Monday, July 20, 2009

A diagonal composition

Aldro Hibbard. Lanesville

I have been thinking about the question asked by deepbluehue and want to speak a little more about that.
I'm interested in learning more about concealed geometric arrangements. How do you decide what kind of geometric arrangement to use? I'm guessing that you design your landscape, still life, etc. to express that arrangement but subtly.

I don't need to know music theory to enjoy Debussy. Most of the viewers don't know about the structure operating within a painting. They don't really need to know about that structure to enjoy the art. But if you want to MAKE a painting you do need to know about the concealed geometry underlying a designed image.

There was a period a few years back when dentists offices often featured wall sized photomurals of forests and other subjects. I think that has passed and now they are back to those lovely charts about gum disease and posters of happy chipmunks wielding over sized toothbrushes, in the pastel shades those sorts of rodents prefer. The over sized photos didn't really work. They lacked that spark, that humanness, that a painting has. They were of course as accurate as they could be, but they weren't arranged. That geometry concealed below the surface of a traditional painting appeals to something in us that craves order. I think that is why photography hasn't really destroyed painting like many thought it would.

Now lets talk about that Hibbard. It is of Lanesville, Massachusetts. That's a place I know pretty well. It is still a good place to paint and hasn't changed all that much. Many artists have painted there. The design is built on a diagonal leading the viewer up through the painting to the right.

All the way around that diagonal there are other lesser lines running in the opposite direction to counterbalance the design.We usually expect a picture to "balance" . A line generally needs to be countered by an opposite line to balance.

The arrangement of the lines in the picture, gives it


I think a few of you are surprised that I call balance a design element, but it is. In fact it is the most basic design element, for those of you who imagine you can make good paintings without having to use an underlying geometric structure, remember balance. You can sometimes just crop a picture to balance, but if you are merely copying photographs, you will have problems with your pictures balancing, even if nature should accidentally occur before your lens in a pleasing arrangement, that leads the eye well, and gives a feeling of enough arrangement to satisfy that human need for order.

Above is a Willard Metcalf (from That also has a diagonal design, see it running right up the middle of the painting? The rising diagonal has a positive and major key feeling. Like the Hibbard before it has the same counterbalancing lines intersecting and setting off the main diagonal of the composition.

So there is another design stem. A rising diagonal with smaller lines counterbalancing it. This is a very useful composition and is found frequently not only in landforms but in skies too.

As you look at paintings, try to discover the geometric structure upon which the artist has built his design. Often just knowing that there is a hidden geometry there is enough to help you spot it. Tomorrow I will talk about another design stem.

10 comments: said...

Hi Stapleton,
This design thing may be the missing link for me and landscape painting (which I have always avoided unless forced to go out by a painting buddy who prefers to remain nameless, isn't that right Will?). We are off to Annisquam today.

I embraced the still life because as one teacher put it,"I can be a god". I set design, color composition and light and finish it after I take it down using the after image to guide my intentions. It's fully my own device and painting. However,I was taught landscape painting by a very strict observational painter and found most of what was out there fell flat as a painting, no matter how beautiful it was as a natural scene.Today I will stop and work on a designed under-painting only. It's never to late to start a new subject with a new approach and an open mind.(PS: I love diagonals)

Unknown said...

I am just catching up on your posts... I thought you blueberry barrens was a Hibbard at first glance. Nice job, thanks for posting it.

Unknown said...

Cool stuff! I am still remembering the quote: It is not WHAT it is a picture of, but HOW it is a picture of that is important.
Design is a big part of that "how".
And of course, once one gets to thinking along these lines (no pun intended) then scenes begin to be seen hung on the skeleten of some design framework.
Here is the link to the book I mentioned in yesterday's comment.
The title is:
14 Formats for Painting Fabulous Landscapes, by Barbara Nuss.
Looking at it now, I don't know why I have it in my mind that it is "dorky", but anyway, it's basic information presented in a clear manner. I got a paperback, not nearly this expensive. Sorry, its a long link. Copy and paste, since I don't think I put a live link in these comments.

"metableb" too much talk, not enough painting going on.

deepbluehue said...

Until recently, I hadn't realized that I was supposed to be using an underlying geometric skeleton to design my paintings. I had heard of trying to achieve balance in my composition but didn't know how to go about it. I feel like this subject opens the door to more exciting paintings that I have more control over. It certainly gives me something to think about. Thanks for discussing it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think purely observational painting is responsible for a lot of weak landscape painting. Every sort of painting has its own ways. Landscape painting is particularly about design.Good luck out there in Annisquam.I was married in the village church there.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks Jeremy;
It is a lousy photo of that. I don't wish I had kept many of my paintings that were sold, but I would like to have that one still.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I always think if I can glean some one thing from a book that is useful it is worthwhile. This one is out of print I guess as it is expensive. I will see if I find it ion the library.
It is not WHAT it is a picture of, but HOW it is a picture of that is important. Neck tattoo?
metableb= statement of personal affirmation from a piece of furniture

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think design is an aid to painting the landscape and not an added challenge on top of what you do now.

willek said...

It seems to me that we have to be careful with what lines and other devices we use as they might bring something to the painting that is unintended. Betty Edwards in her follow up book to Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has a few pages of simple abstract drawings that indicate/suggest or portray certain emotions and conditions to the viewer. I think this kind of thing is the basis for a lot of non representational art. For example, lot of zigzag lines in a picture might suggest or instill anxiety to the viewer. Some other arrangement might suggest rest or boredom. In one of your critiques, you commented that the artist had a major line in the composition that went down hill and that it suggested an un pleasant situation like line on a graph. Your suggestion was to flip the picture to create the desired effect. Check out the Dutch Seascape pictures at thePeabody Essex museum. Now there is tons of turmoil there in formats that we have not discussed. Lots of anxiety with high winds and foul weather and ships on lee shores. Anxiety/ fear. Could it be that what Edgar payne and carlson are saying is that these forms are acceptable or tried and true for landscape art and that traditional landscapists are ultimately trying to instill or portray or awaken the nobler emotions?


alotter said...

Your explanation of the fulcrum, balance, diagonals, etc. were a revelation to me. One of the aspects of Painting that has never troubled me was composition. Teachers have even on occasion suggested I have an innate knack for composition. If that is true, I attribute it to my love of photography. I always look for the best arrangement of elements when framing my snapshot, and I dither over the cropping when I get it home. So I do take exception to your statement that photos, because the elements cannot be manipulated, fall short in the composing department. I think most landscape subjects can be captured photographically with good composition if only the photographer takes the time to pick the right angle and frame. Now I hope that your drawing my attention to the actual elements of composition does not ruin what I was doing instinctively!!! I am looking forward to taking your workshop in Jaffrey.