapleton Kearns on Composition

Master landscape painter, Stapleton Kearns, has started a list of poor compositional choices he has titled "The Encyclopedia of Dumb Design Ideas." They chronical the misadventures of a fictional artist, Dirk Van Assaerts, and his many flawed sketches in oil. These flaws offer beginners a list of things to watch out for, focusing primarily on the aesthetics, or lack thereof, of certain shapes, and how they draw or shift our attention. You can surmise from this list, many years of frustration and even agony as an art teacher.

Road to Nowhere:
One for Each Eye:
Foreground Dillema:
The Three Striper:
The Potato 1:
The Potato 2:
Beaks 1:
Beaks 2:
Beaks 3:
Beaks 4:

Expect updates, as Stapleton Kearns adds to his blog.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Composing Death

Death's always a drab topic. It's not something you'd bring up just for fun with friends. In our daily lives, it revolves around funerals, and the friends and relatives who mourn their losses. You wish you could help them, but the grief isolates them. You don't know what to say, and probably there are no words to help. You wish the whole thing never happened, and you try to distract yourself.

The following two pieces remind us that death comes for us as well. It is something to fear, not simply ignore. The first is a cover piece by Charlie Adlard for a comic called The Walking Dead, one of the grimmest zombie stories you can find. It also won the Eisner Award just last year, for best continuing series.

The cover consists of a group of zombies at the top stumbling towards you, with you apparently lying on the ground, having tripped over debris. In the middle of the zombies there's a mother and child, suprisingly unhurt, and seemingly ignored by the hungry zombies - a mystery I'll get to in a moment. Below the zombies is just darkness, taking up most of the image.

So what does the dark represent? For me, this cover states a clear message. First you're going to be torn apart by these dead things, and then you'll go wherever the darkness leads - the depth of the black referencing the six feet of burial, although you'd be lucky to be buried in this circumstance. Charlie Adlard could've easily just drawn their legs and feet, in a field or street filled with debris, filling in a lovely background. He could've placed the zombies in the middle, or down below, adding a lovely bit of sky above - even stars twinkling in twilight. But it wouldn't have told the same story.

Despite the drunken stupor of these zombies, there's a definite longing in their eyes, a need to bring you down to their level - that mixed with a stupid hunger we've come to expect from zombies. In this image, death isn't just a fact of life or a force of nature, it's a hungry beast, and utterly ruthless. Charlie wants you to fear death, to fill you with dread and suspense, hinting at the horrors to come within the comic. And with a simple bit of perspective, placing the zombies above you, you become a participant in the story, not just a voyeur.

Here's a portrait of Chris Cooper by Daniel Clarke that says all the same things, without the zombies:

It's a bit more subtle, but it's amazing how just one man's expression can say so much. This portrait uses the same black compositional device, but the focus is a little different. While the first portrays death as an unthinking animal, this one embodies it in the cold intellect of a man, who ought to know better. Chris Cooper, as a villain in one of his films, displays a face that states both indifference and relentless drive. We fear him, but there's a second, underlying fear - that we are the monster as well. Zombies are no longer human, so they're not subject to notions of ethics or justice - they're free to kill and maim with a clear conscious. People don't get that luxury, and of the two dangers represented in these works, it's man we most have to fear.

I'm going to focus my next few posts on portraits, to explore the different functions they fill. It amazes me how some portraits are just heads on walls, while others can tell a complete story. I'll try to find more examples.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Giancola - a final examination

I just wanted to take one final look at this painting and see if there was anything used from the first post on this blog - any of the typical devices, such as the golden mean, rule of thirds, zigzags or L's, etc.

Here's a look at this using the Golden Mean to find four points, which I then used to make a grid, dividing up the picture plane. The idea with this is that the points of intersection should be ideal focal points, and the shapes should follow the lines. I don't see any of that here.

Here's another grid, this time dividing the painting into fourths. Again, I don't see any of the points or lines lining up with anything.

This last one turned out interesting, though. Here I made a simple diamond shape, and you'll see that a lot of the composition fits in quite nicely. There is a lot of symmetry in this painting, it's just subtle.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Last week I posted this painting asking one question, what do you see first? One of the big questions in composition is, to what extent can the artist lead your eye, focusing on one thing? I got a few responses to this that I'm not content with (from "My understanding is that it tends to be a cultural thing - depending on the way a particular culture reads: upper left entry and scan across, drop down to the left and scan across, for westerners (like a big "Z"). While Asian viewers enter top right and scan down vertically. That always made sense to me but I can't point to any validating research." "Actually, in all composition classes I've had this question has come up and the teacher has told that it's not a cultural thing, but a brain thing. That no matter how one reads, the eye always goes to the upper left corner of the image." This sounds like reading to me, not looking. Did anyone look at this image and start in the upper left corner? Am I the only one who started in the middle?

