Questioned, by way of a comment posted about the last completed work, The Greenhouse Goblin, I'll take some time today and see if I can explain a bit of my thinking and the process by which I make decisions about where all the different elements of a composition will find home.
To begin, and notwithstanding the risk of repeating a lot of what has been said here before, namely about those stalwarts of compositional design, The Rule of Thirds and The Golden Ratio, let me just review a bit as those basics of balanced arrangement are the points from which most, if not all, of my compositional ideas flow forth. This is not to say that every single work that comes from my drawing board fits neatly and strongly within the bounds of those concepts, but those certainly are the starting points when I sit down to sketch out an idea or note a pretty close relationship to them in a photograph pulled from my reference file.
A quick look at the images below, gleaned from various locations on the Web, will show a random sampling of the sorts of compositions that have been arranged in photography and painting, using the strict rules of 'third placement' of important subject matter, defined here by the likes of Dali, Turner, and Whistler among others. When you see an overlay of The Rule of Thirds thus placed over an image, it becomes very apparent that a studied effort certainly has been made in each instance to find a particular placement for each of the assembled objects to create a very pleasing, well balanced image.
The Golden Ratio or Golden Mean, when applied to an artistic idea or compositional field, closely approaches the 'sweet spot' (as I like to call it) placement of the important subjects or aspects of a composition. For the sake of today's ramblings though, I will just try and focus on how I try and make use of The Rule of Thirds.
First off, in general, I like to work in a rather horizontal format in the majority of my drawings. I just find it to be a very appealing field within which I can devise my compositional ideas. In the examples of works below, you can see a range of ideas, that when viewed in their 'whole', undivided small inset images, may at first appear to have little or no connection to each other, but when viewed in the overall context of the six images together in their divided aspect, do show a marked connection; that connection being they all have a strong horizontal movement/line of intensity that is interrupted by a vertical line of equal or lesser intensity or strength. And, if you take into consideration the images shown above representing the components of division of the Rule of Thirds, you may note that all the points where the two intersecting lines meet fall on or quite near what would be one of the four points of importance in the division of that rule. Yes, there is quite a variation in some, stretching the point or shifting it slightly, but in general, most of those breaks were intentionally positioned at those specific points within my compositional field, often situated at the focal point shown in an overlay of the Golden Ratio/Mean as well.
These are not random patterns or placements. I try very hard when working out sketches and ideas to start from a very strong base point or focus of where I want a viewer's eye to enter the work and begin to move around within it.
This first example, more squarish than rectangular, shows how I positioned the main cow so that its vertical thrust would sit very near the third division point of the horizontal split. In so doing, that led me to position the middle cow, the one to the left of the main character, so that its long, horizontal thrust of lowered head and back would sit on or near a third split of the vertical area. Sure, it sits a bit lower than the true point that one of the four 'sweet spots' should actually occur, but to my way of thinking, it is close enough that it meets my compositional needs in this particular overall composition. The placement of the distant third cow, then, was rather natural in that it repeated the horizontal line of the left hand cow's back as well as sat on the horizon line split of the distant tree line and, as far as I was concerned, could be placed in no other position to make for a well balanced overall image.
In the next image, just one of the works recently completed for my upcoming mini retrospective at the Woodson Art Museum during the September opening of this year's edition of Birds in Art, it has a more rectangular field but again, the point at which the vertical and horizontal lines intersect, sits almost squarely on one of the four focal points which would be formed by using an overlay of the Rule of Thirds. Certainly, there is a lot going on in the overall composition, combining many different elements and textural delineations, but the strong horizontal movement is counteracted by the strength of the placement of the 'major' subjects, the pelicans, which help to form a starting point for a vertical line that zig zags from just above the head of the forward bird, down over its head and body to the textural interest of the wood on the cross member, down to the sunlit support member that comes forward out of the shadows beneath the deck of this construction. It's a stretch, but it does give weight to a vertical movement in that part of the composition enough to have made me feel that it did its 'job' when working out the original sketch.
Another more square composition, below, shows a similar pattern of the horizontal and vertical joint point as in the first image of the three cows, but here I've reversed the position of the horizontal line from the cow work, and thus the point of interest becomes just the reverse of where it lay with the cows.
In these next three works, all pretty much similar in their placement of major focal point and entry point for the viewer's eye, and even though the subjects are very different, and the feel of each work is very distinct and apart from each other, they are all based upon the same starting point . . . the placement of the main subject at or very near the point at which the vertical and horizontal lines of strength meet and cross; the gull sits off center to the left of that cross point, the horses sit on the vertical split just above the cross point and the cat sits just below and to the right of the cross point.
So, we come to the just completed new work, The Greenhouse Goblin. Now that you've had a chance to review previous works and see, what I hope is, a very evident connection of 'plan' in each, you should be able to see the continuation of that basic plan in the placement of the objects and elements of the composition in this new work. There is method to my madness! Certainly in each of the works represented here there is a different feeling, or at least I've tried to establish a different feeling in each by using different textural mixes, by focusing on diverse and distinct objects to place focus upon, by playing up the mundane or giving importance to the not-so-important, by varying the animal interest, by making strong intentional decisions about playing up lines and curves and repeating patterns throughout a compositional idea, by using the 'power' of light and shadow in different ways to vary the level of contrast or subtlety. But even in the context of variation in all these works, they all rely upon a basic structural skeleton of a positioning of the elements within the confines of Rule of Thirds for a well balanced final image.
In this last image, above, I've highlighted the approximate four points of the perceived breaks of the third splits so you can see that I've intentionally tried to set important focal points on or near them. Yes, they are offset a bit, but in the overall context of the finished work, and to my eye, they work and result in, what I think of as, a very pleasing arrangement that I feel is well balanced, interesting and possibly even thought provoking! Isn't that what a good work of art should be about?