Monday, June 02, 2008

Continuing along with the theme that began with the last post, that being a discussion of the strength of design in a well balanced piece of artwork, I will make an attempt in this posting to take some examples of works that have appealed to my eye and talk about what makes them interesting to me. In so doing, I will hope to bring in and emphasize some of those basic elements of good design that I hinted at in the earlier posting and make a more specific reference point for readers.

For this discussion, I have leafed through the catalogs of the 16 years of Birds in Art that I have had work included in. I use these examples because they are readily available to me and because in looking through all those year’s worth of fine work, there is a very good cross section of mediums, technical styles and approaches to the basic elements of good design to pull from. I could have spent hours on the net, piecing together images of equally fine representations, but why go farther afield than necessary. But do remember that these samples all revolve around a basic theme, that being works that have birds as subject matter, so there is a more specific baseline with these works than with a random sample of works with all sorts of subject matter. But, in saying that, I do believe that because all these works fall under a very specific umbrella of subject matter, the comparison of how different artists approach using the same subject matter and what they define as their compositional approach to these specific works, will enhance the comparison.

These first several works encompass, among other elements and compositional forms, making use of the Golden Mean and positioning the major focus of the work at the approximate apex of importance within that rectangular shape. For those who may have done some prior reading on the net after my suggestion to do a search for sites related to the Golden Mean, I hope these examples will further clarify things and for those who have not yet dug into the wealth of material on the net regarding this subject, I hope what I say here will make sense! One side note here . . . the point of most importance within the context of the Golden Rectangle, can be said to approximate the position of one of the four major points of importance in the Rule of Thirds as well. It is not an exact duplication of one of those points, but it does come close enough that when working within the bounds of a rectangular shape, you can pretty much eyeball a positive location for the major subject by using the knowledge of either of these two design structures. Also, for rapidity of working up a basic composition in sketch form, you can do the following to approximate a very close position of the ‘sweet spot’ . . . divide your rectangular space with a diagonal line from either the upper left corner to the lower right corner, or the reverse (upper right to lower left). For example’s sake, let’s say you have divided your space from upper right to lower left; once you have done that, make a perpendicular line from the lower right corner up to the line you have already drawn. At the point where both lines meet, you have approximated the ‘sweet spot’ for positioning your main subject matter. Another method that I once saw on a site on line that does about the same approximation is to divide each of the longer and shorter sides of your rectangle into 13 equal measurements. Once you have done that, pin point the mark where the 8th division occurs on both long and short sides and draw a line across the rectangle at each. Where those two lines intersect is again, a good approximation of where that sweet spot will be.

Now, let’s look at some art work –



In the first work above by Andrea Peyton, the butterfly sits at almost the exact perfect spot in relation to the spiral and intersecting angles of the divisions of the Golden Rectangle. For those who have not yet read more on this topic, trust me, that butterfly is just about dead on! And further, as I have mentioned above, it also sits at just about the exact point of crossing of one of the four points in the Rule of Thirds as well; how much more perfect a placement could you ask for? In addition to being a very inviting work, it has all the earmarks, to my eye anyway, of a well thought out, cohesively worked up composition. I can easily see why this work made it through the jury process.


Next, Brit, Karl Taylor’s little bluebird again sits just about dead on to that spot of dominance as well. The abstract quality and linear interest developed by the disconnected fencing, further adds to an interesting movement through the work and helps to draw the viewer’s eye right to the sweet spot and to find the focus of subject. The overall monotone of the work also helps to move your eye directly to the bird. There is also a strong graphic quality to the work, with few objects of importance to distract from the dominant subject, the work reads simply, honestly and very appealingly.

The next work, Roger Folk’s soft and sketchy rendering, very oriental in feel to my way of thinking, again takes on a very monotone stance which almost loses the subject in a trim abstract setting. What makes it all work for me is the thrust of the rocks which lead you right to the tiny little bird. And even though the subject is left of center by quite a bit, and even though the subject is directed left as well (which if not handled well could lead the viewer’s eye right out of the picture plain), the work is so evenly balanced with the heaviness of the rocks right of center and the intensity of the color really right of center as well, it all works! That triangular shape of the rock in the lower right corner disappearing off the paper is what really gets it all moving and rolling and taking your eye right up through the center and on to the upper left quadrant; it being softer in tone and lighter in color than the more central rocks also balances everything in the image beautifully.



