Working on Composition: Pattern & Design

Composition is my greatest challenge at the moment, in terms of overall design as well as colour choice and balance. I have observed how Cézanne produced exquisite balance and interest in his still lifes, often achieved with a few pieces of fruit alone. He simplified his compositions by focusing on geometric shapes, building interest through colour and tone.

Before embarking on the next exercise, I want to come up with a strategy that will enable me to “jump in” rather than procrastinate and worry about it, as I have been doing recently.

I am reading Bert Dodson’s “Keys to Drawing” at the moment, focussing on chapter 7, Pattern and Design. Points that seem particularly helpful and relevant to my drawing at this time are listed below:

Three compositional decisions. Dodson has also experienced the difficulty in getting started and devised the following strategy (p. 183), which I will also apply to my next drawing:

1. Do I want a vertical or horizontal composition?
2. Do I want more subject or more background? The centre of interest can dominate without necessarily taking up more space.
3. Can I reduce my subject to five shapes or less? This gives a basic design to work with. The eye can take in 5 shapes easily, making this a useful number to work with but it is not fixed in stone…

Shapes (p.174) – things to consider…
– negative space is as important as the positive space occupied by the objects and they should support each other rather than one dominate.

– shapes may be the objects themselves but can also be tonal areas on parts of objects, or shadows, as well as the background or spaces in between objects. The ways in which all of these relate to each other have to be considered.

Framing (p.178) – use a viewfinder that is in the same proportions to the paper! Zoom in, out and around. Move objects to create better spatial relationships and to avoid tangents (see last point below).
Framing can simplify a complex arrangement of objects. Noving in close creates larger-than-life images with more abstract shapes. Overhead views create more space between objects and can make vertical compositions with strong diagonals.

Cropping (p.180) – “crop and float” – crop from one side and leave space on the other. Avoid cropping at the neck or ankles, although legs could be cropped if this happens at different places. Cropping half a head seems to work but this would depend on the individual composition. Radical cropping makes the relationship between positive and negative space more obvious.

Avoid Tangents (p.195) – generally, avoid drawing objects such that they touch tangentially, including with edge of the format. Clear overlap is better as this helps to create the illusion of depth and gives a better idea of where objects stand in relation to each other. Tangents can also suggest relationships that do not exist (e.g. an elbow in someone’s ear) and so are distracting.

Dodson refers to what he calls “straddles” – apparent contradictions or paradoxes of design. These are covered below and can be summarised as the need to “develop opposites” in a drawing.

Repetition and variation (p. 185) look for ways to repeat shapes. Repetition could also be in the negative spaces or in shadows rather than in the objects themselves.
Repetition of basic shapes also requires some variation, e.g. in colour or position or in the use of disparate objects whose connection is the rhythm of line / shapes rather than in, say, utility.

Simplicity and Complexity (p.188) a design that is very simple can have added complexity through the addition of textural (“enrichment”) details. A design that is complex can be simplified through making some shapes more uniform (repetition) or by flattening tones to reduce confusion of “enrichment shapes”. The aim is to strengthen similarities and reduce disparities in order to gain more unity and coherence.

Clarity and ambiguity (p.190) – allow the viewer “to make discoveries” through offering unusual perspectives of ultimately recognisable objects which prompt questions but which can also provide answers. Ambiguity can be achieved by drawing objects from an unusual angle or on an unreal scale, or by juxtaposing them with objects that initially suggest incoherence, or by placing an object in an unusual setting. The aim is to see something differently, and so enable others to do so, too.

Balance and imbalance (p. 192) – the eye must be drawn into and around a drawing but there must also be places where it can rest. Symmetry must be balanced with assymmetry, order with disorder, high and low contrast, etc.

The position of the centre of interest is important for “physical” balance in an image. Generally, it is better to avoid placing an object in the centre of the format, although even this is alright if it is balanced by something else away from the centre. Similarly, an object can be placed at the edge of a drawing if there is something that will direct the eye back into the picture. The “rule of thirds” is useful but experiment with placement.

Active and passive shapes (p.194) – if one side of an object is simple, make the other side more complex (” active”). This is easier to achieve in figure drawing, perhaps than when drawing an orange. However, tonal changes, relationship with background and with the properties (colour, complexity) of adjacent objects is relevant here.

It would be good to illustrate these with examples but as it is intended as guidance for my own use, and I know what I mean by each of these and that I must try to address these points… hopefully, I will not be producing examples in future work…. we’ll see….

Dodson, Bert (1990). Keys to Drawing. North Light Books. The page numbers in the text refer to the first paperback edition (1990).


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