Painting composition is all about ruthless editing. It’s a creative process, and it’s based on seeing.
Bill's Yellow (with Admiration), 2005, Cornelia Foss, Houston Museum of Fine Art
Sometimes I hand out little plastic viewfinders to my students. Mine are made of Plexiglas, roughly along the lines of this one. But they are for beginners, to help them start to break down the vastness of the landscape into palatable bites. I don’t encourage reliance on viewfinders, any more than I like working from photos. Art is based on seeing. Seeing isn’t a mechanical process; it’s a learned art.
Artwork Essential’s viewfinder is based on the Rule of Thirds. When I was in school, I was taught to divide canvases using the Golden Mean. It’s imprinted in my aesthetic, so I still see it as the most graceful compositional device. Later, I learned about Dynamic Symmetry. All of these are good working systems, and all of them are based on mathematics.
|The Golden Mean is closely related to the Fibonacci Sequence.|
The human mind, in receiving mode, likes to tarry on puzzles. That’s why we use these complex mathematical systems to compose our paintings. In sending and processing mode, however, the mind ruthlessly regularizes thoughts. If you’ve ever tried to paint a screen of branches as in the Klimt painting below, you know this to be true. You must fight to keep them honest. Left to its own devices, your subconscious mind will line them up like little soldiers.
We “know” compositional rules, and then we see a painting like Cornelia Foss’ Bill’s Yellow (with Admiration) and we realize that all such rules can be set on their heads. Ms. Foss isn’t ignorant of design systems; in fact she knows them so well that she can play with them. Bill’s Yellow wouldn’t have been nearly the painting had she offset the brush and tree in a conventional way. It is monumental because she centered and overlaid them.
Beech Grove I, 1902, Gustav Klimt, New Masters Gallery, Dresden.
Compositions designed with mechanical devices are ‘safer,’ but they eliminate the space needed to make creative discoveries. I greatly admire the work of painter Mary Byrom. Having now known her personally for several years, I know she endlessly experiments with composition and form. She isn’t getting those arresting compositions by setting up with a viewfinder; she gets them by slogging through damp marshes at twilight, and endlessly tinkering.
Early Dusk, Mary Byrom
“Plein air painting is like a test you take in class,” Brad Marshall told me. “You have to use your knowledge and finish by the end of the class period. There’s no credit for incomplete answers.
“Studio paintings are like essays. You have enough time to do your research, write and rewrite until the work is good enough to turn in.”
There’s room for both in professional painting, but for learning and growth, working from life is critical. That’s why I strongly discourage working from photos in my studio classes. Photos have already done the most important job for the painter: flat-packing the scene.
Confronted with the vastness of reality, all artists must relentlessly, ruthlessly edit what they see into a working design. With photographs, that is already done. And there’s no guarantee that it has been done well.