Dutch artist, Dirk Moerbeek’s piece, describing with beautiful detail and graphic interest a lone pigeon, also places that main subject at the most advantageous position within what appears to be an almost perfect Golden Rectangle. And even though there is great detail in the brick wall and other strong light and shadow elements in the piece, the pigeon is what really takes center stage here against the spare, solid mass of the blue sky.


And finally in this first group of works, the late Richard Sloan’s Australasian forest work positions the birds in again, the most advantageous placement in the rectangular space and makes them, as they are grouped together, overlapping each other and all fanning out in a beautiful circular movement, totally dominant. Had he broken the basic shape of the white birds so that they were not interconnected in a very abstract form, I don’t think the work would have been as successful because the dominance of that mass as it stands, would have been lessened and perhaps could have led to distraction for the viewer’s eye. To further balance the work, the openness of the upper left corner (sky as we would read it) makes for a much more appealing composition than if he had chosen to fill the rectangle with foliage completely.

When you look at all four of these works, handled by four different artists in different mediums and different technical approaches, I hope you can see the absolute connection between them through the use of proper and interesting and perfectly balanced placement of the main subjects. And even though these subjects vary in intensity and size and spatial relationship to the overall rectangular space in each canvas, they all draw upon the same, basic tenets of good design.


Sometimes it is fun to hide your main subject or to, as I mentioned in an earlier post about using primary and secondary and sometimes even tertiary subjects, make it interesting for the viewer to find everything of importance in a work. I do this frequently, mixing what appear to be main subjects with what really are main subjects but sometimes in secondary appearances. Co-stars have just as much meaningful dialog as the stars do sometimes and make for memorable and heart stopping moments; these ‘ah ha’ moments within the context of a work of art are what can stop a juror’s eye and make them want to know more about a work or can bring a collector to smiles, tears or an emotional moment to savor.


In the example above, leading with a beautiful rendering of a barn by Canadian artist, Alan Barnard, birds, being the supposed major focus of the works as after all they are from the Birds in Art catalog, tend to take a co-staring role. Barnard’s masterful touch in a very monochromatic work, first pulls us in by the use of the bright spot in the center of the canvas of that brick red roof. Once the viewer is engaged and interested, your eye should (and for me does) naturally move across to the brighter spot of sky and ‘find’ the birds. It is interesting to me how the birds and their little pebbly forms, mimic and continue the shapes of the stones in the lower foundation of the barn, also helping to make for a very nice horizontal movement across the work right to the distant, pale horizon line of the land as it moves off into the light and allowing the viewer’s eye to ‘find’ the birds. The dark shape of the tree on the right behind the barn is a perfect balancing agent to the light of the sky on the left.

Belgian artist, Carl Brenders has not only brushed a master work of metallic and reflective beauty but done a work that has a bit of humor to it as well. And this is what I meant in the previous posting about sometimes just needing to think in terms of causing a smile to come to someone’s face. His little bird admiring itself in the mirror goes without notice at first; we are so enraptured with Carl’s having zeroed in on the abstract qualities of the cycle and the ‘stuff’ going on around it. The work is a myriad of surfaces and textures and contrasts that our eye, flitting all around the space, takes in. Once we find the bird we get the ‘joke’ if you will. This work appeals to me for a number of reasons, not least of which the tight focus on parts of the cycle and not the whole and his incorporation of the almost abstract shapes in the background that lend interest and contrast and more balance to the overall image. I bet the jury might have seen similar aspects when considering this work for inclusion in the exhibition that particular year.


The next two images are by friend and phenomenal pastel artist, Cindy House. Her work always draws me into it for the sheer joy of loosing myself in her landscapes. And that is exactly what they are – they are landscapes where a bird can be hard to find, but they generally are there if you allow yourself the experience of moving through one of her works. The second of the two has a bit more of the direct subject approach in that the line of floating birds does give one a good horizontal focus but it takes a bit to find the bird in the former work. Her mastery of translating color and light and harmony of the landscape is what we see first and then, once we have found the bird or whatever subject she has chosen to ‘hide’ in plain sight, we are taken even more with her skill in composition.




