Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Picking apart paintings 3

In my last post, I talked about REPETITION, which I hope some of you found informative and helpful.
It is only one small aspect of the business of composing a painting - there are so many other aspects, all I can do perhaps is open your eyes to a few of them.

I'd like to talk, this week, about how the emphasis of a certain deliberate aspect of design can help to create a particular atmosphere.

Firstly, let's consider images which represent calm, almost static forms of design. So, let's first look at SYMMETRY.

An image with the main subject placed firmly in the centre is something that, as art students,  we are encouraged to avoid.  But a walk around any gallery of Master paintings will show that a centralized design was constantly used by the greatest of painters.  And what about a portrait? It would be a bit daft to deliberately place a head off-centre just because of a suspicion that it might not be a good idea to "centralise" the subject!  Above is a painting by Bellini, entitled Madonna of the Meadows.  The mother and child form an important triangle - slap bang in the centre of the image, a strong, stable, iconic triangle, firmly rooted to the base of the image.  I think it is so obvious, I am not going to draw lines around it to prove the point.    There are other diagonal movements going on all over the image, but these are countered and stabilised by subtle vertical and horizontal accents throughout.  Notice the horizontals in the landscape and sky, and the vertical elements of the buildings on the hillside, in the clothing of the Maddona, and in the trees.  There are other echoes...even the gentle inclination of the distant trees echoes the tilt of her head.    
We are taught these days that horizontals and verticals are calm and stable..and diagonals and angles provide variety, edginess and instability.....so all these angles should produce a sense of activity...yet because of the way this piece has been so carefully and SYMMETRICALLY designed,  the atmosphere, as a result, is very calm and stable .

By way of contrast, let's look at the ASYMMETRY created by Degas in this lovely dancers image.

Despite the fact that there are lots of lovely "rhymes" and echoing forms and shapes and colours, there is certainly a sense of activity here, and little in the way of "calm" or "stability" - quite the opposite in fact.  The angles cut across the image, emphasised by the light tones in the skin.  The curves of dress necklines positively dance across the image, swinging first one way, then the other.  They echo the shapes of the heads.  Degas was a master of logical and deliberate compositions, and a master too of the use of diagonal movements and thrusts, which are evident in this image.  There are loads of angles and triangles as in the Bellini above...but there is no sense of calm at all.  It is worth spending a little time thinking about this. I did, and to my mind, because of the fact that there are NO horizontals or verticals, finding any kind of calm or stability is virtually impossible.  You may have different views, but this is the conclusion I have come to.
 Look first at the curves:

and now look at the abstract pattern of angles which create a web of triangles across the image:

So - the underlying geometry of our designs/compositions is important to consider, because then we can help to emphasise the atmosphere in the image, and influence the feelings of the viewer beyond just admiration of technique or interest in subject-matter.

I hope I made myself clear in this one....it is quite an advanced concept, and not easy to put into practice, but the more you begin to "see" it, the more you will subconsciously - or perhaps even consciously - be able to use this information.


  1. Very enlightening! Thank you.

  2. I didn't notice the lack of horizontal or verticals in the Degas till you pointed it out but I like it so much more than the calm picture above it. I know my sisters would like the calm picture more. Interesting. I have looked for lines to keep a person coming back into the picture now I will be looking for horizontal, verticals and repetitions of any and see how they make me feel about the painting. Thanks.


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