Deciding where to place the elements in a painting can be
difficult, but the decisions are crucial to creating a successful piece.
by Naomi Ekperigin
Deciding where to place the elements in a painting can be
difficult, but the decisions are crucial to creating a successful piece. When a
composition is done well, it may go unnoticed; however, a poorly composed piece
instantly strikes the viewer’s eye as awkward. The goal of composition is to
direct the viewer’s eye through a painting and lead them toward what the artist
thinks is important. Although there is no single right way to do this, there
are specific devices one can employ to draw a viewer’s eye to a point of
interest, as well as to create the illusion of objects, people, and places
existing in tangible space. Here, we list some of the tools at an artist’s
disposal that will aid in influencing and directing the viewer.
|A proportion finder, viewfinder,
and anglefinder developed by
artist-instruction Brian Bomeisler
for his beginning students.
Many beginning painters tend to devote their energy to
drawing and painting objects accurately, and find it difficult to create a
strong composition. “It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the possibilities one
discovers in the landscape,” says artist-instructor James Sulkowski, who
teaches plein air workshops to help students overcome the fear of
decision-making. Some artist-instructors suggest using a viewfinder, which many
artists employ when faced with a large scene. One can purchase a viewfinder at
any art supply store, or make a simple one out of cardboard. Regardless of the
material, it serves the same purpose: a viewfinder allows an artist to isolate
the key elements of a scene, as well as view multiple compositions before
committing one to paper.
When faced with a large scene, it is helpful to ask several
questions. Why do I want to paint this scene? What initially attracted me to
it? What content is needed to attract the viewer and make them feel what I feel?
As these questions are answered, it becomes clear that a given scene is not set
in stone, even if the subject is a mountain range. An artist can alter the
scene to suit the emotions or message he or she seeks to share with the viewer.
A landscape or still life is meant to spark the imagination and excite the
senses; it should be an image that is begging to be painted or drawn. If a
certain area or image is not appealing, change locations or choose alternate
subjects. Or, one could crop a scene tightly and focus on minute details that often
go unnoticed in a large scene.
|An Experiment on a Bird
in an Air Pump
by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768,
oil, 72 x 96. Collection
the National Gallery, London, England.
|Derby's painting divided
according to the rule
of thirds. Notice that
scientist and the young
girl are placed at points
Sulkowski recommends that students determine the focal point
before applying the brush to the canvas. “No matter what the circumstances, an
artist needs to identify the focal point of his or her painting and then
structure the painting process so that the viewer immediately understands the
center of interest. When painting en plein air, it is very important to keep
that focus in mind so time and energy aren’t wasted on elaborating areas of the
canvas that are of secondary importance.” The same also holds true when
painting a still life.
Nashville artist-instructor Gayle Levée has her workshop students spend hours arranging
elements to create the best composition. She advises that they initially put
together more objects than they think they’ll need, and then choose one as the
focal point. “Place that object first, and then place the supporting pieces
around it,” she suggests. When painting a still life, Levée begins with the
focal point, and makes measurements on the canvas proportional to the center of
|Reflections in Gold
by Gayle Levée, 2007, oil, 16 x 20.
Collection Karl T. Dennis.
In her painting Reflections
in Gold, Levée employs the rule of thirds to draw the viewer’s eye to the
vase and fruit (view a demonstration of the piece). This is one of several devices that can draw the viewer’s eye
to a center of interest. This rule, employed in painting and photography, is
meant to yield a more aesthetically pleasing composition. It advises that
artists divide a canvas into three sections both horizontally and vertically,
and place the center of interest at a point of intersection, or in the upper or
lower third of the frame. By doing so, the focal point is taken out of the
“dead center” of the canvas, and the viewer’s eye is led across the entire
space. This can be seen in Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, in which he places the figures in the upper and lower thirds, as well as in the
left and right thirds of the canvas.
Derby also uses light to create areas of high contrast, which naturally attract the
eye. He creates a single light source, which emanates from the center but does
not illuminate all the figures equally. The viewer’s eyes are naturally drawn
to the figures that are most brightly lit, and those in shadow gaze in the same
direction, which refocuses the viewer’s attention. While the young woman on the
left looks towards the canvas edge at her companion, his gaze toward her
prevents the viewer’s eye from wandering off the canvas. The old man to the
left of the center looks outward, which serves to create the illusion of a much
larger space, and possibly unseen participants. The moon in the upper right
corner offers an additional light source, and creates an ominous tone that sets
a mood for the viewer. It is not by any means the most important element in the
piece, but it is vital for the emotion it evokes, and as such, Derby draws the viewer’s
eye to it by making it bright in comparison to the dark clouds surrounding it
and the shadowy interior it illuminates.
by Camille Pissarro, 1898, oil.
Many landscape painters use leading lines to direct the
viewer’s gaze. This is often seen in the form of lakes, rivers, streams,
fences, and roads. In these instances, the illusion of three-dimensional space
is created by the use of perspective. As the objects recede into view, they naturally
become narrower, and the viewer follows the path created as depth increases. For
instance, in Camille Pissarro’s Avenue
l’Opera: Morning Sunshine, the viewer’s eye is above ground level, taking
in the scene. However, we are drawn into the distance by the receding path. Our
gaze is further echoed by the large buildings on either side that follow the
path of the road. We also see the rule of thirds at work, as the sky occupies
the upper third of the frame, and the fountains are on both sides. This leaves
the emptiest space in the center, though it is is clearly occupied—both by the
passersby and by the viewer, who looks in this direction.
By creating areas of sharp contrast and bright light, as
well as positioning the points of interest asymmetrically, the artist can
subtly and powerfully direct a viewer’s gaze. Once a focal point is
established, determining the emotions or message it evokes will help one decide
which of the aforementioned tools will most effectively tell a clear and
evocative visual story.
Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.