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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.