Back on Friday, in a comment about that day’s posting, I was asked about design and what makes for a good design in a piece of art. In the context of that question, I believe it was framed with respect to works being submitted to major juried competitions, such as Birds in Art, which has been mentioned in this blog numerous times over the last few years, and I am sure in more general terms as well, with the questioner wanting to know how she might spark up her work and catch the eye of a prospective collector or exhibition juror.
Some background first . . . Birds in Art is a pretty big deal to those of us who use animals as subject matter and even to many artists who don’t normally include animals in their works and simply want to be a part of this incredible, well respected annual exhibition. This exhibition is always a recognized body of work that represents the best efforts of the artists who are fortunate enough to make it through the jury. On average, the museum sponsoring the exhibition (the Woodson where my solo, Unknown Bridges, opens in a month’s time) receives between 900 and 1100 entries each year from all across the globe. Of these, the jury generally selects around 100 to 110 works for the exhibition. Right off the bat, it is apparent that there are many more than 100 respectable, talented and masterful artists among those who enter each year, so it is a given fact that many fine pieces of work never make the cut.
How then, does an artist try and ‘make the cut’? What does an artist do to catch the eye of the jury and separate their work from the work seen right before and right after, as slides are projected on the screen? Or, how does an artist make a collector stop and take notice of his or her work, when confronted with a gallery wall full of other fine pieces of art?
I will not profess to know a definitive answer to these questions as I have struggled each year myself, to come up with an interesting composition or idea for my entries to Birds in Art, as an example, and never really know what three individual people given the task of jurying that show will be looking for or exactly what kind of image will catch a collector’s attention and make them interested in the work.
I can, though, make some simple judgments about what I myself try to use as a basic starting point when I sit down to sketch out ideas for my two annual entries for such competitions as Birds in Art, or for that extra special showcase work that will be the feature of a collection of my works at a gallery opening or during a larger scale group show such as the annual Waterfowl Festival here on the eastern shore of Maryland.
Usually my first thoughts are, ‘What can I do that is slightly different than my usual approach to my work? Can I take a different view point of a particular subject and turn the work into an interesting almost abstract form? Can I make the bird subject (in the case of submittals for Birds in Art) a secondary subject in the work, focusing on some other element as a primary object and yet make the bird aspect of the piece important? Can I add something of a humorous touch to the composition that might make a person smile and take that extra moment of enjoyment in seeing that work and have that aspect of the piece be what triggers a positive response?’
This isn’t rocket science. What it is though, is trying to put yourself in the place of a prospective juror, or collector for that matter, and try and figure out what your eye would be immediately attracted to and what kind of a work and composition and focus of subject would make you want to own that work.
Of course there are any number of pretty basic, time tested and well worn ways of coming up with a very pleasing, interesting and eye appealing composition . . . this is the stuff of what I intend to talk about in my Sunday lecture at the Woodson at the end of June during the opening weekend events of Unknown Bridges as well as the accompanying exhibition of O. Winston Link’s beautiful and evocative black and white photography. I will, however, talk briefly now about some of the elements and key approaches that an artist can make use of in their work, to define a more pleasing, strong composition.
Raise your hand if you have heard of the ‘rule of thirds’? This is a philosophical approach that makes the positioning of major subject matter in any given compositional parameters, easy, almost unconscious in undertaking and what can be seen as a ‘never fail’ resolution to coming up with a very well balanced and pleasing composition. Do a Google search for the rule of thirds and just soak it all in! I would have to say that probably easily two thirds of my finished works encompass this approach, whether it be dead on positioning of subject matter at those very important intersections in the rule, or simply a matter of being able to see, after so many years of referring to that rule, the appropriate placement of objects within my composition to fulfill adherence to the ‘rule’ without even thinking about it or measuring off exact points of interest. I think by now, I can almost do this in my sleep, and that is something that simply comes with experience and repetition.
There is also the classic Golden Mean/Rule/Ratio or whatever you like to call it. This is another time tested method of placement of subject matter that can not fail to end up with a balanced work of art. As above, do another Google search and just read and read and read all about this age-old means of making things proportionately pleasing. Even the ancient and magnificent Parthenon in Athens was designed and built under the ratios of the Golden Mean.
And then there is an entire range of methods of making a viewer’s eye move through a work of art, which always helps to make a particular piece of art more interesting than the next . . . proper use of Entrance and Exit; Circular movement; Angular composition; Use of light and shade; and the be all and end all of Good Balance. If you want a fantastic tutorial on all of this, find and buy a copy of Henry Rankin Poore’s marvelous, well written, ‘Composition in Art’.
So, that will be today’s meanderings on good design. I will, in a day or two, do another post continuing this discussion and focus on my reading of any number of previously juried art works into the exhibition, Birds in Art, picking out good examples of works by other artists that I think document well balanced, interesting, thought provoking pieces and focusing in on some of what I have touched on here today. Stay tuned!
And, in the meantime, find yourself a copy of Poore’s book! I think it can be had, still, on Amazon.