I have never felt very confident about composition of a drawing; it seems to be easier with photographs, perhaps because of the viewfinder. When I use a view finder to compose a location sketch it is much easier. I need to use this technique with still life, too.
My tutor suggested the following exercise: taking shapes and arranging them on paper in different groupings, close to the edge of the format, away from it, and so on. The aim was to explore different ways of composing the same basic objects. For this exercise, I cut up the shapes from a copy of an aquatint that I made at a printing workshop a few weeks ago. The copy was in black-and-white and I selected a pale orange background because it was warm but fairly neutral. I did not experiment with different backgrounds, but obviously this could be another aspect of this exercise, which has unlimited possibilities.
First of all. I arranged the shapes in a random way, deliberately spreading them out across the paper, without connecting them in any way. The objects sit on the paper without any obvious relationship. The “composition” is uninteresting; the eye moves without continuity from one object to the next without knowing where to go next.
In the next image, I brought the objects closer and overlapped some of them. I created an incomplete frame within the format and left the paper on the right hand side empty. This created an unbalanced look. One thing I liked, though, was the capture of some negative spaces between the objects, creating new shapes.
I then drew a frame within the format to use as a guide for placement of the objects and brought the objects inside this. The paper now appeared too large for the composition, which itself seemed somewhat trapped in the central space. There were some negative spaces but they were uniformly small and uninteresting. I placed one piece diagonally across the centre, which led to the compositions that followed.
The next composition I attempted completely ignored the frame and straddled the paper diagonally. This composition is a single object but does not obviously relate to the format and there seems to be too much empty space top left; although this is more balanced than in the previous example with a smaller empty space bottom right.
I returned to the idea of capturing negative space between the objects. I also liked the use of diagonals. However, these ideas needed to be integrated within a more energetic composition. I now changed the orientation of some of the objects, so that their edges were no longer perpendicular to the edges of the format. However, the vertices of some of the objects come too close to the format, throwing the balance somewhat.
This last one had a bit more energy but almost no inner negative space (you have to hunt for it!). This was slightly more interesting than previous attempts but still seemed to be a “perimeter inside a perimeter”. There was nothing with which really to engage and too much of the white space had been overlapped and broken up by the darker objects – it seemed too scattered to create proper balance.
Finally, I created two compositions that I am reasonably happy with. One is a simultaneously open and enclosed. There is a better black-white balance and the negative space, although mostly “open” is more inviting to the eye, which can move through the composition without becoming “trapped”. There is a suggestion of a simple maze. The circular shapes seem to come into their own for the first time and there is a greater sense of equilibrium in terms of colour, shape and movement. However, some objects are still too close to the edge of the paper. The arrangement uses space unequally: there is slightly more space to the right.
I was curious to know how the orientation of the paper would change my perception of the composition. Below is a portrait version. I like it less than the landscape arrangement because the space at the bottom seems more unbalanced than when viewed in landscape, even though it is exactly the same.
The last composition is the one I like best. It seems more animated than the others. There is some variety in negative space and I like the way that the white shapes carry the eye through the composition, even though they are not all connected. The edge problem is a recurring one, even allowing for careless photography!
I rotated the image to try it in portrait and, this time, quite liked the result. It reminds me of an abstract figure on the move. The eye tends to go around the composition in a square-ish figure of eight.
I will not be framing any of these and putting them on my wall…. however, the exercise was useful for revealing the endless possibilities of composition and the ways in which shape, colour and line, amongst other things, affect our perception of what is a good or not-so-good composition.
I am sure that a more experienced eye than mine could have done many more interesting things with this collection of shapes but the exercise has achieved what it set out to achieve: I am more aware of the range of possibilities within any compositional subject, some of which work better than others for many different reasons and I hope that I will be inclined in future to explore more options, rather than settling for something through a desire just to get on with drawing. It has also highlighted my tendency to place objects too close to the edge – something to watch out for in future (and, when I look through my sketchbook, I see many existing examples!).