For me, it's the figure in the middle who stands out, and was the first thing I saw in this image. No matter where I look, I'm drawn back to him. The reason I chose this piece is to determine why. I mean, he's in the middle, so that's one reason. The rest of the scene is so chaotic, he's one of the few figures you can rest your eyes on. There's also the use of high contrast to focus your attention on him - in this case alternating from light to dark on each side of his head:

But, all the heads have similar contrast. Maybe it's that he's the only figure going against the tide - his head is the only one turned to the left. Is that what attracts the eyes? Then, let's take a look at just the heads:

What do you think? To me, removing the rest of the image completely changes the weight of it, and it's now easily divided into four different stories. Now, my eyes do read the image like a book from top to bottom. There are the four heads in the back (at the top) rushing in a straight line to battle. There are the pairs of heads just below on the left, talking to each other, the four on the right struggling, and a couple heads in the lower half for balance. The most prominent head now is the helmeted one in the strongest light, just right of center. The man we originally focused on is drowned out, it no longer matters which way his face is turned. You can also see a pair of diagonal lines, by matching the heads together, neither of which focus us on the man in center...

Maybe it's the thrust of his torso, moving against the crowd? Well, let's compare him to the rest:

Well, it's true that he's the only one moving in the opposite direction. But, his torso/stance actually matches several figures to his left. It's most strongly contrasted by the flow of figures to his right. There's a division line in the lean of the soldiers that bisects the piece, with the man in the center at the middle of it. That may help, but I still see a lot of chaos, with the only main rhythms being the three rows of torsos, bobbing along the image.

Here are some stronger devices that I think best answer the question. Take a look at the spears. They make an alleyway through the painting that focuses our attention on what's going on inside. Note how the spearman in the foreground has his back turned to us - this is also on purpose. Imagine how easily he would take our attention if he were facing us, distracting us from the larger story.

Now look at the men around this main figure. They're symmetrically divided. Two above him, one on either side, and a pair of heads on each side of him, all radiating around him like a halo. It's subtle enough I didn't see it at first, but I think it explains a lot. He's also the only regular, geometric shape in a sea of complex shapes.

Apart from this, there are also a number of lines that draw our attention to him. I've drawn the primary ones in red: the line of eyesight from the soldiers on his left, and the line of his breastplate, pointing up to his face. The thrust of the arms and contours around him also help single him out:

All these devices work together to magically draw your eye on him, a man unnamed and insignificant in the original story, but crucial to this moment of it. We see Faramir in his shining armor, wounded, on the right. He's being held up by one struggling soldier, while another shields him from arrows. The soldier we care about is holding his cloak, and shouting orders to get Faramir to safety. Why didn't Donato Giancola make Faramir the focal point? Because right now, it's his fellow soldiers who make the story, and he wants us to identify with them. Think again about you as the spectator - who are you in this story? A fellow soldier, standing slightly above the others? Perhaps you're an archer on a low wall, or a bit of ruins? This scene could be what you glance at as you reach for another arrow.

Look at the soldiers shouting at each other. Others right by them don't even notice, due to the clamor of battle. Donato's planned this composition not just on what will focus our attention, but on what it would sound like to be there. You can hear the rush of battle, the cries and clashes, when you look at this painting.

There's also a strong link to historical works such as the Bayeux Tapestry or Paolo Ucello's Battle of San Romano - of not simply taking you there, but memorializing the event. There's a strong sense of choreography and grace going on, that romantacizes the action. Looking at this, you get the feeling you could be standing in a royal hallway in Minas Tirith, a fictional city in the Lord of the Rings.

Final point. Where are the orcs? We can't see any. We see many fearsome warriors charging with spears, but not where they meet the enemy. This is intentional. Remember, mystery is just as frightening as the ugliest monster, often more so. Without the enemy in the scene, we don't know how near they are, how numerous, nor how frightening. This reflects the confusion of war and adds tension to the scene, as does the one fallen soldier at the bottom, indicating that spot of terrain has been contested many times and isn't secure.

Friday, March 11, 2011

I just got home from work, and the first thing I saw in the news was the tsunami in Japan. My heart goes out to all the people effected. My cousin is married to a woman from Japan. I hope her family is all right.

Here's another painting by Donato Giancola:

55" x 37" Oil on paper on panel, copyright 2003 Donato Giancola, posted with artist's permission
Here's a bit of information about the story, from wikipedia:
Faramir, Boromir's younger brother, returns from his failed campaign with the shattered remnants of his company, and is soon ordered by his mad father, Lord Denathor, to ride out and continue the hopeless defence of Osgiliath against a horde of orcs. Osgiliath is soon overrun and a gravely wounded Faramir is carried back again to Denathor. This is the point in the story where Faramir is wounded, and his loyal men try to save him. One interesting note: the word 'orc' was originally coined by the English against the invading Normans.
What's the first thing you see in this painting?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Donato Giancola

If you don't know about Donato Giancola, you should look him up:

Here's a perfect example of what an artist can accomplish by understanding and carefully planning the principles of composition:


28"x 15"Oil on Paper on Masonite, copyright 2004, Donato Giancola, posted with artist's permission.