Swedish artist, Stephen Clark gives us again, another beautiful landscape with the path leading our eye directly into the piece. His use of value variation (one of the seven basic elements of design) in light and shadow gives great movement to an otherwise still and quiet work. His colors are few and made that much more interesting through the way he has played the sunlight. Detail and strength of line are used at the most important point in the work, that being upper left through the fence gate and directing us to the form of the bird; his background and other parts of the foliage are left muted and soft and fuzzy in order to help direct the eye to the most important part of the work.

And finally, Heiner Hertling’s work is one that I feel quite close to as his composition in this particular work is the sort that I enjoy coming up with and really speaks directly to me. Again, there is humor involved with the jaunty burro taking on the role of ‘star’ but once we have let our eye wonder, we find the real subjects of the piece, the sparrows on the table top. Through his use of intense color and spatial relationships of the various key elements of the composition, and contrasting size and texture and form, he has come up with a very balanced work that would seem to be appealing on many levels and of interest to many different viewpoints.


In the following four examples, graphic intensity of the various shapes, solidity of color field, strength of line and textural contrast (four of the seven basic elements of good design) become the dominant design features of these works.





In the first piece by Misty Martin, great horizontal movement pulls the eye into the work from the bottom right corner and the intense color on the dragon really helps to project depth to a work that otherwise might not have it due to minimal subject shapes. With the background elements being pretty monotone in color, including the birds, once again, the viewer enjoys the ride through the piece till discovering the birds which seem to materialize out of the silver grey of the lamp post.

In contrast to Misty’s played down bird subjects, Susan Labouri puts her blackbird right out there, center stage so to speak. Yet once again, there are few elements and shapes to deal with but it is the positioning of those elements and shapes that make this work interesting and appealing to me. Colors are spare and relate well to one another, but because the shapes are so dominant and important and few in number, even grayed down colors, as they are here, take on a surprising intensity. With the bird and the gargoyle both mirroring the other’s profile, that repetitive movement, I feel, also adds interest.

Ohio friend, Mark Eberhard always brings a smile to my face when viewing his work and this one is a very positive example of his strength in graphic composition. As in the two previous works, Mark uses spare forms to give us a very strong, focused work. Colors are bright and strong in contrast; textures are many and complimentary; value changes enhance the textural and color contrasts and the almost non existent background brings total focus to the subject. The added, understated sense of humor to the work should be, and is for me, what makes the viewer stop and take notice.

And finally, Doug Quarles has painted a very simple composition with strong linear qualities, big and bold shapes, interesting spatial relationships and strong use of color, all of which are again, four of the seven key elements to a well designed work of art. Even though his forms and colors are simple and don’t get overly dimensional, there is great depth to the work as it is played out against that solid blue background, leaving the viewer’s eye to feast on the well placed forms of the birds and telephone pole.

The unique placement of subject matter that may not necessarily follow an exact adherence to the Rule of Thirds or the apex of intensity in the Golden Rectangle, can also call attention to a work, make it stop our eye and work positively within the context of a well balanced piece of art. But this type of compositional approach relies more heavily on keying into proper use of the seven basic elements of design (color, form, line, shape, space, texture and value). These next works exemplify very strong compositions that are interesting, call attention to themselves, force my eye at any rate, to want to move into them and make strong use of many of the above mentioned design elements.


In Rod Lawrence’s beautiful vertical work, even though the bird is not placed on any ‘academic’ point of interest within his rectangle of composition, it works for me for many reasons, not least of which the strength of the color variation from the rest of the piece. Squint your eyes and see that even with strong color in the wood and the pulley and rope, the bird comes right to the fore and makes your eye go to it almost immediately. The line of the rope helps to do that, as does the intensity of the circular shape of the upper part of the pulley and the fine quality of the detail in the rusted metal. And even though there is great textural intensity and detail throughout the work, the bird still holds an overwhelming prominence.




