Painting Composition

Painting composition is about the place where you put significant elements of you painting: faces, a horizon, other stuff you paint. When you put some consciousness into placing these elements, your paintings will become better and more intereresting. It can be a great way to play with meaning, and show things the way you see them. Further down, you'll find more on general laws. First an example of a really effective painting composition

One really effective painting composition

the Murderer, by Edvard Munch

This is a painting of Edvard Munch, titled: "the Murderer". The person almost disappears from the canvas. He's low down, literally. There's a vanishing point in the centre of the work, almost on the harmonic golden mean. This point represents the healthy self - and all the lines going straight into it indicate the absense of the healthy self. On top of that: the person on the painting is moving away from it, with big eyes, looking somehow shocked. On the left side, also on the golden mean line, we find the main solid body on the painting: a big dark brown solid treestem. It seems to replace the body of the depicted person, calling upon his responsibility, asking questions like: "Where are you going, what have you done?". And there's another figure, parallel to the horizon, also colored blue - a body given to the laws of nature (decay). This is how you can see the person is dead.

A composition like this is not thought up. It has formed in a creative process, of acting, seeing and feeling. But it's really effective because it relates to objective compositional laws. The painter put himself in these laws, when he was working - not with his mind, but with his body and feeling.

The rectangular canvas

This page is about rectangular paintings, but most of these ideas also apply to oval or round painting panels. But a rectangular panel is more clear about the differences between horizontal and vertical, left and right. The corners of a rectangular painting are important sections. Think of everything you paint, as if it moves into your painting, from the side, the top, or the bottom. The corners define that very sharply.

A painting composition relates to your body

When you look at a painting, you relate to this painting with your own body. The rectangle of the canvas has a relation to our torso, without the head and the limbs. It mirrors it, or represents a "picture" of it. Our bodies have a top and a bottom part, a left and a right. They have specific qualities. In our head, we are most conscious, with our head we see and breathe, and dream, but our head itself rests. Our lungs have the most direct interaction with our surroundings. Our bottom part is much more in its own. It needs a grip on matter. It digests, or carries us to places. If we have solidity in our heads, we get a headache. But in our lower bodyparts (intestines and limbs), solid things are good to have.

Relating the painting composition to our bodies, we can say that all in all, a painting looks pleasing and natural, if the lower part has movement and some solidity, and the upper part is in rest, having air and space - even if there are objects or persons in this space.

Up and down, high and low

The meaning of high and low in your painting composition is relatively easy to understand. The bottom part is closest to the earth, the top part goes into the sky. Things that you paint in the top section, will look as if they were floated up, pushed up, or descended from the sky. They may look as if they give space to your head, for breathing, or they look as if they block the gaze or hinder the eye.

In the lower part of your painting composition, your body expects something else. Like, something solid to grab, digest, or to stand on. Air in the upper part feels like something you need, and in the lower part it feels adventurous, dangerous or awkward.

Spiritually, you might say, we have "openings" towards the high and the low. From beneath, you can expect different things then from above. Not that the "low" is "evil" and high "good". It's just a different quality.

Left, right, and middle

Putting things left or right in your painting composition, is the surest way to create a dynamic composition. When you place something left, it needs a counterpart or movement on the right, and that's how you build up a dynamic composition. In our bodies, left and right are not the same. Our heart is on our left, our liver is on our right. Looking at another person, it's the other way around. If you paint "yourself", you'll put the "heart" of the painting left in your painting composition. If you structure your painting composition as if it's another person, you'll put the "heart" on the right.

The middle part of your painting composition, between left and right, does not move. There's only one middle line - placing things on that line says something like: this is objective, this is true. The height of the middle can be up (like the heart of the christian cross), in the middle, and low. All three 'centres' have their own meaning, and relation to the body: there's a chest centre (upper half), a stomach centre (the exact middle), and a belly-centre (lower half).

Pi, or the golden mean.

The golden mean is: dividing a line in two unequal pieces, where the bigger part relates to the whole in the same proportion as the smaller part relates to the bigger part. That's roughly 5:8. The golden mean is the most harmonic natural proportion. We have dozens of it in our bodies. It has a spiritual meaning as well: it can be unfolded endlessly, and folded down to the smallest extreme. You could say, the golden mean connects the smallest things on earth to the biggest things we can imagine. It's an image of the way higher beings (like angels) relate to lower beings (like us). And we, on our turn, relate as higher beings to lower beings like animals or forces of nature.

Making exceptions to the rule

A good painting composition is a composition, that tells you something about the subject. If you put a little house right on the line that divides the canvas in the golden mean, you're saying: "Everything's fine with this little house. It's exactly where it should be." But you don't always have to put it there. Putting it more to the left or the right can alter that meaning. But subconsisciously, you'll always relate the position of the little house to that point of the golden mean. The same goes for the centres in the middle. The centre line is always there, because it defines the left from the right. Placing things on that line emphasizes them to the fullest extent. Some say it's ugly to do that, but I think it depends on what you paint around it. Centering your painting composition makes the background of your subject more important.

Here's a linkt to an interesting page on painting composition: Here's another website on oil painting techniques, it's created by Delmus Phelps, a good artist in oil painting techniques.


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