Monday, 30 January 2012


While sketching at the National Gallery, I was reminded that once upon a time, art students were encouraged to visit galleries and do what was called "A transcription" of a painting.  I believe that they were actually allowed to stand and paint - a friend of mine did that many years ago - but this is no longer an option in most galleries. 

However, if you get into the habit of taking a small sketchbook with you, a small drawing can be made, even standing up.  If you concentrate on the shapes you think are important, and indicate something of the tone, you will learn a great deal about the painting, particularly if you also try to consider something of the composition of the piece, so your drawing becomes an analysis rather than just a copy.
There is nothing to compare to doing a drawing of this kind.  You will unquestionably remember the painting well; you will have looked at the picture FAR longer than if you had just stood to look at it briefly, or purchased a postcard on your way home.  You may well find yourself becoming aware, slowly, of relationships within the picture that had not occurred to you initially ...connections, rhythms, these things can all be "hidden" within a painting.  

Painters of the past can teach us a great deal; they were often working on different levels at the same time.  They were thinking of the subject, of course, and what they wanted to say about it, but they would also consider the abstract,  formal aspects of composition and design.  There would be a continuous interchange between these two aspects, which would give their paintings a particular power and tension. I believe the best paintings show a respect for both the subject, and the picture surface/design.

Degas'  Woman at her Toilet, 1894, is a large pastel on paper.  I chose it because this painting does more than "nod" at composition and this instance, the design elements are very obvious.  It is full of echoing shapes, and repeated and tilted right-angles.  Take a look at the profile of the big vase on the right;  it is echoed by the edge of the white tablecloth - you can see it best when you look at the shape of the dark shadow below the edge of the white cloth. I find this kind of discovery fascinating - a real "light-bulb moment!"

 Look at the angles made by the arms, in the "analysis" sketch below.  Notice too the emphasis on some edges, which reinforce a direction, then see how other edges are softened and "lost", bringing two adjacent forms together, or in some cases, reducing the impact within the rectangle...for example, the bent lower arm of the hand holding the hairbrush is not as heavily emphasised as the upper arm, or the arms of the maid. Maybe Degas felt he would create a zig-zag effect on the left of the picture, which would have been undesirable - or perhaps a right-angle there would lead the eye OUT of the picture instead of in....conjecture on my part!   anyway - this is the kind of small sketch you could try for yourself:

According to the Tate Gallery's description, "The contrast of the soft form of the active central figure and the heavily outlined shape of the immobile maid generates a visual tension and energy, which is heightened by the rich treatment of the walls and furnishings".  

Notice how the surface of the picture is full of short, interrupted lines, or let's call them directional pointers, which create "stepping stones" for the viewer's eye, connecting in the same way as two people throwing a ball to each other.

View a bigger version of the picture by clicking here

Rather than sketching purely to make a record of what you see, why not consider, sometimes,  sketching to try to unlock some of the hidden secrets of composition.  You may be surprised by what you find, and how your own work will grow as a result.  It's also really satisfying.....and fun!   

See how many echoes, rhythms and directional pointers you can spot in this gorgeous Degas image:

 Ballet Dancers in the Wings (1900) 


  1. Another excellent and informative post - thank you Jackie! I'll be taking a sketchbook with me next time I go to the Fitzwilliam :-)

  2. great idea Sharon, I think you may well really enjoy it. Of course, in some paintings the underlying compositional ideas are harder to spot, and I have only mentioned, so far, a few ideas for you to look out for - there are tons more! But all of the strongest paintings, the most memorable ones, have good underlying design elements.

  3. Jackie, another good post on an important subject--composition! I think you are right to point out the importance of composition to strong, enduring paintings, along with some of the technical components of composition.

    I wonder if you think that composition also serves another purpose, that is, composition is the fundamental process for a painter to select, edit, design, arrange and execute the contents of a painting to express intent (the purpose, idea, feeling, emotion for the subject by the painter)?

    Could composition be more than finding the thirds-points?

    Intent = content/content = intent?


  4. Hi Virgil,
    yes, composition is about a multitude of things, and for sure, certain design ideas will emphasise or underscore intent.....for example, and keeping it simple, if one wanted to produce a quiet, contemplative, serene, static image, the artist would potentially be foolish to choose an underlying design full of shapes, lines and movements which are visually exciting, jumpy, restless and active. Shapes within the rectangle can be lively or passive; strong or gentle; stationary or full of movement. The tonal structure of a painting needs consideration, and purpose. The same applies to colour. Being aware of these forces at work within the rectangle is part of the learning about composition and design, and the artist needs to take into account that the form of any picture must be determined first and foremost by the subject matter. I feel that any "rules" or ideas about composition are purely tools to be used by the artist, to better express his intent. Does this answer your question?

  5. Another great post! Thanks so much Jackie. A lesson like this that reinforces the importance of tonal structure is so helpful. It's too easy to put all the emphasis on color and neglect the bones of a painting.

    1. Great post Jackie. Composition is ever so important, one needs to understand when and why you would move something for better composition. This applies to working from life as well as using photos. The more one understands composition, the more liberating it is to paint. The compositon can be changed at will, and there is no slavery to the photo (or the live reference). Studying the masters is a great tool, and fun too! Thanks for the reminder!


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