In these next two works by Joe Garcia, he also has used this strong vertical shape to contain his composition beautifully. Even though his detail of line and form is less delineated than in Rod’s work, there still is enough going on in the pieces to make me want to explore especially in the one with the mourning dove and cactus. Joe gives us bright light value contrasted with deep and intense shadow. His use of the feathery wisp of grass in the sparrow piece, intentionally brings the viewer’s eye into the work, helps to direct it upwards to find the bird and caps the whole off with a line of detail work in the railing that makes an otherwise texture-less painting, have strength and character and a point of interest for the eye to rest upon.

Friend and fellow graphite artist Cole Johnson, really hits a high note with his spare rendering of a kingfisher. By placing the bird in the upper half of the space and letting the lower half disappear into some abstract white form, he has intensified and strengthened the form, shape, texture and line quality of the unfinished bird. There is a ‘sketch’ quality to the unfinished aspect of the subject and yet the work is totally finished, balanced, interesting and quite formal in presentation. The eye of the bird sits directly on the center vertical line of the compositional space, yet because the bird trails off to the left and faces right, this position, which in the hands of a less competent artist could be off putting, works because all other aspects of balance in the work make it so.


Karl Taylor’s work duplicates a lot of what Rod Lawrence and Joe Garcia’s works held in their vertical forms, but on the horizontal plain. He has positioned the bird way off to the right, which, considering that it is facing right and does have a natural tendency to make the eye want to move right out of the right hand margin of the picture, could have been misplaced. Yet Taylor has masterfully balanced the work with the intensity of the dark, shadowed shape of the propeller thrusting left and brought the entire composition into total balance. Your eye sees the bird and yet is brought back immediately to that dark intensity on the left. This is the sort of composition that is not for the faint of heart! You have to have a level of confidence in your abilities to consider tackling such a spatial relationship, but if worked out correctly, always leads, in my estimation, to a most appealing, interesting, provocative work of art.


The next two works, first by Mae Rash and second by friend Adele Earnshaw, possess similar compositional approaches and uses of key elements of design.

In Mae’s chatty group of starlings, quite abstract forms and shapes appear and draw our eye around, through the strong use of value change (light and shadow) as well as textural change. She has positioned the birds in an interesting, provocative placement in which their spotlighted circle is well balanced by the opposing solid tonal value of the half circle shape in the upper left corner. The tree shadow brings us into the work from the upper right corner and moves the eye directly to the subjects. Though spare in color, the value changes between sunlit areas and shadow are what bring vibrancy and intensity to this work.



Adele has done almost exactly the same in her work through a similar use of light and shade and a masterful rendering of the cast shadow of the bicycle, which at first perhaps, the eye does not recognize as anything other than some very interesting linear shapes. She also uses a minimal color range, yet produces incredible value change through strong light and dark. The birds, very secondary to the overall impact of the abstract shapes and various textures on the ground, still have a prominence in the way she has delineated them, positioning their heads in such a way as to highlight and spotlight the white stripes and bringing focus to those points in the work.


Frenchman Henry Bismuth gives us a tangle of interesting forms and shapes and color contrasts that ultimately materialize into birds. His spare background focuses the eye to the mix of shapes and with the large, unencumbered shape of light to the left and upper part of the work, he balances the heaviness of the bird forms completely. I feel strongly that the position of the heads of the individual birds are not by chance and have been well thought out to bring circular movement to the tangle and thus maintaining focus where focus should be.

Finally in this grouping, we have a wonderful scratch board rendering of a chicken by friend, Paula Waterman. She has positioned her subject in almost the same location as Bismuth and has equally balanced the placement with all that beautiful negative space in the upper left. And, even though it is negative in relation to the detail and emphasis of the chicken, there still is textural interest through the pebbly indications and the strength of the light as it fades out in the upper portion of the frame. It’s a simple work, with tons of elegance and enough interest in the feather detail and shadowing across the bird, as well as the abstract form of the bird’s cast shadow that moves across to the left, to give it strong, sophisticated depth. Even in its monochromatic tonality, it holds equal importance to any of the other color works discussed in this section and has the overall power to draw one’s eye into it for further exploration.


In a final collage of variations on a theme shall we say, with birds still as the major thrust of each work, here are some examples of interesting, non categorical compositions that have strength, high levels of interest, exemplary uses of some of the Principles of Design (Balance, Contrast, Emphasis, Movement, Pattern, Rhythm and Unity) and, to my eye, hold strong appeal.