What do you see first, in this image? For me, it's his face, particularly his eyes and nose, leading up to the reflection in his visor. Then the Earth pokes out on the left, and I feel a little play looking back and forth at these two circular objects. These three elements, face, reflection, and planet, tell a great story, but I didn't choose this to talk much about focal points. Here are the compositional elements that stand out to me, that are really exciting:

  1. There's the strong contrast between light and dark, used countless times by artists as a representation of life and death - of the urge not just to live, but find meaning in it. Darkness represents death and mystery - the mystery of after-death. I say mystery because anything could be hidden in darkness, just as there are countless mystical theories about the afterlife. This is true whether it's the shadow of a tree, a darkened interior, or the depths of space. In this work, we see the black literally as a danger, as the vacuum of space. Anyone who's read a sci-fi book knows that the slightest problem with this man's suit could result in death. Just ask yourself why there aren't any stars twinkling behind him. They'd be pretty, and they might liven up the image, but then the blackness would lose its power.
  2. Look how close we are to this man's face. We're right there with him. Who are we, in the image? Are we a fellow astronaut? Then why isn't he looking at us? Maybe we're a camera that he's got with him, some instrument he doesn't really think about, while he does his work. In the time we take to read the image, we're no longer sitting at a desk, staring at our computers. We're out in space, because the artist consciously made us part of the story. Before you compose anything, you have to decide who the spectator is, where they'd be located, what they would be sitting on - or would they be standing, laying down, or flying above? When done correctly, the viewers feel like they've become someone else.
  3. There's a great sense of perspective and distance in this painting. How? There's no linear perspective, apart from the foreshortened face of the astronaut. There's no overlapping. There's no atmospheric perspective, because there's no atmosphere. The distance comes from the relationship between two circles, one large and one small. The large circle is the helmet of a man. The small circle is the planet Earth, something we know to be much larger than a man. Therefore it must be much farther away. Imagine for a second that the planet weren't there - how would it change the image? We'd have no sense of the vastness of the darkness behind him. We'd also have no idea where he is. The planet gives us clues as to the story, a rough timeline, and how the man feels. The Earth is a little ball behind him, just as it must be a little thought in the back of his mind - getting back to safety.
  4. There are no stars behind the man, only in front of him, as reflected on his vizor. And he's drawn to them like a moth to a flame. The image says a lot about people, our desire to explore, to find answers, to do something meaningful, to take risks. This one image expresses almost everything you could say about the subject of space travel, why we do it, what we hope to accomplish, and what makes it magical.
  5. Note how few compositional tricks he used from the previous post. I don't see any 'L's, crosses, diamonds, or triangles, apart from the triangle shape of the man's nose. There're just two circles, and they don't function the way they were described previously. They don't guide our eyes around anything. Instead, the small circle serves as a secondary focus, while the helmet serves as a frame for the face. So, there are many ways to compose an image, apart from the list I last posted.

That's what I see. I'd like to hear some other thoughts, if there's something I'm missing.

Comp 101

This is a page I found off It's originally from Arts Magazine, Nov 2006. It lists a few basic ways to plan a composition. I'm placing it here at the start of this blog as a reference, as I begin examining artworks, and to see how accurate this information is. I suspect there will be exceptions.

Click on the image and read through it. Note how the illustrations incorporate more than just one compositional device. Here are some questions I'd like to raise, and we'll revisit them in later blog posts.

  • Are there really compositional hot spots, based on geometric division of the picture plane, that make for good focal points? Does it make a composition better to place your focal points in these places?

  • What makes a focal point?

  • Can you really lead or trap the viewer's eye through your composition?

Dear Mr. Huffman: I'm having trouble replying to your comment through blogspot. I live abroad in Slovakia, and for some reason, ever since Blogspot updated (which it shouldn't have) I can't get blogs to keep the language in English. Every time I open one, even my own, I'm a guest user, with the langauge switched to Slovak. I can open my dashboard normally, write and edit new blogs, but I can't post comments. So here's what I wanted to tell you:

"I understand the need to simplify this topic for beginning art students, and in k-12 school, your time is so limited, with so many students at a time, that it's hard to go into this topic in-depth.
For me, composition is interesting in so far as the questions it raises:
1. When you look at your favorite artworks/images, why are they good? Is it the composition that does it? Or something else? An expression? A pose? The colors? etc, and yes I know those are all part of the composition, bla bla bla.
2. Of all the approaches to composition, which are the most applicable for an artist? Which lead to the best results? And how would thinking this way change your work?