Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Disribution and equilibrium, also an industrial meat grinder

I am going to begin summarising some of the ideas presented in a book entitled "Composition, an analysis of the principles of pictorial design" by Cyril Pearce R.A. This volume published in 1927 is long out of print and now in the public domain. Amazon had but a single copy and it was about a hundred dollars, so I can't send you to read it. The prose is stilted and very dated so I am going to lift a few illustrations from it and summarize his ideas in my own words. There are a number of books on composition and a few of them are unique, it is surprising to me how many different approaches there are to the subject.

The first principle Pearce presents is called distribution. The illustration above shows a card with flat weights of lead distributed upon its surface. The arrangement is in equilibrium, that is, it balances. If the weights are imagined as areas of tone or value the visual arrangements made will be in equilibrium, or they will not. Below are some more examples of arrangements .

Figure 2 is an example of an informal arrangement in pictorial distribution, several shapes of value are arranged about the center point giving equilibrium but no particular artistic interest.
Figure 3 demonstrates that it is possible to move the elements further from the center and still maintain equilibrium or balance. Figure 4 is an example of imperfect equilibrium. As a design it is random looking and not particularly pleasing. There is something in us that craves balance. Figure 5 is an example of the same sort of design modified so as to have balance. It was necessary to add "weight" on the other side of the balance point to get this one to work.

Here are some pictorial schemes that have equilibrium. Figure 6 is an example of the simplest sort of balance, that is, a weight set near the center balance point. Figure 7 has the darks pushed out towards the edges of the rectangle. Figure 7 is an example of a more formal and symmetrical arrangement.

The point of all of this is that it illustrates balancing a picture by distributing the masses as if they were weights. The image balances from its center, like the illustration above of the disembodied hand holding the poisoned weights aloft.


thomas@thomaskitts.com said...


This is similar to the ideas which have been expressed by Joseph Itten, regarding what he termed as 'Areal Tension' between various masses of color. His position was that a pleasing asymmetrical balance may be achieved within a composition by the artist assigning the proper visual weight to the area and chroma of groups of colors. (Usually within a grouping of two masses.) I'd bet Payne was familiar with Itten's ideas as well, but I don't actually know that.

This is also akin to the Japanese idea of 'Notan', where black and white shapes interact in such a way as to augment what has been deliberately left out by the artist. Seen very clearly in a lot of their woodcuts.

Apologies for the jargon, but I bet you already know what I am talking about since it often appears in your own work. And the work of other artist you like to highlight.

Nice posting,



willek said...

Figure 3, 4, and 5 all look good to me. In figure 4 the larger white emptiness seems to balance the darker smaller area. The negative space is also interesting. They all look like nautital charts. Rorschackish, eh?

Robert J. Simone said...

I am completely amazed at how white and clean the meat grinder guys clothes are. Even the boots seem cleaner and whiter that when they were new.

Philip Koch said...

Well I for one am not fooled. The industrial meat grinder piece is actually a photo of Stapleton moonlighting as a performance artist. He does clean up well though, doesn't he.

More seriously, those illustrations about distribution and equilibrium are pretty good. Gave me something to think about. Design or composition is a bone we can keep chewing on for years. There's always a new way to think about it.

Jim Polewchak said...

Hey, isn't that Jeffrey Daumer in the photo?
Great post. I thoroughly enjoy your efforts and it has improved my design and craftmanship.

Mary Byrom said...

Thank you Stapleton. I love this stuff! Now could you please go and clean up the writing of Carlson and Payne? They have great ideas in their books but unfortunately I need to translate them as I read them.
That guy's white shoes really caught my eye...

billspaintingmn said...

I like my burgers nice and clean!
Everything is so sanitary I can...
hey is that fly poop on the floor?
I can spot fly poop a mile away!!
Stape I just lost my appitite.
(there goes my equilibrium.)

Judy P. said...

The meat grinder scared me, then your description of Cyril Pearce's book reminded me of Harold Speed's really wordy oil technique book, so my eyes started glazing over. But I'm glad I trudged on- you always give a lot to think about!
I never finished Speed's book- actually one of the first painting books I ever read, and I was surprised how dry learning to paint could be.

Darren said...

Pierce's book goes into the public domain in 2022.

barbara b. land of boz said...

Stapleton, the whole idea of selecting a well balanced composition in your paintings is still a hit and miss sometimes.
All the rules in the world will not help you if you don't use them.
I promise to follow the RULES, (ahem) most of the time.

I ordered two Edgar Paynes books,
"Composition of Outdoor Painting" and the "Drawings of Edgar Payne" by Hatcher. My library says Thank You...so keep on keeping on!

mariandioguardi.com said...

I love Itten's book.

The best college art class that I ever took was a graphic design class because it really was about design, composition, balance, power, emphasis and leading the eye to your message. It is about getting the visual language to the viewer. So hence my paintings with bold shapes, color and design that hits you over the head because that's me. I am trying create tension in mundane beauty. But strong design can also be used in the quiet subtle beauty of a tasteful painting.In that case design is more about harmony, balance and echoes and elegant lines and proportions.Design is a tool. We use it to make what we want people to see.

Unknown said...

That's it... I'm officially a vegetarian...
(looking for a "well balanced" diet)

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have Ittens books but I can't say that I am greatly influenced by them.I would assume that Payne knew them too. I couldn't get that blog address to work..............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

They do look a little Rorschachish don't they?

Stapleton Kearns said...

He is very clean.Hr also has his hand proudly resting on his meat grinder.

Carol Nelson said...

Call me weird, but fig. 4 was my favorite. I do a lot of abstract work and BALANCED is boring.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You and I remember performance art. Once we called the happenings, remember?
Design is an almost infinite subject. Its funny how much easier it is to write about design than drawing. I would have to stand next to a student to correct their drawing but I can lecture on design.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes of course I believe it is.

Stapleton Kearns said...

They are dense but not badly written. I would like to restate how important I think the Carlson books is. It is the landscape painters Bible.

Stapleton Kearns said...

There is no fly poop in there. It has been photoshopped out.I think they worked on his shoes too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The best Speed book is the drawing book I think. Still painting is a difficult exercise. Perhaps you should return to the Speed book when you have already learned everything you can from the easier books. It is grad school level material.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you for the information. I will alter course. There was evidently a 47 edition of which I was unaware. My copy is from the 20's.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't think of them as rules, but as principles laid down by fine painters before me.Rules imply punishment for misbehavior, advice saves you a lot of screw ups. Sort of good advice.

Stapleton Kearns said...

If you hit me over the head I will not be able to write.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I eat vegetarians.In fact I hire large ruminants to chew the vegetables for me, I don't have time.

Stapleton Kearns said...

A balance of artistically balanced asymmetry is groovy.All paintings are abstracts.