First off, a bright and colorful painting by Julie Chapman. Her magpie has many of the characteristics of Karl Taylor’s propeller work above, strong horizontal movement, intensity of value change and subject focus to the right. Julie’s painting technique here is what makes for the primary interest, to my eye, followed by the well balanced position of the bird and the very whimsical thrust of the tail feathers. There is just enough detail in the bird to draw my eye in and once there, her magical color range makes me want to stay and explore further.



Shane Dimmick’s gaggle of geese make me laugh! But once I have regained composure, I find much to cling to in this simple, yet intriguing work. Beyond the simplicity of color, the value changes give great movement to the work. My eye jumps from head to head as I seek out eye contact with each of the birds and am continually drawn around the work in this manner. The humorous aspect of the work is the obvious point of interest, but there is also that underlying well balanced, strong compositional design that grabs my attention.

Netherlander, Robin d’Arcy Shillcock has fun with the next work as well. Again, there is an instant chuckle in discovering the geese parading behind the fence. What makes this work appealing to me after that initial laugh is the strength of the linear movement through the fence posts and the interesting shapes they form, as well as the linear movement across the top margin of the work. As in Julie Chapman’s piece, color also plays a major roll here, with strong contrast and boldness of palate. And the ‘ah ha’ discovery aspect of finding the subjects also makes the piece draw me in.


Nancy Howe infuses here works with the most glorious light, often subtle and soft, but sometimes with an intensity that makes me want to walk right into her canvas.
These next two works are fine examples of her mastery of color, light, value shift and well designed composition. Her chickens congregate in soft, diffused light; their feathers delineated just enough to let us know that they have individual character yet in keeping with the softness of her basic line quality throughout the remainder of the work. It all balances nicely with the movement of the circular motion of the heads of the three chickens in the lower left, balancing out with the light coming through the window in the upper right. And in the other work, she continues a soft tonality of color and light and balances it all out with a strong emphasis on the dimensionality of the carved stone and bird feathering.




My friend Matthew Hillier has the same sort of soft, sublime light and color value in his magnificent rendering of the sea grasses shifting and moving with the flow of the water in the next painting. But Matthew uses more detail to maintain his distinct mastery of brushwork than Nancy does, yet at the same time, his details are such that they meld together into quite impressionistic features. The strength of this particular work, I feel, is the all encompassing movement of the work; there is no stasis in this piece and even the egret seems to move strongly against the flow of the water, the mist rises from the distant horizon line and the leaves in the trees gently flutter in the breeze. It is indeed, a work in which I can get ‘lost’ forever.

In these next two works, John Felsing continues the enchantment that Matthew’s work hinted upon. Felsing is a master of tonality and his works encompass mystery and touch emotional spots within me that beg to be explored. The luminosity of his choice of color and the way he infuses his work with light and shadow are the major strengths of his compositional style, I feel, and are further strengthened by the rhythm and overall unity that his canvases portray. As in earlier references to other artist’s works, birds in these two paintings are featured ‘co-stars’, taking a subtle back seat to the all encompassing thrust of space, both positive and negative, within the confines of his canvases.



In the next work, Robert Bateman’s puffin work, Bateman makes a very strong case for off center positioning of his subject; a compositional device near and dear to my heart! This is a quiet work, basically monotone in coloration with the brightness of the bird’s bills helping to shift emphasis and intended focus to them. The detail in the rocks with lichens awash at the direct vertical center line of the canvas, first brings the eye into the work and then, as their tonal quality and color duplicate that of the sky behind the birds, the eye naturally moves across the canvas to the point of importance; the birds themselves. The ‘fading out’ on both left and right margins of the work, help to maintain the focus on the center and immediate right, where focus should remain, and having the birds engage the viewer’s eye directly (another compositional device near and dear to me) makes this a very appealing, interesting work.



Guy Coheleach’s pelican’s eyeball hits the spot! It actually falls, pretty much, upon that all important sweet spot in relation to the overall rectangular space of the canvas. Focusing in on the bird and allowing the body to disappear off the edges of the canvas, makes this a very abstract form which zeros in on shape and value change more than anything else. His use of these key elements of design make this a very appealing work which, to my way of looking at it, eliminates the importance of what the subject is and emphasizes a more casual appreciation for the totally abstract reading of the work.

