Demonstration: Exploring Composition Through a Limited Focus
"limited focus" isn't limiting at all, but expands our options in
first compositional move any painter makes is to apply a limited focus. Whether
it be a still life, an interior, a figure, or a landscape (which is the most
all-inclusive of subjects), some
portion of what we see must be excluded if we
are to create a focused, effective composition. As Hans Hoffman put it, we must
"eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak."
limited focus is explored through the picture window
- the imaginary window we impose around a subject. That window or "cropping"
will ultimately define the boundaries of the composition and correspond to what
will become the edges of the painting or drawing. When artists peer through a
viewfinder or cropping device, or look through the camera, they are, in effect,
testing various picture windows and possible compositions.
a limited focus is actually a very flexible way of exploring composition. When
we take control of the picture window - deciding where the top, bottom, left
and right edges of the picture fall - we discover that there is not just
one composition that can be extracted from a scene, but many. In the following
demonstration, I will extract three compositions from the larger scene.
original scene offered a lot of interesting passages, but I was most intrigued
by what was happening on the far right. The chain and post fence is a good
perspective cue and offers a lot of possibilities. I intentionally photographed
more than I would ever include in one painting, knowing that this would give me
more options with the picture window.
may be the raison d'être for many a landscape painting, but it can sometimes distract us
from seeing simplified shapes and values, which are what we assess when
evaluating a composition. So, the first thing I did was to convert the
image to black and white. (I also applied the Cutout filter in Photoshop which
limits the number of values and creates simpler shapes.)
trying different picture windows, I generated three different compositions from
the same area of the scene. Slight changes in the position of the picture
window created noticeable shifts in how the energy of the scene was
interpreted. Note that the proportions of each composition are not the
same. Remember, the picture window is flexible, so I am not bound by
standard proportions such as 8 x 10, 9 x 12, 16 x 20, etc. I can give the
composition what it needs by contracting and expanding the picture window at the
top, bottom, left or right edges.
Options 1 and 2: Both options employ the same implied diagonal
scheme: we enter in the lower right along the diagonal perspective created by
the fence posts. We follow it to the left, and then zig back, rightward, up
along the implied diagonal formed by the tops of the trees. The two
compositions are otherwise identical, except that option 1 features
more real estate to the left - which changes everything. It creates a wide
"landscape" format which naturally suggests expansion from left to
right. We still track the diagonal movement from the lower right to the left
and back again, but our eye seems to travel a greater distance. In Option 2, we
experience these same diagonal movements, but in a more compressed way. The
vertical format reinforces this. The vertical or portrait format
is less common in landscape painting, but with certain scenes, can be very
effective in drawing the viewer inward and upward to create a sense of deep
Option 3: This composition is the most successful of the three. It
explores the same portion of the scene and uses the same implied diagonals, but
it adds more sky, a foreground, and a dark tree on the right. Together, they
offer greater movement and variation of shapes.
expanding the picture window at the bottom, a dark cast shadow is introduced.
This reinforces the entry into the picture and joins with the fence post, which
then joins with the tall dark tree on the right to form a kind of semicircle of
dark (see arcing arrow). This brackets the right side of the composition and
creates an opening to the left where the background trees are. In his
book Composition of Outdoor Painting, Edgar
Payne refers to this type of composition as the "O" or circle. "It
generally offers a pretty sure method of achieving unity," say Payne,
"provided the main opening or space is kept dominant."
The tall dark tree on the right, the cast shadow in the foreground, and
the dark trees on the left make for three strong, varying shapes of dark value.
More variation of shapes means more a interesting composition.
A light opening between the trees (see oval) now becomes a shape unto
itself. It offers another interesting element, surrounded by the many darker
values, and provides another way to move through the space.
4. A clear
fore-, middle-, and background is a tried and true way of staging the landscape
space. It is not an absolute requirement that every composition use all three
stages, but in this case the changes introduced in option 3 do establish all
three layers, which helps create the suggestion of deeper space.
Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape
Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
(Watson-Guptill, 2009). Find him on Facebook and YouTube.
Resources from Landscape
Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice.
Through the Picture Window, page 85.
Focus Through Selection, pages 86-87.
Viewfinder, page 89.
Flexible Picture Window, page 89.