As I have spoken of many times before, utilization of the traditional elements and forms of composition play a very large part in my approach to what I do. I tend to spend a great deal of time in the preliminary stages of thought, idea, formulation and the working out of placement of all the components of that idea. In recent conversation with a young art student, I spoke of the fun I have in doing all this preliminary work and in finding a reasonable balance to the overall composition. In the course of that conversation, I pulled out some art books and randomly picked out a number of images of both well known and not-so-well known paintings that illustrated many of these historically well used forms of composition; one of those forms being triangular construction - the placement of all the major components within a triangular shape, usually centered within the confines of the edges of the canvas or paper.
In essence, what I have tried to do in this last work was to formulate an interesting arrangement of components in a very horizontally stretched out triangle, all centered on that one, large central boulder.
Before talking about my personal intentions and concept of the use of this traditional form of composition, let us look at some very good examples from across many time frames and use by many different artists through the centuries.
A very common practice in the early religious paintings of several hundred years ago was to place the dominant subject at the heart or center of a work and have all the other elements of the work direct the viewers eye inward to that central dominance. As seen below in the famous work by Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, this central dominance and focal point is very obvious, and in addition, you can easily see a very strong triangular shape to the composition.
Below that, Da Vinci's Last Supper also shows this traditional approach to high advantage.
As we move forward a bit in time, Rembrandt made substantial use of that central focal point in his famous Night Watch. There is a great deal going on in the work, but the main point of entry into the work is very strongly directed to the central figure, around which all the other activity revolves. He also intentionally moves our eye around through the well thought out use of light and shadow and gesture of the figures.
Georges Seurat, who agonized over balance and placement in this famous and well loved work, places that red umbrella and its owner dead smack on the center line of his canvas and pulls us into the work through that compositional device, but all else around it, as in the Rembrandt work above, gives such overall balance and interest to the work, that we are not initially aware of it being on center.
In this gorgeous, light, delicate yet commanding work above, by Winslow Homer, everything revolves around the subtle clutch of the two figures which again, occurs directly on the center split of the space.
Vermeer, in the following two examples of his mastery of composition, places his figures on the center line and balances the rest of the work through his use of light and shadow and placement of secondary objects, positive and negative spacial relationships and with a very firm use of triangular form.
Now, see how Albert Ryder mirrored what Vermeer did in this elegant nocturne, centering his main subject yet balancing the work by placement of the moon, which acts as a wonderful reminder of the natural light that pours through Vermeer's windows.
The next two works, the first by Wyeth and the second by Fragonard, are rather straight forward portraits, but both built with added interest by adjunct compositional components; the window in the Wyeth (strangely mirroring those Vermeer windows) and the luxurious appointments of the costume of Fragonard's seated reader and the chair she sits on. Again, both subjects are dead center, but the additional elements of the compositions help to lessen the intensity of their central positions.
In the following famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, another rather straight forward portrait, though Washington himself is just slightly off center line to the left, when taken in total with the figure just behind him holding the flag, they act as a single unit which is indeed, upon the center line of the work. And in the work below Washington, by Courbett, his famous Painter's Studio, all the action revolves around the central seated figure of the artist at work, the secondary characters, as in Rembrandt, support the dominance of the central focus as well as add further interest and movement to the work.
Below, in what is probably Velasquez's most well known painting, again we see the central subject positioned directly on the center line with all the secondary subjects revolving around her, bringing added focus to her as well as giving the eye of the viewer many points of movement throughout the work.
And one final example, this diagrammatic of a still life by Cezanne, we see he has positioned his main subject focus of the objects on the table directly on the center line, making strong use of the triangular form of composition.
So, why did I put that boulder right on the center line . . . it acts as the cue that brings the viewer into the work and when thought of, in conjunction with the other large boulder to the right and all the intervening tumble of rocks between the two, as a singular unit, as I have described in the middle sketch below, that entire unit shifts the weight off the center line and to the right. In so doing, I hope I have created a path for the viewer's eye to continue to move (as indicated in the bottom sketch below) from that center point, around to the right to the other large boulder and then up along the line of the tree and around to the two deer standing upright and looking out at us, on to the third deer, bent down and moving downward into the rock on the hillside in front of it and then back to the point where it all began . . . forming a continuous oval loop of interest in the work. The overall form of the composition takes on that of an elongated and stretched out triangle.
In the end then, placing something on the center line of an image is not a bad thing in itself, as long as it is handled carefully and the rest of the work has a well balanced level of interest. It does take some thought and work but, as I hope the examples above have shown, it can make for an interesting composition.
** An Afterthought after posting this earlier this morning **
Granted, spot on center positioning of an object may not be the most creative use of a particular space, especially when dealing, as I like to do, with elongated horizontal boundaries, but as I indicated earlier, it is a viable and well tested/worn compositional device when handled well. Since I feel that the major subject matter of my recently completed work was those three deer that one finally stumbles upon after, I hope, following the oval movement I tried to establish between the rocks and tree and all, having that large boulder on the center line is not truly, then, the major subject of that particular work; in my way of thinking, it is only the entry point for your eye to come into the work and then move, as I said earlier, around to ultimately find the subject. Unlike some of the examples I used this morning, where the major subject might have been that central 'object', I hope that my little twist on 'a theme' might add a bit of surprise and give the 'ah ha!' moment that I sometimes enjoy working into a piece.