In Janet Heaton’s two works that come next, she has, to my eye, gone in two different directions with her compositional approach. In the first, the pelican work, she is treating the subject with a very true reading, giving the viewer fairly detailed information, yet putting that detail within the context of an interesting, unique and appealing conglomeration. The birds, as a group, ultimately become an interesting abstract form against the solid background. We can pick out the individuals yet the minimal color use and value relationships help to meld the individual units into one whole. In the ibis painting, she has, I feel, moved further into abstraction within the confines of realist style by focusing on the strong shift in value contrasts between the blacks and whites. Opposite to the way we first see the pelican work, with more defined understanding of the birds initially, the ibis piece plays out before us in blocks of color first and then, once we have more focus, in the individual shapes of birds. Both works are quite appealing in different ways and I can see why both were juried into Birds in Art on two different occasions by two different juries.



The last work in this group, by Bart Rulon, gives credence to my general philosophical approach to works for juried competition – it speaks to me in humorous content, in interesting placement of subject matter and in interesting pose or gestural movement. The work, rather simple in execution, encompasses all those key points that I often feel are the very points that separate one’s work from the next. The work is not a ‘major’ statement from Bart; I have seen any number of other works by him that encompass more interest, compositional intricacies and involvement, but that does not diminish its freshness and high level of interest for me. In the simplicity of the focus on this interesting pose of the bird, Bart has captured my eye, and obviously the eye of the three jurors that put this work into the Birds in Art exhibition in the year in which it was submitted. It is, I feel, fanciful and striking, anatomically appropriate professing a true understanding of the structure of the bird, delineated in a technically proficient use of the medium and a work of art that I would be pleased to own.


So, when I look back upon all that I have voiced above with regard to the basic elements of a well designed piece of work, it all comes down to those points just sited about Bart’s simple, yet elegant egret . . . do I as an individual desire to own that particular work of art and why. I do and the ‘why’ is because that artist executed his work using well thought out, historically time tested design principles that have jelled into a composition that wants for little or no improvement, and brings a smile, joy and possibly an emotional connection to me.

A personal caveat here . . . though my critiques of these works of art are based upon my understanding of the basic elements of design (color, form, line, shape, space, texture and value) and the basic principles of positive compositional design (balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm and unity) , I am one individual who is looking at works of art with what I try to remind myself is an objective viewpoint, but know that it is not completely possible to remove all subjective thoughts . . . buyer beware! You have to make your own, individual judgments about how to approach appreciation for art and structuring your own art to reveal who you are, how you see the world and with the emotionality that should represent your thrust of being.

These design elements and principles and the knowledge thereof, can be good, basic starting points to work from. They will give you a very well grounded place of departure to move out from, to find your ‘voice’ as an artist and to give you well rounded ideals to fall back upon. They are tools to use and alter and modify to your needs, knowing that in a pinch, you can be assured that finding the ‘sweet spot’ in the Rule of Thirds will help to define a very appealing placement for a difficult subject. With further reading and research, you can expand upon the little that I have imparted here and give yourself a stronger baseline of artistic compositional style that should help to make your art better in structure, more appealing in completion and more defined.

5 comments:

Rich Adams said...

Wow! You have really created a masterpiece of art critique. I hope you're saving these gems for a future book. I'd be first in line with a wad of bills.

Thank you for taking the time write about composition. It is definitely the most challenging aspect of art for many of us.

Back to reread this thread and digest as much as possible. Thanks again and please know that your readers are indebted to you for your generous sharing of information and masterful artwork.

Ray said...

Wow! Is right. I second what Mr. Adams said. Thanks, as always for your help and guidance. ---Ray

Pamela Underhill Karaz said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you...

cpbvk said...

Good post, Terry. I encourage readers who are interested in the The Golden Ratio to read Mario Livio's excellent book by that title.

Pica said...

Found you through Making a Mark. Fantastic how so many of your examples feature birds; I'll link to you in a post later on today at Bird by Bird if I may... Not something I focus on, much, with bird sketching, the composition, but you've made me see it's definitely worth doing!